Public Servant

A cab driver who’s an elected official by day has his work cut out for him.

It was around ten o'clock on a Saturday night, at Northeast Glisan Street near 28th Avenue. The woman had been in the cab just long enough to tell me the name of the bar she wanted to go to. Within another thirty seconds she said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

I was working my Saturday-night job. See, in 1999 I had two jobs: from Monday through Thursday, I was a Metro Councilor, an elected official who deliberated on urban growth boundary decisions and transportation funding options. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I was a cab driver, toting elderly women to medical appointments and carting drunks home. I drove a cab for the same simple reason other cabbies do: to make money. At that time, the modest pay of a councilor required me to supplement my income. All told, monetary compensation for driving a cab thirty-six hours a week turned out to be similar to my earnings as a “part-time” Metro Councilor, forty hours a week: somewhere between $5 and $9 an hour.

These jobs had more in common than one might expect. In both, I was trying to serve people who often thought they could do the job better than I could, and my main task in both was to listen to people and get them where they said they wanted to go. Did people really want what they said they wanted? Sure, when they said they wanted to go to Southeast 67th and Foster, they probably (though not always) really wanted to go to Southeast 67th and Foster. But sometimes, in the council meeting room or in the cab, they wanted something else, too.

I could tell this passenger didn't really want to hear something about me; instead, she wanted to tell me something about her. I glanced at her in the mirror. She was maybe thirty years old, and by her eyes, it looked like the past few hours of her life hadn't been as much fun as she'd have liked them to be.

“Sure,” I said. “Ask away.” I turned onto East Burnside Street and headed downtown, where she'd said she wanted to go.

“Have you ever been on a blind date?” she asked.

“Yeah, years ago,” I said, starting to position myself as the older, wiser person I would need to be to properly drive and counsel her.

“What happened?” she asked.

I knew her question wasn't really about me and my blind date, so I took the liberty that comes with taxi driving and assembled different blind-date experiences, which I may or may not have had, into one faceless composite. Then I bundled up this parcel made of memory and fabrication and tossed it over my shoulder into the backseat. “Not much happened,” I said. “We didn't have anything in common, so we had drinks once. That's it.”

We drove two more blocks in silence. We were done with my history: the partly true story of my blind date was sufficient for our purposes tonight. Now we were getting somewhere: Southeast 20th Avenue and East Burnside Street, to be precise. We'd been driving long enough that she could tell me what I already knew: “I went on a blind date tonight,” she exhaled.

I looked in the rearview mirror again. She was wearing too much makeup, but she had the face of a nice person. “I learned a few things tonight,” she said. “I'm telling myself now, you can learn some things on a blind date.”

“What'd you learn?”

“The first thing I learned is that if a guy is forty-seven, he shouldn't put an ad in Willamette Week saying he's thirty-five,” she said. “And the other thing I learned is: if he doesn't look like Elvis, it's not fair for him to put an ad in saying he looks like Elvis.”

We got through the complicated intersection where Burnside Street and Sandy Boulevard meet. “He claimed he looked like Elvis to get you to meet him?” I asked.

“In his ad, he said he looks like Elvis. So when we were arranging the date, I asked over the phone, ‘Like, do you really look like Elvis?' and he said, ‘Yeah, I look like Elvis!' But when he showed up tonight, he did not look at all like Elvis.”

We stopped at the light at Southeast Grand Avenue and Burnside Street, and my mind roamed. I imagined a paunchy, balding forty-seven-year-old man who, at that very moment, was sitting in his apartment in his undershirt, crossing another prospect off his blind-date list. He was stroking his sideburns, wondering what had gone wrong tonight and what replies next Wednesday's Willamette Week ad would produce.

The traffic light changed, and my mind snapped back to the conversation. “I am a huge Elvis fan,” she was saying. “Huge Elvis fan,” she repeated, as if to impress me with her credentials, although I needed no convincing. “I like Elvises of all types. But this guy tonight was not Young Elvis. He was not Blue Hawaii Elvis. He was not Army Elvis. He was not Porkchop Elvis. He was not White Sequin Elvis. He was not any Elvis. He was no Elvis at all.”

She threw her head back and wailed, “Why can't people be what they say they are?”

For a second I didn't know if she was talking about the guy from the blind date, or about Elvis, or maybe, inexplicably, about me. I don't know why, but her comment instantly made me defensive—probably because as a politician, I was used to citizens, many of whom had voted me into office, instinctively reviling government, even though doing so was a perverse form of self-hatred. I felt I had to defend Elvis, and the guy from the ad, and, for some reason, myself. Or at least I had to let her know I was a good person. I'd gotten into politics, after all, to help the community. Sure, I didn't always get it right, but I did my best to be honest. People say they want honest leaders, leaders who are straight with them, who are what they say they are. But in my experience, popular support often goes not to the honest leaders, but to the ones who tell people what they want to hear, to those who use what our ancient Greek democratic forebears would call mythos—story or legend or slogan—rather than logos—reasoned discourse or logic.

So I tried a philosophical approach, saying maybe the King, the real Elvis, didn't always know who he was, either. “Well, Elvis was different to different people at different times,” I said. “Was Blue Hawaii Elvis more or less real than White Sequin Elvis?”

She didn't buy it. “People should just be what they are,” she insisted.

I still wanted to be helpful. We were going to reach downtown soon, and I needed to get her squared away. “There are lots of ways to be Elvis,” I gently argued. “Maybe this guy really was a lot like Elvis, a lot more like Elvis than you could see, but only on the inside—where you couldn't actually see it.”

We crossed the Burnside Bridge. The downtown skyline loomed ahead. She was silent for thirty seconds and then suddenly announced, “I'm twenty-seven.” She blurted it out anxiously, as if it were a reason for me to step on the gas and hurry up and get her to the bar before she was forty-seven, or sixty-seven.

I looked at the digital clock on my dashboard. It was 10:53 p.m. “You can still have some fun tonight,” I assured her. She still had time. That was the truth.


Leadership, Politics, The Human Condition


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Sundays, Too

Second Opinions

Blank Slate

Continual Watching

The Working Class

The Artist as Worker

Public Servant