My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

Et tu, Cabbie?

Et tu, Cabbie?

The most memorable part of my trip to Italy was getting gypped by a cabbie in Naples. Which, of course, is sadly ironic.

Sure, I'm exaggerating some. Standing on the edge of the Isle of Capri and listening to the white caps of the Mediterranean crash against the Faraglioni; having un espresso in the afternoon breeze at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, and then climbing it, gazing out over the whole of Naples with two friends; eating enough perfectly-sliced prosciutto and oozing buffalo mozzarella and from-scratch pasta and right-off-the-hook salmon to now be certain that Olive Garden is a shame, not to mention drinking enough house red and Peroni that vino rosso della casa and due birre di andare rolled off with a Southern twang, to the point that a bartender asked where I'd learned such sweet Italian—no one can take that from me, other than maybe Alzheimer's. And the Sistine Chapel, all of humankind's sins above me, painted on a ceiling in a cathedral in Vatican City, where the Pope lives. I stood there and looked up and was resigned to the fact that I'll never accomplish something so humbling, in whatever time I have left.

Still, it's in our nature to hold on a tad longer to the bad. Because if we're honest, we do tend to expect good (or at least "not so bad") in the prosaic tasks of our day-to-day, even though some folks would have you believe they leave the house prepared for the worst. Of course, "It's all relative" is a truism that is becoming much truer for me, now that I'm out from behind a desk and seeing some of this world and dealing with the prosaic public. It's a truism that reminds me as much as we'd like to hope we're all in this together, folks walking out of their doors in Syria, well, that's not the world you and I live in, is it?

That is to say, the twenty-five-minute cab ride reminded me of something, a part of all of us that I've been driving around wishing I could get rid of or change or at least forgive and forget. The trip began simply enough. My buddy and I walked out of the Napoli Centrale around 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night to find a seemingly endless line of pristine white cabs. Business was slow, slow enough that two handfuls of cabbies were huddled in a circle at the front of that long white line, shooting the proverbial s---. In hindsight, their eyes did seem to light up (Turisti Americani) as we approached, each of us lugging a backpack and a carry-on. The shortest among them nodded to the others and hustled us in to the cab so quickly that I didn't have a chance to scan his face, to maybe see if something in it portended what was to come.

We gave him the address, showed him the Google Maps route on my phone. He nodded. "Ah, yes, Vomero." Off we went, maintaining the speed limit at first, but then we climbed an onramp to the Interstate and picked up speed, and he asked us if we minded the music being louder, a song that sounded like an Italian version of Drake, or of Rhianna, or both. We shook our heads that we didn't mind, and I watched the route on my phone, internally questioning a couple of turns, but nothing that would cause me to yell, Cessare! (Interestingly, there is no literal translation for "stop.") Besides, my buddy and I were taking in the scenery, the heart of Naples aglow behind us as we topped a rise in the road. Then the cabbie exited the Interstate onto a winding off ramp, and once he hit the city streets again, our cabbie began to drive erratically, shouting words in Italian out the window to pedestrians. He vroomed down a cobble-stone street that my buddy and I realized wasn't a street at all, but a market closed off to anything other than foot traffic. Our cabbie barely squeezed through the concrete pylons at the opposite end, pylons meant to keep out motorized vehicles. Our cabbie even screeched to a halt to ask a pedestrian in Italian how to reach our destination, when he already knew I had the route pulled up on my phone.

We arrived, in what seemed a cloud of dust, and my buddy and I, unspoken between us, were glad to put our feet on solid ground. It was dark, around 11. The cabbie emerged and opened the trunk so we could unload our bags. I took stock of him now, a short, barrel-chested man with olive skin, probably somewhere in the middle of his thirties. His hair was jet black and cut in the Euro style, cropped close on the sides and in the back, full and long on top, plenty of product to keep it just so. He smiled but not a genuine one, more of a smirk, like someone who's about to relay a version of the truth, and he is daring you to test it. He began to use his hands emphatically when speaking, as he searched for the English phrases, which I believe he was conveniently straining for. "How you say," he said. "Ride, eh, bags, eh, eh, how you say, eh, tip? Fifty euro. How you say, eh, inclu, eh, all inclusive?" 

