There used to be a show on HBO called Taxicab Confessions on which drunk and sad and horny people got into taxicabs and discussed or exhibited all manner of unseemly behaviors for the benefit of a viewing audience—unbeknownst to them, at least initially. This was encouraged, of course; the drivers were also the show's producers. But it's not like everyday drivers, ones who aren't voyeurs or cable documentarians, don't see their share of shit.
Still, I get the impression that no amount of sobbing or backseat blow-jobbing could be more unnerving than someone getting into your cab, closing the door, and saying, "Take me wherever you want."
I wasn't that open-ended, actually. I wanted cab drivers to take me to the places they typically eat. I wasn't looking for them to eat with me (unlike reality TV, this is not a date)—just drop me off tell me what they'd order, and I'd eat that thing. It basically worked out. I started at Reader headquarters . . .
- Stanley's Grill's Greek salad
Taxi driver #1: Danny Company: American United Taxi Affiliation Vehicle: Scion xB Pickup location: 350 N. Orleans
"What do you like to eat?" Danny asks after I explain that I want him to drive me to a place where he likes to eat. Everything. I like to eat everything, but that's not the point. He's still not sure about any of it. "What happens when we get there?" he asks, glancing back in the rearview mirror with his kind, crinkly eyes.
"I'm going to kill you, Dan."
I don't say that, but he's starting to make me feel like I'm supposed to murder him. He gives a normal cabbie-passenger transaction one more shot: "C'man. What do you like?" Oy.
Finally, Dan relents. A sweetheart, especially for a person who's been shuttling tourists (and annoying journalists) around downtown Chicago for the better part of 25 years, he likes salads from Stanley's Grill on Elston.
A thing about being a cab driver: it's not great for your health. The sedentary nature of the work led to a series of health problems, so now Dan prefers salads, fish, or chicken. And he's not a proponent of skipping lunch. His philosophy: "Life is hard as it is. Every day it's just getting out of bed and going to work and trying to do your job. It eats at you. Lunch should be your escape. You can do it for under $10. I know you can."
Your faith gives me strength, Dan.
I do get lunch for well under $10. I get the Greek salad, per Dan's recommendation ($5.99) and it really is great—kalamatas, cucumbers (peeled), onions, green peppers, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cubes of sharp, tangy feta, anchovies (which I skip because I think the feta is salty enough). Everything about the salad is just really fresh, as I assume the produce comes from Stanley's eponymous market across the street. The tomatoes are extra tasty, especially for winter tomatoes. Probably my favorite part of the experience, though, is a mural on the wall, a rooster standing behind a six-paned window that's floating above a body of water holding an egg in his raised left foot.
I bet Dan likes it, too.
- Chipotle's burrito bowl
Taxi driver #2: Tunde Company: Yellow Cab Vehicle: Toyota Camry Pickup location: North and Elston
"How do I know you're a journalist?" Tunde asks in a thick Nigerian accent, his arms like oversize loaves of challah rippling inside his thermal shirt. I show him my credentials. He warms a bit, but makes clear he's not a fan of my project: "This is what you're writing about? I'm not saying you can't do this. I'm saying there are other things going on in the cab industry that might interest you." Alas, he tells me there's a Mexican place he likes right up the road on Division. He'll take me there, but I don't know how much we'll actually talk about food.
Tunde is a man who's in very good shape. Same as Dan, he says that he makes an effort to eat healthfully (he also goes to the gym, maybe a lot), but the occupational hazard that most plagues him: assholes (my word, not his). Assholes with no money to pay the fare and assholes who want to try something funny. "I know the city very well so I use my instinct," Tunde tells me. "When people get in the cab I listen to my inner voice and if it says, 'This is not a good person,' I engage them. I talk. A couple of times I knew people were going to do bad stuff, and I engaged them."
I like imagining "engaged" translates roughly to "pulled their heads off."
We pull up to our destination, the Mexican place he likes: it's Chipotle. But whatever. If that's where the cab driver eats, that's where he eats.
I ask, "So, what do you get here? Like, a burrito or a bowl thing?"
"I get a burrito bowl. What are you getting?"
"Probably a burrito bowl if that's what you get."
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
I say yes, but I don't mean it. I go inside and sit down until I can be sure he drove away.
- Cafe Central's chicken soup
Taxi driver #3: José Company: Checker Cab Vehicle: Scion xB Pickup location: State and Elm
He's small, he's sturdy, his name is José. He doesn't question or hesitate when I tell him I want him to take me to a favorite lunch spot. He rattles off two: a Mexican place called Nuevo Leon at 18th and Ashland and a Puerto Rican place on Chicago called Cafe Central. The Rs roll off his tongue like water off barrel-tiled roof. He decides he'll take me to the latter because it's closer, which is nice since I've given him a perfectly good opportunity to bilk me out of a little money.
Wherever he eats, he says, the important thing is they have dedicated parking. "You guys get ticketed a lot?" I ask, acting like it hadn't been mentioned by my two previous drivers. "Oh, yeah," he says effusively. "They steal our money."
Without airing his grievances in a way that might jeopardize his 20-year career as a Chicago cab driver, I'll say that José has a bee in his bonnet roughly the size of Chicago's administrative court system. His are the usual traffic court complaints: the process is unfair, guilt is presumed upon entering into court, the fines are exorbitant. The difference, of course, is that driving is his livelihood. It started to make sense that he wouldn't want to take advantage of his passengers, even the annoying journalists.
On our ride, José mentioned that, in fact, he'd eaten at Cafe Central earlier that day. He got the chicken soup, and so do I. It's a really cozy little diner with a polite waitstaff. They bring bread, butter, and—a highlight—this chile sauce that was like a less herbaceous chimichurri, just oil, garlic, and pulverized jalepeños. It tastes fantastic and hurts so much to eat in such a good way. The soup is hearty and perfectly good. Served in a small metal cauldron, it's basic—broth, rice, diced peppers and onions—but has nice, big pieces of juicy, bone-in chicken floating in it. The bones make such a difference.
The best part of Cafe Central: there's plenty of parking.