Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mr. Cab Driver: the Parisian Taxi-Man’s Unique Breed of Discrimination

Parisian living is peppered with a generous dose of trials and tribulations, which makes life’s little triumphs seems that much more, well…triumphant. Scoring an apartment through connections rather than the traditional way (the classifieds, followed by waiting in impossible line-ups that begin to form hours before the eight-o’clock-in-the-morning open house) tops the list, and when you’re a self-employed foreigner, finding a landlord who isn’t spooked by your inability to provide proof of income through the all-Important French fiches de paye (pay stubs), ranks not far behind. There are smaller victories, too, that guarantee the passage of a pretty good day: no line at La Poste when you had psyched yourself up for the standard 45-minute wait, a métro that’s just arrived as you are stepping out onto the quai or an expedient check-out at Monoprix at six-thirty in the evening, when the majority of the Parisian workforce is rushing around buying groceries for dinner. In Paris, where patience is both lacking and a necessity (it can’t be a coincidence that the French verb ‘to wait’ translates as ‘patienter’) things eventually come to those who wait, but it’s nice when one doesn’t have to.

One of the biggest triumphs that Parisians experience occurs long after the sun goes down. If it’s two o’clock on Sunday morning and you’ve waited no more than five minutes for a taxi, one might conclude that you were born under a lucky star.

Taxis in Paris seem to exist in their own vehicular dimension: ordinary human beings can see them circulating about, but making contact requires a special skills set – superpowers, conspiracy theorists might argue – to cross the invisible boundary between us and them. You can wave away, taunt the yellow lights glowing atop their roofs, advertising their vacancy with the malice of a schoolyard bully, but you can’t ride along.

Every Parisian has a taxi-related story – or several, depending on how long they’ve lived here and how often they stay out after the métro has closed down. There’s the classic tease: the taxi-man actually stops, but refuses to take your fare because your destination is not ‘on his way’ (where that is, no one has ever been able to figure out). There was the time that a taxi-man informed a certain journalist – who had treated herself to a panini as a midnight snack – that she was forbidden to indulge in her late-night delicacy because it would create crumbs. (The same taxi-man invited her, however, to make love with her boyfriend in the back seat if the need overtook her.) There was the girl who closed the door to the backseat a little too firmly, inciting the taxi-man to throw his tip at her while shouting that she was a whore. And then there was the gay couple who committed the sin of kissing each other as the car sped through one of the world’s most romantic destinations…that taxi-man retaliated by making a detour to the Bois de Vincennes, leaving them to find their way through the wooded darkness and back home by foot.

City Hall occasionally broaches the subject of Paris’s taxi problem, but like many issues in this country, one can’t push things too far without the threat of a strike. (Last year, taxi drivers in Marseille went on strike because some indiscreet politician whispered that one day…in the future…the government might consider proposing some amendments to the current system…maybe…) Mayor Delanoë has attempted to get around this (while simultaneously enforcing his platform on protecting the environment) by extending the métro’s hours (it closes at 2:00 a.m. on the weekends), the after-hours Noctambus (think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for drunks) and Vélib, the program enabling Parisians to substitute trains and buses for bicycles.

Solutions with merit, but for a world capital, it’s a shame that those who don’t drive (or who won’t do so after a couple of drinks) face a struggle at the end of an otherwise lovely evening if they opt for what in other cities is the most comfortable version of public transport. Which is why, perhaps, so many Parisians stay out all night. After all, the métro re-opens at five.