How a Taxi Ride Changed a Writer’s Life
Travel Interviews: Layne Mosler's memoir, "Driving Hungry," chronicles her cab-centric quest for great meals and experiences. Jim Benning asks about it.
07.21.15 | 11:13 AM ET
One afternoon in May 2007, Layne Mosler left a tango parlor in Buenos Aires and asked a taxi driver to take her to his favorite steakhouse. She didn’t know what to expect, but the resulting meal was so magical, it transformed Mosler’s life. She began going on weekly “taxi adventures,” chronicling her experiences on her blog, Taxi Gourmet. Two years later, she moved to New York City and became a taxi driver herself. Then she embarked on the ultimate taxi odyssey: marrying a taxi driver in Berlin. Her memoir, Driving Hungry, just hit bookstores. I caught up with Mosler by phone at her home in Berlin to ask about her taxi adventures and her quest to become a “life artist.”
World Hum: You’re from California but moved to Buenos Aires. What was it about the Argentine capital that called to you?
Layne Mosler: One thing I didn’t realize before going to Buenos Aires was that it’s a city of people who love literature, and who love reading. It’s a wonderful place for a writer. I’ll never forget that I was reading a book by [Milan] Kundera on the subway and this woman said, “Oh, if you like Kundera you should read this Polish author, and have you read Kundera’s early stuff?” And then she suddenly hopped off the subway and said, “Now I have to go make lentil stew.” People there really impressed me. And city streets are named for poets and philosophers and tango composers.
Also, for a writer, being out of your element is a healthy thing. You’re forced to pay attention in a way that you might not if you were in a place that’s familiar to you. I felt that I always needed to be aware of what was going on around me in Buenos Aires. There was an edge to the city. I thought, this is the perfect place for a writer, or a person who wants to develop into a writer.
You’d been living there for two years before you launched Taxi Gourmet. How did that come about?
I was doing some freelance writing, and I got this job at an Argentine satellite company. And I was developing my food writing on the side. But I knew I wanted to do something bigger. At the time, I was dancing tango and taking a lot of taxis and having a lot of conversations with taxi drivers, and I was learning more about Buenos Aires from the taxistas (drivers) than from anyone else. They’d tell you these beautiful stories about their relationship to the city. Most taxi drivers in Buenos Aires were born there and will tell you they’ll die there and they’re happy about that.
I had this awful episode on the dance floor where I basically bit the dust and had to leave the tango parlor in humiliation, but I was starving. I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to his favorite place to eat and ended up at this wonderful steakhouse, which, to this day, is still one of the best steakhouses I’ve ever visited. Everything flowed so easily. The taxi driver was really kind. The men next to me were telling me all of the things I should order. I’d been in Buenos Aires for two years, but it was as if I was tapping into another side of the city. You can’t engineer serendipity but it was the closest I’ve come. I thought, there’s something magical about this, and I wanted to keep doing it. So I started to get into a taxicab every week.
And then you moved to New York City and became a taxi driver yourself?
Yes. After two years of writing the blog, I was getting a little restless. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to stay in Buenos Aires. I wanted to move the project to New York. I never planned on driving a taxi.
I met these two women who drove cabs in New York. The first was Nidia, who calls herself a “Nuyorican”—a Puerto Rican in New York. She’s a night taxi driver and I was just blown away. She’d grown up in a house where her father abused her and she ran away when she was 13 and she lived on the subway and just had a really hard life. But she was resilient. I never thought I could do what she did. But a month later, I met Mary Jo, a petite, tiny-waisted, purple-wearing woman who was going to nursing school at night and driving a taxi during the day. Her taxi driving was driven by her faith, and I thought, if Mary Jo can drive a taxi, then I can, too.
Also, I’d studied anthropology in college, and one of the principles of anthropology is that as an observer you can only come so far. At some point, you have to participate in whatever you’re studying or you’re not going to have a complete understanding. So all of those things came together.
