We were leaving work late this week and were in high-ish spirits. We jumped into our minicab and I noticed that our driver had a crutch slid between his seat and the hand brake. I stupidly joked that I hoped that he was fit to drive and wondered if he’d hurt his ankle?
This was not a great start to any conversation with this man I would soon realise. As we pulled off into the night he started talking. He told us his story. He hadn’t sprained his ankle. He’d broken his spine. Or rather it had been broken for him when a man came up behind him on a tube platform and pushed him in front of a train. He was hit and had spent the next year in a hospital bed. He recovered but not fully. Yet as he stared ahead in the dark, he said that he’d had to let all his anger and hurt go. He had, he said, made a decision to be happy. It was one of those conversations that gets lodged in your mind. I woke up thinking about his perspective.
Perhaps it is the dark that gets them to tell their tales but I have often left a mini-cab at night oddly enlightened by the experience.
Two years ago I had a driver who revealed that he had once been a senior figure, pre-Taliban, in the Afghan government. And, he told me, there were lots more like him. And indeed there were. I know this because we tracked them down for a story in Monocle – we ended up interviewing a senior general who had been forced to give up his medals and uniforms for a life behind the wheel of a beat-up car.
I have also travelled with Kenyan maths scholars, Malian lawyers and Pakistani chefs – all of whom have found some refuge in the small, close world of a minicab, as they forget what they once were or make money while they study for a new start.
Now several of them may have needed help with directions, or had to move their text books off the passenger seat to let us all squeeze in, but they have all been good value journeys. Fresh migrants’ views ahead of your city, flashes of their often extraordinary pasts in the rear-view mirror.
And it’s funny saying this in a city where the black cab driver has a mythical status for knowing their way around the capital, for being the king of banter. There are many great black cab drivers, but you will just as likely end up with one who swears, shouts at other drivers, let’s you know his opinions on immigration, bad mouths other black cab drivers or who just doesn’t twig that he’s got nothing to say.
You may get from A to B quicker in a black cab, but if you don’t mind a detour via Dakar or Kabul, take the minicab. It makes the route you are travelling a lot more interesting.