Taxi Drivers and Taxi Passengers in Austin, Texas

Taxi cabs are the merry-go-rounds of the soul. Nick Martens describes three rides during the Bureau’s trip to last week’s South by Southwest Interactive Conference.

1. Wikipedia on Wheels

Neither Kevin nor I had been to Austin before, but we’d heard the slogans. “The San Francisco of Texas,” or “Keep Austin Weird,” or “Full of Filthy Goddamn Hippies.” These speak to the spirit of the town, but say nothing about, say, the region’s demographic breakdown or the Hill Country’s elevation relative to sea level.

Thankfully, our first cab driver had us covered.

He picked us up at the airport, we put our bags in the trunk, and he began with population.

“Austin has 1.5 million residents, 120,000 of whom are college students. The city’s largest school is the University of Texas, or ‘UT,’ home to 50,000 students.” We then learned that, along with education, Austin’s other main industries are government and high tech.

He filled the whole ride with stats. For a simulation of our experience, use your laptop’s text-to-speech feature to listen to this webpage while you drive. We later learned that our hotel provided free airport shuttle service, but we agreed that our robust education on Austin’s artificial reservoir system easily merited the $20 fare.

Note: I had been calling this cab the “Chamber of Commerce on Wheels” until a fellow conference-goer coined the much cleverer alliterative phrase used for this section. My thanks to the clever guy.

2. MK-ULTRA

Kevin, my co-editor, is Vietnamese. When we hopped into a cab after our first night out, the driver, a middle-aged white man with wiry white hair fraying under a cheap nylon baseball cap, asked Kevin, “So, what are you: Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Thai?”

“I’m Vietnamese.”

“Oh, okay. Di di mau!

And so the tone of the ride was set. The driver claimed to be part of a CIA mind-control experiment called “MK-ULTRA.” He preempted our skepticism by imploring us to “Google it,” and doing so proves that Austin cabbies really do love Wikipedia. He said that the program granted him telepathic powers, which he used to control the 9/11 terrorists and install Barack Obama in the White House.

Most of the ride consisted of this sort of cartoonish nutjobbery. He repeatedly blamed society’s problems on “the Jews,” while also boasting about his impressive collection of post-graduate degrees from elite universities. But the craziness turned from amusing to unsettling when we probed his education at the University of Texas.

“It’s alright if you like American women,” he said.


“Sure,” I said with a smirk, thinking I could bring him down to earth with some good old-fashioned chauvinism.

“Not me.”

Curiosity outdrew discretion, and I asked, “No? So what do you like?”

“I Like Thai women. I’ve been to Thailand many times over the years, and they’ve got some real women over there.” Lust was thick in his voice. I consider it a small miracle that we got to our hotel before he could elaborate.

3. St. Patrick’s Day (a Blur)

Note: The following takes place after our final party at SXSW, which happened to feature an open bar on the night of a certain Irish holiday. I worked with Kevin to reconstruct this story, but I admit that the details are… incomplete.

The outgoing geeks and incoming hipsters intersected as the web conference ended and the music festival began. The streets, many of which had been closed to traffic, fizzed with a mixture of wistfulness, anticipation, and Guinness.

We hailed a cab on Congress Street, the busiest North-to-South route through downtown. A minivan cab jerked to the curb, and the driver beckoned us to sit in the front row. The back was already full.

“Is this even legal?” Kevin asked as we pulled away.

Nervous laughter sounded from the back, and an English accent responded, “I don’t think it is.”

We started ribbing the driver; “Where are you taking us? This isn’t even the right way.”

He insisted that everything was on the up-and-up, and seemed unsettled by his unruly passengers. But we were having too much fun and the Brits seemed to get a kick out of it. Kevin and I turned halfway around in our seats, boasted shamelessly about our Web Awards win, and gave a disjointed, obscenity-filled description of the site. Then we noticed the cab pulling onto the Northbound highway; our hotel was South.

“What the fuck is going on?” Kevin said with mock alarm.

The Brits cracked up; “This is so American.” They said Londoners would be too worried about appearances to be so blunt.

We learned that our fellow passengers had traveled Stateside for the music festival, and we asked if they were a band. They pointed to a small man with Elvis Costello glasses.

“He’s a musician. We’re his label.”

I took this as a joke: the group was tagging along with their indie-music buddy to get access to cool shows and parties.

“Hey,” I said, “you should just tell everyone you’re Radiohead. Americans can’t tell the difference.” I got a smaller laugh than I expected.

Kevin asked the musician’s name.

“I’m Graham,” he said.

“Who, Graham fucking Coxon?” Kevin shot back.

“Yeah.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’ll show you my fucking passport,” the small man said. And there it was: GRAHAM COXON.

“Who?” I whispered to Kevin.

“He’s the guitarist from fucking Blur.”

“Oh shit.”

The raucous air deflated as we realized we were sharing a cab with British music royalty (seriously, this summer’s Blur reunion is basically the cultural event of the decade in England). Kevin, an actual fan, praised Coxon’s solo work while I just blinked in disbelief.

As we pulled into their hotel, on the opposite side of town from ours, Kevin pushed a business card into Coxon’s hand and apologized for the chaotic ride.

“It’s cool,” he said, “you guys are legit.”

And we left Austin on a high note.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.