“Airport?” he asked.
“Yessir,” I said.
As we rounded the traffic circle in front of City Park, traffic cones and barriers squeezed the road from three lanes to two. “Everywhere you go around here, construction,” he said. “But it’s a good thing, I guess. We need better streets.”
Muted sounds of WWOZ’s early morning jazz show played on the radio. “First run of the day?” I asked.
“You’re my first load,” he said.
As we passed by where the massive Rouses and Winn-Dixie grocery store facades menacingly stare each other down across Carrollton Avenue, he was telling me that he starts out every morning at 6 a.m., so he can get home by noon for lunch. He just works part time these days. He collects Social Security but not enough to survive on. He was a cab driver most of his life and didn’t pay enough into the system to get enough out. So he drives.
“But I’m not complaining,” he said. And he wasn’t. “I like talking to people,” he said. And he does. He said he prefers hauling locals. “They’re easier to talk to,” he said. “And believe it or not, they tip better,” he added, laughing.
When he was young, he had wanted to be a professional golfer. Back in the day, he could hit it, he said. He started out by caddying at New Orleans Country Club when he was a kid. There, he watched men of privilege lay down bets in the morning and then he took his knowledge to the local municipal courses around town in the afternoon — Joe Barthelemy, City Park, Brechtel — and learned how to hustle.
He got good. But then, stuff happens. Family. Responsibilities. So he took a job driving.
As we rounded the bend in the Interstate at the 610 split, he told me that driving cars for a living didn’t do much for his game. “This isn’t exactly an active lifestyle,” he said, patting his substantial belly.
But he’s down from his max weight of 372 pounds to 254 now, he said with more than a hint of pride. His doctor recommended “that gastro surgery thing,” but he was skeptical. He’s taken off the weight on his own, mostly by eating healthy.
“Because, after two hip replacements, I can barely walk around the block without hurting,” he said. “But I’m not complaining,” he said. And he wasn’t.
As we hit the ramp to the airport access road, traffic slowed to a crawl in the still-dark morning. Although it was all airport traffic, there weren’t many cabs in the scrum. The driver told me Uber and other ride-share start-ups are taking fares from local cabbies. But he wasn’t complaining. He was just sayin’.
As we pulled up to the departures concourse, he pulled over at my airline and lifted my bags out of the trunk and placed them on sidewalk. “You should check your bags out here,” he said. “Much faster.”
I thanked him and we shook hands. I paid my fare, tipping just over 20 percent. And he drove away.
It was a fine way to start a grueling day’s travel. I was smiling when I got in line at airport security. I took off my shoes and belt, without complaint.
I never did catch his name. I don’t know if I would even recognize his face again. But I would know his eyes, those eyes that met mine in his rearview mirror during the length of our drive.
By noon, I would be visiting a loved one in a hospital in Washington, D.C. He would be just sitting down to lunch.
On one hand, I don’t know who this guy is. On the other, I know exactly who he is.
He is New Orleans.