The prophet behind the wheel

So I met a mystic taxi driver today. He took me to the airport. In my experience, taxi drivers are often incredibly interesting. Random sample: I met one in Laos whose entire family were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I met one in Kyrgryzstan who was in the Red Army and guarded a nuclear weapons facility in Mongolia. I often meet doctors or other over-qualified people driving taxis in New Zealand (which is either a testament to our bizarre professional registration rules or to the value we put on protecting patients from unproven physicians from strange places, depending on who you believe). And I met one in Singapore who could tell things about me and my family just by looking at me and asking me when I was born.

This guy was not a real seer, but pretty impressive sometimes all the same. He could not see the future, although he was completely upfront about his inability. Which was endearing in a way. He just glanced at me in his rear vision mirror from time to time (nothing dangerous, he was watching the road, this is Singapore after all) and asked me a few questions. And so of course I thought “I won’t tell him anything and we will see what he can figure out”, but it seemed fairly harmless to tell him my birthdate and those of my mother and father and siblings and significant other.

From this limited information he proceeded to tell me that I liked hot food (true) and that I was a positive person (mostly true). He was excited that significant other and I were born four years apart. In fact, four years apart for anything thrilled him intensely and made him very confident in his predictions. I put him off a little by not being sure what year my mother was born (she has counted back her age from forty, subtracting rather than adding a year each birthday, and that has me rather confused about how old she really is – it must be just about time for her 21st birthday party again. No yardglass, me thinks). But he coped well with being wrong, when he was, and dealt with my praise magnanimously when he was right.

The important question is, of course, why a prophet would be driving a cab in Singapore. He only did it to meet people he said. Very part time (he obviously does not want to meet a lot of people). He told me about some other people who had ridden in his cab and gotten the benefit of free dietary predictions (amongst other things). But he couldn’t predict lottery numbers or the stockmarket. So he had a real job too. Mysticism was his passion. Cab driving his income. The real world again?

Speaking of income, I met another interesting cab driver the other day. An ideas man. “You should go back to New Zealand”, he said, “and open an hawker centre. Then fly out the chefs from Singapore, sell them a stall and sit back and count your money”. So keen was he on the idea that he was already counting how much I would make for me. He had lots of other ideas too, some totally hairbrained, some entirely pedestrian (buy stuff from China, sell it in New Zealand).

So I asked him why he was driving a taxi if he had all these ideas. He didn’t really answer. But he did launch into a major tirade about the difficulty of making any money driving taxis in Singapore. I could have told him that. Prices are fixed. Taxis are owned by the government and drivers have to pay each day to drive them. So they have to work (read: sit in their cars) many many hours (12-14 a day in many cases) to make enough money to pay for the car. And because it is relatively easy to become a cab driver, there are zillions of them sitting about the streets. (The only time of day when it is impossible to find a cab downtown just by standing on the street and sticking out your arm is at rush hour. And even then you can text or call the cab company and have someone to pick you up within 10 minutes.)

And again, he had all the calculations in his head. How many cabs the government had, how many were rented each day, how much they charged each driver, and so how much money they made for doing just about nothing (in his mind anyway, except for getting a few cars together – an economist might suggest the source of the income was their monopoly on taxi provision, not anything to do with the services they were providing). Not only that, he spluttered, but drivers are responsible for insurance and repairs as well.

Sucks to be a cab driver in Singapore, I guess.

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