Tuesday, June 23, 2015
It’s a noble thing to drive a cab in New York City, unless you happen to be the one doing it. You haven’t really lived until you line up next to Hajjii and Sheik, Dominico, Lesbetina, and the rest of the world’s poor and beleaguered. They understood, as only the poor do, that they had to work twelve hour days, six or seven days a week, without falling down dead in order to survive the day to day, week to week, month to month, American grind; thinking in years, well, was unthinkable.
The smells of goat meat, red beans swimming in an unknowable meat mixture, and what might be some illegally fresh killed rooster, floated around my head as I waited for a cab to be assigned to me. Each of my fellow drivers held cell phones, and most were on them already, though their conversations at four fifteen in the morning were a mystery to me. Most things in this life had remained a mystery to me.
Here I was, a few years past sixty, parts of my body dead or in the process of dying, trying to summon up enough strength to turn the key in the ignition and get on with the day.
“Fortune!” the man behind the raised glass partition bellowed.
“Yeah, here, right here.”
“You drew her again, Fortune, ol’ number thirteen,” he said. He looked down at me and smiled. I could see the stain of a hundred thousand cigarettes and decades of bad dental care.
“Christ, that shit box is falling apart; you give me that car every goddamn time you’re on. Why is that? You got a hardon for me, or what?”
“Figure it out, Fortune. You want the keys or not?” He started to sing, Come Rain Or Come Shine: I’m gonna love ya, like nobody’s loved ya,... with as much gusto as he could summon. The others in the room barely noticed. Very few of them knew the song to begin with, but they, too, probably breathed a sigh of relief knowing that “ol’ number thirteen” had already been assigned to someone else.
I knew why Calloway, that mick cocksucker, gave me thirteen all the time: I didn’t grease him. I didn’t let any of the money I broke my ass earning, slip into his whiskey fingers. I knew most, if not all, of the other drivers, slipped him a few bucks, but I’d be goddamned if I’d give him a solitary cent. I’d rather die of bone cancer. I took the keys and the trip sheet from the mouth of the window, went over to a table, scribbled my name, social security number and hack license on it, then went into the darkness.
The fleet I was working for had about seventy cabs, but they never told you where any of them were parked. Your cab could either be in the lot--which was always highly doubtful--or anywhere on the block. It was especially fun when it rained.
You could no longer smoke in cabs, so I lit a cigarette once outside. I did better in 1972 when I first drove a Checker cab, and you could do just about anything in them. Back then you drove an eight hour day, got forty-nine percent of the meter, and all the tips you made. You just brought the cab back, filled out your trip log and split. You didn’t have to pay for gas, repairs, or anything else. Now, you had to buy shifts up front. You had to work either day on the weekends and any other shifts you chose. The tab was a hundred a day during the week, eighty-five on Saturday or Sunday, plus gas. The owners of the fleet pretended they were psychiatrists: you missed an appointment you paid regardless.
The weather was oppressive. My sneakers stuck to the sticky gravel and pebbles; pits the owners never bothered to fill as a result of rain, snow, traffic, or random killings. I scraped them off when I hit the street. My underarms had already begun to perspire.
New York City streets, even at this hour of the morning, still had a certain buzz to them. If you knew where to go, where the after hour clubbers and revelers never had enough, you’d make a couple of bucks between the hours of four and seven, when your regulars emerged.
“Hey Charlie, you lookin for thirteen?” our black mechanic said to me as I was crossing the street. He laughed and let loose a stream of spit from his mouth. He wore a black Fedora and a guinea t-shirt and greasy stained chinos held up by a pair of suspenders.
“What else, man?”
“She’s down the block, on the right. He sure stickin it right up your ass, man.”
“The only thing he’s gonna come out with is a hand full of shit. Maybe I’ll just kick his ass one day, just for the hell of it.”
“He nasty, that sonofabitch is.”
“So am I.”
I wasn’t nasty. I wasn’t near nasty. But you can’t tell too many people that. Besides, I’d grown up on the hard scrabble streets of Brooklyn, with a father who loved boxing and violence. I’d been no stranger to verbal intimidation and even though my first reaction was to choke and stew for a very long time, I’d erupted now and again. I’d also learned that your foes will either know or find out soon enough if you are to be feared or respected. Nobody had ever made another person or group cross the street because he was tough with his craft or his art.
