Daniel Rubin: Singing cabbie offers metered opera

Leonard Louis Lavender, the opera cabbie of the Main Line, wants to demonstrate how he got his idea of "service with a show," so he ushers me into the backseat.

There's more legroom there, and it's the spot where his mystery passenger had ridden six years earlier.

"I was to pick the client up at 4:30 in the morning at the Conshohocken Marriott," he says. "She had to go to the airport."

He nudges a CD into the dashboard player, and the music begins softly: a soulful Italian accordion, a bed of strings, a harp, then the unmistakable tenor of Luciano Pavarotti.

"Good, early-morning music," Lavender says. "The clients like it, too."

But the passenger that early morning in 2006 was more interested in the sound of the driver.

After they exchanged a few pleasantries, she asked him:

"Glee club? Opera club? Church choir?"

No to each, replied Lavender, who was then 46. He'd never sung in his life. Not even in the shower.

But that speaking voice. Was his mother in show business? His father?

He stopped her. "I was supervisor at a Fortune 500 company (restaurant manager), spent some years in college (took business administration), did some time in the service (the U.S. Navy). Now I drive a cab. Never sang."

She wasn't giving up.

"What's your name?

"Lavender."

"That's a stage name," she responded. "You must, then, sing."

And that's what she asked of him, tooling down I-476, a little aria, something majestic.

If he humored her, she promised, she'd leave a good tip. Through the rearview mirror he sized up the middle-aged woman in business dress.

By then the CD was on its last track, the Three Tenors singing  "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata.

He didn't know the words, but he'd listened to the piece so many times in his cab that he started improvising on the spot, his voice big and fearless.

The impresario in the backseat pounded the beige padding, roaring, "Oh, my gosh!"

She tipped him well and bid adieu.

"Come to find out," he says, "she was affiliated some way with Juilliard."

Affiliated how, he doesn't remember. She made no promise to book him into Carnegie Hall or take him to La Scala. But she had set loose a cheerful, raw talent - one he has not stopped sharing.

"It's a gift I never knew I had," says Lavender, barrel-chested with a shaved pate and trim mustache.

Six days a week he sings behind the wheel of his 2005 Crown Vic for most of the 3,617 clients whose numbers he stores in his iPhone. He performed on a recent Royal Caribbean cruise when one of his fares happened to be on the same ship and called him to the open mic. He keeps a photo from that night on his dash. He also does weddings, special occasions.

"He's one of a kind," says Alicia Hartwell, the accounts manager for Main Line Taxi and a former dispatcher who used to hear customers request "that opera cab."

"He's warmhearted, very positive, and definitely a motivator. He can help get people to follow their dreams."

Right now he's living his own dream, building a reputation and, as he puts it, a brand. The Southwest Philadelphia native's odometer reads 260,124 miles, and he has driven clients as far as Hollywood, Fla. - a trip so long you could sing Wagner's entire Ring of the Nibelung and have time for Tosca.

We drove around for a couple of hours the other day, wending through Gladwyne's trophied hills as he belted out the occasional aria, his hands gripping the wheel. He'd been driving since 3:30 a.m.

Back at the station, he stepped out of the cab and offered a verse of  "Ave Maria" into the open air. Finally, he'd found a hall that could hold him.

I asked, did he feel as though he'd been discovered that day back in 2005?

"As a matter of fact," he said, "I was just happy to get her out of my cab."

 


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.