Becoming a taxi driver in New York City sounds daunting.
Well, it’s the second-hardest job I’ve ever had. (The hardest was working on the line in a kitchen). The way the taxi-driving business works in New York is there are 12-hour shifts, so you’re behind the wheel for 10 to 12 hours at a time. If you work for a garage, you have to pay the garage for the privilege of leasing the cab for the day. You also have to pay for your gas, and the credit card fees, and MTA surcharges. I would spend the first six to eight hours of every shift just breaking even. By the time you break even, you’re exhausted. So you have three or four or five hours to make money for yourself, and some days I’d come home with only $20. Granted, I wasn’t clever enough or aggressive enough, but if you go to New York and see how aggressive the Yellow Cab drivers are—having done the job, I can understand it. If you’re not aggressive, you won’t make money. It took only half a shift for me to stop romanticizing the job. But the lovely part of the job is all of the people you meet that you probably wouldn’t meet otherwise.
And then you visited Berlin and your life took a big turn.
Yeah. I’d been driving the cab for about six months and was getting my butt kicked. I was getting lost and I wasn’t making money. I had a series of mean passengers, particularly this man who needed to get to JFK by 4:30. I got him there by 4:29 and it was a traumatic trip and I kind of reached the end of my rope. I needed to step away. I had been to the New York Public Library and found an old Lonely Planet guidebook to Berlin from 2006. In the section on taxis, the author wrote that the taxi drivers in Berlin know as much about Nietzsche as they do about sausage. I thought, that sounds fantastic. Can that really be true?
So I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for my trip and it all came together. Within 48 hours of landing in Berlin, I never wanted to leave. I’d never had this feeling before, landing in a new city. There was a restlessness here and people were trying new things. I would tell people about my project and they’d say, “Oh wow, I have this band and we raised money to make a CD by doing medical trials and online poker.” I was meeting people with all these projects, doing art for art’s sake. The first taxi adventure I went on in Berlin was with a woman driver. She drives a taxi part-time and the other half of her time she’s a naturopath. I ended up going to her for an insomnia treatment. She’s typical of the taxi drivers in Berlin. Many people here drive the taxi to give themselves the freedom to do other things.
Over the course of the taxi adventures in Berlin, I met a journalist who told me about the term lebenskünstler —the literal translation is “life artist.” It embodies a whole way of being—people who have no office, no boss, no rules, and are always finding creative ways to get by. Their main priority is their freedom. I met so many people in Berlin who were lebenskünstlers, and I realized, that’s kind of what I’d been trying to do all this time. I had always had a little doubt in the back of my mind about whether I was unfocused or whether I should be more serious and have a more traditional job. But then meeting all these people living this way—it was as if I’d come home.
And now Berlin is your home?
Yes. Two weeks before I was supposed to leave, I actually met a taxi driver who knew as much about Nietzsche as he did about sausage. He’d read about my project in a German magazine and wrote this very strange but charming email to me and said, “Well I could give you a food tour because you haven’t been able to taste much German food, and I’m half Bulgarian, so we could maybe try some Bulgarian food.” And I thought, why not?
I didn’t want anything romantic to happen. I had to return to New York City, though I knew I wanted to come back to Berlin. And then Rumen, the driver, took me to an East German-style cafeteria where they make a dish called “dead grandma,” which is pureed liverwurst and blood sausage served with potatoes and sauerkraut. I think he was trying to test my mettle. It just sounded horrible, but it was actually better than I thought it would be. And his relationship to Berlin was so fascinating to me. Among other things, he was dancing on the Wall the day after it came down. He ended up visiting me in New York, and rode along with me in a taxi for a shift. I went back to Berlin six months later—and I moved there permanently in April of 2011. We got married last year.
Congratulations! So what’s next?
I’m actually working toward getting my taxi license in Berlin. It’s going to take a couple of years, but it is something that I’m planning on doing. And I’m working on a bigger project, a writing project, that I can’t talk about yet.