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Monday, October 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW/INTERVIEW: Mather Schneider HE TOOK A CAB NYQ Books, New York, 2011 (108 pages).

This is the second full-length book of poetry published by Tucson taxi driver Mather Schneider. Most of the poems in the collection were inspired by Schneider’s long-term experience as a cab driver. The poems are largely anecdotal narratives written in a simple and understated way. The clarity and immediacy of the language makes you feel like you are sitting in the back seat of Schneider’s cab as he drives his quirky and sometimes demanding and difficult  fares to their destinations- be it a detox center, Whataburger, a nudist camp, or hospital.

As is explained in the preface, the title ‘he took a cab’ is derived from an old jazz saying that means someone has died. The title poem ‘He Took a Cab’ is based on a true story about a cabby who was tragically shot and killed by a passenger who tried to evade paying a fourteen dollar fare.

The daily grind of a cab driver is represented through a variety of voices and credible real life experiences. Schneider chronicles the long hours, the fickleness, the randomness, the messiness, the in-fighting of an essential job which is sometimes fraught with danger. The reader easily slips into Schneider’s world as he drives around Tucson and into the surrounding desert- the shitty drivers, the quirky, unending variety of people he crosses paths with and the thrill and unpredictable flux of the journey- all come alive.

It is Schneider’s descriptions of people and how he often allows them to tell their own stories in their own words which makes this book special and highly entertaining and amusing to read. He cleverly draws portraits of his passengers and fellow cabbies to comment on human nature- both good and bad. He is sometimes scathing in his attack on the viciousness, hypocrisy and racism of some of his fares. In ‘Trust Me’ he drops off a foul and sleazy prison guard who has been cheating on his wife. In ‘Devotee’ he mocks a rude and ungrateful adherent of the Dalai Lama who is in town for a talk. In ‘The Virtues of Self-Locomotion’ he uses black humour to express his hatred of school bus drivers who believe they are superior and ‘immune from street law.’

Schneider can also show great tenderness and empathy for his passengers- especially if they tip well. In ‘6234 N. KOLB’ he drives a man to the airport on his first vacation in 22 years. On the way the passenger gets a phone call telling him his father has had a heart attack. As they head for the hospital there is another call- the father has died. In ‘TREASURE’ his fare Margie introduces him to her pet snail Chuy on their way to the Valley Pet clinic.

Schneider also provides the reader with insights into the crazy characters who drive cabs for a living. Their world is highly competitive and largely thankless. Amongst them there is Filthy Phil, an Vietnam-vet whose latest scheme is to marry a young Russian bride, Darren the Shark, Hobgoblin, and Vic, an eighty-four year old whose idea of fun is to activate his small battery-powered fart machine.

Some of the more memorable poems include extended metaphors and make some interesting philosophical observations about the job. ‘A Bone A Day’ adopts a stoical position: ‘If/ at the end of a twelve-hour day/ you’ve got a bone in your pocket/ you’re doing alright.’ ‘Destiny of a Cab Driver’ Schneider sees himself as being chained to his cab: ‘I have no destination of my own./ I spend my life driving in circles/ and never get any closer/ to the center.’ The wonderful poem ‘Zen Cabby’ is about an impossibly perfect day, when everything miraculously falls into place for the driver. He remarks at the end: ‘The trick is to trust nothing/ but the deepest laws,/ and the only way to trust/ is to let go.’

The poems in He Took a Cab are street-smart and have an emotional depth which is never forced or false. This is finely crafted  poetry which is easy to read  and picture in your head. Most humorous and intriguing are the real people Schneider has met and has shaped through his poetry.


Q1: Most of the poems in your new collection He Took a Cab are about taxi driving from a variety of perspectives. How long have you been driving a cab and can you briefly describe a typical night shift and the emotions you go through? 

A1: I’ve been driving a cab, off and on and for various companies, for 6 years in Tucson and I also drove a cab in a small town in Washington State, Bellingham, years ago. I don’t do night shifts anymore and in fact now drive for a company that only transports non-emergency medical patients to and from the doctor, paid for by the state insurance. So a lot of the poems in the book are about my past experiences. The emotions you go through during a typical 12 hour cab shift run the gamut from elation at a 50 dollar tip, to anger at traffic, to fear from thugs or drunks, to heartbreaking pity for a 12 year old boy with bone cancer and a mask over his face because the very air makes him sick. It’s amazing how tired you are after a cab driving shift, even though you’re just sitting on your ass the whole time.

Q2: I can imagine in driving taxis at all hours that over the years you see some of the worst and best in humanity. What have you learnt about people and about life in general since you’ve been driving hacks? Do any incidents stand out?

