Friday, February 06, 2009
The Box Pandora
The cab driver pulled onto 101 South and accelerated into the first curve of the empty highway a little too fast for my taste, but I didn’t say anything just yet.
Then he really floored it, and I started getting nervous.
It was still dark, only 5:30 a.m., and I had plenty of time before the flight, but the guy kept accelerating, and moved into the far left lane even though all four lanes were empty.
The suspension was a little shaky and the cab seemed to float across the lanes without actually gripping anything, and my mind started racing with the various ways the vehicle could kill me before we reached what most people actually worry about—the 3,000 mile cross-country flight.
I didn’t especially want to die in a mundane, unremarkable accident at the hands of an anonymous cabbie whose face I couldn’t make out in the pre-dawn light and whose only hint of a psychological profile was the electro-pop synthetic musak he’d been blasting when I got in—the kind I associate with amyl-nitrate users—so I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be floating across lanes on bald tires in a car driven by a complete stranger whose only claim to expertise in his chosen field was the fact that he had a license to drive a cab, and happened to be parked out in front of my hotel at 5:15 a.m.
So I did what I usually do to get the driver to slow down: I asked him a question.
“The hotel seemed pretty empty,” I said, over the music. He took his foot off the accelerator and turned down the radio. “Is business down or is it just the time of year?”
“Is both,” he said, with an extremely thick accent that suddenly made him more real and less threatening. He explained that there aren’t any conferences in town this week, and it’s usually slow this time of year.
But also, he said, business is down. “Hotels—not full.”
We were now doing a good ten miles an hour less than before, and had drifted back into one of the middle lanes.
I asked him where he was from.
“Ukraine,” he said. Turns out he’s lived in San Francisco for 16 years, following his sister, who had settled there. But he had some relatives in New York. “Brighton Beach,” he said. “You know it? Little Russia.” He pronounced it “'leet-el.'”
I asked what he thought of Putin, and he immediately brought up the Russian invasion of Georgia, which seemed like five years ago but in his mind happened yesterday. He became loud and animated.
“Bad, very bad.” Words flew out of him and tripped him up. “Big mistake for Russia,” he said. He spoke like an actor imitating a Russian immigrant speaking English, and motioned outside at the highway ahead of us. “Ossetians shoot into Georgia each night,” he said, pointing at imaginary rockets flying from one side of the highway to the other. “Every night they shoot rockets, guns. So Georgia fight back.”
“It was bad mistake for Russians. Bad mistake. Now oil go down—it was hundred fifty dollar a barrel, now fifty.” (Pronounced feeef-tee.) “So not rich now, nobody have money. Some have money, many have no money. So maybe now they invade for territory, but what happens instead...” he stumbled over a long word I couldn’t make out.
He looked at me in the mirror and fumbled for the phrase. “They open the Box Pandora?” he said, asking if I understood.
Mangled and thick as those words wore, it struck me as one of the most beautiful phrases I’d ever heard anyone say, in any language. “Ah, right. Pandora’s Box.”
“Yes, the Box Pandora. Is bad now for Russia,” he said, satisfied. “Very bad.”
Yes, the Box Pandora is very bad now for Russia indeed.
I Am Not Making This Up
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Posted by Jeff Matthews at 8:28 AM