How to Talk to Your Taxi Driver (In Argentina)

“Hola, ¿como va?”

“Bien, ¿vos?”

“Bien. Ehh, bueno— Suipacha y Juncal, porfa.”

“Bueno.”

“Gracias.”

“No, a vos.”

Well, that’s how. Nothing tricky there. You could even go without the pleasantries; a simple, “Suipacha y Juncal” is all you really need to get yourself home.

Perhaps, then, a better question is not how, but rather, why should you talk to your taxi driver.

I’ll answer with an anecdote, not surprisingly, about a taxi ride.

It was late March, and I was leaving La Bomba, which is a drum circle directed by a conductor who uses a language of cues and gestures to create combinations of rhythms between the drummers, real time. Very cool. It was a correspondingly energetic crowd, featuring all of the festivities that such crowds often offer. Namely, I was drunk (legally; this is Buenos Aires, OK). But that night, I was feeling a little off, not really grooving with the vibe, maybe missing home a little. It had been a good night already, even before the concert, so I decided to call it quits and stumbled my way out of the crowd onto the street.

I hailed a taxi.

I had precisely the conversation transcribed above.

And then I slumped back in my seat feeling grateful for cushions and wheels and the fact that I didn’t have class till 14:00 the next day.

The driver, an older, mustachioed guy with a cross hanging from his rearview mirror, asked me how I was doing. Tired, I replied. Wasn’t really feeling it tonight, I said. He asked where I was from. I gave him the spiel. I’m from outside of Boston, MA, here studying sociology, Spanish, and art, living with a host family, and yes I like Argentina very much (they’re a prideful bunch, gotta stroke that nationalist ego).

We had a very pleasant conversation: about how corruption is present in both of our countries, but perhaps only more obvious in Argentina, about the role of religion in our countries, about the recent election of el Papa Argentino— and so on. Somehow, late-night drunk Spanish conversations always flow so smoothly, or perhaps that’s just how I (don’t) remember them.

He asked about my family and friends, and whether I missed them. I said yes, of course, though I especially miss my girlfriend, who is back in los Estados Unidos. That’s probably part of why I wasn’t feeling it tonight, I said. Concerts are better with girlfriends.

Then he asked me, “¿Y qué tal con los mujeres acá? ¿Te la están dando?”

“¿Cómo? No entiendo..”

“¡El sexo! El fuckey-fuckey, el baile sagrado. Y qué de la novia, ¡no la vas a ver por cinco meses!

I laughed, mostly in reaction to his sudden burst of colorful language, but also a little unsure what he was getting at.

“I mean, yeah, that’s true. I will not be having sex for several months. Quite the conundrum,” I replied, not seeing where this was going.

“What if I told you that I could take you right now to a place where you could choose from four rooms; from four photos. For 110 pesos (about $15) I can take you there and you can see the photos, and for $450 pesos (~$65), you can do anything you want to whichever one you choose.”

It probably appeared to him as though I were actually contemplating his offer, as it took me solidly thirty seconds to sort out what was actually happening.

“What? Like, what? Now?”

“Si, ahora. ¿Vamos?”

“Whoa, whoa. ¡No! No, hombre, ¡no tengo ningún interés! Tengo novia. Tengo… ¡dignidad!”

He said OK and kept driving, acting like nothing had happened. It got silent for a full minute.  Still five minutes from home. I finally asked him, “So you, like, do this? With like, prostitutes?” He said yes. I asked for how long. He said about twenty years. Whoa, okay. I paused, considered the situation. I felt almost as if I were watching someone else being taxied through Alto Palermo. I don’t talk to taxi-driving pimps every day, okay? Suddenly, I realized the opportunity at hand and became very intrigued by my situation, almost in an academic sense. There he was, “the oppressor,” driving along, nodding to the cumbia playing quietly in the background. Now that I see him, what do I say?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about it now, but at that moment, I felt compelled to get on my horse and spout that righteous academia which I do generally prescribe to: I talked about cycles of poverty and abuse, and about how every person is just as logical within their bounded rationality as each other person; these women don’t want to be selling their bodies, but they do so, because they have ended up in situations where it has become the logical course of action— which is tragic, on an institutional and human level. I fairly ranted, knowing I had only another two or three minutes to make the impression that I needed to make— my shot to exert direct influence, however insignificant, upon this global patriarchy. After each of my sentences, he nodded his head in silent accordance, and when I finally had gotten my points across and we were pulling up in front of my apartment complex, he said only, “Si, si. Muy triste, muy triste.”

