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Jewish World Review August 27, 2002 / 19 Elul, 5762

Neil Steinberg

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Consumer Reports

Cab ride offers rare view
of a working marriage | CHICAGO Like many elderly couples, Johnnie and Arzula Ivy spend hours together, sitting next to each other, chatting, or just sharing the silence, soaking up each other's presence and watching the world go by.

Unlike most elderly couples, however--OK, unlike any elderly couple --Johnnie, 74, and Arzula, 78, do their sitting in the front seat of a Chicago taxicab. Johnnie drives. His wife keeps him company.

"She likes driving with me,'' says Johnnie.

"Oh yes, I like driving,'' agrees Arzula. "It's an enjoyment, seeing people walking around outside.''

"It sure beats being at home by yourself,'' her husband adds.

I had been standing on North Michigan Avenue with my arm out, heading to the Lincoln Park Zoo, savoring the rare privilege of not having to navigate the intergalactic distances of the suburbs by car, but being able to make a short urban hop by cab.

Living in the 'burbs, you miss cabs. At least I do. Complaining about city cabbies is popular, and while I have endured my share of radioactive body odor and maniacal driving, most cabbies are not only clean and safe, but worth conversing with, whether NPR-addicted graduate students from Botswana or hate-spewing old racists from Cicero.

Occasionally, I get the truly offbeat. I've met a cabbie novelist and a cabbie artist whose taxi was his gallery. One guy had a flute on his dashboard, and he played it, at my request, the meter running. Then there is that guy with the white gloves and the fancy Kleenex box.

But I'd never been the guest of married senior citizens before, until cab No. 3018 pulled up. For a moment I hesitated. Usually somebody in a taxi's passenger seat is a bad sign--the driver's brother, eating a big, malodorous plate of ethnic grub. But this little old couple looked so pleasant--Johnnie with his grizzled jaw, Arzula in her neat print cotton dress--that I shrugged, got in, gave the destination, then leaned forward and quizzed them through the thick Plexiglas partition.

Johnnie has been driving for 37 years.

"I went to Yellow Cab training school in 1965,'' he says. Before that, he worked in a factory but "didn't care for it at all.''

He was mugged once--about 20 years ago--and ended up in the hospital after being choked by his attacker.

"It was the first time I'd ever gotten hurt,'' he says, "and I was thankful to the good Lord I was recovered from it.''

You can't drive a cab for 37 years and not get somebody famous in the back seat, though Johnnie drew a short straw in the fame poll.

"About 25 years, or 30 years, ago, Sen. Charles Percy was in the cab,'' says Johnnie, after thinking a moment.

But the lasting impact of chauffeuring the Wonder Boy from Illinois pales in comparison to that of another lesser-known passenger, a certain woman who got off work and flagged down his cab for a ride home.

"She was working at Alexian Brothers Hospital located at Belmont and Racine,'' Johnnie says, with a cabbie's attention to geography. "She got in the cab. She looked pretty attractive, so we started talking and made arrangements to go on a date to a movie.''

That was Arzula. They were married in 1991.

"He's my second husband,'' explains Arzula, who was a widow.

"She's my second wife,'' says Johnnie, who was a widower.

Arzula hails from Gulfport, Miss. I ask if her family is Haitian--her name sounds very much like "Erzulie,'' the voodoo goddess of love and luxury. "Nobody ever told me what it meant,'' she says.

Johnnie likes being a cabbie. "It means being your own boss,'' though the hours are long. On a typical day, he drives from 7 a.m. to 6 or 7 at night. "It's a hard career,'' he says.

Arzula doesn't drive with him all the time--sometimes half a day, sometimes three-fourths of a day, but other days she spends the entire 12-hour shift in the passenger seat. I tell Johnnie that many men wouldn't enjoy spending so much time with their wives, particularly behind the wheel.

"She may get a little bossy,'' he says. "but it's really not a problem.''

Since I don't want to get the Ivys into trouble, I call the city, thinking, if they didn't get it, I might have to withhold the couple's colorful names. But the city proves surprisingly kind, open-minded and adaptive.

"There aren't supposed to be any front seat passengers unless it's authorized by the city,'' said Connie Buscemi, spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer Services. "However, since they seem to be such a sweet and devoted couple, I don't see how we would interfere with their desire to be together.''

Johnnie says that their passengers don't seem to mind.

I tried to imagine how it would be having my wife--a lovely person, though with a wife's connoisseurship for faults--at my office all day, watching me work. Let's just say there would be friction. Not so here.

"It's really good,'' says Johnnie. "Her being retired, it means a lot for her not to have to be in the house all by herself. And it means a lot to me. I enjoy talking, riding with her in the cab.''

Arriving at the zoo, I wave happily to them as the cab moves into traffic. They wave back. G-d, I miss living in the city.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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