Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taxi Trauma

When I first came to Estonia in 1991, I tried to be a chameleon. I practiced drinking vodka before noon, kept neatly torn strips of Postimees in my bathroom, and forced myself to eat carp, even though it’s a bottom-dweller that tastes like mud. As the nation developed, these habits quickly disappeared. Yet others remained. Estonians still remove their shoes before entering a home, song festivals still make me cry, and stopping for a red traffic light is still optional. With all the changes, I’ve tried to stay current and behave as a modern Estonian, with the exception of one item: I still don’t like riding in the front seat of a taxi.

In New York, where I lived in the late eighties, nobody would think to sit in the front of a cab. The driver wouldn’t unlock the front door unless you were a sultry Vogue model who looked particularly available. With few exceptions, passengers happily sat in the back behind bulletproof glass. Drivers were rarely models of good hygiene. If from the east, they often reeked of a spice bazaar. If they were white, they generally had the mien of a psycho killer and more body hair than a yeti. There were plenty of good reasons to ride in back.

But when I arrived in Estonia, I noticed passengers routinely leaping into the front seat of cabs without the slightest fear. In the early days, the cabs were mostly beige Zhigulis and the occasional black Volga. To enter the front seat of the cab was to enter the driver’s private world. The factory stick-shift knob would be removed and replaced with something reflecting the driver’s personality, like an animal skull or an enemy’s finger set inside a glass ball. On the dashboard were stickers from foreign lands, or small banners with coats of arms from Estonian valds. In rare cases, the driver had a bobble-headed toy dashboard dog from the DDR.

I tried to be Estonian and ride up front, but I couldn’t help feel I was violating the cabby’s personal domain. It also seemed to compromise cabby-customer relations. When I rode in the back, I was being served. When I sat up front, I felt I might be asked to change a tire.

My place was in the back. Cabbies pushed the Zhiguli’s spare carburetor aside to make room for me. If they thought there was something wrong with me, they were polite enough not to show it. Their silence caused no end to my inner conflict. If I sit in back, I wondered, will he think that I think I’m better than he is? If I sit in front, will he respect me more and cheat me less? If a Zhiguli collides with a freight train, in which seat am I more likely to survive?

I asked all my friends about this front-seat behavior. Was it a Soviet man-of-the-people thing that inspired Estonians to ride up front? Since we are both of equal value in a proper socialist society, would Marx want driver and passenger to sit side by side? This seemed plausible, since the Soviets took great pains to promote the common man. Kids wanted to grow up to be tractor drivers. Songs were written about tram drivers.

I spent years theorizing. Finally, my wife Liina got tired of it and explained that in a Soviet-made car, the front seat was the warmest place, so naturally the customer would sit there.

“Really?” I asked. I thought her reasoning sounded specious.

“Absolutely,” she replied. “It’s a well known fact.”

“But Zhigulis are such tiny cars. The temperature can’t differ that much from front to back.”

“I have no idea,” she confessed. “But you seem desperate for an explanation, so I gave you one.”

I tried out my theory on her about it being something Soviet, about the passenger being the equal of the driver.

“What bullshit!” she choked. “I’ve never heard such nonsense.” She said that Soviet equality propaganda might have been believable in Bear’s Ass, Russia, but Estonians weren’t having any of it.

For a while I put my theorizing to rest. I investigated other matters, like why Estonians wear their wedding rings on the right hand. Like why every Russian I ever passed on the street asked me for matches. You know, weighty matters.

But I’ve always returned to the cabbies. Just last week I stepped into a taxi in Helsinki. The back seat, of course. The driver was one of those avuncular Scandinavian types in a lint-free sweater.

“Hey, does anybody ever ride up front?” I asked.

He thought for a while, then: “My wife does.”

“But what about passengers?”

“Oh, I get the occasional Estonian.”

“Ah hah!” I had struck gold. “So why do you suppose that is?”

It was an eternity before he answered: “I’ve never really thought about that.”

“Well, I have—“ and I launched into my Marxist theory.

He kept two hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead. But I could tell he was interested.