About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Monday, November 26, 2012

A Cab Ride in Vegas

So I'm in Las Vegas for a conference, staying in one of the swanky hotel-casinos, perpetual nighttime, flashing lights, bells and buzzers, erotica that's not erotic, manufactured enticement. Fear and loathing, straight up.

           It is about 10:30 on a Saturday night, and I'm getting a cab from a restaurant in one hotel on the Strip back to my hotel. The scene is controlled mayhem. People from everywhere, it seems, are streaming in and out, many with drinks, "after five" attire to bermuda shorts. Groups of young women in stiletto heels are getting into two Hummer stretch limos heading to bachelorette parties. Men in hotel uniforms bark commands and blow whistles, directing a swirl of traffic, cabs and town cars and those steroidal Hummers. The whole vehicular cluster is drenched in testosterone.

           The next cab in line is a small one, my cab. I slide in, relieved to be out of this mess. My cabbie is a slight woman, weathered face, mid-to-late 40s, looks to be from Central Asia. She is soft-spoken and cordial and talks to me with a quarter-turn of her head, keeping both hands on the wheel. The larger cars are unforgiving as we circle toward the exit, and she navigates carefully, defensively. Once out on the Strip, which is moving at a crawl, I start up a conversation.

           At first, given her pronunciation and limited vocabulary, I think she might be a fairly new arrival to the States, but it turns out that she has lived in Las Vegas for 25 years, working most of the time in the restaurant industry. She's only been driving a cab for six months. I ask her how she likes the new work, and her answer leads to another question or two, and here's what emerges.

           There was a lot of stress in the restaurant business, she says: the managers, the customers, complaints about the food. Driving a cab has less of that. You're more on your own – though there's stress here too, she adds. She keeps both hands on the wheel the entire time, eyes on the road. When we approach a yellow light, her fellow cabbies gun it, but she stops, explaining that if she gets in an accident, she could lose her job. Somewhere in this flow of conversation, she repeats – with a little apologetic laugh at the contradiction – that there's less stress driving a cab than in the restaurant, but that there's stress here too. A different kind of stress, I ask? Yes, she says, a different kind of stress.

           As we speak, her vocabulary increases markedly, and we end up talking about the economy in Las Vegas, the terrible housing bubble, how it devastated so many, the recession, the slow, slow comeback. All the while, we're surrounded by a creeping stream of revellers, honking, yelling from car windows, booze, the lights, lights, lights.


           I thought about that short ride off and on all the next day: Both hands on the wheel, the slight turn of her head, the unfolding, semantically and syntactically elaborated conversation about making a living in Las Vegas. I assumed my driver was new to the country, that her English was pretty limited. But as is always the case when people feel just a little more comfortable, so much can open up. I was familiar with her contradictory attitudes about work from my mother and so many other blue-collar and service workers – her parsing of different kinds of stress, and her relief to have new work that, however, kept both of her hands tight on the wheel.

           A former student of mine is a union organizer in Las Vegas, and he pointed out to me that cab drivers, as independent contractors in a Right to Work state like Nevada, have virtually no protections. It is possible that when she worked in the restaurant industry, she was a member of the Culinary Workers Union, the largest union in the city. If so, she gave up whatever protection she might have had for work that, in some ways, creates less stress for her. 

           One other factor in this job change is gender. I didn't see another woman cab driver in the loud flow of vehicles through the hotel roundabout. The next day I was telling the cabbie's story to a friend I had made in Vegas, someone who until recently had worked in the casinos, and she said it was very unusual to have a woman driving at night, for there have been some robberies, and one cabbie was murdered. So my driver was fighting the odds on several levels, trying to make a living catering to people like me. She had to choose between one stressful job over another, the better option exposing her to danger, threading her way through a bad economy, laying low, not taking any chances, being cordial to people who rush into her city for short bursts of pleasure, many of whom barely notice her, part of the vulnerable, semi-visible human machinery that animates a strip of illusions in the desert.

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  1. I was at the same conference, in the same city and had an equally memorable cab ride. Thanks for sharing. I'll be chewing on this post for many days to come.


  2. I too had an Asian woman cabbie. Sadly, my ride was short and she wasn't very happy about it. From Excalibur (on the final day with loads of heavy freebies and luggage packed with books) to the MGM. I seriously couldn't carry my things through 3 hotels.

  3. The cab driver preferred to be stressed in a different way. I do the same with my job of a soldier. Teaching or writing some papers is tressful to me too, but it has therapeutical value. that's why I write for two websites: for a military English resources and for Polish translator from Warsaw.

  4. Good on the lady for being strong enough to leave her job and going to a more high risk position as a cab driver. It's great seeing women break the gender barriers in jobs. I have yet to experience having a woman as a cab driver, hopefully this post encouraged other women to step out of their comfort zone.

  5. You've had some interesting experience as a passenger Michael. I had same kind of experience, but only as a driver. I came to U.S. and with in a year later I got this position. I worked for almost a year as a car service driver. The job was not complicated and it took me a small amount of time to get use to it. At the beginning it was kind of hard to focus on the road and to keep up with conversation we had with a passenger. But the more I worked the easier it got for me to handle both things in the same time. I had so many passengers over that year, so many conversations. Some wished to talk about simple things, like telling me about their vacation that they just came back from. Others would prefer to listen to my story. There were those who preferred to not talk at all, so there is nothing to tell about them. It's funny how the car service works. People overpaying for a ride not only because they would like to be driven in a luxury car with more comfort, but also because they would like to get a special attention. And having an interesting conversation is a part of that attention. I did a fine job many times, many times i got tipped well, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred dollar bills. People was getting surprised when they heard for how long I've stayed in U.S. And many times I got complemented about how well I spoke English. Some times rides were getting fun not only for a passenger but for a driver too. This job was not only paying off but educating me in the same time. I made some good connections and learned a lot. It was fun to work there but with time I realized that it was time to move on. I hope to meet some people who i drove in the future, under a different circumstances, but with the same kind of enthusiasm to share what happened to me during those years and to hear them out as well. Share more stories like that Michael, and may be more people would see themselves in your stories.