Cab-driving anthropologist culls life's underbelly for book ideas


When anthropologist Robert Leonard took a second job as a cab driver out of economic necessity, he found an "amazing other world." He learned about capitalism from drug dealers and prostitutes and hope from carnival workers; he learned about broken families from businessmen and thankfulness from broken vagabonds.

"It became a kind of yellow confessional, without the possibility of condemnation," said Leonard, the Knoxville author of "Yellow Cab" (University of New Mexico Press).

"People, in general, are unappreciated. No one says, 'Tell me about yourself.' We don't ask each other that. But people want to talk about themselves. They don't want to be in a cab, so they talk, knowing they are not likely to see you again."

Leonard, 52, was working in the anthropology department at the University of New Mexico when his wife took ill and had to quit her job, forcing him to look for a second job.

With a $35 city fee and one class, he hit the Albuquerque streets with a yellow cab in 2001. The Johnston, Ia., native who had experience in anthropological study of human beings and their social behaviors and customs, watched it unfold from the front seat.

At first, he found the drug dealers' extreme politeness odd. They delivered drugs in cabs because of forfeiture laws that put their own vehicles at risk if they were caught.

"They acted with formality, thanking me and calling me sir, because they knew things could go wrong quickly. They wanted to reassure me they were behaving by the rules."

During his 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. weekend shift, he began to carry a notebook to jot notes at red lights. Touching vignettes surfaced. The prostitute who was a daytime schoolteacher and quoted Russian poets. The homeless man who lifted his face to the sky and said "Thank you" when he found a half-smoked cigarette on the pavement. The pregnant drunk woman leaving her husband for a hotel. The man who said he would pray for him.

He culled stories from other cabbies, including one about a businessman who called his wife on the cell phone but she forgot to hang up. The man slumped in his seat as he heard a loud lovemaking session over the telephone.

The notes took the form of short stories, told with empathy and an understanding of human nature. Others became poems because events appeared to him in a series of memorable images.

"You develop a sixth sense about people just by how they look at you. I'm an observer. I'm used to looking at things closely," he said. "I could sense danger by the way they approached the cab. But it really reinforced my positive view of humanity. I met a lot of the smartest people I've met in my life."

Cab driving became addictive. Even after he moved back to Iowa last year for family reasons and started his own consulting business, he tried cab driving in Des Moines. He found the rates too low and business too slow.

He retains a bond with the experience, though, returning for a shift or two in Albuquerque on occasion. Many of his fellow cab drivers he describes as the lucky few neither "tamed by prison" nor performing "mindless tasks" that society values. The world on the street seemed real.

"Think of all the things we did for survival for millions of years that we haven't since the Industrial Age. We no longer had to move along the landscape," he said.

Leonard moved along the landscape, at $2 a mile, and wrote with honesty and poignancy about that lost world.