I have been in cabs in New York and in Chicago and in D.C. and in San Francisco, pre-Uber. I know cabbies can sneak the scenic route, that cabbies can fudge a fare over on unsuspecting customers. I have argued with cabbies of all colors and ethnicities, cabbies with Buddha on their dashes, cabbies with crosses dangling from their rear views, cabbies with the first American dollar they ever made taped to the fiber glass partition separating the front seat from the back. I have demanded that they turn on this road instead of that one. I am not naive to the notion that people, of any color or ethnicity, just want to make a few extra bucks, especially at the expense of people who seem to have some to spare.

In that instant, on that quiet street in Vomero, a street I'd never stood on and might very well never stand on again, I didn't know what else to do or to say. I glanced at my buddy who half rolled his eyes and shrugged. We'd been on a train for two-plus hours prior. I was certain that the cabbie had seen the peach-colored flash of my fifty note in my wallet, which might as well have been Monopoly money to me on a vacation in a foreign country—like when you're spinning the roulette wheel and the chips in front of you no longer have any value, only signify whether you can keep spinning or you'll have to retire to the all-you-can-eat buffet. I handed the cabbie the fifty note, the equivalent of about $54.

When we met my friend at the gated entrance to his apartment complex, he told us that the trip should've been a flat rate, twenty euors max, or roughly $21. We rolled our eyes fully now and chalked it up to traveling abroad. We met my friend's wife, and we walked out onto their balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, all the lights of the Napoli port twinkling, canceling out the stars. We went to a local pizzeria and ate pies cooked in a brick oven, the secret of the crust being in the coals from Mount Vesuvius, as the legend goes.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, what our cabbie did with the thirty euros he'd conned us out of. I wondered if he needed it more than me, if he had a wife and a child, or if he'd learned early that having more euros than the next person was the only way he'd ever get ahead, that having more euros was what would set him apart from the rest. I wondered if our cabbie would just blow those thirty euros on a plate of pasta and a carafe of vino rosso della casa and Tiramisu, maybe un espresso aperitif. Or maybe he'd put those thirty euros toward things you and I would just as soon not consider.

I wondered if getting gypped out of money you had to lose was worth bemoaning, if being a tourist who's gypped by a cabbie, no matter the country, has become part of our prosaic day-to-day. I wondered how it is that dishonesty becomes part of a profession's cliche. I wondered if our cabbie had grown up to wear a suit and a tie and sit behind a maple desk in an office surrounded by four windows overlooking the Mediterranean, if our cabbie would still be a man who'd earn his living dishonestly. 

***

Earlier that day, before my buddy and I boarded a train from Rome to Naples, I encountered an African man peddling bracelets in a small piazza near our hotel. It was not the first encounter my buddy and I had had with these African men peddling bracelets, all of them wearing brightly-colored kaftans. I assumed North African, but couldn't say for sure. My buddy and I, who have done our fair share of traveling in the States, to places where protocol is to avoid eye contact with street vendors, attempted to bypass the whole salesman's charade. But one of these men called out to my buddy, "My white brother! Are we not one? Are we not brothers?" We, of course, being slightly ashamed, turned around, and my buddy shook the man's hand, which actually morphed into a "bro hug," the man pulling him close. That man did not ask us to buy a bracelet, and admittedly, I was surprised. 

But on this day, before my buddy and I boarded the train to Naples, this particular African man called to me and I acknowledged him. We exchanged pleasantries, although I continued to walk, a slight rain falling. This man then asked if I played football, and I said that I had played basketball in high school. "Here, catch," he said and tossed one of his bracelets, which I caught. "Got ya," my buddy said under his breath and kept moving. I stopped. I examined the bracelet while the African man caught up to me. It was a piece of leather painted black, buttressed by thick strands of black yarn, which were used to cinch it around your wrist. Adorning the bracelet was an oblong black stone in which a white elephant was carved. 

