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El Taxi, or El Toro?

by Maggie Van Ostrand
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, Jésus. 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, Jésus 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, Jésus was forced to hang out the window wildly swiping at the windshield with a big red rag, thus giving birth to a reputation for one-fingered and one-kneed steering. To honor this legendary prowess, his children awarded him a miniature of Don Quixoté, which Jésus proudly hung from Nando's rear-view mirror. But I digress.

Jésus, a skinny, opinionated man, 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 Senora she will find no wrappers or beer cans or other bad things in the back seat."

Jésus 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 tassles strung along the periphery of the other taxi's pockmarked windshield seemed to quiver 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. A warning.

Neither quivering tassles nor flashing lights intimidated Jésus, however, and we just sat, waiting. From the back seat, an itchy one, I observed a newly determined set to Jésus' bony shoulders. Was this to be the infamous "Mexican Standoff?"

At last, Jésus shouted to the other driver, a glaring fat man with an erect Pancho Sanchez mustache, to back up, but Pancho simply shrugged, settled greasily into his seat, and waited. So Jésus also shrugged, and waited. In time, Jésus began to stroke the mirror's dangling Don Quixoté. Obviously 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 the passenger of the other taxi hurtle his cowardly self out and into the safety of a doorway. (I was prevented from doing the same by Nando's lack of inside handles.)

Having given what he felt was fair warning with his Quixoté, Jésus abruptly shifted into spastic reverse, one of Nando's four gears, the others being Wheeze, Lurch, and Gallop. Jésus enthusiastically shouted back at me as he finished reversing and began revving, "Do not be afraid Senora, 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. Jésus 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, ramming itself between a building and us. I could hear some of the Day-Glo scraping off Nando as I attempted to extricate myself from between the two front seats where velocity had hurled me.

Pancho Sanchez regarded Jésus with admiration, then reversed meekly and with some difficulty, both out of his tight spot and the little street, leaving us 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.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
January 20, 2004 Column
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