Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bangkok Taxi Drivers, Etiquette And Freedom

I have driven cabs myself. It was back in old New York City, in the early Seventies. I drove the night line for two years, four nights per week. I didn’t mind it at first, but in the course of the second year it grew a combination of tiresome and worrisome. Getting home from work at two a.m. was a big part of it. It was a great education though, I learned a lot about people in general and New York in particular.

In New York there were taxi police, “taxi inspectors,” whose job it was to wander around the city all day taking cabs and waiting for a driver to ask them for money over the meter, or maybe a driver who refuses to “go to Brooklyn.” So we kind of had to go anywhere, although it was terrible to be left deep in the wilds of Brooklyn or the Bronx after a fare. (Queens wasn’t much better, but it was my home so at least I knew my way around. In two years I never once was asked to drive to Staten Island.) Trapped in the “outer boroughs” it could take you forty minutes to make your next dollar. No wonder guys didn’t want to go in the first place.

As so often happens, it’s very different in Thailand. For one thing, there are no taxi police. I ride in cabs all the time that have a driver who doesn’t match the displayed license. Sometimes there is no displayed license. Things are all loosey-goosey over here.

If you get hold of a Thai-English dictionary, look up “thai.” Two meanings will be listed: 1) free; freedom; 2) Thailand; the Thai people. “Thailand” literally means “the land of the free.” They call it Brataet Thai.

Besides the loosey-goosey thing, Thailand is also a very polite place. The language is polite, and everyone is very careful not to be pushy, not to show displeasure or anger, very careful to be respectful.

Driving cabs has given me some insight into the driver’s situation. It has made me a good tipper, very good, even the grumps get good tips. You’d think that having driven cabs myself, and having been forced by circumstances to drive to places that I’d rather not have gone, I’d be sympathetic to the drivers on that count too, but you’d be wrong. No, I’m not in the least sympathetic, especially at nine o’clock at night standing around in the rain somewhere and trying to get home, with taxis the only option and not a free taxi in sight for long periods of time.

But now that I’ve been here for a while, I think that I’ve achieved some insight into the whole thing. I’ve noticed that Thais tend to always tell the guy where they’re going before they get into the cab, and I know that frequently the driver will decline the ride. Thais don’t seem to mind. If the weather is good, and there are lots of cabs around, and I have some extra time, I don’t mind myself. (That’s the situation almost all of the time, I almost never go anywhere in the evening.) I finally figured out the dynamic.

It’s a confluence of the etiquette thing and the freedom thing. People don’t want to just tell the driver where to go, they want to ask him, and if he doesn’t want to go, they don’t want to make him. The drivers are gentle about their refusals too, they usually decline with a smile, saying, “I’m almost out of gas and I’m bringing the car back in soon very close to here,” or, “I must have the car back to the owner in ten minutes.” It would be a rare Thai who’d just say, “shut up and drive,” and a rare driver who’d just say, “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”

The drivers want to keep the freedom to say “no,” and I’m generally fine with that. Now, if there’s any doubt in my mind, I even ask them before I get in the cab if it’s okay, if they’ll go there. But if that rainy night far from home comes again, and the only options are take a cab or walk around trying to find a hotel in my own home city, I’ll do the same thing I did the last time, which was to get into the cab and refuse to get out, telling the driver to drive the fucking car or call the fucking police. Etiquette and freedom are, after all, flexible, situational constructs.

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