The man finally reached me, and I looked up at him. His skin was as dark as the stone. He smiled at me, and I smiled back, perhaps more of a grin because I knew how this conversation would go. "My brother," he said. "I have a wife and a child to care for. Will you help me feed my family?" I asked if he had change, and he immediately dictated the terms, saying that if I had a twenty note he had a ten in return. I held out a ten, which was all I had on me, and I asked if he would take five euro for the bracelet, which I did not particularly want. He took the ten and stuffed it into a satchel that was slung around his neck and shoulder. "I am happy for you," he said, "because I know that you are a good man." 

He flashed another smile and did a quick pivot and was gone into the crowd.

*** 

I've been back in the States for more than a week, back inside my four knotty-pine-paneled walls in Knoxville, Tennessee, drinking weaker coffee with fake sugar and eating processed turkey on processed wheat bread. I'd worn my authentic African bracelet every day since I paid ten euro for it, right up until the knot frayed and the yarn snapped. I haven't figured out how to retie it yet, but I've unofficially named the elephant my spirit animal, because an elephant never forgets.

I've been driving less and writing more. And I keep returning to a few lines from one of my favorite Richard Ford short stories: "A light can go out in the heart ... I don't know what makes people do what they do, or call themselves what they call themselves, only that you have to live someone's life to be the expert."

They're not Ford's finest lines, far from it actually, and perhaps even a tad cliche. But I've considered them often during this year of mine, this year of my existential crisis or my sojourn or whatever other thing I've called it to lessen the severity of what I'm feeling—at the risk of perhaps cheapening all the very real emotions beneath the surface of whatever version of myself I'm showing you from one post to the next.

I had a lot of trust in people. I had a lot of trust in myself. But I lost some of it, and I'm faced now with the uncertainty of whether or not trust can regenerate, if whether love can regenerate, or whether you simply go on with whatever part of the whole you have left, and you protect that part, you make certain that you don't take that part for granted and let more of it slip away. 

Of course, no one can live this life in a vacuum, not completely anyway. And, of course, people have a way of letting you down, just like we have a way of letting ourselves down. To truly open your heart not just to one person—and not just to the people who are by societal law expected not to break it—but to everyone, well, that is to test one's soul. To truly open your heart is to understand why so many people protect theirs, why so many have had theirs broken, why so many have decided to assume guilt rather than innocence, lest they allow themselves to be the victim.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that I don't begrudge those two men, that Italian man and that African man, for doing their best to earn a living, whatever way they've been taught how. I would also be remiss if I didn't admit that I don't wonder how the cliches would have been turned if I'd have been another ethnicity, another color, if we would have met under different circumstances, perhaps at a bar counter or at their homes, among their families, places where euros shouldn't count for worth, only comfort. 

Admittedly, I protect you from most of the "bad" I come across in my Honda Civic, on my Uber Nights. Not that you need me to protect you from it, even if I could. I'm sure you know it's out there. I'm sure you've come face to face with it more than you'd care to admit. Although, "it's all relative," isn't it? I'm not sure why I don't tell you about the drunkenness and the crude language and the downright rudeness that I encounter more than I'd care to admit. I reckon I'm not sure what sense to make of it. Or maybe I just don't know what good it would do, to acknowledge it, and I am doing this out of some sense of good, at least I believe that I am, that is my sincere hope. 

I reckon that is the rub, though, that any real "good" to be done has to be done in the name of altruism, without any expectation of karma returning the favor. I am as polite as I can be in my car. I do my damnedest to take the least circuitous route. I take musical requests, or don't play music at all, if someone would like to talk while we get from A to B. The folks in my car seem to enjoy it, although I can probably count two handfuls of people who I wish would never have climbed in. And I'm quite sure there are those people who would just as soon not have wound up with me. But in the scheme of 1,300-plus trips, counting original sin and all, I figure that isn't such a bad average. 

