In which I finally hire a car and driver

After seven years of taking taxis in Beijing I finally crossed the Rubicon of bourgeois colonialism and hired a car and driver. I now have two full time domestic employees, which seems somehow wrong. In the back of my mind lurks the ghost of the former graduate student adding up the cost of groceries as he shops so as not to exceed the cash in his wallet. What am I doing with domestic help? I’d hardly describe us as rich, but comfortably middle class by western standards goes a long way in Beijing. All the way to a car and driver, it turns out.

I’d resisted this maneuver for some time. For one thing, even in Beijing it’s rather a lot of money. Money that could significantly increase the floor space of our apartment if I wanted. Or go some ways toward covering an outrageous international school tuition bill. Or buy a lot of geeky toys. Or earn .00001% annual interest in a Chinese bank account. So why? Why burn thousands of RMB every month?

It wuz the taxis what done it.

I’ve taken a lot of taxis since arriving  in Beijing. But for the past year, since joining Motorola, my usage has skyrocketed thanks to a twice-daily 40 minute commute. I’ve tried public transportation twice. That turns the commute into a 90 minute odyssey that leaves me looking and feeling like a wino who’s been gang-rolled by a college football team after a 36 hour Ripple bender.

I always viewed taxis as a kind of proxy for the overall state of wherever they are from. In Beijing the taxis are functional, but rough around the edges, kind of like the city itself. Every country’s taxis have their idiosyncrasies, but you can glean some insight from the overall level of comfort, city knowledge, cleanliness and service. To some degree you get what you pay for. London and Tokyo have excellent taxis, but you could cover your monthly mortgage with an airport fare in either town. On the other hand, Singapore taxis are also excellent and remain a relative bargain, especially considering how expensive everything else in Singapore seems to be getting. In Kuala Lumpur bring patience and negotiating skills.

So here is my list of the positive attributes of Beijing taxis:

  • They’re cheap
  • They’re metered

This is nothing to dismiss. Cheap and metered is a good thing, as anyone who’s had to navigate unmetered taxis knows. That’s one reason why I’ve stuck with taxis so long, and used them for my commute.

However, returning to the “you get what you pay for” theorem, here are the problems:

After a wholesale fleet upgrade that started about five years ago, the state of the art among Beijing taxis is still a Hyundai Elantra with a rear-seat pitch designed for Munchkins. As a result, the magazine rack that hangs behind the shotgun sear etches a groove in my knees. My shoes get tangled up in the seat undercarriage and look like they’ve been scoured with Brillo pads and broken glass. I can’t keep a shine longer than 24 hours. First thing I now do in any taxi is tilt the shotgun seat forward a few notches. The second thing I do is turn off the annoying seat-back advertising screen. Thank god you can turn them off, or I’d have to carry a roll of opaque tape with me.

The Elantras are a stupendous upgrade from the miserable Xialis that represented the great bulk of Beijing taxis when I arrived. But that is the most subterranean of low bars. The Xialis were  only “cars” in the loosest sense of the word in that they had wheels and some variety of barely-internal combustion. Xialis vented their exhaust directly into the back seat. Xiali seatbelts used to leave black stripes on my white shirts. As small as the Elantras are, I had to dislocate my own hips to sit in the back seat of a Xiali, and risk electrocution from the wires and fuses dangling from the dashboard to sit in the front. If you slammed the door of a Xiali you might fly out the far side of the car. So the current cars are better, but not great.

This brings us to the other essential component: the drivers. There are some great taxi drivers in Beijing. But getting one has become sort of miraculous, like a surprise business class upgrade on a long-haul flight. And the good ones throw into sharp relief the dire service provided by so many drivers.

Beijing taxi drivers listen to the radio. Loud. Often to the gravelly-voiced storyteller who makes storm sounds with his mouth. When the front speakers are blown, back seat passengers get woofer-Sensurround storytelling.  Asking the driver to turn down the radio is just one of many requests that can land you in a purgatory of passive-aggressive swerving, brake-jamming and teeth-sucking. Other sins include: Not going far enough; going anywhere when traffic is bad, which is always; suggesting a route that the driver is unaccustomed to; suggesting the diver focus on driving rather than texting or having a roaring argument with someone on the phone; requesting a destination the driver doesn’t know (surprisingly frequent); asking for some change in the climate arrangements; using a large bill; or rumpling the seat covers.

What is with the damned seat covers? Taxis the world over use vinyl seat covers because, Einstein, they’re durable and easy to clean. But in Beijing they use white fabric seat covers and then squint at you when you bring a three year old into the taxi because he might scuff the upholstery. Dude, three year olds will scuff the upholstery. That’s what they do. Have you seen my furniture?

I understand why the drivers get upset about the upholstery. Apparently the taxi companies fine them if the upholstery is dirty. But why don’t the taxi companies fine them for driving like maniacs? Or hugging the right lane so they crawl through on-ramp traffic? Or stopping to take leaks while they’re carrying fares? (Twice, recently.) Or waving off foreigners for locals? Or eating raw cloves of garlic? Or smoking in their taxis? Or filling up the trunk with miscellaneous crap so your luggage won’t fit? Why is it wrong to scuff the upholstery but OK for the cab to smell like the corpse of a dog that died from a three-pack-a-day Changhong habit is pickling in a box of garlic under the rear seat? Why?

And what about seatbelts?

Imagethief once had his life saved by a seatbelt in a bad, high-speed rollover accident. So I take seatbelts seriously. In Beijing working rear-seat seatbelts are almost as rare as courteous, friendly drivers. Oh, there’s a seatbelt alright. Trapped behind the bench seat. Or maybe the shoulder belt is in front of the bench, but it will be purely for decoration because the buckle is under the cushion. You usually get one or the other. Rarely both.

I know it’s a hard life in the Beijing taxi drivers, offering brutally long working days for meager wages. It’s become a semi-migrant job, filled by men (and the very occasional woman) from the outlying areas of Beijing municipality. I sympathize. While in grad school in the ’70s my own father was briefly a Yellow Cab driver in San Francisco. To this day he still tells stories about how miserable it was. And that was in San Francisco! I’d cheerfully pay more if it meant more comfort and better service. I tip when I get good service. But no matter how rough the job, taking your frustrations out on customers isn’t a recipe for success.

So after a year of ninety minutes a day of tooth-sucking, brake-jamming, actuarially damning, argumentative frustration, I’ve largely abandoned the taxis. I hired the highly-recommended driver of an ex-colleague who left China. I’m paying RMB6,000 per month plus gas. Seems like a lot, and I agonized about it a bit.

Last Wednesday was his first day of work. When I left the apartment, he was waiting for me downstairs. His car is a VW Jetta Santana. Not glamorous, but clean and with a spacious rear seat. He drove me across town for an event, went back to the house to shuttle my wife around, then met me at the end of the day to take me home. The ride back across town was an hour-and-a-half crawl through the worst of Beijing rush hour traffic. But the radio was off, the air conditioning was on and the service polite. I had enough space to open my laptop and work. I had a seatbelt.

It seems like a lot of money. But, yeah, I could get used to it.

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