Among the many wonders of Melbourne is the yellow cab, invariably cleaner than its New York counterpart, safer, cheaper, less armoured, and usually driven by someone who at least knows as much about the city's geography as you do. If you want to discover what's going on in Afghanistan or Albania, if you want to learn what Serbs really think of Milosevic, you pick up a cab outside Flinders Street railway station and ask to be driven to the Bay and back. People who regularly catch taxis in Melbourne have no need of newspapers. How your Melbourne taxi driver has acquired competency in Australian English and mastered the complexities of driving in a city that gives precedence to trams when he was on the front line of the latest war only a week ago, is one of those mysteries of taxiing. You don't question it; you just listen.
They soothe me, however they do what they do. They prove that everyone gets a second chance; that no one can ever know for sure where he's going to turn up next; that with luck, there's a haven waiting for everybody. For my own part, I find that haven in the cab itself. You climb aboard, exhausted by the ravages of your own impatience in a country that refuses the concept of urgency; you strap yourself in; you listen to another tale of persecution and rescue, of gratitude tinged with homesickness, and you feel you are in a fiery chariot, circling the sun.
Sound biblical? Well, I have to tell you that I was recently picked up mid-Friday-rush-hour by a cab I did not hail, whose driver resembled a Koranic prophet and who made utterances to me which I can only describe as wise. Remember wise? It's not a word we're comfortable with any more, on account of its coupling of intelligence and morality, neither of which we are prepared to trust single, let alone married. Say you've met a wise man today and people think you've been hallucinating. Who do you know who still talks about wisdom except the staff at shops selling New Age crystals?
As for a wise taxi driver ... !
But he was wise, and that's that. He was a Muslim, in a sparkling embroidered cap - something between a fez and a yarmulke - with a lustrous beard which left his chin and lips clean. Sensual lips, I noticed, rather than the bloodless clerical purse that usually goes with the believer's beard. And very bright, smiling brown eyes. Altogether he was grand and handsome, dark as a grape and too big for the little yellow cab he was driving.
"A busy night ahead for me," he said, laughing. "With everybody going off to eat and drink and have good time."
"Then be careful who you pick up," I said. This was not me being rude about Australians. I was simply recalling my father's tales about the mess made to his taxi by Friday-night fares.
"You don't get any trouble," he told me, "if you treat people with kindness and respect. Last night I stopped to pick up a very drunken man. I took pity on him. No other driver would stop for him. When I saw that he was going to be sick in my cab I said, `Please do it out the window,' and he did. Not a mark on my car. And afterwards he thank me."
"You were lucky," I said.
"Not luck," he said. "Treat people with kindness and respect and God will put it in their hearts to be respectful back." Now you don't need me to tell you that there is intermittent tension between Jews and Muslims right now. Let's be honest - between Jews and Muslims there has been intermittent tension for over a thousand years. Nonetheless, we are supposed to share a deity, and no sooner was He mentioned - our joint God - than I fell prey to that sickly sweet sensation which always accompanies acts of making-up with one's enemies, caused, presumably, by the sudden leakage of animosity from the body. I went weak. Not surprising. Animosity acts like adrenaline. But it was pleasing weak. Receptive weak. How wise of him, I thought, to acknowledge that kindness and respect will not win you friends without the intercession of God. I liked the idea that by good thoughts you encourage God to conjure goodness in another's heart. I liked the idea that if you treated a drunk humanely, God would get him to throw up through your window. I liked the idea of God mucking in like that. As the son of a taxi driver I didn't consider it nothing that God should keep your cab clean. We talked about alcohol, and he apologised if his abstinence in any way offended me.
"Why should it?" I asked.
"Because it is possible you like alcohol."
"Well, when people have a passion for something, they are sometimes hurt when others do not have that same passion too."
Wise, eh? Feel the force of indulgences you do not share. Punish not with rectitude. Honour another's weakness. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted all Jews to love all Muslims. And vice versa. If we could only be squeezed into a taxi cab together, all however many millions of us. If only, instead of ayatollahs and rabbis, we listened to taxi driversReuse content