20060902150717_taxidriverdapWhen I was in college, I drove a taxicab during summers and other vacations. The general idea was to make money, but the job netted only $2 per hour for a 12+ hour shift. (The deal: rent the cab, pay for gas, and keep all the rest of the money. The rest of the deal: there isn’t much demand for taxicabs in Columbus, Ohio, so profits aren’t possible during the first 10 hours of any shift.)

Since my mercenary intention was not rewarded, I guess the general idea was to give me something to do, to keep me off the streets. Or, rather, on the streets. Whatever.

There were three memorable moments of learning in that rolling yellow classroom. One was when a prostitute offered to pay me in barter. (No, I didn’t accept services in trade. The ride was on me. But not that way.)

Secondly, I learned that people generally tip in relation to how hard they work for their money. The folks that work harder — no matter what their socio-economic status — would tip better. Maybe people who have money handed to them simply take it for granted. Maybe those who struggle have developed a kindness.

The third lesson was a conversation. The fare in the back seat had asked about my life and I’d mentioned that I was majoring in English Literature at Yale.

“Really!” said the fare, enthusiastically leaning forward. “I’ve always wondered: how many stories are there?

I paused. “Uh, that’s not how we study them. We don’t count them.” Then, this sophomoric answer, which I still love (and which might mark the high-water point in my scholarship): “The best answer I can offer is that there is only one story. It might be the Canterbury Tales or the Bible or Ulysses or Doonesbury, but it’s all really one story, a story about the human condition, how we face and overcome this strange situation.”

I don’t remember the fare’s reaction. (This wasn’t when I was offered payment in flesh. I don’t recomend the “human condition” speech as a pick-up line.)

As I head toward my 25th College Reunion, I remember this 1992 Mike Twohy cartoon from The New Yorker: “English Lit — How about you?” You can order it on a t-shirt or in a frame at The New Yorker Cartoon Bank website.