“Have a good one,” was all Curtis said, as I shuffled off down the block. “You, too,” I called back over my shoulder as I made off to find my home for the next twelve hours. But it wasn’t really twelve hours. By the time you found your cab and began your day, until the time you had to bring her back, which usually shaved an hour off your shift, you really clocked ten hours and change. They had you by the balls.
My wife had me by the balls, too, even though she was no longer my wife. She cut out on me well over three years ago. “I can’t take it anymore,” was what she said. “I need to find out who the hell I am, but living with you and your problems, makes that impossible. I’m miserable. You’re miserable. We’re miserable. I’m going.” And she did. Quickly. But I still loved her. I thought about her constantly. There wasn’t a block I could go down, a corner I could turn, a morning, afternoon or evening that I didn’t think of the times we spent together and what she was doing now. I thought that driving a cab would help. To an extent it did. But there was a void in my chest that nothing would fill, and that was that.
I’d met her when she was a kid freshly arrived from Japan, with stars in her eyes and dreams in her heart. Over the course of many years living with me, I’m sure I’d extinguished quite a few of them.
When I’d seen that she was falling in love with me, I tried to tell her that this wouldn’t last. Our age difference was too large; I was too moody, too set in my ways, too much the fool, too many physical illnesses to fade, too many compulsions. But me, being the fool I am, let it go on. Let it go on--until I’d fallen madly in love with her.
Why don’t you eat my pussy? she asked me one evening. I looked up at her from the narcotic mist I’d been under for well over a year. I was taking legally prescribed percocets for a diabetic ulceration, but I had embellished just how much “pain” I was in, and was given an amount which far exceeded my needs, except my emotional ones.
Eat your pussy? I innocently asked. Well, it never crossed my mind.
Why not? I love how you eat my pussy. I love to cum when you eat my pussy. I know what you’re going through, but I’m going through hell, too.
Shit, I don’t know, it never crossed my mind, I repeated, wearing this glazed stupefied expression. I’ve never just satisfied a woman that way.
You mean you don’t want to satisfy a woman when you’re not being satisfied. When there’s nothing in it for you, then there’s simply nothing in it for anyone, is that it?
“Where to, folks?” I’d picked up a fare outside a famous lounge, Butterfield 8, the name of the bungalow that Howard Hughes had stayed in at The Beverly Hills Hotel decades ago, and the name of the movie with Elizabeth Taylor playing a prostitute. The three in my cab reminded me of neither. They were young, still smelling of piss. They also reeked from the vodka they’d consumed. It filled the cab with a sweet, sickly smell; it made me slightly nauseous.
“Can we smoke?” a chick in the back asked. A razor thin girl with bad skin.
“Sorry,” I said, “if I get caught, it costs me a days’ pay.”
“Don’t worry,” the kid said, “I’ll pay whatever it costs.”
“Hey, that’s cool,” I responded, “give me a hundred and ten up front and smoke to your heart’s content. In fact, if you do that, I might smoke one, too.”
He kept his hands out of his pockets and just gave me three different destinations for my passengers, but the hour was early, the traffic light. The fare came to twelve dollars and change. He gave me fifteen and departed. “Thanks,” I said. If he heard that, which I doubted, he didn’t acknowledge it. Most fares I’d picked up didn’t acknowledge much of anything, or make anything that could pass for conversation, unlike the first time I drove when people weren’t as isolated or removed from their immediate reality by cell phones, Walkmen, and iPods...
I shot back downtown to where the only action was at this time of day. You could line up at one of the major hotels and try to get a fare to the airport, if you were willing to wait on a taxi line. Waiting was never one of my strong suits. And, as far as waiting at an airport for a return fair: forget about that. That was torture. You’d wait up to two, three hours and then maybe, maybe, you’d get a fare back into Manhattan, rather than a “shortie” into Queens or Brooklyn. No thanks. Not for me.
The Meat Market. For years, besides being the distribution center for all the meat that gets into the restaurants, supermarkets, and specialty stores of Manhattan, it was the stomping grounds of transvestite and transsexual hookers who provided the quick back seat blowjob for the cabbie, truck driver, and the upper to middle class Joe on their ways home to their lock jawed wives in New Jersey. This neighborhood had become too trendy for the girls to freely market their trade as they had done in years past. Clubs, boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and a hotel with no name, had sprouted on the streets, and provided eyes that disapproved of the independent, but sordid business, of the girls. There were unarticulated parameters for “the hip” to step through the velvet rope. Only on the weekends during the summer, when the cognoscenti were safely sequestered in The Hamptons were the bridge and tunnel crowd welcomed.
Most of the streets were cobblestone and slick with the embedded smell of blood, of decades of livestock, hooked and spun into the fluorescent glow of the butcher’s cleaver. Wait long enough in New York City and it will all come to where you are, whether you want it to or not.
Second Avenue was empty. I sped downtown. In a few minutes time I stood before Lotus, a club known for its meat market “hipness,” and watched as a group of “new swells” hung out, near the curb. Puffing on cigarettes, puking, gazing into the neon ether of street lamps, they tried to decide where to go: home, to another party, destination, open stool, promise or hope? Just give me a fare, I thought. A fucking fare. Hopefully uptown. Ten to twenty bucks. Fuck the tip. Who cared? Each buck earned was mine, tip or not.
The manager--you could tell because he was dressed in “better black”--began to pull the steel shutters down. Before he was finished a kid came out lugging his DJ equipment and motioned for me to open my trunk. I pushed the button near my armrest and the trunk sprung up. I knew he didn’t need any help and I didn’t offer any. The benefits of age. I learned it didn’t mean a damn thing if I helped this kid or not. I hoped the fare would be to Brooklyn, the Bronx, shit, maybe Staten Island.
“I’m going to Baxter, off Broadway,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied. Maybe six bucks. Maybe. The traffic was still light and we got there in a few minutes. “What’s here?” I asked.
“After hours, man. Chinese chicks. Hot, man.”
“Five seventy,” I said.
“Here’s ten, keep it.”
He got out and I popped the trunk. After I was sure he got all the equipment he stored and the trunk was slammed, I put her in gear and cruised uptown. I’d known I’d picked up just about the last fare from the known lounges and decided on going to a gay club on 20th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. If nothing else, there’d be some cabbies, some of whom I knew, hanging around, and a porter who sometimes touted me onto some business.
There was one cab in front of me as I pulled up to the curb in back of him. I left the motor running, got out and lit a cigarette. I walked to where the first cab stood, wanting to find out if there was enough action upstairs to warrant me staying.
“How’s it going, brother?” I asked him.
“You got a smoke?”
I shook one out of my pack and gave him one. Cigarettes now were seven to eight dollars a pack, thanks to Bloomberg. Let the poor and addicted pay for the richly addicted. “I just got here, man. Where else you gonna go? The streets dead now.”
Hector had been driving for twenty-five years and was fried to a crisp. I looked up at the coming dawn. A soft wattage was breaking, which allowed you to see the geometric innocence.
I looked at Hector who looked at the burning cigarette between his index and middle fingers. The faces of all those who I knew and saw since I started my shift, came into focus. I tried to figure out why and couldn’t. Perhaps, I said to myself, because all of us essentially wanted the same things, even that mick prick, Calloway: get through the day, have a meal, a drink, and maybe get close to a woman’s haunches; we all just wanted a way to make it. Nobody, of course, was guaranteed any or all of that. Why some men suckled huge, giving, breasts night after night and others were locked-up like pet rodents was another mystery.
I had one eye on the strip club across the street. Maybe I’d get a fair to Queens. When money becomes as important, if not more important, than pussy, you know you’ve turned a corner in your life. A Mercedes was idling at the curb. I turned to Hector. “What time did you start?”
“I told you already, man.”
“Yeah, right, right.” I had nothing else to say to him. I never did. If he took the lead, I heard him out. Otherwise, we usually smoked in silence. I walked over to the door of the gay club. The porter was inside using Windex on the mirrors, the doors would be next. He smiled when he saw me. A diminutive man with skin the color of dark coffee, he wore a short sleeved white shirt and khakis; both garments had seen better days. I offered him a cigarette. He smiled, took it, and tucked it away in his breast pocket.
