Taxi drivers all seem to have a back story. THEO PANAYIDES meets a veteran who encapsulates the profession
A taxi driver, sure – but which one? Shining a light on the men (and occasional women) who spend their days ferrying passengers on the roads of Cyprus is an excellent plan, but choosing a single cabbie to reflect the profession is a whole other challenge. On the one hand, the skills required for the job are somewhat indistinguishable (you drive around, basically); it’s hard to identify anyone as ‘the best’ taxi driver. Yet the job, by its nature, also attracts a wide variety of people, with different motivations and wildly different backgrounds.
That variety isn’t immediately apparent as I walk into VIPs taxi office in Nicosia in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There are two rooms, the first one dominated by a counter behind which sits Spyros the controller, a bellicose fellow with strong opinions and a sardonic sense of humour. Drivers mill around, waiting for fares, most of them sitting in the other, bigger room; two men play backgammon, others watch the game or steal glances at a TV set in the corner. A solitary woman sits at one table, looking much like the men – bulky, bundled-up, with a world-weary mien. There’s a lot of banter and cigarette-smoking; Spyros, barking instructions on the phone, directs the drivers to familiar landmarks, delivered in a taxi-driver patois: “past the tall guy’s café”, “just before Rikkos the lawyer’s house”. One wall is lined with religious icons. My mind flashes back to a colleague’s friend who apparently studied Film, and worked for a while in TV, before becoming a taxi driver; none of the people in VIPs look like they’ve studied Film.
Yet in fact the room is full of stories. ‘What did you do before becoming a taxi driver?’ I ask a middle-aged man sitting alone, and he turns his gaze on me for a while without speaking. The gaze is mild but appraising, as if trying to discern why I asked the question. It occurs to me that being a taxi driver is a bit like being in the Foreign Legion, one of those places where people end up for complicated, sometimes painful reasons. Legionnaires aren’t supposed to ask each other why they enlisted.
“I was a mushroom farmer,” he replies at last, “over in Nisou”. He had the farm for 18 years, he adds (he’s been driving a cab for the past 16), “then imported mushrooms came in, and the farms all shut down”. Another man – a mournful-looking chap with a sizeable belly – waves away my questions. “You don’t want to talk to me,” he says; “I’m nothing, I’m a zero. Talk to him” – he points to another driver – “he’s got a good life, all booze and women”. His friend shakes his head (it’s obviously a joke) – yet even the so-called ‘zero’ turns out to have owned a passel of fast-food places, back in the day; he’d open one, sell it, then open another, he tells me. And what happened next, to end with him driving a taxi on the streets of Nicosia? I don’t ask.
Chrysanthos Anthimou stands apart from all that – partly because he straddles both rooms, playing backgammon with the drivers and taking the occasional fare (mostly small errands, like “when someone wants an envelope delivered, or their lunch picked up from a restaurant and taken to their house”), but also sitting alongside Spyros as a controller. Chrysanthos is officially retired, having turned 65 in July, so he only works at VIPs part-time, doing a bit of everything while waiting for his pension to start coming in. He doesn’t so much represent his profession (no one person could) as encapsulate it, having started driving cabs in the early 1980s and come out the other side. He’s a veteran.
That said, his story isn’t quite as wild as some of his fellows’. He was born in the mountain village of Ayia Irini near Kakopetria, the son of a truck driver who was also a church cantor (his dad is still going strong, at 91; Chrysanthos himself is also devout, and laments the fact that churches are no longer full like they were in the old days). He came to Nicosia for high school and stayed, fought in the Turkish invasion – a traumatic experience – and got married for the first time soon after. He ran a driving school for a number of years, did some trucking, then bought his own taxi in 1995 (he’d previously used his cousin’s, and only occasionally) and worked full-time till last year, with the exception of six years in the late 00s and early 10s when he ran a club – basically a taverna – in Kaimakli. Meanwhile he also got divorced and remarried three more times, and now has six children (including two adopted stepchildren from his third wife) ranging in age from 44 to 10.
We talk in a bare, very cold backroom, his rumbly baritone echoing off the walls. He sits back, almost defensively, hands folded over his belly. His face is lined, with pouches under the eyes; the fierce eyebrows give him an angry look yet in fact, like most other drivers – at least the older ones milling around at VIPs – his demeanour is low-key and somewhat dour (though his smile, when it comes, is delightful). It’s a little startling when I ask if he has any hobbies and he replies, “I like having fun” (he actually uses the Greek word ‘diaskedasi’, which implies going out to have fun). “All I really like is diaskedasi… Sitting somewhere to eat and drink, maybe sing if there’s music. Sometimes I’ll get up and dance”. Despite his quiet manner, he’s a people person – as you might expect in a profession where you’re either stuck in a car with passengers or stuck in a small room with a dozen other taxi drivers.
