My Grandfather Drove a Taxi: Lessons from Yesterday for Today
Imagine a world without a GPS. Okay, for most of us over the age of 20 that isn’t so difficult. Now, imagine a world without a GPS in which you have to have memorized nearly every street, shortcut, alleyway, byway, and docks in the “HUB” of Greater Boston! That is the world that my grandfather, born in Boston in 1915, knew all too well. Grandpa Ed was a yellow, checkered taxi driver for his entire career from the 1930’s through the 1970’s in one of the most confusing and unforgiving street grids in the Western Hemisphere—Boston, Massachusetts.
Here is he on the left with his signature cigarette (which eventually would be his cause of death from emphysema), a big smile, and warm heart during a break during a successful taxi strike in 1977.
While Grandpa Ed died when I was still in middle school, I remember how great he was at playing checkers and chess with me even with advanced Parkinson's Disease and associated decline. He was excellent even intuitive at predicting your next move, seeing the wholeness of the board, and never getting stuck on just one loss or change of plan. He could no longer do most things on his own, but he knew how to navigate a board. This came from his years navigating the multitude of personalities and the streets of the City of Boston in his taxi. While we don’t think he had a high school diploma, he had an ear for other people’s stories, a wry smile, and a great memory. These things he relied on to provide for the family.
Here are some lessons for us today from my grandfather as I remember them for today:
- “Trust your memory and experience.” The GPS way of living has failed us with easy cues and directions during the Coronavirus time—so we must return to deeply embedded wisdom, memorized ways of being, and a good deal of instinct. Ancient practices of listening and remembering deeper truths matter once again. An automated, cruise-control life of just following directions like a human accessory to a machine no longer works. It is time for cunning, for discernment, and for truly seeing the roads around us, behind us, and in front of us.
- “Don’t forget to look around as you drive and see where you are.” As you face uncertainty and change, don’t think you are better than anyone else. We are all in this together, but we don’t all have the same access to resources. We live in a place of economic privilege (the AMI data and education numbers are proof positive of this fact)—and I won’t forget it. My dad and his brother went to Harvard on scholarships for the kids of taxicab drivers from Boston. Times changed and the family moved to Brookline and Wellesley from the Franklin Park area of Dorchester. Even as the family would move-on from grandpa’s taxi driving, ends-meat, paycheck to paycheck living, we have never forgotten where we come from. We must remember this as we face greater division in this country especially along socio-economic lines. As many here are struggling, we also are in a more protective bubble than other communities enduring the pandemic here in Guilford.
- “Sometimes you have to be in a cab for hours with someone very different from you—and there are no cell phone for entertainment. It is just you and them and talking through it.” Grandpa Ed would drive people sometimes as far as New York City in the 1940’s—stuck with nothing but the changing local radio stations and conversation. It was a long, slow drive in those days before the highway system. Some of you may remember Guilford before I-95. We are all on edge, stressed, unfocused and whatever the heck a “best-self” is supposed to be (I have never been sure what people really mean by that) has taken a vacation in an undisclosed bunker since February! Perhaps, if we recall the basic skills of conversation, of courtesy, of politesse, of respect, and civility from old fashioned taxi rides… toleration if nothing else… then we can somehow survive this carsick, wild taxi ride of 2020 together as a people and a country.
I am the grandson of a first generation, Jewish, taxi-driver from Boston. I am the grandson of someone who carried people safely in their journey of life to appointments, wakes, funerals, work, home, school, and politics. I feel a closeness to him in my work as clergy. Like my ministry at First Church in the long history of this place since 1643, I am but a momentary driver in a much longer story. I pray to offer the impact of my grandfather’s wisdom and to drive this taxi alongside Ginger with as much listening in diversity, trusting our own experience without a GPS for this moment, and remembering where we came from to get here.
With the wisdom of our ancestors, we can go confidently into whatever the now demands of us and can start to again see the road ahead to a hopeful tomorrow.
For Grandpa Ed—with love.
Your Grandson, The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
© 2020 Jake Miles Joseph, all rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.