Since I had the piece ready to go, and had spent so much time working on it, I figured it would be a shame not to read it somewhere, so I brought it to Story Club last night and read it during the open mic portion of the show. You've probably already read this, or some version of it, but here it is:
Nothing good ever happens in an empty taxi cab idling with one door wide open. I scanned the area – I was the only person on the block. I considered my options – was I safer in the cab, or on the street? Should I open the trunk, take my backpack and run for my life? Should I abandon the backpack and run for my life? If I’d taken that grim facebook quiz that tells you the hour and means of your own demise, would the result have been: bludgeoned to death by a Portuguese cab driver, 1am, November 9th, 2009?
This journey began almost 24 hours earlier; well, actually it started six months earlier, when I was laid off from my job. Between sending out resumes, interviewing, and getting rejected, I began checking off items on a mental list of things I’d always wanted to do but never had time for. Things like being a volunteer tutor, doing a mini-triathlon, and traveling abroad with Habitat for Humanity to build a house for someone who had less than I did. With my severance package and unemployment benefits, I was still earning more than the average Portuguese worker (Wikipedia confirmed it).
The day after I was laid off, I was sent to meet with a job loss counselor who looked like Al Delvecchio from “Happy Days”. “Do you think you’ll become depressed?” he asked, as casually as if he were asking if I take coffee with milk, “are you the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this?”
Determined not to be the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this, here I was. I’d turned this trip into three week long, three country extravaganza, starting in France where I connected with family, then on to Spain, where I stayed with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in years; Portugal was the last stop on my excellent unemployed adventure.
I got a cab at the Campanhã train station, and handed the driver a piece of paper with an address on it. As he read it I asked “Braga?” the name of the town I was overdue to arrive in. There had been a small catastrophe at the Barcelona airport and I’d missed my flight to Porto, where Habitat was expecting me, and had to fly into Lisbon, take a train north to Campanhã, and take a cab from there. I hadn’t brought a phone with me, thinking it would be just one more thing I could lose. I waited in a long line to check in, only to discover that the airline wouldn’t accept passengers who check in less than an hour before takeoff. I called my husband from a payphone, and when I heard his voice come through the line was full on sobbing.
"What's wrong?" he asked, not having heard the two messages I'd left while he was still asleep. "Everything!" I said. I became a phone booth spectacle, a grown woman crying in the Barcelona airport, cursing and sputtering, tears shooting out of my eyes and running down the inside of my glasses and down my cheeks. “They don't care,” I said, “they don't just put you on the next flight, they make you pay. I'm so tired of nobody giving a shit!" Then I jotted down a phone number my husband found in an email from Habitat.
I dialed the international operator again and gave him my debit card. There was a pause, and the man connecting my call said: "There's a block on this card." "I just used it to make a call," I said, and, attempting to impress upon him the gravity of the situation, "I'm having an emergency." "I'll try again," he said, and came back a few seconds later with "It won't go through, do you have another card?"
I did have another card; it was in a sleeve, sewn to the bottom of my Rick Steves backpack, underneath all my clothes, toiletries and electronics. "Can you hold on for just a minute?" I asked, and let the phone go slack and hang from its metal cord. I hoped the operator could hear me as I unzipped my carefully packed bag and dumped its contents onto the floor - exposing my secret stash of money and backup credit card for anyone who happened to be watching. Finally I heard the voice of Habitat Portugal on the line.
With urgency in my voice and snot in my nasal cavity I explained my situation to a man named João. He told me to go to Oriente station when I landed, and to call him with my train information. I said something noncommittal like "okay".
I found a restroom and checked out my reflection, my eyes were red and puffy; I looked stoned. I ran water over my face and headed for my gate. As I boarded the plane Johnny Nash's “I Can See Clearly Now” played over the PA system, and I really, really hoped that was the case.
The cab driver talked incessantly. I assumed he was talking on a phone until I heard a whistle, looked up and saw he was making eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. His hairline started about an inch above his eyebrows, like Phil Leotardo, captain of the Lupertazzi family on “The Sopranos”. He said something that sounded like: “Capeesh?” I shook my head: no, I don't understand. He spoke again, ending his sentence with the word português? "No," I said, "I don't speak Portuguese." This agitated him. I speak French très bien, and Spanish un poquito, but as it turns out, Portuguese is not some kind of linguistic buy two get one free deal. I opened my notebook and pointed to João's phone number. “I know someone who can speak to you; can I use your phone?" I asked, pointing to it. “Si”, he replied.
