Whenever I arrive at Los Angeles International Airport, I always head straight to the taxi station for a ride to the hotel. Most of my taxi drivers haven't been chatty.
But the cabbie I'll call Joe was.
"How are you?" he asked in his slight accent as I plopped into the back seat.
"Fine," I said, giving him my destination. I then decided to see if Joe, balding and in his mid-forties, was a talker.
"You drive this cab every day?"
"Every day," said Joe, who quickly recited the days of the week, indicating the relentlessness of his job. (If you've never been on a Los Angeles freeway, count yourself blessed.)
I asked Joe how long he'd been driving a cab, and he said nine years. He was quick to add, however, that he drives only nine months out of the year. He takes the other three off to travel.
"All over the planet," he said. He rattled off most of the countries in Western Europe. He said he has friends everywhere, so he saves on the cost of hotels.
Joe said he enjoyed working hard for nine months—and then just having fun.
I asked him what constituted "having fun." Beer, whiskey and vodka topped the list. He made a point of saying he doesn't drink at all on the job, so he apparently consumes alcohol in the off-season like a camel does water before heading into the desert.
So … beer, whiskey, vodka … anything else?
"Woman," said Joe, flashing a devilish grin as he took his eyes off La Cienega Boulevard to look back at me.
I barely had time to raise my eyebrow before he followed up with, "In Europe, they're cheaper than here."
He nodded, adding that Amsterdam was where he went to really live it up.
Believe it or not, international price differentials among prostitutes was not the most interesting thing Joe and I discussed.
He told me he was from Armenia—a former Soviet state—and struggled for years to get out. He finally left in 1988, only to have the Soviet Union collapse three years later. Joe volunteered the topic of communism and was quick to bash it. He resented being given a ramshackle apartment with no hope of anything better.
As I rode with Joe, I processed his daily grind: driving a cab all over Los Angeles, waiting for nine months to expire so he could party for three.
"When you were a kid," I asked, "what did you want to be?"
He looked back at me, obviously not understanding my question. I rephrased.
"When you were little, what were your dreams? What did you dream of doing?"
His answer saddened me.
"I had no dreams," said Joe. "No dream. No one in communism has dreams." He talked for several minutes about the mindset he developed under communism—one that set him on a path not of his choosing or dreaming, one with blinders on to so many other realities and possibilities.
So, if he had no dream all those years, what kept him going?
"Hope of getting out," he said.
Obviously he did get out, and near the end of our ride together, Joe recounted his trip to the American embassy in Moscow in 1988, where he had to solidify paperwork and passport before he could come to America.
An embassy staffer asked Joe why he wanted to go to America, and Joe said, "Because I like it."
"That's it?" the staffer replied.
"That's it. Isn't that enough?"
Joe eventually got his international passport, and he was still bemoaning the fact that it was red—a color he hated.
"You're going to America," Joe recalled the man at the embassy saying. Nearly 20 years later, Joe's face lit up at the memory.
"I was so excited," said Joe, "I hugged him."
Joe talked about other things during our 30 minutes together—including the freedom he personally felt, but how he thought most people in Los Angeles weren't free because they were trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Joe took pride in getting his own paycheck and paying his own bills, but his aspirations seemed to be limited to those three months off.
I'm still not sure what to make of Joe, but they say it's all about the company you keep. Sometimes, that company isn't of our choosing. But if I'd had a choice, I couldn't imagine anyone better than the cabbie from Armenia.
Here's to you, Joe …
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.