“Yeah, busy, busy. Least twenty or more people. A few I know go to Queens and one goes to Long Island. You wait.”
“Thanks.” I turned around and went out the door. It’s amazing, sometimes, what the least amount of kindness could buy, I thought. It ain’t “kindness,” it’s “barter,” that’s what it really is. How old do I have to be to get it straight? I laughed to myself and went back to my cab, which was now coughing up a storm.
“Better shut that fucking thing off, man,” Hector said, “if you want to see the end of the fucking day.”
I reached inside and turned the ignition key. The engine died and the car wheezed and choked before releasing it’s grip on life.
The end of the day. I’d get home fractured from the grind. And then what? For the briefest of seconds you’re happy handing over the keys and trip sheet, walk outside the decrepit office, light a cigarette and inhale, savoring the smoke that reached your lungs unencumbered by your next fare, your eyes readjusted to just seeing things and not constantly searching out people who either are, or might be, looking for a cab. Take a bus to your pad, climb the flights, open your door, and walk into...emptiness.
Not quite emptiness; if it were only emptiness it wouldn’t be so bad. It was over forty years of books, music, loves, half baked ideas, still born novels, rubberbanded rejections, a few successes framed, reams of poetry, pictures, papers, tumbling weeds, furniture that dated back to my childhood, pens, and more pens, a phone that hardly rang, (though sometimes I looked over at it as if it were about to), and her. She was all over the pad. In my towels, sheets, underwear, socks, sweaters, shirts, in the stones on my window sill and the ones in my stomach, cards in and out of my desk, the air. At times I felt I couldn’t turn my head, let alone turn around, without getting cut.
“Hey, Charlie, wake the fuck up, man, you got a fare,” Hector shouted as he eased his way into the street with one of his own. I looked over at him and saw him grinning from ear to ear. At first I felt a little confused coming out of the daze I was in, then I saw my fare. He stood at least 6’6”, weighed well over 250, white, black hair curled on his bare chest which was crossed with two, thick, black leather belts that tied themselves onto another belt, but thicker, and studded with silver studs, around his stomach. Under that he wore nothing, nothing except a black leather jock strap. Hmm, this should be fun, I said to myself, as he slid into the back seat.
“Where to?” I deadpanned.
“Thirty-fourth and Eighth Avenue,” he said in a voice that was much softer and modulated than I would have expected. “Do you know the hotel on that corner?”
“Know it, I do.”
“Thank you,” he said.
I took off through the darkness and went down Eighth to his hotel. He paid the fare, gave me a decent enough tip and got out. He entered the revolving doors, passed a uniformed employee and a person who manned the desk. Neither turned a head. I watched as he went to the elevators, punched the button and stood there, waiting, without the least trace of self-consciousness. I eased back into traffic. At one time that hotel belonged to a self-appointed Dr. No; a guru/minister of some kind of Asian faith. He had disciples that numbered in the thousands who stayed there. I wondered if my last fare would have been allowed to convert, given his appearance. I felt sure he’d be welcomed, if he had some dough.
Sure enough, not long after one, the afternoon sun blazing, humidity hanging off my rear view mirror, and the sweat clinging to my arms and back, “ol’ number thirteen” began to lurch and stall; the temperature gauge inched further upward, still within reason, but I knew, not for much longer. C’mon baby, I coaxed, a few more hours, just a few, baby, then I’ll take you home, get you some water. Try to relax, baby. Every time I tried to get downtown to Battery Park City and give her and myself a reprieve I was hailed somewhere in midtown. The passenger usually asked me to take him or her cross town, into the thickest, most fucked up, traffic. It seemed every main thoroughfare and side street had some kind of construction going on. You just stood, idling in exhaust fumes, going nowhere. The passengers these days usually were on a cell phone speaking to either their next appointment, broker, lover or, for all I knew, a suicide prevention worker. It seemed that if they weren’t speaking to someone it somehow would have diminished them in my eyes, but more probably their own.
A cabbie makes no money standing still, contrary to popular belief. If one was to just keep the meter running for a twelve hour shift it would amount to the cost of the cab for the day. You made money two ways: movement and turnover, plus tips. Going from the west side on 52nd Street let’s say, to 52nd and Second, the tab might be three sixty or so. If your fare gave you four bucks, (which was usually the case), you were royally screwed. That’s why a day driver usually averaged between eighty and a hundred a day, after expenses. There’s always a balance to whatever you do, especially for those on the margins.
After dropping off a fair near Gracie Mansion, I put my Off Duty light on and went down a dead end street and shut off the cab. She heaved and sighed and came to a rest. I took a pull from a huge bottle of mineral water I carried. I opened the hood and peeled myself out like a crippled tinker toy, and lit a smoke. The sun tattooed itself on my forehead. Even my polarized sunglasses struggled against the light. It felt good to stand. I began stretching my six foot plus frame as far as my ligaments and tendons would let me, which wasn’t much.
Some of those who came out of the building where I was double parked looked me over for a second. First they registered some apprehension and then saw my cab and felt better. Some nodded to me, asking if I’d take a fare. I nodded them away. I might be in the shit house, but it was my shit house. Besides, my pad, was rent controlled. Fuckem. I could be a sport for three twenty-seven fifty a month. Hell, it cost me over forty years of my life. They shouldn’t even charge me that. The bastards. Every time my landlord saw me, which wasn’t often, he’d asked if I’d contracted any form of fatal disease. He kept offering me money to leave. I’d always asked if I could move in with him, fuck his wife, or daughter and sit down to a meal. It didn’t sit well with him, but not very much did. It was a good thing I knew a thing or two about fixing crappers or else I’d have to find the nearest gas station in the middle of the night. Not fun in the neighborhood I lived in. At least that was the story until Julio moved in. Julio’s reputation preceded him. We began to run into each other in the halls, outside the building, in the corner bar, and became as friendly as we once were. When the landlord discovered that, all of his bullshit stopped. It stopped dead. In fact, he now went out of his way to be nice to me. I never asked what invoked such changes, but I didn’t have to.
This neighborhood had nice crappers, even in the park. The grass, brown and lifeless all over town, was green here, and moist. You could lie down in such grass. Daydream. The air was cleaner. It smelled salty from the river. I wondered if some of the expenses for the condos and co-ops was the price of air. It certainly seemed they chipped in and paid for it.
I flipped the cigarette toward the curb and got back into the cab. When the ignition caught, the temperature needle climbed further upward. Obviously, the rest helped neither of us. I shut off the engine and walked over to a phone booth on the corner.
“Service,” the voice on the other end said.
“This is Fortune. My cab is about to explode.”
“Yeah, fuckin explode. Whatdayawantmetodo?”
“How hot? Hot enough to fry your mother’s ovaries into dust.”
“You don’t have to be funny.”
“Who’s bein funny? Whatdayawant...”
“Bring her in. Where are you?”
I told him and he advised me to drive slowly to Fifth Avenue, the Avenue of least resistance this time of day, go down it “carefully,” and bring her to the service department.
“You’ll give me credit for some time lost?”
“We’ll see once we check her out.”
“Fuck it, I’ll drive and let her burn.”
“No, no, come in, you got three hours.”
“See ya later.”
Windows opened and with my Off Duty light still on, I made it back to the shop. The garage entrance was so narrow it seemed they never wanted to have a cab brought up there to be serviced. I didn’t care how many tries I had to make. I tooled the sonofabitch up the stiff ramp.
“What is it this time?” Rufus asked.
“Gonna blow, brother, any second. Better get your gloves on, flak jacket, goggles.”
I dragged my ass down the ramp and into the office. The air conditioner dripped with the regularity of a patient on diuretics. I handed the trip sheet to Tommy, a decent enough fellow.
“You owe me for three. I’ll deduct it from next week’s rent.”
“Sure. Take it easy.”
When I walked out into this wet horse blanket of a city, I had the stupid sensation of being free.
© 2015 Norman Savage
Part of my novel: THE TROUBLE WITH DREAMS--2007
Greenwich Village, 2015