João is going to hate me, I thought as I dialed his number for the fourth time; we hadn't even met and already I was causing him grief. "I'm in a taxi and the driver doesn't understand," I said. The driver was in the middle of a soliloquy, and it took some effort to get his attention. "Excuse me," I said, thrusting the phone into his personal space, "excuse me, could you please take the phone, there's someone who can talk to you." He continued on his rant, unabated. "Excuse me, excuse me," I said, touching his shoulder and repeating the same phrase as if this would make him understand English, despite the fact that I persisted in not understanding Portuguese. Finally we made eye contact, "there's someone on the phone for you." "OK?" I asked when he disconnected, figuring that this of all words would translate. "OK, OK," he said, as we drove past a highway sign that read: Braga 44km.
We continued this way for some time, the driver talking a Portuguese blue streak, and making eye contact in the rear-view mirror. He pointed to his temple with an index finger and said "cray zee, craaaaay zeeeeee!" He rubbed his index finger against his thumb, making the international sign for expensive and said "reesh, reeeeesh!" "I know," I said, "I don't usually take cabs from Portuguese train stations in the middle of the night, but there was a last minute change in my itinerary." I listened to the car radio and realized a cover of Johnny Nash's “I Can See Clearly Now” was being sung by a female vocalist.
We got off the highway and began circling; I'm not from here, the driver seemed to be saying, I don't usually take passengers this far out of my way. We drove up a dead-end street, and then turned around. We circled the area, the driver speaking in a tone that sounded more desperate and anxious than before.
I’d been watching the number on the fare box grow steadily higher, and didn't have enough cash to pay it. The driver slowed near an ATM, and I sounded out the words printed on it: "Kai-ksah out-oh-mah-ticah," I said, pointing. "Si, si," he said. I left the car door open to indicate my intention of returning, and hoped that the hold on my debit card had been lifted. I withdrew 200 Euros, and walked back outside where the car was still running, the door I'd opened was ajar, but the driver was nowhere to be seen.
Nothing good ever happens in empty taxi cabs left idling with a door wide open. What was I thinking traveling by myself to a country I knew nothing about, where I couldn’t speak or read the language? Sure, if I’d stayed home I’d probably be a little bored and maybe depressed, but at least bored to death is just an expression.
I got in the cab, and closed the door. In a moment, two men approached; the driver and a tall man dressed in a dark suit and hat. The tall man made wide gestures with his arms, and the driver nodded emphatically. The tall man walked away and the driver returned to the car. "OK?" I almost whispered. "OK, OK," he said, and put the car back in gear.
We drove around a corner and down a street that had signs for a hospital. The driver spoke to me in low tones, but the only word I understood was hospital. He pulled over and repeated himself, ending his sentence with capeesh? I shook my head. He maintained eye contact in the rear-view mirror: capeesh, capeesh? I kept shaking my head. "It doesn't matter how many times you say it to me in Portuguese," I said, "I don’t understand." Finally something clicked. "Oh," I said, "the guy from Habitat is going to meet me here?" I asked, pointing to the curb. "Si, si," the driver said. "So I should get out here?" I said. "Si, si!"
Shortly a man in jeans and a button down shirt appeared on the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure it was João, I wasn’t even sure I was in Braga. He had dark hair and brown eyes, and bore a passing resemblance to former Bulls forward Toni Kukoč. I rolled down my window: “João?” I asked. “Jessica?” he replied. In that moment, as João took my backpack from the trunk and I paid the driver the reesh, cray zee sum of 70 Euros, I could see my future again; someday I would have another job, and traveling instead of staying home and catching up on Judge Judy would turn out to be the best decision I could have made. Like Johnny Nash kept saying, I could see clearly now. Language was no longer an impediment to seeing the world but the verbal equivalent of those stereoscopic paintings that were really popular about fifteen years ago – once I learned to relax my eyes, I could see the image in front of me; and if I relaxed my ears enough, maybe I could learn a few words of Portuguese.