conversations with drivers

by caitlin meredith


I could write a whole book about my conversations with drivers. Most of them have been in long, pot-holed sections of bandit roads in Sub-Saharan Africa sitting shotgun as my local driver expertly navigated a Land Cruiser between the ditches on either side of the road. A lot of funny, tragic, harrowing, familiar and confusing stories are exchanged on those drives. Like the Kenyan-Somali driver Tigania who complained about dividing the cabbages evenly between his three wives on market days. Was he supposed to give each wife the same number, or dole out according to how many children each had? As you can imagine, each wife had an opinion that correlated with her child count. Being completely out of my realm of practical experience, that one really stumped me. Like anyone who has ever taken a taxi in Manhattan can attest, conversations with professional drivers often give you more of a sense of place than any of the monuments or attractions you visit. The same thing happened to me last week in El Paso.

I went to El Paso to research a student media project at the University of Texas that covers the U.S.-Mexico border called Borderzine. I knew I’d be talking to a lot of journalism professors and students about the border, but I was curious about how “normal” people thought about it. It seemed like a big deal to me, living on the border. All of the news reports we get in Austin are about how dangerous it is, but maybe, like many over-sensationalized stories in the media, it was no big deal.

Miguel was the shuttle driver from the airport to the hotel. He said he hadn’t been to Juarez since the border control tightened up about six years ago. “It’s just too much hassle,” he said. He still had fond memories of going to Juarez with his family on Sundays after church to get his hair cut as a boy. “Going to Juarez” makes it sound like a day trip adventure – it’s not, or, it wasn’t. Juarez starts literally ten blocks from downtown El Paso. “Going to Juarez”, before the hours-long border control lines started, was the equivalent of driving between my house and the nearest Starbucks. The way he described the effect of the tighter border was like an amputation – El Paso was basically the same, just smaller. For Miguel, Juarez didn’t only carry the drugs and guns explosion that outsiders like me imagined, it was his childhood.

Guns and drugs were much more of an issue for the Mexicans living in Juarez than for those on the El Paso side of the border, Miguel explained. “I just feel bad for them – it’s so hard for them to make a living.” Miguel told me about a photographer who worked at special events at the hotel. The evening before he hadn’t shown up for a party, which had never happened before. His wife came an hour late and explained that the evening before her husband had been robbed on his way home after a photography gig in El Paso. All of his camera equipment had been stolen. Apparently thieves and thugs wait on the Mexican side of the border crossing at night, knowing that the only ones coming back after a certain hour are leaving jobs and are more likely to have money. “How will he support his family?” Miguel wondered.

When we rolled around the corner to the Hilton Miguel told me that starting at 3:30pm when his shift ended he’d have the next two days off and anyone who cared to find him should look in his back yard next to the meat smoker. “I don’t know why I love it so much, but I do.” I guess it’s another border tradition. He said his kids and ex-wife and uncles and everybody would be coming over to eat smoked meat in the next couple days. Sounded fun.

Since the hotel was so close to campus I didn’t ride with another driver until the shuttle back to the airport. This time it was Jose. My colleague and I had just been walking around in the charming downtown and I asked Jose if there were ever border control agents in the city stopping people to double check for identification. In Arizona on Highway 19 there’s a border control checkpoint 25 miles north of the official border crossing. Jose said there wasn’t one on the Texas highway but there should be. “The drug dealers dig tunnels. There’s even one they found that ended up in a big hotel downtown. There’s even a song about it,” said Jose. He was talking about a narcocorrido, these ballads the cartels pay musicians to write about their exploits, waxing poetic about their cunning, ruthlessness and dominance over Mexican society. It turns out it wasn’t just bravado  – it’s true. When I got back I found an article in the El Paso Times about the tunnel. It didn’t finish at the classy El Camino Real Hotel downtown, though; it ended in a storm drain. Not as good a story, but it did the trick. They found 200 pounds of marijuana in it.

In the next approximately 12 minutes that it took us to get to the airport Jose summed up for me and my colleague  his life thus far: left a “troubled” home when he was 15 and got himself to Dallas where he worked construction for a few years, came back to El Paso got the job driving the shuttle for the hotel, bought a house and is putting himself through nursing school. I think he’s 21 now. He recounted it all in such a gentle, matter-of-fact, way without bitterness, stringing some “everybody has their own struggles” kind of wisdom throughout. I was struck by the way he described his harrowing life on the streets like it was a summer job checking in bowling shoes at the local alley. I don’t talk that calmly about anything unless I’ve just walked out of a sauna. Aside from being part sad, part inspirational, his story confirmed what I’d been hearing about the El Paso population from others during my trip. No matter how few opportunities there might be because of its isolation, El Pasoans tend to stay put, and if they ever leave, they tend to come back. Everything from low education to poverty to connections with Mexico were listed as reasons, but I also wondered if living on the border is like living near the ocean. Growing up on the San Francisco Bay, landlocked cities have always felt a bit claustrophobic to me. It was also announced during my visit that El Paso was officially the third most “obese” cities in the U.S., though the two items are completely unrelated.

When we got out of the van I asked my colleague if she had heard his story. She said she had gotten most of it – she was in the back back seat – but was a little skeptical. I was surprised because it seemed like a pretty overboard strategy to get more tips, but also because I’m usually the cynical one. “Your brother’s in the hospital and you need a dollar for the bus?” Yeah right! But I realized that I always believe my driver. There’s something about the intimacy of staring out at the road unfurling before the windshield together that gives me the feeling of confidences shared. The taxi, the shuttle, the LandCruiser – they’re all a refuge from the social maneuverings that will await us on arrival.

This is ridiculous for a few reasons. The first is that I’ve had a lot of drivers lie to me. Remember Tigania in Kenya? He didn’t lie about his wives – I met them all – or the constant fighting – I can attest to that too – but all those cabbages in the back of the truck? He was selling those in the villages we were doing clinic visits at, a violation of our organization’s policies. Countless taxi drivers have promised they knew where they were going only to get lost and charge me for the overage. Secondly, driver’s seat as truth serum doesn’t make any sense. If anything it’s probably the opposite. Released from the pressure of eye contact, drivers have the opportunity to weave whatever tale they want without giving away their untruths with a facial tic.

But it doesn’t really matter. I like driver stories, explanations and scenery narration. If they’re not truth with a capital T, then they’re flavor with a capital F. And sometimes the fantasy world they sell me is the one I want to buy. When the front axle hit a boulder in Nigeria I believed my driver when he said it was just a “tiny bend” – that was the only possible reality for me to consider, seven hours drive from the closest city in 120 degree heat. And besides, the tire didn’t fly off until the next day and only a passing goat got injured.