This piece was written in May 2011 for radio show Why The Long Face? Recent events have prompted me to dig it out of the vaults to add a coda which relates recent events in Italy.
The Mob you ask? Well, I’ll leave you to decide.
“Ritz Hotel please,” I said as Sandra and I jumped into the back of the Madrid airport taxi.
The driver looked back, jawbone a-swinging, shake of the head.
“Ritz Hotel?” I repeated, and got another questioning look from driver.
I tried again, but employed a cunning switch, “Hotel Ritz?” No dice. So I tried a bit of a Spanish inflection, a roll of the R and a lisp at the end, “Hotel Rrrrittsth?”
I wrote it down for him, HOTEL RITZ.
“Aaah,” he grinned, “Hotel Rrrrittsth.” Which, as I pointed out to Sandra, is exactly what I said.
You see, the world’s taxi drivers are having a game with the rest of us, only we don’t know it. I don’t know what I was thinking when that shady bloke in arrivals at Paris Charles de Gaulle caught my eye and offered a cab ride to the city and, meekly, we followed him. I mean the price was OK, about standard, but what if we’d had an accident or he’d been a simple acid bath killer? Lesson learnt.
Lesson learnt, so that when we arrived in New York we stuck to the line for yellow cabs at JFK. On departure for home, which was to be through New Jersey, I went out to ask the hotel doorman to hail us a taxi and he waved over a tall, dapper wiseguy in a charcoal grey suit who was standing with doorman #2 drinking coffee from a polystyrene cup. After a brief conflab, the 3 turned to me and announced that Dennis would take us. Dennis the wiseguy hitman with the suspicious bulge under the armpit of his Italian suit smiled at me, “Hey, I’ll take you,” he said.
I paused, “I’m not being funny,” I said, “but who the bloody hell are you?” Laying on the accent of course, because Americans love all that, don’t they?
“He’s a limo driver,” the doormen said in unison.
“A limo driver, eh?” Now, I reckon they picked up a scintilla of doubt in my voice.
“Yeah, sure, he’s limo driver, he lives in Jersey and he’ll take you to Newark ‘cos it’s on his way home.”
Back in a minute.
I went back inside to get Sandra and the luggage, weighing things up on the way. “Remember Paris?” She asked.
“It’ll be fine, he’s a limo driver.”
“Have you seen this limo?”
“Nah, no yet…here he is, Dennis, this is my wife Sandra…”
Dennis led us down the block and around the corner. He reached into his pocket and a black limousine with an impressive number of wheels and blacked out windows parped and flashed in greeting. This sort of car is one of the many things that have been cheapened by stag do’s, hen parties, and dickheads at the races. But at least it wasn’t white. Anyway, we jump in, and when we hit the New Jersey Turnpike and sink uncomplainingly into a storming Springsteen song, he mentions there’s a great view of the Manhattan skyline to be had, if we have time to stop.
“What time’s your flight?”
We tell him. We have all the time in the world. Dennis pulls over some time later. It is a truly magnificent view. The sun is on its way down, and the city looks stunning.
“You wanna take a picture?” Dennis motions for us to head closer to the rail. Twenty yards, maybe thirty from the car, so we can get some good shots. Now, I can’t accuse him of bringing us all this way and now wanting us to move because he wants to drive off with our luggage, can I? So the answer is to do everything really slowly, root through the flight bag, get the camera out – Oh, have we still got time? We have? Great – before we wander off to take some snaps and Dennis can drive off with all of our gear, including passports. Except he doesn’t – bonus fear factor points for Dennis there. And when we get to Newark and he asks me to pay whatever I like, I can’t stop giving him dollars to cover his hospitality and attentiveness. Sixteen years later, I still have his business card.
It was as entertaining a taxi ride as I’ve ever been on. Including the one in Singapore with a driver who looked and sounded exactly like Ronnie Barker doing a pre-PC impression of a Hindu cabbie. Cabbies earn bonus points for impersonations familiar only to tourists.
Overall, I find that I know it’s been a good night when the last thing I remember is not arguing over the fare but shaking hands with the cabbie. They get bonus points for that, I think, in their worldwide taxi driver game.
Update November 2017
In southern Italy recently for what has become an annual visit. We walk into town on our first evening, on one side the Bay of Naples, and massive, menacing Vesuvius, and on the other? A ramshackle collection of roadworks.
Our first evening is spent at our favourite restaurant. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say it was as spot-on as ever. As we said goodnight to the maitre d’ he said,
“A pleasure to see you again Signor Bryer, remember, anything you want while you’re here, any trouble, Salvatore will fix it, anything you need, Salvatore is here. Anything. Salvatore is always here.”
We had lunches, and another couple of evenings at the restaurant, including our last night when we strolled out of there, fortified by a wild fennel liquer, and headed for the taxi rank. Usual fare to the hotel, about twenty Euros or so, on the meter.
Instead of a left, the driver took a right turn, but we were prepared for this as there was some diversion because of the roadworks. However, as we continued it was clear the cabbie was intent on filling his boots by hauling some unsuspecting rubes in the wrong direction for as long as he could get away with it or until the meter went around the clock and he could afford to take a month off.
Sandra nudged me. After four years, she and I knew the geography of the town very well. We also knew when someone was taking the piss.
“You know, darling,” I said loudly, “it’s so nice to come back here and see Salvatore. The boss at (redacted) restaurant. You know what he said to me the other night? Any trouble in town with anyone, you come and see Salvatore. Anything you want. Any trouble, Salvatore will fix it.”
At this point a number of things happened and all of a sudden.
Sandra – always attuned to my laying-it-on-a-bit-thickometer kicked me smartly on the ankle. The driver executed an emergency u-turn and glanced nervously in his rear-view mirror. We sped up to the hotel.
“Quanta costa?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” he said.