I can't tell you why that cabbie in Naples, Italy, gypped me out of thirty-three bucks, or why that African man tugged on whatever heart strings I have left to convince me to buy a bracelet I didn't want. I can't tell you if those two men sensed an easy target, or if they actually sensed a good man, which renders me an easy target. I can't tell you why I don't begrudge either of them, or why I have lied in my own ways, lied even to the people whose hearts I wasn't supposed to break. I've pondered nature and nurture and circumstance before in these posts. It is the trinity of our make up, the main ingredients that create our adult versions. It is the trinity that we must often overcome. It is the trinity that separates that cabbie in Naples from that African man in Rome, that separates that African man in Rome from me, that separates me from those people who must walk outside their doors in Syria.

It is the trinity that I ponder when I pick up folks like Jason, a young man who was waiting on me this Wednesday to drive him home after his shift at Kroger. He was wearing a navy short-sleeved polo tucked into khakis, the company suit, and a pair of black tennis shoes (or sneakers for those up yonder) with the laces tied loosely. He had a jacket draped in the crook of one arm, his lunch bag in one hand, his cell phone in the other. As he approached the car, I noticed that his arms were spread out from his body farther than what counts for normal, and he seemed to jerk and to vibrate with each step. And I have to wonder, does his color matter to the outcome, does his creed?

He hastily fell into the front seat, and I asked how his day had been. "Good," he said in a high-pitched squeak, almost pulling the word back in before he let it out, as if he was unsure about whether he'd given the correct answer, or if it was a trick question. Jason did not look over at me, but I looked at him. He had curly hair that spread out in all different directions and a scraggly beard. He wore glasses, and he squinted at the sides of his eyes, which I could not see. He was young, twenty at the most, hints of acne still on his cheeks. 

"Long day at work," I said. "Yes," he said in exactly the same manor. We had a ten-minute ride to what I assumed was home, but I didn't ask any more questions, and he seemed comforted by that, less anxious. I believe I could've driven Jason ten minutes in the wrong direction, and then apologized, saying it was an honest mistake. I believe I could've asked Jason a few more questions, maybe calmed him some. But in that moment, the silence seemed right, like maybe Jason was aware enough to know that I had the upper hand, both in this car and in this life, that this trip between Kroger and home and back in the morning was his trinity, and that he was fine with that, or that he didn't have much choice not to be. Or maybe he wasn't considering a thing, just glad to be in this car with me on a sunny day in autumn. In that moment, I understood that Jason's life was in my hands, simply because he didn't have anyone to trust to pick him up, much less the money to buy his own car. 

We pulled in to what I assumed was an assisted-living community, rows of tiny condos where I noticed people of able-body and seemingly able-mind performing outside chores, or simply sitting on front porches, waiting for something to happen that required their attention. "We're here," I said as lively as I could. "Have a good one," I said. "Thanks," Jason said in his manor. He opened the door and got out as hastily as he'd fallen in. His phone slid from his lap onto the seat and I grabbed it, handing it to him before he could scurry off, jerking and vibrating as he went, his arms spread out awkwardly. There was a woman on his front porch, relaxing on a faded blue loveseat, and I could tell that she was not like Jason. She laughed and said something to him when he walked past. He laughed and nodded and opened his door. 

As I was slowly driving out of the community, a soccer ball (or futbol, as it were) rolled past me. I looked up in the rear view and spotted a small boy standing in the road. I almost put the car in park to pick it up and to carry it back to him. But for some reason, even in that instance of wanting to, or at least of knowing that I should, I kept going. I kept driving until I reached a stop sign far enough away that the boy surely would have reached the ball by then, far enough away that it seemed silly now to turn around. 

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