A Day's Work

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Apr 2002 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

Welcome to America, or at Least, Union Station
By Kent Shaw

"Giuseppe is what my friends call me. It is my nickname."

"Um, Giuseppe, can you spell that for me?" His accent is so thick, and I can't tell if he's said Giovanni or something else, and I want to make sure I get this right. He hands me a business card, "Call Giuseppe Taxi / 24 Hour Service." Ah, Giuseppe. I have no idea what his real name is, and I don't think he really cares what his real name is. At 12:45 his workday has just started, and for the next ten hours he'll be a cab driver. "Call Giuseppe Taxi."

What is most interesting about impromptu interviews is watching how the person reacts when asked if he has time. Giuseppe was listening to the radio with the ventilation in his car on high — the window was halfway down. I knocked lightly on the glass and asked if he would mind me interviewing him for a local web site. He said, "Sure." This may have been one of the most practical, matter-of-fact sure's I've heard in a long time. He motioned for me to go to the passenger side where I could sit and we could talk.

I like to sit and talk, and Giuseppe has plenty to say. He is a political refugee from Hungary. His only home in the United States has been St. Louis. In 1987, he caught a flight leaving Europe on TWA, and when he landed here, he decided this was where he would live. He has been driving a cab for the past five years. And, just like the news says, times right now are tough for the travel industry. He complains to me about no one flying in to the airport on business trips, and if there's no one flying, he's not getting any jobs. But he says this with that same tone of voice he said "sure." This is all a matter of course, and there's no need to worry about it if there's nothing he can do to change it.

cab There's a lot to like about Giuseppe. To start with, he has a Hot Wheels steering wheel cover, which in my mind perfectly matches with the fighter jet embossed on his business card. I never got to ride anywhere with him, but I imagine he is direct and, most importantly, fast. Then there's the plush leopard print stretched over the ceiling. There's the picture of his new girlfriend in a clear plastic frame on the dash. She's blonde, and 23 years old, and lives in Hungary. He tells me that over Christmas he went back to Hungary to visit with her and also his mom. With that, he pulls down the sun visor and shows me a picture of his mother. He also shows me a picture of him and his girlfriend kissing.

The only cabstand in the city of St. Louis is at Union Station. There are a few other places where the cabs congregate, but they're usually chased away by police who point to the "No Parking" signs and threaten to write a ticket. Of course, even at the cabstand, the police will sometimes write a ticket if the driver is illegally standing more than five feet away from his car. This poses certain logistical challenges. For one thing, there's no telling how long a cab can be waiting in that line for a pick-up. Giuseppe tells me it can be a few minutes or a few hours. The driver basically has to sneak away to get food, or go to the bathroom. And then he also has to arrange with another driver to move his car up if the line starts moving.

At one point the driver in front of us comes by and motions towards Imo's, saying he is leaving for a second to get something to eat. He needs Giuseppe to move his car should the line move. As he walks away, I'm told that the driver is from Nigeria and doesn't know any English. "This is how things normally are." Normally, huh. From the way he explains it, Giuseppe means that normally one driver helps another, even if he doesn't know who he is. He also means that most of the drivers know very little English, and this is what he has come to expect. He tells me this using that same thick accent that made Giuseppe sound like Giovanni. This is how things normally are. A Portrait of Nations at the cabstand, waiting to drive travelers to their next destination.

Kent Shaw, a poet and writer, lives in St. Louis.

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