March 1 – 15, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
One day, Gadadhara Pandit das and I took advantage of being in New York to go shopping for sound equipment for my festival tour in Poland. After several hours I noticed it was getting late.
“It’s almost five PM,” I said. “If we’re going to make it back to the temple for the program tonight we’ll have to hurry. Let’s take a taxi.”
As we stood on a street corner trying to hail a taxi, I turned to Gadadhara, “I have a few questions about New York for my next diary chapter,” I said. “A cab driver might be a good person to ask.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” he said, “but I wouldn’t expect more than a description of some tourist spots.”
After twenty minutes, we were about to give up when suddenly a Yellow Cab swerved through the traffic and came to a screeching halt directly in front of us.
The driver looked out through the window. “Where you guys wanna go?” he said in a thick New York accent.
“26 Second Avenue,” Gadadhara yelled above the traffic.
We were barely inside when the cab sped away from the curb and merged into the traffic. The driver looked at us in his rearview mirror. “Nobody wanted to pick you guys up,” he said.
He turned his head around to look directly at us. “People are too judgmental,” he continued. “We have to respect others. That’s what I say. I mean, you guys are dressed different, but that don’t mean you ain’t good people. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” I said nervously, “but don’t you think you should keep your eyes on the road?”
“The car – it drives itself,” he laughed. “You just ask it to turn. That’s what one of my buddies said. It got into that book. What’s it called?”
He turned his eyes back to the road. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Taxi Driver Wisdom. Ever read that one?”
“No, sir,” I replied. “I can’t say that I have.”
“You ain’t read that?” he said. “It’s my favorite book.”
He paused. “You live around here?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m always on the move. I’m going to England in a couple of weeks.”
“England,” he said. “That was called Britannia. Then the Jewish tribes came in and they were Yiddish and they used a lot of ‘ish’ so they called them British.”
Gadadhara and I looked at each other.
“That’s another one from the book,” he said with a laugh. “I came here from Pakistan 20 years ago, driving a cab from day one. I saw some people laughing at you guys standing on the street corner. Let me tell you what the problem is with this city. People are too materialistic, that’s all.”
I decided to try for the answers I needed for the diary chapter. “Can I ask you a few questions?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, “but first I want to say that I know you guys. I’ve seen you singing on the streets. You’re nice to everybody. You don’t pick on no one. And I see bad stuff everyday. I mean the other day a guy was shot dead right in front of my cab. What’s happening to this world?”
He paused for a moment.
“When are people gonna start learning tolerance and love?” he said emotionally.
I started to say something, but he continued. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “It’s when people start becoming religious. Religion is the only thing we got in common. I mean, we’re all God’s children. Ain’t that right?”
Before I could answer he continued. “But I have to confess to you guys,” he said. “I’m not a very good Muslim. I mean I don’t bow down five times a day and I don’t go to the mosque regularly. I’m really sorry about that.”
“But you seem to be very pious …” I said.
“And sometimes I use bad words,” he interrupted. “But I promise I won’t use bad language in front of you guys. My mullah once told me that God gives and forgives. But us? We get and forget.”
Just at that moment a police car pulled alongside us in the next lane. Our driver slowed down and pulled in behind the police car.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Let me tell you, Mister,” he said, “it’s always better to be behind a police car. Omar, my friend, said that. That’s some down-to-earth philosophy, ain’t it?”
“Very much so,” I replied. “Now, I’d like to ask …”
He interrupted again. “You remember when the Taliban tore down the big statues of Buddha in Afghanistan a few years ago?” he said.
“Yes, of course I remember that,” I replied.
“Well, I was crying when I saw the pictures,” he said. “You gotta have respect for all the religions. All of them worship the same God. Slam one, you slam your own. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “And I wish more people …”
“My philosophy is that man is here to do good for others,” he continued. “And the best way you can help another man is to encourage him to follow his religion. It makes no sense to condemn his religion. And let me tell you what the cause of all the problems in the world is. You wanna know?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied trying to be patient. “I’d like to know.”
“I learned it driving this cab all those years,” he said. “The problem is that people are too materialistic. And what’s worse is that they bring materialism into religion. They go to the mosque, the church, or the temple and ask God for material things. Mister, there’s only one thing for which you should ask God. You know what that is?”
Surprised by his realizations, I was speechless.
“Service,” he said. “We should ask only for service. We were created by God to serve Him. Not the other way around. That’s natural. And if you do things naturally you’ll be happy. Do I have it right?”
“You hit the nail on the head,” I said, reflecting on how his words echoed Rupa Goswami’s definition of pure devotional service.
“I learned it all in a taxi,” he repeated with a smile as he looked over his shoulder at us again.
“Look out for that truck!” I yelled.
He turned around quickly and deftly avoided the vehicle.
“I see more of what’s going on around me because I’m not concerned with finding a parking place,” he said with a laugh. “That would be in the book too.”
We weaved in and out of traffic for some time and then he spoke up again.
“Religion is all messed up these days,” he said. “People are worshiping God for the wrong reasons. That’s why a lot of people are giving up on religion. One of my best friends, Hafiz, became an atheist last year. I mean what do we have in common anymore? One day he said, ‘Prove to me there’s a God.’ I put him in the back of my taxi and sat there with him. I told him, ‘It’s a question of faith, Hafiz,’
“He replied, ‘I don’t believe in faith.’
“I said, ‘You got faith the Atlantic Ocean’s not gonna overflow, right? You got faith them stars in the sky ain’t gonna fall down and smash New York City, don’t you? Yes, you do. And you know what? Somebody’s controlling all that. And that somebody is God. It’s not all happening by chance.’
“Hafiz became an agnostic after that. He started believing that ‘something is out there.’
“But you guys, you’re helping people become religious all the time. That’s why I like you. You live for others. I live for myself, just driving this taxi. I know that Allah is more pleased with you than me. You’re out in the rain and snow, singing for Him. I’ve seen you. And that’s why I picked you guys up.”
“Sir,” said Gadadhara, “that’s our temple, just over there.”
“Oh it’s beautiful,” he said, “just beautiful.”
As we pulled up to the curb, the driver turned around. “Hey fellas,” he said, “this one’s on me. I really enjoyed our conversation.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “That’s very kind of you.”
“Conversation?” Gadadhara whispered as he gathered his things. “You hardly got a word in.”
The driver quickly jumped out of the taxi and raced around to my side of the cab. As he opened the door he bowed slightly from the waist.
“The fare is 16 bucks,” he said. “But don’t worry about it. New York needs more guys like you.”
As I got out of the cab he stepped forward and suddenly hugged me. Then he stood back.
“I just have one request for you guys,” he said. “Please pray for me. Okay? And get that book that I was telling you about.”
“Will do,” I said as he got back into the taxi. “And, hey, you pray for us too.”
“Now that’s what folks should do,” he said, his voice trailing off as he drove away. “Religion is supposed to bring people together, not tear them apart. My friend Omar once said …”
Within a few seconds his taxi joined the fast-moving traffic. As we walked to the temple, Gadadhara laughed. “You never did get to ask your questions, did you?” he said.
I smiled. “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Even without the questions, I learned more about New York than I would have thought possible. We really connected with that taxi driver. He was a great guy.”
The next day I went out and bought the book. I found the following passage in it:
“If there is understanding, there is love. If there is no understanding, there is only an endless stream of questions.”
[Taxi Driver Wisdom, Risa Mickenburg, Chronical Books, 1996]