Food Feature: Abandoned by the black cabs

The Knowledge bites my bottom in London

Andy managed to leave me with nothing more than a rumpled street map and the nonsensical name and address of a pub in Camden Town. What good is the name of a pub like The Sooty Goat when it sounds no different from 10,000 other pub names in London?

His voicemail was of even less help. Beep — "So we'll see you at The Goat, yeah? If you're in West Hampstead — and I suspect you are — then don't muck with the tube. It'll just confuse you. Try to find a black cab, which has this thing called The Knowledge. Cheers!" — Click.

Well thank God for that bit of wisdom. I'd much rather keep myself straight at the mercy of menacing sentient dark roadsters than on a crazy-quilt subway network, sure. Under sullen afternoon skies, I flipped out the shredded map. The schematic resembled a 19th-century illustration of a snake plague allegory, with noodly, writhing streets laid out all over one another. I decided, well, heck, if I walk in any one direction long enough, I'm bound to hit a major thoroughfare and find one of these sinister black cabs. I marched into the bracing wind, thinking it must have originated from True North.

Ninety minutes and three dead-ends later, I found myself in a town-home cluster punctuated by minute front yards, all brimming with explosive, garish shrubbery. Not a single leaf was native. I recognized a gangly weed identical to one I had yanked up from my own yard two weeks ago. This one had a proper horticultural marker with its Latin moniker emblazoned on the front.

By now, I had picked up on a key trick when macheteing through London byways: Follow the uniformed schoolchildren. They know every labyrinthine escape route from Cornwall to the East End. Of course, some mindful parents greeted my stalking with a hard scowl, but this was business. I spotted a blue uniformed schoolgirl as she disappeared behind a row house with a book bag over her shoulder. I followed with dispatch.

And, as the English say, voila. There laid the raging urban artery. I leapt to the curb and began hailing. The first three black cars, sadly, weren't cabs at all, but two angry suits in Mercedes and a frenetic, shouting young mother in a station wagon.

I finally realized that the black cabs must be those clunky, oldfangled rattletraps littering the lanes. I flagged one, both hands flapping in the air. The cab pulled up in front of me, and I jumped inside.

"Excuse me," I said. I thought I should start the conversation politely — after all, the Brits are nothing if not proper.

"Weya edded," growled the cabbie.

Oh dear.

"The Knowledge," I replied. "I'm looking for a cabby with The Knowledge."

"Owh, so yeh wont th' knoledge, eh?" he said, turning the corner.

His car stopped right at the curb after the corner.

"Eere's yeh nowlege. Five pawnds."

I looked around the cab. We'd ridden half a block. That said, this was a big cabby who looked like he'd lost teeth the hard way. I handed him a five-pound note and jumped out of the cab ... right into the passing lane. I'd forgotten that cars drive on the left. A few seconds of scrambling for limbs and dignity found me hugging the corner railing as the cabby sped off into the rush.

If at first you don't succeed, flap arms wildly and continue with ritualized embarrassment. I caught the attention of another black cab, and jumped in as it pulled up.

"Where yah goin'?" asked the cabby.

"Well, I'm looking for a cabby with The Knowledge. Do you have it?" I asked.

The driver gave me a sneer as if he expected me to pull a prank. "Wot, are you makin fun o' me?" he asked. He'd already pulled back into the street and was heading down the road.

"No, no!" I said. "What is The Knowledge?"

"Every black cab 'as a driver wit Tha Knowledge," he said. "It's a certifoid mental map o' tha city."

I reclined and let this process for a moment as the cab buzzed down the street. I accepted that this bloke knew how to go places.

"That's fantastic!" I exclaimed. "So you'll know how to get me to Camden, then."

He ripped the car to a halt. "You're standin on tha wrong side o' tha road ta get ta Camden, mistah," he said. "Six Pounds."

I looked across the street to the car-choked opposite lane. There wasn't a black cab in sight for blocks, anywhere in the motionless traffic.

"I'm headed home, mistah," the cabby said. I coughed up the dough and climbed out of my second cab, this time on the left.

After two cab denials, I still had no real idea where I was going. I meandered in yet another direction for a block or two among gray Victorian town homes. I finally reached another unhelpful street corner, accepted defeat, and turned to trudge back to Andy's flat.

It was then that I saw it — the familiar broad white street sign with bold, black block letters that I knew so well: Abbey Road.

I laughed — a polite, self-deprecating English chuckle. I still wasn't getting anywhere, but I knew exactly where I was.

Black cab phobic John Travis Sutton is a former columnist and editor of Athens' Flagpole Magazine. He visits London often, but has yet to make it to The Sooty Goat.


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