The truth is that most taxi drivers are just ordinary people working hard to feed themselves and their families by doing a very difficult job and getting little or no appreciation for their efforts.
I'm winding this blog down and I do intend to write a piece honoring the average cab driver before I leave the scene, but first I want to celebrate a few of the exceptional people I've met in this business.
I don't think I can do better than start with Murai (photos) who grew up in the Kansas dust bowl; lived the high life in Libya, Rome and London; ran her own fashion business; raised a family as a single mom: has travelled almost everywhere; drove cab for over two decades while earning a bachelor's and a master's degree; holds wonderful salons; and constantly experiments with an art that she creates daily and sends out to us lucky few.
I met Murai ...
... shortly after she started driving for Desoto in 1989. What caught my attention (aside from her being a feminine woman in a macho trade) was that she told me she liked cab driving because it was relaxing.
I'd heard cab driving described in many ways – from "a rolling party" to "the moral equivalent of war" – but Murai is the first driver I'd ever met who found the experience soothing and restful. I knew immediately that I was dealing with a unique character.
An example of this is her name. There is no first or last – "only Murai." She started calling herself this as a nome de art when she was living in London. She later found out that the name was Japanese which she considered an act of synchronicity because she loves Asian art. She once told me her birth name but I've forgotten it. I've never heard her called anything but Murai.
If you only looked at her name and her multicolored hair you might think her a hippie or an artsy flake but nothing could be further from the truth. Murai is as shrewd as they come and has a firmly grounded sense of reality.
Although she started driving a taxi five years after I did she earned a medallion six years before me. Being a typical cab driver, I thought that I wouldn't be in the business long enough to get a medallion. Murai, on the other hand, sized up the situation quickly and tried to put her name on the Waiting List almost immediately. She read that she needed to work for one year before she would be eligible so took the application form home with her and filed it with the Taxi Detail on the first day that she legally could.
She got the medallion when Willie Brown put out 500 medallions in 2000.
Murai was born and raised in Elkhart Kansas, which was the center of the Dust Bowl, and had a population of around 1,000. Her family ran the Elkhart Hotel.
As a teenager Murai longed to move to a city like New York or Paris. She later married an oil man from Kansas and eventually moved with him and her growing family to Libya in 1968.
You can find out more about Murai's early life from her book Heirs and Forebears which contains a series of water color sketches and what she calls "vaguely autobiographical" poems and essays.
After Libya she moved to Rome (which she liked but didn't speak the language) and finally to London which is close to her idea of paradise. She and her husband rented an apartment in a part of the city which she says is now the most expensive property in the world. Living there gave her a chance to pursue her love of art, fashion and artists.
Contrary to stereotype, Murai found the English to be "very creative and a bit avant-garde both with the theatre and with the clothing ... it was just a very creative place to live so I just loved everything about it."
Her little film, Rhythms of the Heart, will show you more of what her life was like at the time than I can possibly do. It's also a great introduction to the collage artist Bulgar Finn.
Murai and her family moved back to Houston, Texas in 1978. She and her husband soon realized that they had nothing in common except Europe and broke up. She received a small settlement and moved to San Francisco to raise her children alone.
She found herself "unemployable" and didn't know what else to do so she started designing coats and accidentally became part of a movement later called "Art to Wear." "I was just making things," she said.
"I started out at I. Magnin's – the most exclusive store – and they did private shows of my clothes in three of their stores including their Beverly hills store where they did four windows of that store with my coats and I didn't know that was a big deal ... I'd been living in Europe ... I had no idea people would kill to get four windows with their stuff."
When I asked her if she was making good money, she said:
"It's hard to know because I was freaked out all the time... I had three teenagers to support who were used to living very well with little support from my Ex ... So I was just frantic with employees and supplies and kids but we always lived in great looking places that we rented. We used them as showrooms so we could write them off ... I had a space in New York and London where people represented me ... I'm creative and versatile so I could come up with a whole lot of designs in a hurry... I could make very expensive things out of not very expensive fabric ... I did amazingly well but I was frightened all the time."
How did you get into the cab business?
During her studies she discovered, "I was a classic ADD character ..." and "the cab is a classic ADD vehicle because it's always unplanned, it's always spontaneous ... it's a lot of fun–I love the customers ... I have the most interesting customers and the greatest conversations ... I've loved it from day one."
"So I did finish and I did get my Master's. At that point I thought I liked the cab better and didn't want to work outside of it so I stayed in the cab business."
Murai was one of handful of medallion holders (along with Victoria Lansdown, Barry Korengold and a couple of others) to push for the Pilot Plan instead of open auctions in order to keep the medallions affordable for more drivers.
It's no secret that Murai has had cancer for the last 16 months but she hasn't given in to depression or despair. Instead she's continued making art and recently held a Salon that attracted her many friends from her many walks of life. These included: fellow artists, business and fashion people, friends from Europe, cab drivers, administrators and a young Polish woman who told me that she'd met Murai sitting next to her on a flight from London and that it was the greatest trip of her life.
But it's time to let Murai speak in her own words.