The Long Route with New Orleans' Oldest Cabbie
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And in this next item, a simple act of transportation blossoms into something more interesting. It's a story from commentator Andrei Codrescu, who would pick a good yarn over punctuality even when he's about to catch a plane.
ANDREI CODRESCU: I gave myself one hour before the flight, which I find is plenty of time in New Orleans, unless they raise the alert level and start going after your inner terrorist, which is hell to get out and place on the tray. My taxi was at my house at 6 a.m. like the company said, and I rushed into it.
You in a hurry, the driver said. He was an old man with silver hair and an air of amused contentment. Sort of, I said, but I got some slack. Well, then I got to tell you, I'm the oldest cabbie in New Orleans, 70 years old, and I know almost everything. But what I learned yesterday, I didn't know. My niece a young woman, 24 years old, still living out in Houston, died in her sleep three months ago. They brought her back to bury her in the family tomb, but there was somebody else in her place. They put her temporarily in another tomb that was in the family.
Yesterday, they came with a bulldozer to get her out of the other tomb and put her in her rightful place. There was no decomposition on her and she was fresh like the day they put her in. I never saw anything like that, and I've seen everything. I know a lot of things and people sometimes pay me to take them on a tour, like these hip-hoppers who paid me $300 for the whole day to teach them things they didn't know. But something like those tombs being opened and closed, I've never seen them.
I didn't know what to say. Not only hadn't I seen anything like it, I'd never seen anything remotely like it. Meanwhile, my cabbie wasn't going to the airport the usual route. We took a street in a flooded neighborhood and rolled to a near stop in front of a twisted wreck. That was my house, he said. They had to evacuate me by helicopter.
His talk grew more animated and flavorful as we toured the street. Interspersed with advice on how to raise children, the difference between children then, daddy walked us, and now the disappearance of his contemporaries, the people who died in the storm, the politics of the city, and the fact that no matter what, he was glad to be alive because love is greater than material junk.
When he finally turned off the street and took Airline Highway instead of I-10 to the airport, I started to worry about making my flight. Airline Highway brought forth another flood of memories. He showed me the field where he saw Jackie Robinson practice. He slowed down at a shack by the rails with his younger brother, the brakeman, used to stay between trains. He told me about places that were no longer there and he pointed out all the waterlines from the Katrina floods.
Time had come to ask him to step on it if I was going to make my plane, but weirdly enough, I was reluctant to. The stories were too great and the refrain - I sure know a lot, I'm old and you can learn a lot from me - kept playing it in my head. If I did miss my plane, there will be another one. What I was hearing was one of a kind.
Amazingly, he got me to the airport on time. I asked him how I could find him again if I had friends in town who wanted a tour. You just called Yellow Cab and tell him you want Doug. Okay, got that. Doug, the oldest cabbie, the greatest talker, the guy who makes you glad you're alive because he's glad he is.
SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu is a professor of English at Louisiana State University.
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