Published Aug 14, 2010

LA is a car city. Nobody walks in LA; everybody drives. You would think this would lead to having cabbies who know their way around town. But you would think wrong; the cabbies here are disastrous. None of them knows how to get anywhere, much less a hidden shortcut. Or even whether to take the 405 at rush hour (hint: not). LA’s best are worse even than Baltimore cabbies were that one year after all the African-Americans were replaced by Russians from the newly-former Soviet Union. But when we got back from France, we were driven home from LAX by the worst cabbie in LA.

Now, I’ll allow that there’s room to disagree as to what makes a bad cabbie. Some hate a big talker; the last good conversation I had in a cab was years ago in São Paulo, and I have no idea how I managed to have enough caipirinhas to carry on a 30-minute dialogue on weather, sports, and crime in Portuguese, a language I barely speak. But we got a good recommendation for a salsa club, so it was all worth it. Some hate a cabbie who speeds; this one time in Mexico City, the cabbie drove so fast that I just slouched low in the seat so I couldn’t see my onrushing doom. Not a bad cabbie; he got me right to my hotel. Some hate an unsafe driver; all the cabbies in Rio de Janeiro ran red lights at top speed after dark. But, then, nobody in Rio stopped after dark unless they wanted to trade their nice car in for an exciting carjacking. So one needs to be sensitive to differing cultural definitions of safe. Some hate a cabbie who inflates the fare; the rickshaw driver in Hanoi who, for my firs cab ride in Vietnam, charged me what i later learned was a couple of months’ salary for the average Vietnamese? Hey, gotta give the guy credit for knowing an easy mark.

In the same vein, you would think that the fat, sweaty Argentinian cabbie who hit on me nonstop as he drove me home from LAX back in 1995 would be the worst cabbie in LA. Not a bit. Terrifyingly, he knew the way back to the obscure spot where I was living then straight after I gave him the address. The fact that he claimed his trunk was broken, put my backpack in the back seat, and then offered me the seat next to him in the front, that I just give him credit for as enterprising. (Normally I would’ve been smart enough to not take the seat, but I’d just flown in like 4 hours from Mexico City. To get to that flight, I’d ridden on top of an open truck over a rutted rural dirt road for 6 hours, to get from a remote farm village in southern Mexico to a urban center filled with M16-toting toughs; then flown on a creaky 727, reclining on a seat with well-kept upholstery straight out of the ’70s, and enjoying a meal of meatball in unspecified sauce and jellied jungle fruits for another 4 hours; then waited for 7 hours in the Mexico City airport, in a terminal that was under construction; so I was perhaps in a state susceptible to suggestion.) Well, it’s only the larger, sweaty Latin men who hit on me, so I can’t claim to be surprised.

So, who was the worst cabbie in LA? He was actually a cab we fought for. We shuffled off our plane from France, got our bags, went outside into the night, and queued behind the taxi starter for a cab. Just when one stopped for us, some guy ran up to it, stuck his head in and talked to the cabbie for some minutes. We got our choler up; the starter yelled “hey, cabbie!” a few times, but otherwise didn’t do anything to move things along. Finally, the some guy walked away, explaining “I just wanted a quote on the rate.” We made a last-minute decision to give up another cab to the next person in line and, flush with victory, we piled ourselves and our enough-to-meet-Delta’s-limits of luggage into Our Cab. Pity for us.

First I told the cabbie where to go. In LA, you can’t expect a cabbie to know an address, so you always name a major intersection nearby and then guide the cabbie from there. This works out well for us, since we live near the corner of a big East-West thoroughfare and the street that’s the in-the-know secret back way to LAX for half the Westside. Usually I give that intersection and, sure, I get the stupid “freeway or surface streets?” question from the professional driver who should know best, but it gets us there. Well, this cabbie didn’t know either street. We named another and got a blank stare. He asked us how to spell our street, tried to type it into his GPS, and then gave up and physically handed the GPS to us for us to type it in ourselves. Which actually gave us a bit of confidence, since we have the same GPS in our car and knew it would get us home just fine.

Unfortunately, simply having a GPS that could provably speak clear, simple directions to our house didn’t actually help. For some context, the best route from LAX to our house — using that in-the-know back route I mentioned above — requires that you make a total of 4 turns during a drive of about 15 minutes. Not for this guy. First, the GPS couldn’t get a signal, since we were on the lower level of LAX and there was no sightline to a satellite. “It doesn’t know,” said the cabbie, ready to give up until we explained to him that it would work as soon as the poor GPS could see the sky. With some apprehension in our hearts, we told him which of the four exits to take out of LAX so that he could get going. Then we told him how to get to that exit, since he didn’t know.

Once on the road with satellite reception, we figured we had it made. No such luck; he missed a turn. Not only did he miss it, he actually stopped stock still right past it, on a dark road, usually travelled at freeway speeds, in the middle of the night. We frantically urged him to just keep going, knowing that the GPS would figure it out and that, if we waited, somebody would rear-end us in the dark and, at the very least, break the suitcase full of great French wine we had in the trunk. 

The GPS worked it out, as predicted, and got us in spitting distance of our house, albeit from the back and via the long way around since we missed that turn. Then it told him to head up a side street. It was a little early to get off the main drag, I thought, but why fight the talking GPS? That would just confuse the cabbie. Unfortunately, he missed another turn, took a long detour through a sketchy few blocks of cheap apartments, and ended up back on that main drag about 20 feet from where we turned off. And then he gave up; he might have actually thrown up his hands. So we told him how to get to our house, and, with us guiding him foot-by-foot, we got there. Phew.

Now, he helped us with our heavy bags, which created quite the dilemma: how much should we tip? Not least because getting lost twice made the trip cost about $7 extra, on a usually-about-$18-depending-on-traffic fare, I made the decision to not tip at all. I mean, there’s sorry for you and there’s just totally unequipped to do your job at all, and this guy obviously fell into the latter. But I quickly regretted my parsimony, since the cab sat outside our house for almost 10 minutes after dropping us off. Finally, I decided to walk over, equally prepared to explain why I didn’t think he deserved a tip or how to get back to LAX, but he pulled away when I was still a dozen feet off.

So we got home in the end, safe and sound. Or, safe and sound at least for the moment, since I didn’t tip and he knows where we live. Hopefully, even with the address and the memory of our little adventure, he’ll never be able to find his way back here. Because this guy was the worst cabbie in LA.