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The Best Cabbie Ever

Coming home this evening, I was crammed into a subway car so tightly that, seriously, I could not move without pushing someone over. It was horrible. This is life in Seoul.

Sometimes, it makes me think back to the days of taking cabs and cycling back in Jeonju. Man, there were some interesting cabbies back then. Much better than the Lebanese cabbie I had the one and only time I remember taking a cab in Montreal… he was unstable, and his girlfriend was eating stinky food in the car — which was all but killing my drunk/food-poisoned friend beside me– and they were talking about how fun it had been during their first meeting, when the guy rear-ended a city bus on purposes.

You do meet some insane cabbies in Korea, of course. Some of them were just funny people, some so odd as to be alarming — “Vietnam, you know? Me, I go Vietnam! It fun! I go! Kill! Fun!” he hollered, and then, hands off the wheel, he simulated the rat-tat-tat of blasting fire from mounted machine gun at the front of the Kyobo Department Store — and some were plain scary, like the guy who drove faster than I’ve ever gone in a car in my life. (And got me to a concert on time, but… I was shaking slightly from shock for a good half hour after the experience.)

But the coolest cabbie ever was this little old lady, I swear at least 60 years old. I got into her cab one afternoon, I can’t remember why or where I was going. Now, I’d seen female cabbies before, but, in my experience, they aren’t very common in Korea. The lady cabbies you meet, here, they’re these hardnosed, somehow very compressed people, which is understandable. But this lady, she was different.

She started chatting with me in English so good that any of my students back in Jeonju would have cut off a toe, hell, maybe even a foot to speak as well as her. She said she’d learned English in school, by which, she clarified, she meant high school, some forty years before. (I kind of doubt that was the whole story, but whatever.) She said retirement had bored her, and that despite her kids worrying, she wanted to work, to do something with her time. So she drove a cab. She asked me how much money I made as a professor, and I told her that the position I had in Jeonju was the work of a professor, but I wasn’t paid like one, and then, avoided clarification by asking her how much a cabbie usually makes.

Up until then, I had known nothing about how cabbies paid for their licensing and the cab usage fees and so on, but she told me all about it. She busted open her binderful of that month’s fares at a red light, and told me she’d be writing down my fare, too, when I got out of the cab. She had an agreement where she had to pay something like, let’s say, W150,000 or W200,000 per day to use the cab, and anything on top of that was hers to keep. Or maybe it was W100,000, or less, the use fee. I don’t recall, though I think it worked out that she was making more money than I was at the time, which amused her. (It amused me less, but she was so cool I had to just laugh about it.)

Anyway, the ride went as good cab rides do — interesting conversation, instead of the virtually scripted set of questions cabbies usually ask white foreigners — and safe arrival. I wanted to give her a tip but she insisted that it wasn’t her culture, so I relented. But I haven’t forgotten that cabbie… she was the coolest ever.

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