The time I took an off-license cab from the airport
I’d been living in Taiwan for two years already. I knew the drill. I knew it was NT$400 to get a tab from my house to the airport. It was NT$600 to take an official airport taxi home. I wasn’t going to give anybody NT$200 (US$6) extra for the same trip.
On my way to the official taxi stand, a few men furtively approached me, whispering “Taxi? Taxi?” I pointed my chin at an old man, the least-dangerous looking one. He gestured for me to follow him into an elevator. I figured we were getting into his taxi parked in the basement. Instead, we got out and hailed a bus. The whole time the old man, kept chattering that I should continue going with him, but I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to ask for the details. He grabbed up one of my big suitcases himself and pulled it onto the bus.
I looked at everyone on the bus and looked at the old man. I didn’t know what was going on, but the old man had a friendly face. This is how stupid girls like you die, I told myself. At the same time, I was annoyed about being on a bus. The whole point of taking a taxi was the comfort and convenience of being in a car without having to stand and hold a greasy pole in a smelly bus full of other people. But before I could decide what to think, whether to be scared or angry, the old man was shooing me off the bus.
Now we were at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. In Taiwan, you rarely ever have the luxury of feeling like you are in the middle of nowhere with no other people around as far as you can see. But on this dark night about ten years ago, I felt like I was alone with that old man at a brightly lit gas station in the middle of empty lots or rice paddies, but no houses or night markets or police stations or parks full of nosy old grandmothers and noisy children to mark my presence or my imminent disappearance. Now I was alone with this old man, me and my baggage, at a lonely gas station on a dark night. I was going to die trying to save NT$200, the price of a beer or a 12-inch sub sandwich.
The old man gestured for me to wait a moment at the edge of the gas station, on the border between light and dark. He disappeared down the road. My heart jumped and my mind twirled. Was I standing there waiting to die? How could I get away? Where could I go? Did he have a weapon? Was he going to bring me somewhere and rape me first? Did he have friends? I imagined the headlines my mother would read. Who would notify her that I was dead? How long would it be before they would find my body? Surely they would find my body. What if they didn’t even find my body and my poor mother never knew what happened to me?
The man came back in a beat-up Camry, an old brown, boxy thing. I had thought at least I would be riding in a yellow taxi, just not an airport taxi. This was just some old guy’s car. I was about to get in some strange old man’s car.
I helped him put my suitcases in the trunk and the backseat. I took the passenger seat in the front. There was no headrest, though. If he didn’t try to rape and kill me, but we got in an accident, I would certainly die from whiplash. He asked my to repeat my address, and I did, explaining that I lived by the new Sogo in Zhongli. He was familiar with the area. I took it as a good sign that he wanted to confirm our destination, an indication that he actually wanted to take me there and not to some abandoned country shack where a bunch of gangsters would assault me to death.
My breathe was fast and shallow. I carefully read every sign on the higway, desperate for to confirm that we were definitely going to Zhongli. We passed the first exit, and I wanted him to take it, even though I knew my house was closer to the second exit. When he took the second exit, I felt like I could afford to stop imagining myself jumping out of the moving car.
I looked at the old man, and he did have a friendly face. Grandfatherly. I imagined he had a grandson, a little boy too young to be awake at this hour. A little boy who needed money for food, clothes, tuition, etc. A little boy who wanted a bicycle. Obviously, Grandpa wasn’t rich, or he would be driving around in this beat-up old Camry missing a headrest, driving strange women home from the airport for NT$400. He was taking a big risk: he could be charged a lot of money if he got caught. He did what he could to minimize it, though, parking his car a bus ride away from the airport. He wasn’t technically picking up passengers from the airport. I bet he was already counting the money in his head, NT$400. Not much, but a start. A few trips like this, and before you know it, Didi would have his new bicycle, a red one with a bell and a flag. There’d be enough money to pay his school bills for the next semester.
He turned and turned and I recognized my neighborhood. We were on Yanping; there was Carrefour, now the Ring Road, and yes, that’s right, this is my street, and just left here, this is my building. What a nice old man, I thought. Poor guy with his old car, just trying to make a buck. I’m not rich, but I don’t have to work that hard for my money, and nobody else needs it but me. When he put both my suitcases on the sidewalk, I gave him the full NT$600 fare, imagining he’d put the extra money toward the imaginary bicycle for his imaginary grandson.