What travel writer Marcello Di Cintio discovered in exploring the inner-lives of Canada's cab drivers
The book Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers shares the stories of cab drivers
Travel writer Marcello Di Cintio has spent his career journeying to far-flung corners of the world and recording the stories of people he meets in places like Palestine, Iran and West Africa.
But the Calgary writer's new book grew out of a curiosity for Canadian stories — particularly the stories of people who were driving him to and from airports.
For his latest book, Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers, Di Cintio travels through a pre-pandemic Canada, uncovering the dynamic and diverse histories of cab drivers in this country.
He spoke to CBC Radio host Chris dela Torre about the new book on Afternoon Drive.
What inspired you to write a book about taxi drivers?
I'm a travel writer. Most of my other previous books have involved me flying to foreign locales, gathering stories and meeting people and coming back to Canada and writing about them. I started to wonder what I was missing here. I started to wonder what kind of compelling stories could I gather in the cab ride to and from the airports where I'm making those big, long trips. So I decided to spend a little more than a year traveling around Canada and sitting down with the drivers across the country and learning about their own personal histories.
How did you go about finding the drivers and getting them to tell you their stories?
I learned quickly that there are two different kinds of cabbies in Canada. There are the ones that don't want to talk at all, and there are the ones that don't want to stop talking. My mission was to find more of the latter and that didn't turn out to be that difficult.
Most of the drivers I met, I found through other people. Someone knew someone who knew a driver or someone knew someone whose uncle was a cabbie and had lived this incredible life. I followed down every kind of thread that I could to find these men and women. Some didn't want to talk. These are incredibly busy people, which made me all the more grateful for those that took the time to sit with me, often at a Tim Hortons, and lay out their life for me.
You write that you didn't want to talk about the stereotypical taxi story. What did you mean by that?
There are two cliché taxi stories that I think we've already heard before. One is the taxi noir story — these lurid tales of sex, drugs and shenanigans in the backseat. That's already been told and it's part of our popular culture. I didn't think I needed to go down that territory.
I wanted to find the kinds of stories we hadn't heard before.- Marcello Di Cintio
The other cliché is the archetype of the "cabbie cardiologist." The professional with glittering credentials from somewhere else who immigrated to Canada and finds that those credentials are not accepted here and ends up driving a cab instead of performing a heart surgery or working as a pharmacist or as an engineer. I wanted to find lives that were more surprising. I wanted to find the kinds of stories we hadn't heard before.
LISTEN | Your personal taxi stories
What are some of those stories that stood out for you?
So many. I mean, I met Michael, who is from Sierra Leone and lost his leg when he was shot by a rebel during the Civil War. He spent years in an amputee refugee camp where he helped found the country's first amputee soccer team before eventually coming to drive cabs in Halifax.
No one was banging pots and pans for the drivers last spring. Maybe once this is all over, we should recognize what they've done for us.- Marcello Di Cintio
Also in Halifax, a former Iraqi wrestler and soldier who fought two wars for Saddam Hussein before coming to Canada with dreams of becoming an artist. This big bruising soldier guy wanted to be a fine artist, and he was such a fascinating character.
I met a Holocaust survivor. I met a man who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain of Czechoslovakia with his wife and daughter and a battered Skoda and ended up in Edmonton. So many fascinating tales of loss and adventure and love. It was surprising how many different kinds of lives these men and women have led.
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What is something that you learned to appreciate more about these drivers?
What I learned in my years with the cabbies was that all these strangers that we have momentary engagements with over the course of our days — whether it's our driver or the person who pours our coffee or bags our groceries — I learned that all of these people are the containers for these fabulous histories. They all contain multitudes, to use a cliché. Knowing that gives me great comfort. We don't have to pester every stranger to give us their life story, but I think knowing that we're always surrounded by such epic tales, it makes me happy and makes me proud to be part of this community.
LISTEN | Marcello Di Cintio discusses Driven on The Sunday Magazine
What do you think your readers should take away from that, especially thinking about how they approach the next time they're there in a taxi or in an Uber?
I would like readers to imagine that their driver is more than just an appendage of the car, which I've heard drivers complain about to me during the course of the research. Coming out of the pandemic, let's remember that these drivers were on the front line for the past year and a half. They were driving us to and from our appointments and testing and vaccinations. They were the ones driving people home from those indoor social gatherings that shouldn't be happening.
I would like readers to imagine that their driver is more than just an appendage of the car, which I've heard drivers complain about to me during the course of the research.- Marcello Di Cintio
All those people that are breaking the rules, after they're done with their house party, they're getting into a cab. Those drivers are putting their own health at risk to drive us around. No one was banging pots and pans for the drivers last spring. Maybe once this is all over, we should recognize what they've done for us.
I know you've been speaking to some of the drivers since you wrote the book. How have they been doing during the pandemic?
The book was finished before the pandemic started and I decided to add a pandemic postscript to find out how they've been doing during COVID. The short answer is: not well. The business has collapsed for drivers. There's nowhere to go. These formerly lucrative airport gigs are not lucrative if there are no planes coming.
Some of my drivers stopped driving altogether and they probably won't go back. But we'll see what happens in the months to come. It was an industry already on the ropes and we'll see what the pandemic finally does to it.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.