Anthropology

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Driven
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When I do end up taking a taxi, I tend to slip into the backseat and blurt out a destination. If I’m feeling beery and chatty, I might try to geolocate my cabbie’s name or accent in case he comes from somewhere I’ve been. This is less an attempt at camaraderie than a clumsy excuse to boast about my travels. “Is your accent Persian? I’ve been to Iran twice,” I might say. Or “You’re from Nigeria? I spent a year in West Africa. Never made it to Nigeria, though.” I am not proud of these inane exchanges. They are a more pompous version of “where are you from?”—the question I’d learn taxi drivers hate the most.

More often, though, I don’t speak at all, opting instead to mutely stare at my phone. I know I am not alone in this; a cabbie once told me his silent fares sometimes make him feel he is simply another part of the car. As passengers, we rarely wonder at the lives of those we know only by the reflection of their eyes in a rear-view mirror. We don’t inquire about the lives of our baristas or butchers or bank clerks, either, but the physical closeness between cabbie and passenger makes such silent disinterest feel unnatural. Antisocial, even.

I suspect this was always the case, however. I doubt Thornton Blackburn, who became Upper Canada’s first taxi driver in 1837, engaged much with his clients either. The configuration of Blackburn’s cab did not lend itself to conversation. Passengers sat inside the red-and-yellow horse-drawn carriage while Thornton worked the reins up top. Had they spoken to Thornton at all, his clients might have glanced at his black face, heard his unfamiliar accent, and asked him where he came from. “Kentucky,” he’d have said. Thorton’s clients, their brief pleasantries exhausted, might have returned to the pages of the week’s Upper Canada Gazette in the same way today’s passengers dissolve into the quiet glow of our Twitter feeds.

But Thornton’s life history hints at what we might be missing. A birthplace alone tells no story. Thornton and his wife Lucie did not just come from Kentucky. They came from slavery. The Blackburns escaped their slave masters in the high summer of 1831. They used forged documents to book passage across the Ohio River on a steamboat named the Versailles. Thornton and Lucie continued on to Detroit where they lived for two years before being arrested as runaway slaves. Then they escaped again. Lucie walked out of her prison cell after swapping clothes with a friend who agreed to take her place. Thornton was freed by a throng of Detroit’s Black citizens who armed themselves with pistols, knives, and clubs and overwhelmed the prison guards. The Blackburns reunited in Canada and were jailed again while their American owners sued for their extradition. But since Thornton and Lucie had committed no crime in Canada, the court would not send them back. The Blackburn’s exoneration established Canada as a safe haven for fugitive slaves from America.

Certainly none of Thornton’s taxi clients could have imagined their driver and his fearless wife had laid the tracks for the Underground Railroad. They could not have known that many of the 35,000 escaped American slaves who found safe haven in Canada owed their freedom to the man sitting on their taxi’s roof. They had no idea the story they weren’t hearing.

I started to wonder what stories I was missing. I’d spent years crossing borders around the world to document suffering and injustice. Resilience and love. Yet I hardly needed to leave Canada for these. I could’ve found almost as many stories on my cab rides to and from the airport because the taxi itself is a border. Beneath the roof-light of every taxi cab, a map of frontiers and dividing lines unfolds. The taxi occupies the margin between public and private space: accessible to all but simultaneously personal and intimate. The taxi is the border between autonomy and servitude. The cabbie has no superior to answer to, but each fare brings a new master to whom he briefly yields. Even a poor man is a boss in a taxi. The taxi can be the border between the wealthy and working class, and between white people and people of colour. Nowhere else do people so different share such close quarters and engage so little. If the US-Mexico border is, as writer Gloria Anzaldúa once described, the place “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds,” a taxi is the place where the First World rubs against the Third and stares at its phone.

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