Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Taxi Driver Who Quoted Poe

Years ago, I had a landlord, Lou, who worked as a night time taxi driver. During the day, he wore golf shirts and slacks. When he went to do his shift, he would put on a leather vest, jeans, leather fingerless gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat. “It’s important to look like someone who you shouldn’t mess with,” he told me. He was a big guy with a big black mustache, and he looked imposing (except when he was walking his wife’s tiny toy poodles Tinky Winky and Teeny Weeny. He was convinced that she had chosen the dogs and the names to embarrass him, but although he grumbled, he loved them).

Lou knew the fastest way to get around the city which, he would point out, wasn’t always the way you wanted to take. You didn’t want to scare tourists by going into some areas, so when a fare got in, you had to figure out who they were and the best route to take them.

Lou also knew hundreds of poems. Before he drove a cab, he was a long-haul truck driver, and he would spend the miles memorizing poetry, especially William Butler Yeats. Once he picked up two English professors at the airport. He heard one of them misquote “The Raven.” He corrected him, and then said he knew the whole poem. “I bet you a hundred bucks, you don’t,” the professor said. Lou took the bet, started reciting, and, at the end of the ride, the guy had to give him a hundred dollars. But, Lou liked to point out, “He didn’t give me a tip.”

Inspired by Lou I typed out short poems on index cards to learn while running. I found not only did the run seem to go faster, but I had to start making decisions about what poems I wanted to memorize. Which did I feel were worth the effort? Which sounded good? Which had something to offer? Suddenly, I had to come up with a personal criteria. I had no intention of reciting these to other people (which, unless you’re Lou or have an Irish accent, can come off as either pretentious or a party trick). These were only for me. They had to be short, they had to speak to me, and they had to be enjoyable to know.

I still have a stack of some of them in my desk drawer: Robert Frost “Fire and Ice”; Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Bean Eaters,” Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar,” Robert Penn Warren, “Treasure Hunt,” Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.” And, although I no longer know them all by heart, I still carry many of the lines with me.

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