Taxi stories: the day I left the front seat

When I worked a day job, my mornings and evenings involved walking to the taxi rank. On both occasions I had to worm my way through a flood of people in the Johannesburg CBD as part of getting to the office, and back.

On my way to the rank, I used to have one thought in mind.

Will I get a seat somewhere at the back of the taxi? 

I did not want to crane my neck backwards and forwards, accepting and then counting the driver’s money.

I have a few reasons. For one, I dislike sitting in the front seat. Unless there is only one taxi left to take a load. Or when I am beyond late, or for another catastrophic reason. Then I’ll concede defeat and play bookkeeper for the driver.

On one such morning, I boarded a taxi at the Bree Taxi Rank on my way to Cresta. It was my first time traveling to that part of town.

Okay, cool. I have to look out for the directions engraved in my mind by a friend whose voice plays in my head. “After going past the University of Johannesburg, the Auckland Park campus, you are near mchana. Ask the driver at that point“.

We started off the journey. And I waited for hands to tap on shoulders in order to pass the money to me.

Just like Caesar, we had render unto Khabazela what was his. 

Along the way, my journey got interesting. Some of the passengers were traveling a few streets away from the taxi rank. This was a problem. They got off too soon, frequently and in clusters.

I hadn’t finished sorting out the change for a few of them.

What followed was sheer pandemonium!

“Wendoda, abantu bafuna imali yabo; nika abantu ushintshi wabo ndoda!”

The driver instructed me with that infamous irritable Zulu Guy tone many taxi drivers are known for.

It was like he’d opened the flood gates. There were no night-watchmen at the wall anymore. And winter was on my doorstep. After the driver’s irritated input, almost the entire taxi started tittering.

“Why ehleli phambili kodwa naye? Hawu!”

The audacity is hilarious. They avoided the front seat like the plague, and it befell me.

And thina abanye si’late already emsebenzini yazi.” I looked over my shoulder, and saw a beautiful woman, and she was annoyed. In those seconds, I managed to look at her and think: ‘Oooh. She’s very nice. Noma ekwatile enjalo.’

I scrambled about with haste, and after a few moments, I had everybody sorted.

Then I blurted out, “Ukhona oshoda ngoshintshi bakwethu?”

Silence.

I handed the driver his cash.

Some of the money is surely going to pay for a sizeable lunch later today, if his bulging stomach is anything to go by.

Non-payers

The bravest cluster of people. Then again, perhaps deprivation is the mother of courage.

I’ve seen a few heated arguments in a moving taxi about a person who didn’t pay their fare. During one of those experiences, the driver, without warning, drove the bus back. He wanted to go get a new load. (The implication? An honest and fully paying load.) His decision was met by piercing screams and protests by the women on board, who outnumbered men.

For the car to begin moving towards the city, money had to be sent back to every seat as it was brought forward. The source of the “misunderstanding” was unveiled, and the case resolved.

I never wish to be the accountant when this sort of thing happens. These cases seem to give the “right” to the passengers to fold arms and throw insults to the front seat.

Money landing in the wrong hands

A taxi is a communal place.

People generally trust the next person not to short-change others. 

When I pass back change to the back seat and it lands on the wrong hands—by mistake or on purpose, doesn’t matter—other people end up not having the cash due to them. And that’s precisely the source of frustration, and sometimes, a militant approach by those shortchanged to demand the money. 

Now, the solution lies with the person who  has “wrongfully” pocketed the money.

On some occasions, the fear to be labeled a thief bears too much pressure that they keep mum. (But let’s face it: I am also judgemental. Look at the air quotes on the word, wrongfully.)

The driver will protest. Especially when the money that’s due to him is accurate. You can forget about him playing mediator.

How the wrinkle is ironed out sometimes depends on other passengers. Generosity, or a growing sense of irritation.

Can we please just get on the with our journey, bantu? Sishilo nje ukuthi siba’late emsebenzini.

Without this generosity or frustration, the argument can drag on to no end. Or end up with a return trip to the taxi rank. 

Uneven prices

R 11.50, R 13.50, and other such prices.

This is made worse by the people who never bother to seek lose change the night or moments before they climb aboard. They pull out crisp one hundred, and two hundred rand notes.

Voetsek! (I sometimes feel like howling at them. L.OL)

Haibo! Anibosicabangela ngoshintshi phela baf’wethu.” The driver’s plea is often met with sheepish silence.

No, thanks. This is a headache I’d rather do without.

Apart from my dismay about the drama that happens over money, the opening or shutting of windows, and other matters, I don’t like using travel time quarrelling.

The reason is, it becomes a much better journey when the time is used to read parts of a good book, or an essay. Or to organise my notes.

And as a writer, I cannot pass on that.

By THEMBA JAY

Wordsmith: I write and edit words. I speak and facilitate public conversations. I think and consult.