Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Cabbie Conscience

This is as close as I have come to having a prescription refused.

Returning from New Zealand a few years ago, we arrived in Minneapolis late at night after being en route for about 25 hours. We were dragging luggage, two sets of golf clubs and a carton containing six bottles of Kiwi wine. The starter directed us to our cab. We'd be home in bed within the hour.

As the Somali cab driver loaded our baggage, he looked at the box.

What's in there? he asked.

Wine. I thought he wanted to be careful where he placed the bottles.

Instead, he started unloading our belongings. A Muslim, he would not allow alcohol in his cab.

Travel-numbed, we simply turned back to the starter, who looked disgusted and waved him away from the stand. A second cab pulled up. The starter stood next to the driver's window, and after a brief conversation, that cab pulled away, too.

The third cab didn't even pause as it drove back to the end of the queue. We began to wonder how we would get home.

The fourth driver, also African, agreed to take us and our cargo.

Like pharmacists, cab drivers are licensed. They operate a public accommodation, and the system cannot function if drivers are free to exercise their personal biases. As a cabbie in the mid-'70s, I conveyed all comers and didn't redline some of the bars or cab stands like other drivers did. But I worked days and never felt endangered.

The rigidity of the men who passed us by runs directly opposite the tolerant makeup of this wine-carrying agnostic. On the ride home, I did not tote up my grievances or mentally compose a letter to the cab company. My only thought was: What a great country!

Maybe it was jet lag or personal history that led to this reaction, but I hope it was respect for a principled act.

Those drivers had come here from a disintegrating society and found work and a place to freely practice their religion. They were not making much and had little prospect of making more that night by passing on a good fare after waiting at the airport for an hour or more. Their refusal was not aimed against us, though it struck glancingly.

I do believe people should have a right to be wrong. But I also fear we are handing the keys of government over to the zealots, and it's the tolerant ones who will be standing dazed at the curb with our baggage as the sweet chariots swing past.



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