Last Friday was a dark, rainy, wintry day here in Athens, in the middle of January. Upon arriving at the office, I got a call from my jolly colleague, George. “Panos”, he said, “I cannot make it to the office today. There is not a single taxi available out on the streets”.
What a strange feeling… I felt like I had suddenly been beamed back to a long-forgotten pre-crisis “everyday reality”, when finding a cab for hire was one of the most challenging and tiresome tasks in the capital. Back then, at the times of plenty, we Athenians shunned public transport and preferred to move around en masse in taxis. We avoided the “hassle” of walking to a bus stop, waiting for the bus, being forced to stand if there were no seats available, and having to walk again upon disembarking near our destination. We preferred to get into a taxi that would take us from our doorstep and drop us straight to the destination. We lined the streets desperately searching for that elusive yellow cab, competing against each other and begging the taxi drivers to stop and accept to take us in. From behind the wheel, they were staring down at us with an arrogant air of superiority, choosing whom to accept and whom to reject, packing three or four strangers in the same cab to share the ride.
I remember those times when, if I had to entertain foreign visitors in the office, after the meeting was over, I always had to escort them out on the street to assist them in finding a taxi, since they had not been trained to the fine art of flagging down a cab and negotiating with the driver if he would accept to take you for a ride or not. The popularity of using taxis as one of the main means of public transport was such, that Athens, with its four million inhabitants, had about twenty thousand licensed taxis, whereas London for example (with double the population) had only five or six thousand.
Then the crisis came. A “crisis”, by definition, is a period of rapid, transformational changes in a society. The “established order” is shattered. Many sectors suffer heavy losses and sink, whereas other, arguably much fewer, sectors profit and are elevated. In the crisis environment, those ups and downs sometimes are spectacular, astonishing everyone with the speed of the transformations.
This is exactly what happened with the sympathetic profession of the taxi drivers. Almost overnight, the tables turned spectacularly. Cash-starved Athenians had to forgo the “luxury” of moving around in a taxi, and started using buses instead, or even stopped moving around altogether, if there was no serious reason to go somewhere. Suddenly, the roads were filled with empty taxis that wander around aimlessly, searching for the elusive passenger, the desperate drivers trying very hard to earn their living, like the rest of the population. Driving around in my car, I now feel sorry seeing all those empty yellow cabs that form endless queues at the piazzas, outside the train stations, in the port, everywhere where they may have a chance to find a solitary prospect passenger. The average time needed to find a taxi has been slashed from over ten – twenty minutes, down to perhaps less than a minute.
But, the crisis is a crisis. It is something, by definition, unexpected. Every so often the tables turn again and again, and we all go through new surprises. Instability, randomness and upheavals are now a constant factor in our daily lives.
Strikes by public sector unions have now become so commonplace that new websites have propped up to inform the public about today’s closed or unavailable services. One of those strikes, perhaps by accident, spilled out of control. What started as a localized dispute in the main underground metro service, one of the many that everybody has been used to, suddenly escalated to a serious confrontation between all the transport unions and the government. Late Thursday night, in the middle of a storm that lashed Athens with heavy rain and wind, the unions decided to pull every single bus and train out of service for an indefinite time.
Come Friday morning, the roads were flooded with private cars, taking people to their jobs, all clogged in long traffic jams. Once again, like the old, good times, taxis, although not on strike, were nowhere to be found. They were all full with passengers, those unlucky few who do not own or cannot use a private car. Many, many more unlucky citizens lined the streets, trying desperately to flag down any cab whatsoever, trying to go to their jobs. I am certain that there were many thousands, like George, who didn’t make it in the end.
Ah, the crisis… Moves our lives around in such unexpected ways… For a couple of days, while this particular upheaval lasted, taxi drivers became once again the kings of the roads, earning a hefty, welcome windfall, to compensate for the long months of misery that they have been enduring, like almost everybody else. However, this unexpected luck did not last for long. In the end, the government prevailed and broke down the strike. Well, up to now… Because tomorrow is another day…