July 18, 2024

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El Taxi, or El Toro?

by Maggie Van Ostrand

Hemingway said there are two types of spectators at a bullfight: those who identify with the bull, and those who identify with the matador.

When a bull is properly lined up for the kill, it is called the “Moment of Truth,” the most difficult and dangerous moment in bullfighting. The matador utilizes all his skill and courage in selecting and executing his choice, the most common method being “A Un Tiempo,” in which both bull and man move toward each other to meet somewhere in between. Hemingway probably experienced this in a Guadalajara taxi. Let me explain why I believe this.

The day I rode in a Guadalajara taxi, I identified with the driver, Jesus. His weapon was neither sword nor muleta, but a 1962 Dodge. It was a four door 330 model Dart with a 318 cubic inch V 8 engine. That is what it had; soon I will tell you what it did not have.

Since Mexico is not artistically monochromatic, Jesus had painted his taxi a Day Glo yellow, so vibrant a shade as to make Sponge Bob Square Pants turn green with envy. He called it “Nando,” short for Ferdinand, the gentle toro who enjoys nothing more than smelling todas las flores and jousting with bees.

Nando’s hand bent antenna waved sportily in the breeze, a souvenir left by creative crooks who had ripped off the radio in 1975. By the late 80’s, both wipers had eventually rusted away. In order to avoid the dangers of an accident during rainy season, Jesus was forced to hang out the window wildly swiping at the windshield with a big red rag, thus giving birth to a reputation for two innovative kinds of steering: one fingered and one kneed. To honor this legendary prowess, his children awarded him a miniature of Don Quixote, which Jesus proudly hung from Nando’s rear view mirror. But I digress.

Jesus, a skinny, opinionated man with a Dali like mustache, did not trust any other driver on the road, growling “They are out to make my wife a widow and my children orphans.” He claimed that Nando was the “cleanest taxi in all of Mexico. The Señora she will find no wrappers or beer cans or other bad things in the back seat.”

Jesus deftly steered Nando down a narrow one way street until suddenly confronted by another vintage taxi, a pale yellow one. Bumper to bumper, we could proceed no further.

Red fringe strung along the periphery of the other taxi’s pockmarked windshield seemed to take a cue from the driver’s irritation, and it quivered with indignation at our challenge for right of way. Colorful mini lights, the kind usually strung on Christmas trees but in this instance installed around the windows, began flashing on and off, doubtless meant to be a warning.

Neither quaking fringe nor blinking lights intimidated Jesus, however, and we just sat, waiting. From the back seat, an itchy one, I observed a newly determined set to Jesus’ narrow shoulders, and the outer edges of his mustache appeared to rise even higher. Was this to be an infamous “Mexican Standoff?”

At last, Jesus shouted to the other driver, a pudgy man who easily fit the description of Pancho Sanchez, to back up, but Pancho simply shrugged, settled heavily into his seat, and waited. Jesus also shrugged, and waited.

In time, Jesus began to stroke the mirror’s dangling Don Quixote, as one might rub a rabbit’s foot for luck which often works for everyone except the rabbit. Obviously regarding this sight as a signal of some kind, the other driver did the same with what appeared to be a Scapular hanging from his mirror. This was followed by mutual glaring.

I watched as the passenger of the other taxi hurtled his cowardly self out and into the safety of a doorway. (Yellowbellied by nature myself, I was prevented from doing the same by Nando’s lack of inside handles.)

Having given what he felt was fair warning with his Quixote signal, Jesus abruptly shifted into spastic reverse, one of Nando’s four gears, the others being Wheeze, Lurch, and Gallop. Jesus enthusiastically shouted back at me as he finished reversing and began reviving, “Do not be afraid Señora, victory is ours!”

By then, we had backed away a considerable distance from the other taxi whose hood was snorting smoke out of each nostril. My head was playing the haunting “Paso Doble.”

Both drivers slammed accelerators and horns simultaneously, and noisily raged onward. Jesus waved his red rag out the window in a one armed, mad version of the Veronica.

“Ole!” I involuntarily screamed, “Ole!” The taxis careened recklessly over potholes and rocks, sparks flying off their gunky bellies. Nanoseconds before colliding, the other cab veered sharply to the right, scraping itself between a building and us and doubtless paring off some Day Glo from Nando. I managed to extricate myself from between the two front seats where velocity had hurled me and, as I found myself glaring at the other driver, I noticed something unusual, all things considered.

Pancho was regarding Jesus with admiration, no doubt about it. He then meekly reversed his taxi and with no small amount of difficulty, managed to squeeze out of his tight spot, and backed down the little street. We were free to continue our journey, shaken but alive. It’s an amazing thing to be part of a mano a mano, even if it’s really cabo a cabo.

I still think we should have been awarded the tail lights.

©2013 Maggie Van Ostrand, all rights reserved.