I paid, and said goodbye, and then went up to my room and asked myself whether I had just imagined the whole thing. It’s not that strange an event; we all know those people do exist in the world— but I will admit that at that point in time, it was a shock for me to meet one of them.

So then, to answer my question: Why should you talk to your taxi driver?

Because that’s where life gets interesting. The moment you step out of your daily bubble and touch upon that which is foreign and new, you open yourself up to seeing a world you have never seen before. Yeah, he could have been dangerous, and I could have unwittingly ended up at a whorehouse. But in retrospect (and even in the moment), I realized that this was something so removed from my customary sphere of interactions that I would never have come across it had I not then talked to my taxi driver. And obviously, there is much more to discover from the taxi drivers of the world than prostitution rigs; everyone, including yourself, is living hir own unique experience, and in my opinion, it can only benefit you to open yourself and learn from them.

On Substitutes and Glitter-Bombs

Since I’ve been home since the end of last semester, I’ve been finding odd ways to use my time: I made a newsletter for my fraternity, designed a flyer for an environmental activist group on campus, visited Wesleyan a few times, and I got a job as a substitute teacher for a local school system (K-12).

Substitute teaching is psychologically strange. Especially for the younger grades, where kids are less socialized and perhaps more genuine, the substitute enters their lives, inhabits a position of importance for a day or a few hours, and then— leaves. For the kids, this means games of name-swapping, musical chairs, and mass misbehavior among the ranks. For me, the wide-eyed substitute, as I clean up the shrapnel from Joe and Allen’s glitter-bombs and separate cliquey Maura-and-Jess from jealous Andrea, I gain a glimpse of twelve or twenty-five future-adults, all of whom I will probably never again meet; I am left knowing of twenty-five people that I will never really know.

The word for this feeling is sonder, defined unofficially as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” It’s a feeling we should encounter a lot, really. Every time you step anywhere and see anyone, whether he is next to you on the bus, or she’s down out your skyscraper window getting onto a bus, or across the world being hit by a bus— there are simply billions of people that we will never encounter, each of whom might be perfectly invaluable companions.

I alternatively react to this feeling with either renewed motivation to meet people and see things and go places, or with extreme and impenetrable apathy towards people and life. Some days I’ll remember meeting Thomas while subbing in a 5th grade special education classroom and feel proud and bolstered by having boosted his day with my (hopefully) helpful presence. But only one second later I’ll remember how inevitably difficult life will be for Thomas, that his own biology will continue to conspire against him for the rest of his life. Thousands more are like Thomas. Millions of people lead tremendously difficult lives. Billions of salmon swimming upstream. Perhaps we’re all in these waters together, but some streams just seem unjustly gradated.

It’s the easy conclusion to announce loudly to oneself that “that’s just the way it is.” Some people have it rough. What could I do about that? Welcome to the world, bad things happen. Nasty people win the lottery and good people never play it. And that’s the gut-crunching truth behind it all— it’s luck. As you sit and revel in your satin-eyed armchair, remember that you could have been born anywhere, anytime. Of course, we shouldn’t live guiltily for having begun where we did, but we also shouldn’t forget how vast a quilt this civilization has become.

Unfortunately this leads back to the same fork-in-the-road: will this substitute teacher be left with renewed motivation to meet people and go places and experience life, or will he saddle up and hunker down with impenetrable apathy against the world?

There is no answer for everyone, but I think the worst sin of all is to ever become jaded: to life, to love, to happiness, or to despair; to take for granted that which you have inherited, earned, or lost; to never feel sonder.

Stay curious. Throw a glitter bomb at a stranger. Don’t let apathy become your default.

And if you ever find yourself too complacent in your ways— try substitute teaching.