I like to think of Barry Rovner as my personal driver. Last week I interviewed taxi driver Ellen Rae, whom I met through Barry, as it was his day off, and I will take the liberty of thinking of her as my driver on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I find that telling myself I have a driver does wonders for my self-esteem. It's not that I take taxis every day, but I have discovered a trick, a way around the prohibitive fare that has kept me a slave to the MTS bus or trolley on a daily basis -- and that is making friends with the drivers. Making friends, you might think, one eyebrow forming a little tent. That's not exactly your style, is it, old lemon? Well, another shortcut in life I tumbled to some time ago is that making friends is often no more than the habit of listening to people. Of course, more often than not this is impossible, as I (and possibly you) have discovered that the bulk of my fellow man consists of screwballs, people I could never cozy up to on a bet.
But take Barry Rovner, for example, not as a screwball but maybe as an exception that proves the rule. He is an imposing-looking man, an effect mellowed by his Captain Kangaroo/cookie-duster mustache. At a quick glance, he looks like a benevolent Russian sea captain. Physically, I may not exactly be his opposite number, but close enough. Politically, Rovner is a challenging-looking bear that seems (to me) to lean to the right. If you scratch me with a political finger you will soon find a milksop liberal, a bowel-quivering, white-flag-waving patriot, a "Can't-we-all-just-get-along" Volvo-driving (I actually owned one) "Kumbaya"-singing tree hugger who feels better when the cops aren't around. Rovner is none of these things; but he's a good guy and he'll work with you, even on your whacky ideas about global warming.
"Yeah," Barry said one Friday, heading south on 805, "I guess I got some opinions about stuff." He spoke, as always, over his shoulder and over the voices of his dispatcher and either Rush Limbaugh or Roger Hedgecock. "I'm probably center to maybe right-of-center on some things. It depends on the issue. I won't say Republican or Democrat. It just depends on the person involved."
"Right," I tell him. "I've picked up a certain lack of affection for our Speaker of the House. Is that fair to say?"
"Oh, that is very fair. I believe she is one heck of a hypocrite. She got the César Chávez Award from the United Farm Workers Union and campaign contributions from the labor movement while, on the other hand, both the winery and the hotel up north that she and her husband operate employ nonunion workers. Most recently she said that, as Speaker of the House, she wants an airplane that's about the size of a 757, while her predecessor got along just fine with a Gulfstream-sized plane."
Rovner expresses further lack of love lost between himself and a certain gentleman from Pennsylvania, a Democratic congressman who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam case in the '70s. Rovner then went on to "both senators from New York state, Senator Schumer and Senator Clinton. Schumer likes to hog up the camera, and he gives you the impression he's a real ambulance-chaser-type lawyer, which I heard he was before he got into politics."
Rovner says he would most like to see either Duncan Hunter or Rudy Giuliani in the oval office. "Look what Giuliani did in New York City in the mid '90s. He improved the quality of life, cleaned up Times Square."
"Like Seaport Village," I offered.
"What?" Rovner asked.
"Panhandlers on every streetcorner, street people holding you hostage while they clean your windshield with dirty water. Something has to be done [in San Diego] as well. Some are just down on their luck, and some just seem to be career street people, and something has to be done about them. Maybe they could get something going like the old workers' projects in the '30s. Like, maybe they could clean up weeds, clean up this graffiti. Something on the order of what Roosevelt did."
The 53-year-old former Angelino has some advice for the local mass-transit officials: "If they were to go ahead and make more stops and routes to where people live and work, that would be an improvement. They could make routes and bus and trolley travel more attractive, that's for sure, and could get more people out of their cars.
"I base my taxi-driving philosophy on one-third cruising, one-third answering radio calls, and one-third trying to recruit customers. Some days I get more action from one or the other. I probably have about a dozen regular customers like you. Of course, customers do drop off, and I'm always in the process of trying to replenish." Barry Rovner has been driving a cab for a little more than three years and on the whole has had fairly good luck with his fellow man. The one fare who puked did it over the outside of the passenger door; and he was once flashed by a car full of college girls in place of a tip. "In somebody's scrapbook back in Oregon there's a picture of me, the cab I drove, and the three coeds, properly dressed in the picture."
"You give people the benefit of the doubt quite a bit."
"Some people might get cynical. You have to kind of work at it. You have to like to meet people."
This seemed a good time to steer the conversation away from where we differed. After all, I had sidestepped a number of political mines a few minutes earlier, and so the conversation took a sharp U-turn into old movies. Rovner and I ate up miles to the dentist discussing Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Elisha Cook, Jr., old Naked City episodes, and long-forgotten television turkeys. I must thank Barry for helping me get through a long tooth-drilling ordeal by trying to remember all the words to the theme song of Car 54, Where Are You?