6 to 6
by Mather Schneider
(Terror House Press, 2020)

Mather Schneider, an American writer now residing in Mexico, once made his living driving a taxicab in Tucson, Arizona. He has recently published, through Terror House Press, 6 to 6, a collection of sketches of his passengers culled from 15 years behind the wheel on the hot desert streets of southern Arizona. These brief portraits, scalding in their blunt directness, transport the reader into the broken world of America’s dispossessed and abandoned souls, men and women barely surviving on the margins of society, moving about the city of Tucson in Schneider’s cab on subsidized vouchers. The sketches are bitter medicine for the “Make America Great Again” crowd and best taken in small doses to preserve sanity. But they feel truthful and emotionally honest. Schneider is exposing what most of us would rather not see: the detritus left behind by unfettered capitalism in the neoliberal era we are living, barely, through. Though Schneider, mirroring society’s neglect, wears a mask of cynical indifference to the plight of his miserable passengers, occasionally the mask slips to reveal his underlying compassion and anger.

Cab drivers are transitory figures on our urban landscape, always traveling to other people’s destinations, never fully arriving anywhere, homeless nomads who bear witness to the American scene while remaining removed from it, detached. They are solitary outsiders who possess a unique knowledge about our country, accumulated from discreet observation of their fares, who drop into their cabs carrying unseen baggage. Schneider became skilled at reading them.

His fares are the wretched of the earth: men and women he delivers to hospitals, doctors’ offices, dialysis centers, addiction treatment resorts, casinos, and Circle K grocery stores, where they buy lotto tickets and junk food. By and large, they are aged, diseased, overweight, desperate, and poor. They reside in trailer parks, rundown apartment buildings, nursing homes, and housing for the homeless. Many of them are regulars in his cab, who chat with him about their trials and travails. Some are drunk or high on marijuana. One is a gangster who uses the cab to collect extortion money from terrified victims whom he “protects.” (How similar the perversion of language used by criminals and politicians.) Collectively, they comprise America’s underbelly, the shattered and forgotten nudged to the edge of the urban wasteland. Occasionally, Schneider offsets them with sketches of spoiled and arrogant well-to-dos who spout bigotry against Mexicans, give him incorrect addresses,  and wallow in ingratitude for their undeserved good fortune. His sympathies lie with Tucson’s Hispanic population and the vast silent Sonoran desert surrounding the city.

Schneider is an astute observer and a skillful writer whose prose often approaches poetry. He spices his descriptions of people and places with disturbing imagery. Here he is, picking up two fares at a trailer park for a trip to the hospital: “She looks like death on a muffin; he’s a sewer-ape in a trench coat.” Arrived at the hospital, “they tumble out of the cab like dice.” In the heat of Tucson’s blistering summer, “the sun bubbled in the sky like a tick swollen with spoiled butter.” Images of sickness, disease, and decrepitude sprout from his portraits of people. His language softens when he gazes at the desert. While waiting for an overly voluble fare to return from an errand, “I sit in my cab looking at the desert. A rush runs through me like water and I want to reach out of myself toward the dry red hills. The Native Americans believe the giant saguaro cacti that cover the hills are their ancestors. I look at them standing out there, hundreds of years without a human voice. I’m happy they’re like that.”

Don’t conclude from this review that Schneider is a misanthrope. He is patient with fares who are rude, bossy, and unappreciative. He is caring and helpful to the weak and vulnerable. And he is nearly always non-judgmental. He maintains the artist’s role, which is to witness and offer us what he has seen and experienced. That it’s not a pretty sight is no fault of his.

If there is a fault to be found in this collection, and it is a minor flaw, it occurs when Schneider is unable to conceal his revulsion at a particularly unsavory character or situation. This rarely happens, and when it does, you forgive him, because tolerance does have its limits.

Click here to buy 6 to 6 from Terror House Press.