Born in Mexico in 1974, former New York City taxi driver Sean Singer recalls his time behind the wheel in his wryly humorous third poetry collection Today in the Taxi. Almost all of these prose poems begin “Today in the taxi” and follow the same structure: from the observational (who he’s driving) to the existential (why he’s driving), and from the specific (what he observes) to the tangential (where those observations lead his imagination).
Each day, the poems’ speaker winds his way through a gridlocked city “glossy with simultaneous alerts” as if “in a video game where the object / is not to hit anything.” Some of the game’s challenges are unseen potholes, reckless cyclists, aggressive drivers fueled by road rage, and painful hemorrhoids from sitting all day.
He is a careful and conscientious driver. In fact, he even imparts some driving tips: to prevent an accident, keep a distance of three car lengths between your vehicle and the one in front of you; when oncoming headlights are too bright, look to the side of the windshield. (He also emphasizes the importance of wearing seat belts.) Armed with maps, snacks, hand sanitizer, and a screwdriver (for protection), he drives uptown, downtown, and cross-town; to Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and New Jersey. He picks up jazz musicians, tourists, movie stars, couples, drunks, drag queens, parents and their children, prostitutes, druggies, Wall Street types, and a former student from when he taught at a private school. Startled by the unexpected encounter, he takes stock of his lot in “Bottomless Vat”: “I looked into my former life and didn’t know / where it was, and I looked ahead and couldn’t see anything.”
What exactly does a fare entitle a person to? One passenger uses the time to warm up vocally for her gig. Another uses the space to stretch out her bare legs. One woman leaves her baby in the backseat so she can run upstairs and get something she forgot. At times, the driver bears mute witness to hysterical displays of anguish (silently offering tissues) and at others is berated by backseat drivers who bark out commands while screaming on their cell phones. “Driving taught me to accept people for who they are, but / other times I wish for an asteroid crashing into the city from / the cold drain of space,” he writes in “Glands and Nerves.”
Sometimes he drives all day and doesn’t hear a word of gratitude or make a single tip, even when he helps people with their luggage or drives out of his way to return things they accidentally left behind. This inconsideration renders him invisible, less like a person than a part of his vehicle, as if this too was something that moved independent of his will, respondent only to the fares of his passengers and their single-minded desire to get where they want to go as fast as possible. In “Floating,” Singer writes, “I remembered a psychiatrist who said children wake up in / the middle of the night not to see if you’re there, but if / they’re there.”
The driver’s brain is like a big dog that needs to run, yet it’s confined to the yard all day. As a way to keep from going crazy, he used “my braking / and steering inputs to turn inward,” Singer writes in “One-Tenth.” He waxes philosophical, thinking primarily about Kafka (his absurdist north star); jazz musician Charles Mingus (admired for his command of both his audience and his instrument); and the Lord (who, like the id to the driver’s ego, freely expresses all of her murderous impulses: “She will be happy / if one day there were no sounds attached to words, and no / ears to hear them,” Singer observes in “Purple Death”).
Despite this coping mechanism, a crack-up always seems imminent. Like Travis Bickle, the deranged anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver (who also makes his way into these poems) committed to a one-man crusade in order to establish some kind of order in a nihilist society, the driver in these poems is an everyman with a higher calling: he’s in hot pursuit of the meaning of life. Every passenger is fingered as a suspect; every stray comment contains a clue.
Whatever he’s doing to make ends meet, Singer never loses sight of his true vocation: as a poet. By paying attention to his surroundings, by letting the everyday be a springboard to his imagination, by working out these poems that drive from the factual to the lyrical, from the rational to the absurd, Singer never forgets who he is: “I was a stranger, the one who would remember,” he writes in “Powers.” Today in the Taxi is an unforgettable ride.
Today in the Taxi, by Sean Singer. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, April 2022. 78 pages. $19.95, paper.
Michael Quinn writes about books for literary journals, in a monthly column for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue, as well as on his own website mastermichaelquinn.com.