A2: I’ve learned that scumbags and saints come in all sizes and from all economic brackets. Many incidents stand out, and I write about those. Just today I went to one of our hospitals to pick up a patient. She was sitting in a wheelchair at the doors of the hospital looking out at the road. Her caregiver, on seeing me coming, turned around for a second to grab the old lady’s bag. At that moment, the old lady in the wheelchair started rolling forward, could not control it, and rolled out the door, across the sidewalk and over the curb into the street. She did a full face plant on the pavement, blood was everywhere and she was screaming like a lunatic. I felt bad for her, and I also felt bad for the caregiver, who would surely lose her job.

Q3: On the inscription page there is note that ‘any references to historical or real locales are used fictionally.’ Most of your poems appear to have been inspired by real people and events. I am curious, was it essentially a legal requirement to fictionalise your experiences?

A3: You know, I never noticed that. Yeah, I guess that’s just a legal thing, I have no idea. I have always been honest about the fact that my material comes from real life, although I do change names and embellish and combine stories in ways that do not conform exactly to reality.

Q4: The epigraph notes that the title of your collection He took a cab is old jazz slang for someone who has died. The title poem ‘He took a cab’ is about a cabby who is shot and killed by a passenger who tried to evade paying a fourteen dollar fare. Why did you choose this title? Have you been in many dangerous situations yourself?

A4: I’ve always liked the title poem and I’ve always liked the title, thought it would make a nice catchy title for the book. Then I discovered that phrase’s usage by the old jazz guys. Like someone might say, “Hey, whatever happened to Leroy?” “Oh, he took a cab, man, he took a cab.” Meaning he died. Yes, I’ve been in some dangerous situations. I’ve had a gun pulled on me, and I’ve been threatened and punched in the face by passengers. But, all in all, I’ve been lucky. I mean, it’s Tucson, after all, not Chicago or Detroit or LA. When that cabby got shot, every cabby I knew was shaking their head, because you just don’t follow someone into an alley, you have to refine your instincts, and really you hope to sniff out the dangerous characters BEFORE they get into your cab. Sometimes you just can’t tell, though.

Q5: Many of the poems in your new collection were previously published in important small press magazines such as Nerve Cowboy, American Dissident, Commonline and others. How long how you been collecting these poems for publication? 

A5: The poems in this book cover about the last 4 or 5 years.

Q6: Can you provide some insights into your writing process? Does your inspiration come quick? Do you need to do much editing, redrafting? What do you hope to achieve in your writing?

A6: I make notes to myself, usually on the backs of our taxi business cards, and then later I write them out if I can find the time or energy. These days I’m lucky to write new stuff once a week, though I’m constantly tinkering with old stuff. I do rewrite quite a bit, which is just a matter of reading a piece over and over, letting it sit, reading it again, mainly trying to tighten and get rid of cliché, try to make the language as clean and fresh as possible. I do not think there is anything particularly saintly or noble about writing, and as far as what I want to achieve with it, well, I would like people to be haunted by my words, to laugh, to be entertained, and maybe to feel something deep inside they didn’t expect.

Q7: It is a great achievement to have a poetry book published by New York Quarterly Foundation. Can you briefly explain the events leading to your collection being published by them?

A7: Thank you. I submitted poems to New York Quarterly, once or twice a year, for 12 years, and was rejected every time with form rejections. Then, one day about 2 years ago, I got an acceptance. Then I submitted more and they took 3 more! Then, Raymond Hammond, the editor, wrote me and said he wanted to publish a book of mine. Working with him on the book was fun and painless, for the most part. He gave me free reign and it is my drawing on the cover. We only got in one fight during the process, which is pretty good for me!

Q8: Have you discovered any new writers over the last couple of years which impress you? If any, what do you enjoy about their writing/ message?

A8: I like Jim Valvis and M.P. Powers. Valvis’s honesty and humility and humor are wonderful, and Powers has a lyrical quality and sense of humor that I like. But, in general I am not impressed with most of the writing I read these days.

Q9: I’ve read many of your short stories about some of your taxi driving adventures. Do you intend collecting these in a volume one day? 

A9: Yes, I do have a manuscript which is held together by the connective thread of cab driving. Some of the stories only mention cab driving in one sentence, others are basically journals of a cab driver. I have had many of them published on the internet but I can’t break into any respectable print journal to save my life. I hope to get the book published one day, and I’m working on it now, revising it. The title of the book is NEXT TIME TAKE SUNRISE, the title story of which was published in Zygote in My Coffee. Here’s the link to that:

Q10: What’s next for you?

A10: Well, we just bought a house, a foreclosure for 36,000 cash, and my wife and I will be moving soon, so that is exciting, to get out from under the yoke of rent. And I hope to get that book of prose published, like I said. Other than that, just more writing and working and living. 

Thanks again Mather for sharing your views with me and my readers.

Thanks George!

Buy Mather Schneider’s new collection He Took a Cab here at NYQ Books:

Find my 2010 review of Schneider’s first collection Drought Resistant Strain on Bold Monkey: