Taxi drivers: “Chess masters of their own lives”

A new book considers the "practical genius" of Canada's cabbies

“When I mentioned to friends that I was writing a book about the lives of taxi drivers in Canada,” Marcello Di Cintio says, “their first comment was always, ‘How many doctors did you meet?'”

The author of Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers acknowledges there’s truth to the cliché. But he didn’t encounter too many doctors while writing his book. “Which was just fine with me,” he says, “because the stories that I did find were far more surprising than just the cabbie cardiologist.”

Di Cintio is the guest on this week’s CANADALAND, which ponders the traditional role of the cabbie in society, how it has (or hasn’t) been changed by apps, and the type of person who tends to fill it.

“All of the drivers I talked to had these multilayered life histories that kind of spanned countries, spanned eras,” he says. “And one thing that they all had in common was, all these men and women, they had this kind of practical genius to them.” He explains that one escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and another avoided prosecution in Iraqi military courts but that the quality is equally evident in someone who “just simply managed to kind of solve the algorithm of how to build a life for themselves and their family while doing shitty, low-paying jobs in Calgary.”

Or put another way, “All these drivers I spoke to, they had figured stuff out. They were like these chess masters of their own lives, and always in surprising ways.”

For the episode, producer Damilola Onime spoke to three of the subjects of Di Cintio’s book. Portions of these interviews are included in the show, but we’d like to share some additional and expanded excerpts of their stories in their own words.

The following have been edited and condensed.

Andy Reti, Toronto

A child survivor of the Holocaust, Andy Reti grew up in communist Hungary and fled to Canada at the time of the 1956 revolution. Now retired from driving cabs, he serves as a Holocaust educator.

On his mother’s first attempt to get her and her six-year-old son out of postwar Hungary: “The one thing that I remember from this misadventure was that we were betrayed. My mother and I were put into a prison in Czechoslovakia, and I stayed there with her for over a week until my grandparents came to take me home.”

On coming to Canada several years later: “I was training to be an Olympic-caliber swimmer, and we wanted to go to the United States because of my swimming. But the quota was already filled, and Canada was accepting applicants. So when we found out that we couldn’t go to the States, Canada was the next best thing. But my swimming career came to a screeching halt because — from the time I left Hungary in October of 1956 till I saw a swimming pool in Canada sometime in March or April of 1957 — a lot of time had elapsed in the career of an athlete. So the fact that I couldn’t practice and I was out of practice was something that just couldn’t be made up, unless I was in the pool twice a day like I used to be. And that was just not a possibility. However, I became a swimming instructor for over 30 years, and I passed on my knowledge and experience to others.”

On getting into cab-driving: “After high school, I enrolled in an apprenticeship program to become a structural steel detailer. That was a three-year course. I became an employee for a large steel-manufacturing company, John T. Hepburn Limited. And after about six years, I realized that being in an office is not suited to my personality. I like to be out and about, and I like to be with people. And somehow I fell into the taxi business, because I was driving part-time while I had this job. And then, in a chance discussion with my wife, she said to me, ‘Well, you want your own business. Why don’t you buy a taxi?’ She had no idea what the cost was. I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So we bought a taxi. And the rest is history.”

Nate Phelps, Cranbrook, BC

The son of the late Pastor Fred Phelps fled the Westboro Baptist Church in 1976. He now drives a cab in Cranbrook, BC, and lectures widely on atheism and LGBT rights.

On leaving the Westboro Baptist Church: “When I was 16, one of my older brothers had managed to actually leave and stay gone. So that was the first time that it actually occurred to me that it was possible to even do. It just felt like we were stuck there, so that was the first hurdle I had to overcome. The second was this belief that my father had preached, that Christ was going to return somewhere around the year 2000. If I left, I knew that I was going to be kicked out of the church and therefore I was going to go to Hell. So there was that significant part in my mind where I believed that I was going to leave and I was going to have until I was 42 years old to live life the way I wanted to live it, and then Christ was going to return and I was going to go to Hell. But that was in the future, in my mind, so it wasn’t an immediate existential threat.”

On getting into cab-driving: “It was something that I fell into and found it’s something that I really enjoyed. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is I like variety. With driving a taxi, there are some components that are the same thing over and over, but you meet different people all the time. You get to meet people that you never would have met if you weren’t driving a taxi. And you have some pretty fascinating conversations. You see the entire spectrum of humanity inside that cab: from the worst to the best. It’s an interesting window on the world.”

On how one passenger, journalist Trevor Melanson, changed his life: “I picked him up, and he found out who I was on the way to the airport. And we ended up doing an interview, and he wrote that article. And I started getting a lot of calls from people, including an offer to speak at the American Atheists Convention in Atlanta. This was in 2009, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching, because up to that point, I still kind of clung to the idea that if I didn’t make any waves, then maybe I could fix the damage with my family. I spent the better part of three months agonizing over that, realizing that if I decided to speak out against them and take an open, adversarial approach to what they were doing, that that opportunity would be gone forever. In reality, it had already been gone forever, but that was something that I had to decide for myself. And then after I started giving talks and getting feedback from people, I decided that I needed to do more than just talk about what it was like growing up there. Because there were a lot of people who were relating to it and there were a lot of people who were hurt by what my family was doing. So that’s kind of what drove me into my speaking out and supporting the LGBT community.”

Michael Kamara, Halifax

After losing a leg when his town was attacked in the Sierra Leone Civil War, Michael Kamara took up amputee soccer. He came to Canada in 2007 and now drives a cab in Halifax while organizing support for those back home.

On founding an amputee soccer team in Sierra Leone: “We were the first people in West Africa to form an amputee football team. And now today, they have more than 10 countries in West Africa. I was a wonderful player: I went to England, I went to Russia, I went to Ghana, I went to Liberia, I went to Brazil. All before I came to Canada.”

On getting into cab-driving: “When my son was born in 2009, we were having a problem. During that time, I was working for a community health service. I went to my job, my wife to her job, but sometimes our son got sick in the daycare, and they wanted us to come, to leave the job to come. It’s not easy. So I decided that I wanted to do something so that any time my kids need me, any time my family needs me, I should be there. So that’s why I decided to do taxis. And I had some friends who do the same job, and they told me the good thing about taxis is how free you are: you can work to the time you want to work, you still make money, you still make enough money to make a living.”

On giving back: “When I came here, I tried to give back to my brothers and sisters back home. I do these courses for amputee children, I help amputees who are sick in the hospital. I also shipped a 40-foot container there, and I put a car in it for them, and I loaded jerseys, soccer balls, and I took them to Sierra Leone. I said, ‘This is for you. This is an opportunity from Canada. People give it to me, to give it to you.’ But the most important thing I do, it’s helping kids to go to school and healing those who are sick. When you give back to somebody, you help somebody, and God will continue to bless you. God will continue to bless my kids here.”

Top image composed of elements from the cover of Di Cintio’s book and this pic from PxHere.

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