From Iceland — Follow This Cab

Follow This Cab

Published July 14, 2006

Follow This Cab

“I’ve seen a lot of things,” Hafliði, taxi driver for BSR tells me. “Adultery, drugs, drunkenness, more adultery. People don’t seem to care what a taxi driver sees or hears, and if they are well behaved we are generally happy to ignore them.”

It’s 3:00 am, and we’re in a cab parked at the BSR taxi line on Lækjargata. There isn’t much going on at the moment, but the plan is to offer people discount rides in exchange for a voyeuristic glimpse into their night out. So far we’re seeing a lot of seagulls, and a few other taxis, but customers are few and far between. The driver, Hafliði, isn’t unduly concerned: “It only starts to pick up after 3 am. That’s when some people start to run out of steam and head home, and others look for private parties.”

A few minutes later and it seems like the mission is doomed to end in failure, as no one is keen on getting into a taxi with someone already sitting in the front. “People like to sit up front, especially when they are alone. Sometimes the customers just need someone to tell their troubles to, we’re a bit like bartenders in that respect,” says Hafliði. Just then I look out the window and see a severely intoxicated man drop his pizza in the gutter. We make eye contact. As if to confirm what I’ve just been told about the confidentiality of taxis, he gives me a knowing wink as he picks it back up and continues eating – satisfied that no one else saw the deed.

In an effort to get the ball rolling, we decide to turn the taxi concept on its head by flagging down passengers instead of the other way around. The first man we stop looks startled, and repeatedly asks if he is on a hidden camera show.

Once he has been persuaded to enter the vehicle, and told that he won’t have to pay a dime for the ride, his attitude turns to one of grateful disbelief. He turns out to be a reasonably sober young salesman for the LazyTown production company, and we get to talking about the future development of the show.

“What most people don’t realise is that you can only recoup about 40% of the production cost of a series like this from TV revenue. We’re about to start releasing the merchandise, though, and that’s where the big bucks are.”

Intrigued, and considering some new stock purchases, we bid him farewell and head back downtown to hunt for more customers.

Next to brave the Grapevinemobile is a tediously sober brother and sister team, on their way to their respective homes after a crazy night of buying sub sandwiches and Diet Coke. “I’m sorry, we’re boring,” says the brother. “But I offer your readers this piece of advice: go to Nonnabiti and order a turkey sub. Here’s the trick, though: tell him to hold the pineapple. That’s like, the perfect sub.”

Driving past Lækjartorg around 4 am, Hafliði points out six giggling blondes playing football in skimpy outfits. “Only in Iceland,” he chuckles. The next pair of customers turn out to be of a fairly typical Icelandic variety, as well: a somewhat inebriated worker for the power company and his sober friend who is a college student in Canada. “I put up light posts. I also take them down,” says the drunk guy. Asked who got the honour of removing the light post that got in the way of former local council candidate Eyþór Arnalds and ended his political career, the reply was unexpected. “Oh, we’re gonna leave it, at least part of it has to stay. That thing is like a historical monument, a true legend in this business, we talk about the irony of it all the time. You see, that lamp post wasn’t even supposed to be there that day.”

Hafliði and I look at each other in bewilderment at the apparent Clerks reference, before asking for the story from the beginning. “Well, that thing was a death trap. You wouldn’t believe how many people managed to wrap their cars around it without having had a drop to drink. We were supposed to take it down a week before the accident, but some other projects got held up and we fell behind on the schedule. When we finally get around to finishing the job we were doing, we get word that some poor bastard ran into the lamp post of death while under the influence – effectively ending his political career and blowing an entire council election for the Independence Party. Ooops.”

On that fascinating note the conversation ends and it’s back to the line to offer more rides. On the way, Hafliði tells me about some of the things he has been asked to transport, instead of people. “Sometimes we pick up groceries for older people, and we deliver a lot of presents, envelopes and flowers, that sort of thing. On the more unusual side, we also bring people quite a few forgotten cell phones and keys, but even if we don’t have the keys people ask us to break into their houses when they’re locked out. I’ve had to crawl through windows before. There’s also a surprising number of severe alcoholics that can afford to call for a taxi to bring them booze, cigarettes – even rubbing alcohol.”

Our next guest isn’t a severe alcoholic, but he looks a bit tipsy. He methodically, and thoughtfully, finishes his hot dog before stepping into the car. “All my friends are pussywhipped,” he tells us in a dejected tone. “We went out drinking together, like old times, and they all just bailed on me to go home to their women before 5 am. It’s sad.”

It doesn’t take long for his mind to wander from the evils of women to the delights of the opposite sex, though. At the next red light he looks over at the taxi to our left, which happens to be occupied by a pretty young lady, and – in his best impression of a Hezbollah negotiator – demands that Hafliði facilitate some kind of passenger exchange. “If you were a real taxi driver, and a real man, you would pick up that radio and tell the other driver to hand over the girl. Or, you know, I could go over to her taxi – whatever works for her.”

Thwarted in his efforts at high-speed copulation, the passenger resigns himself to strategising in the back seat as we quietly listen to his theories on human courtship. “You know what’s the best time to get laid, for a single guy? The first weekend in August. Trust me, it’s gold. Never fails. I think that’s when all the single mothers get their benefit payments or something, because downtown suddenly fills up with these packs of horny girls in their twenties and thirties – many of whom you’ve never seen at the bars before. I’m telling you man, it’s truly something to behold, and to experience.”

As we get closer to this lively young man’s destination, he suggests we spice up the ride, and my article, by ramming a police car that is in front of us. When we decline, he decides we’re boring and staggers towards his house to get some sleep. It’s well after 5 am and the Grapevine’s taxi budget is rapidly running out, but we have time for one more drunken soul. That soul shows up in the form of a quiet, drunken man in his late twenties. After taking some time to think about the setup he starts to become more vocal, pitching some less than stellar ideas for the article. “See that ambulance? Where is it going? Where has it been? I don’t know. That is for the journalist to ponder.”

We try to turn the conversation to something a little more productive and a little less tedious by asking if he finds it prohibitively expensive to take taxis from downtown Reykjavík to his home in Hafnarfjörður every weekend. “No more expensive than renting some tiny apartment in 101 Reykjavík,” is the curt reply from the proud Gaflari, or Hafnarfjörður native.

Now our time is definitely up, but on the way back to Reykjavík Hafliði shares some thoughts on the nightlife. “This was an average night, and we saw a lot of people looking for the same thing but no one finding it. People generally don’t seem to enjoy themselves as much as they expect beforehand, or remember later. But, hey, what else are they going to do?” He tells me that the job of a taxi driver is a demanding one, and finding time for yourself and your family is a constant problem. As he pulls up outside my house, my final question is regarding the abolishment of laws governing maximum rates for taxis. “Nothing has changed, I doubt anything will change. Nobody wants to overcharge people and I don’t know anyone that supported this move. In any case, changing a meter to raise your rates is no small technical matter, and who on earth is going to pay the mandatory 150,000 krónur fee for that – just to price themselves out of the market?”

The Grapevine would like to thank the taxi service BSR-5610000 for their help in making this article possible, and Hafliði for being an entertaining and informative guide.

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