February 18, 2015

Mister O’Connell

"Fer teh love-a-Gad, are t'ere any cars coomin'?!"

Thus spoke the eightysomething Mr. O'Connell from the driver's seat of his taxi as we lurch into traffic in Killarney, Ireland, on a September morning in 2003.

We're holed up in a hostel in this idyllic centre, searching for a means to navigate the nearby Ring of Kerry. At the front desk, the lady points to a tidy arrangement in place with a local tour-runner who goes by the name of O'Connell. Good name, I figure. Seems legit. Next morning, we amble to the lobby and wait with a quiet Norwegian as the lady telephones for the three of us to be picked up.

Some time later, an elderly man hobbles through the door; flat cap, white hairs shooting from his ears, question-mark frame. "Good mooor-ning, Mr. O'Connell," the lady at the desk sing-songs. She points him to his three charges. I think, this guy definitely looks the part; this will be fun.

Anticipating the man to shuffle to a waiting passenger van or tourbus, Mr. O'Connell instead shepherds us to an idling cab and tells us to get in. We exchange a questioning glance with the Norwegian. Wide-eyed, he shrugs, shakes his head nervously. Since the two of us are together, Kerry and I claim the back seats. The Norwegian takes shotgun. We buckle in.

Boxed by cars parked behind and in front, Mr. O'Connell collapses into his seat and shifts into gear. His face shrouded by the bill of his cap, he does not look up. "Are t'ere any cars?!"

We do not speak. The Norwegian does not speak.

Mr. O'Connell points his cap toward the Norwegian. "Are t'ere cars?" he barks.

Reality sinks in. My God, we are spending the day with this man. On narrow roads. Cliff-hugging roads, potentially clogged with many sheep.

Louder. "Fer teh love-a-Gaaad, are t'ere any cars coomin'?!"

The Norwegian's eyes dart to me, then the street. He stammers: "No! No!"

O'Connell inches into traffic, not talking, guiding us through town. Nobody breathes a word, but our thoughtwaves are loud and clear: we are spending this day in a taxi, driven by a old man with nothing left to lose.

We breathe at last, when he pulls into a lot alongside an idling beast of a bus, and tells us to get out. His work is finished, and our day begins.

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