BY ROBERT COOPERMAN
Author: Mather Schneider
2011, NYQ Books
Filed Under: Poetry.
What Alan Catlin, the Schenectady bartender/poet has done for the seamier side of the drinking trade, Mather Schneider, in He Took a Cab, has now done for the taxi business in Tucson–but it could be anywhere where cabs are hailed and hacks are stiffed for a tip. Where Catlin showed us, with great sympathy and understanding, the habitués of bars, Schneider gives us an inkling into the lives of not just his autobiographical cab driver-persona, but also the fares he drives to and from the airport, to bars, to doctor appointments, to fast food restaurants, to john appointments, and elsewhere. And as often happens in cabs, people reveal themselves in a word, phrase, or gesture; and Schneider reveals himself as well.
These poems give us a slice of the harder side of life, the other side of the tracks, the places we’ve either never seen, except to drive through to someplace more picturesque, or the places we’ve been all too glad to escape from. I confess I feel a particularly affectionate affinity for Schneider’s cabbie persona and his fares, since I drove a cab more years ago than I care to think about. But that disclaimer aside, this is a strong collection, maybe not for the weak of stomach, but a much needed look at what Fred Neil called in his great song of the same title, “The Other Side of This Life.”
The title itself is a giveaway to the lives we’re going to glimpse, for “He took a cab” is jazz slang for dying. And more than some of these characters are members of the walking dead, the barely hanging on, though sometimes joyously, like Dirk of “I Miss You Dirk,” who “…was only 5 feet tall/and didn’t leave much/of a dent…” but he’d been “happy as a cat” in the chair he sat in of an evening, in front of the “state-paid apartment” he’d “finally bumbled” into after living rough for twenty years. He was a man who didn’t need much to be happy and couldn’t understand those who did require a lot, and when he passes, he leaves a hole not just in the narrator, but in us readers as well.
It isn’t just the fares who are down on their luck, if they ever had any luck at all, but the cabbies, too, like “Don and Kathy are both on parole/and there’s not much else they can do/except hack,” in “Cruddy Buddies.” They share a cab, night and day shift, and he’s trying to kick a meth habit and she stole “10 grand from the safe” of a McDonalds where she used to work: he drives her to her community service job and she drives him to his urinanalyses. Schneider tells us it’s not love, but maybe it is.
As well as his fares, Schneider, or his persona, is a constant presence in these poems. He’s a man who has seen it all and has few regrets. Hacking pays the bills, allows him to share a life with his Mexican lover, to unwind with a beer or two at the end of his shifts, and to observe humanity, which is what he does best, as when he drops off an Englishwoman at an “expensive detox clinic up in the foothills,” who claims she’s just visiting a friend there (but may be checking herself in), and who tells Schneider she cried when she saw the Grand Canyon, which he, a resident of Tucson, he is ashamed to admit, he’s never seen. But “When I drop her off the sun is going down./The cottonwood trees are shedding/like crematory ash,” and he thinks “I really should go/and see/the Grand Canyon.” That crematory ash image is a heart breaker, since we think of autumn trees as lovely, not images of death.
As you can tell from just the few passages I’ve quoted, Schneider writes in cabbie colloquial, for the most part. While some poems go after a more lyric diction, for the main he’s happy to stay in character as a world weary cabbie, who has to take too much crap on the job. In that respect, he reminds me of the cabbie persona who used to appear in The National Lampoon, in the “Tales from the Back of the Cab” segment. But what was played strictly for cheap laughs in that magazine, Schneider portrays with pathos and empathy for the fares who sit in his back seat and for a distinct lack of self-pity for himself.
This capturing of the rough of tumble of life is one of the collections great strengths, though we don’t often associate the language of poetry with that of the street, though Wordsworth was quick to point out that the language of poetry should be the language of the average man. And it’s a breath of fresh air that Schneider’s first-person-singular cabbie narrator, his fellow hacks, and those who take his cab speak the language of those who’ve been bitten hard by life. Here’s Schneider, in “Shitty Drivers Everywhere,” in a distinctly dyspeptic mood: “Each day murder bolts through my heart a hundred times,/I toss ‘bitch’ and ‘asshole’/around like confetti.” Note how Schneider mixes his rough vernacular with the particularly apt image of confetti, which we tend to associate with celebrations, but here is just making a mess.
But sometimes, Schneider is all too happy with using slack language, all but indistinguishable from prose, and not great prose, as in “Trust Me,” where a fare “…wanted me to stop/a block from his house/so his wife wouldn’t/see the taxi.” This is serviceable connective tissue, at best, but thankfully Schneider doesn’t often resort to it. But there’s another problem here: often he’ll break a line on such slack words as “the” or “a” or “and,” when the last word of a line should be the most important, as in this example: “Stacy isn’t an/aberration,” when, to my mind, that information should all be one line. And this collection could be culled by about 15-20 pages, especially the poems that have nothing to do with the hack life. Plus too many poems begin by giving a fare’s or cabbie’s age and physical condition in the first two lines, when I’d have liked a little more variety in Schneider’s opening gambits.
But these are quibbles. Far more important, when I read poem after poem I saw people I knew, situations that rang true as gold from my own memories of driving a cab. Schneider presents more than the facts of driving a cab; he gives us the truth of one aspect of the human condition, one that we should never ignore merely because it’s painful to look.
Similar Reads: Alan Catlin, Near Death in the Afternoon on Becker Street and Deep Water Horizon; Philip Levine, What Work Is; Kevin Young, Jelly Roll.