And what about that profession? What taxi-driver stories can he share with us? Spyros told a cute one earlier, about a kitten that somehow managed to get trapped under the passenger seat of an old Mercedes (the driver could hear it meowing but couldn’t get to it; they had to dismantle the seat in order to free it) – but Chrysanthos can’t really think of any cute or quirky incidents. He does recall the horror stories, presumably shared among cabbies with all the enormity of urban legends: the story of “Pambos from Pyrgos” who picked up a passenger – “an Arab,” he clarifies – who stabbed him on the highway to Limassol, or the similar one from about a decade ago, of Elias who was stabbed 18 times by a teenager with mental problems. It occurs to me for the first time – having frequently felt a little helpless in a taxi, with my life in someone else’s hands – that taxi drivers too must feel vulnerable, having let a stranger into their workspace and indeed turned their back to him.
He himself never had such encounters, of course, despite working night shifts for many years (things were tough, especially in the early 00s with three kids to raise). His only real bugbear is people who don’t pay – though, even there, he sounds philosophical. At night they tend to run off, in the daytime they simply admit they have no money, promising to send it later. “What’re you gonna do?” he shrugs. “Beat them up?” He does recall one story, which took place during the Christmas holidays some years ago: “Guy flags me down in the street, gets in. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Drive, and I’ll tell you.’ Turned out the man had Alzheimer’s, no idea where he was going”. They drove around aimlessly for over an hour, till Chrysanthos found a scrap of paper in the passenger’s clothes with a phone number that led to his family. The woman offered to pay the full fare, but Chrysanthos, again, was philosophical: “It’s not your fault,” he told her. “Hopefully he’ll stay home, so you don’t lose him again.”
He’s calm that way, just a calm person in general; he’s never had a serious accident in his years behind the wheel, nor indeed has he faced any major health issues. Still, it’s an unhealthy lifestyle. I recall something else that happened earlier, when a driver came in with news of a colleague who was recovering in hospital (a heart attack, by the sound of it), prompting a boisterous rant from Spyros the controller to the effect that, out of everyone in the room, only he, Spyros, was living right: “You laugh because I go to the gym!” he chided the assembled cabbies. “Because I don’t drink myself into a stupor! Because I don’t eat a huge plate of chips! Because I don’t have a big belly!”. I guess it’s inevitable, given a sedentary life with no proper mealtimes – though I also wonder if it somehow ties in with the tinge of sadness I caught from some of the drivers, that sense of self-effacement (the whole ‘I’m a zero’) easily equating to a self-destructive lifestyle. Some, like Chrysanthos, are veterans – but the job also attracts those who’ve run out of options, and may secretly hate themselves for having sunk so low.
He himself doesn’t hate the job, of course (though I don’t know if he loves it either; it’s just something he does). His lifestyle isn’t the healthiest – he smokes, for a start – but none of that seems to bother him; his only issues lie elsewhere, in managing money (he tends to spend more than he should; he’d have liked to be more financially secure, at 65) and perhaps the fact of having been married four times – though that’s just “how it turned out,” he shrugs. His first two wives were Cypriot, the third Russian, his wife now is Ukrainian. We don’t delve into what went wrong (could he even pin it down?), but it’s notable that the kids stayed with him after the collapse of his first marriage, and relations with the third wife are also cordial. He doesn’t seem to hold grudges; he is, like he says, a calm person. “Even with the kids, when I get cross I don’t lose my temper, I’m more like ‘Sit down and listen, because you did something wrong. This is no way to behave’.” He’s also one of those people who needs other people, specifically a partner: “I hate being alone… I can’t go home and be on my own”.
Doesn’t he like the freedom of being single?
“Liking freedom can end up destroying you. You won’t know when to go home – if you ever do go home.” Chrysanthos shakes his head: “No, you need someone to care for… You need to know that you have to go home because someone’s waiting for you.”
Being a taxi driver is a bit like that too – because a taxi driver is almost a wanderer, but not quite. Each day is different for a taxi driver, he roams every corner of the city, never knowing where he’ll go next – but he’s always being guided by others and he always has his base, a place like the VIPs taxi office; it’s freedom with an anchor, freedom for people who don’t want unlimited freedom. Chrysanthos strikes me as one of those people, an easy-going man who dislikes being smothered (by routine, for instance) yet is also happiest in a crowd, or a family. He’s not necessarily a natural cabbie – running the club was his happiest time, surrounded by diaskedasi – but it seems to suit his temperament, which is doubtless why he’s been doing it for so many years.
Taxi drivers don’t get enough respect, I suggest. “Bravo!” he agrees firmly. “People treat us like we don’t matter. ‘Eh, he’s a taxi driver…’”. It’s a hangover from the bad old days, when taxi drivers (he admits) were “something like pimps” – but today’s professionals are a more varied crew, with teachers and lawyers (and yes, even people who studied Film) among their ranks. Does he ever regret going down this route? “Not at all. Because I’ve had a great life. Like I said, I could’ve been more restrained when it came to money… [But] every decision I made was because I wanted to make it.” Looks like I picked the right taxi driver, after all.