Blue Collar Intellectuals: The Cabbie

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Planetary Society

Part of Appetite for the Cosmos, a five-part series on The Planetary Society's blog.

Last summer, one hot afternoon, I was running late to pick up my daughter at day camp. Rather than scurry in the Sun, I hailed an air-conditioned cab to take me the remaining eight blocks. The driver was uncharacteristically energetic, full of life, and chatty. Not yet out of his early twenties. Within the first two blocks, I learned that he was recently married and had a newborn kid. By the third block, he said he recognized me, first from my voice, and then from whatever I might have looked like in his rear view mirror, through the plexiglass divider between the rear seat from the front. He had seen my PBS NOVA series on cosmic origins that aired the previous Fall and was excited beyond his already high level of energy that I was in his cab.

Over the next three blocks came a rapid fire of a dozen questions—on the search for life in the universe, black holes, the big bang, string theory, and the future of Earth. Most of this time he was not looking at the road or the pedestrians crossing the road, but was instead looking back at me as his questions rolled off his tongue.

Upon arriving at my destination, the fare was $4.70. And I was happy to draw $6.00 from my wallet to hand him. At this point, he flatly refused the payment, saying it was his honor to have me in his cab, answering all his questions.

I don't know if I will ever fully understand how a young man, just married, with a baby, driving a NYC taxi, could refuse payment for a fare just because he learned some new things about the universe. True, the fare was not large, but as a father of two, I will not soon forget the incessant cost of diapers and bottles and baby clothes. And the fellow behaved as though he would have refused to accept any fare, perhaps justifying the decision because a longer cab ride would have meant that even more of his questions would be answered.

On exiting the cab I asked for his address, which he gave, and when I returned to my office the next day, I prepared and sent a package of cosmic stuff—Hubble posters, books, astro-stickers, mission buttons, and a NASA bib for his baby.