Lessons on the road: my life as a student turned taxi driver
Left with no choice, I decided to drive a cab.
A neighbor offered me one of his cabs because he needed a driver. I was a student then, a Philosophy major at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Instead of reading books for my thesis like what my classmates were doing, I accepted his offer without a moment’s hesitation. I took life behind the wheel so I could earn and continue my life in the city.
Rags, tools, and pail of water with soap; dusting the seats and washing the exterior of the cab; checking the brakes, gas, and the radiator for an easy drive. That’s how I always started the day — cleaning an old Corolla that had so many stories to tell.
Life in the yellow lane
In a day, I needed to earn a “boundary” or a fixed rate deliverable of PHP 1,500 from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. This “boundary” is fixed and is later given to the owner of the taxi. Whatever remains would be my earnings for the day. I’d be happy if I am left with PHP 500 to 800. But tell me, do you think a taxi driver can earn that much from a regular 8- to 10-hour drive? So we usually extended our shift to a twelve-hour run.
Driving around the metro isn’t easy. You must be very careful on the streets. Around Makati, I paid attention to the cars parked along the streets. You don’t want to mess with these cars lest you want to lose hard-earned money to repairs. On the other hand, I wasn’t the typical cab driver. I always stopped whenever there was a passenger who needed a ride. Saying no to a passenger was a sin for me.
There were passengers who were quiet, saying only their destination after I hit the meter and paying for the right amount after I clicked the meter off. But I’ve had several passengers who wanted to chit-chat. I returned the favor because it can get boring tracing those lines on the road. Some of them were curious why I was driving a cab. The answer that I always gave is, “I’m left with no choice.”
Regular cab driver
And there were some instances when they kept wondering. There was this college girl and her gay friend who were talking about dumping the girl’s boyfriend. From a moment of eavesdropping, I concluded that the girl didn’t want the guy anymore because of his insecurity.
While I was tackling a curve, the gay passenger suddenly asked, “Kuya, are you for real? ‘Cause you don’t look like a regular cab guy. Is it okay to get your number? My friend’s asking kasi eh.”
I told them I was for real but I didn’t give my number.
Not all passengers were good to me. Some of them lambasted our line of work. I can’t blame them — there are lots of cab drivers who treat their passengers unfairly.
There was an instance when a guy in his late 20s rode my taxi in Nagtahan. He kept on talking about news of drivers spraying fumes and robbing passengers. He kept on nagging as if I was one of those cab drivers. He even accused me of ticking the meter off while he wasn’t paying attention.
I let it pass. After 30 minutes of nagging, he exited the taxi paying only PHP 130. Nothing more, nothing less!
Strange and familiar faces
Once, when I was driving around the outskirts of Manila, there was a couple who kept waving their hands to flag down taxis. The other drivers were ignoring them. I sensed their urgency when I noticed a hump on the girl’s tummy. She was about to give birth!
I swerved a quick 180 degrees and stopped. I let them in and immediately drove to Fabella Hospital as per their wishes. In the hospital’s driveway, the man asked for help and we brought his wife to the emergency room.
The guy handed me PHP 150 in coins and small denominations. I let them keep the PHP 50 so they could buy some food because he hadn’t eaten yet.
Driving isn’t always about having these moments of sympathy or having to deal with rude passengers though. Sometimes, treats were left too.
There was a time when I was looking for another passenger when I noticed an enticing scent from the backseat. I looked behind and saw a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts waiting to be devoured by yours truly. In an instant, I grabbed the box to check if there was still something inside — and poof! The box was untouched and of full happiness. This was the first time I ate Krispy Kreme and it was rewarding for a hardworking cab driver like me.
However, it’s not all the time that you encounter strangers. Sometimes it is a long-lost friend who accidentally waves at your cab. A friend of mine from college signaled and I didn’t notice him at first. Upon looking twice or thrice on the rear view mirror, our eyes met.
“Hey! My friend, it’s been years,” we greeted each other.
We talked about what we had become, and I found out that after dropping out of the university, he started working in the BPO industry to earn cold cash.
And then he asked me, “Why drive a cab?” I couldn’t answer. A cold silence and distance appeared between us. I didn’t want him to pity my work, so in the middle of our silence, I just exclaimed, “Hey don’t think of it that way! Just remember that I’m doing this to survive and it’s temporary. And I’m happy doing this.”
Unlike him, I wasn’t putting up with the repetitive tasks they were doing in the office. Before he alighted from my cab, he said that I was lucky to be enjoying the ride even though it may be hard to earn enough to cover the boundary. Situations like that led me to an existential pondering — in some ways I was luckier than others working with the usual eight-hour shift.
Shift and accelerate
There was a time when I was searching for passengers along Julia Vargas. There was this Japanese businessman, not more than 60 years old, who signaled a halt. I was near where he stood so I picked him up.
I could sense that he was having a hard time telling me where he wanted to go because he couldn’t express his thoughts in English very well. Being the proactive taxi driver, I sensed in his gestures that he wanted to have a “good time” so I suggested a place.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Girls! I love them!” he finally said and our adventure began.
Though he lacked some words, I managed to augment his sentences and he usually replied with a “Yes, that’s it.” That was how we communicated that night. He told me that he was a product engineer way back in his early days. He told me that he had sons studying in Tokyo University and his wife passed away that year. I suddenly felt a sense of empathy, but then his big laugh exploded inside my taxi. He said he was done bereaving what he lost.
After sharing his story, I started telling him mine. I told him that I was a university student who studied Philosophy because I wanted to be a teacher one day and that I was forced to stop because of financial issues. I also told him that I was a farmer’s son. He told me that if we were in Japan we’d be rich because farmers in Japan were rich. I laughed and told him that here, it is the other way around.
After passing EDSA, we went to a karaoke bar in Makati. He said to wait.
“Sir, if you want, you can have my service throughout the night. Just pay for the meter and we’re good to go,” I suggested.
“Okay, just turn off the meter and I will give you more than enough,” he said.
While waiting, I lit a cigarette and one of the bar’s bouncers approached for a light. We engaged in small talk and he told me about a “racket” with foreigners, especially Japanese customers. He said that it was not a scam but a “legitimate business partnership” with an escort and a cab driver.
This is how it goes: whenever there’s a passenger who wants some girls, the driver would be the “expert” in bringing them to the right place. The cabbie and the escort would then split the earnings. I figured that if I follow that scheme, the percentage that I could earn is more than enough to cover my boundary.
After two hours of waiting outside the karaoke bar, eating some ‘pares’ and smoking my boredom out, my client walked out with two girls astride. I immediately ran to my cab and started driving. He told me to go to his hotel in Ortigas. I could sense his excitement by the way he teased the girls he was holding.
Soon we arrived at his hotel. He thanked me and handed me a 10,000 yen bill and a PHP 1,000 bill. He told me his name and I told him that someday we might meet again.
Before he closed the door he said, “Someday we’ll meet again. Not you a taxi driver but a college professor.”
After months of toiling around the streets, knowing each corner and alley of this city, I can say that I lived the life of an honest cabbie. Although I stopped working as a driver, I’m still not teaching in a university. I’ve tried my luck as a technocrat in order to earn enough to finally graduate and maybe even pursue my dream to go to graduate school. Hopefully, I will be a professor one day.