Wednesday, September 29, 2010


A thin guy in his middle thirties. Said he used to drive cab at my old company. He started dropping names. I knew some. I didn't know others. In the cab business you can talk to a driver for years and not know his name. I was going to say "his or her name" but I always know the names of the women.

"Remember Jack?" the ex-driver asked.

"The dispatcher?"

"Yeah - he died last year.

"It wasn't soon enough!" The words exploded out of me. "I'm glad he's dead!"

We were both shocked by my outburst.

I drove in on in silence for a few minutes while he looked nervously about as if trying to decide whether nor not he should bolt. He finally decided that I wasn't immediately dangerous and changed the subject. I think he talked about the Giants until we arrived at his destination where, as is the custom with many ex-cab drivers, he under-tipped me and walked off smiling as if he'd done me a favor.

I turned off the car and sat stunned, staring out over a small park. I had no idea that I carried so much anger, so much hatred around with me.

Jack was the head dispatcher at my first company twenty years earlier. He was tall and well-built with dark hair and good looks. He spoke in a whinny, New York intellectual, Woody Allen way, as if he'd read every book in the world and found them all beneath him. He knew endless trivia about Joyce, Pound, Stein etc. and constantly made allusions to their works.

His intellectual pretension was one of the things I despised most about him. I mean, here he was  - this superior being, talking about Baudelaire while extracting $5 from me before he'd let me go to work.

"- Hypocrite reader - my fellow - mon frere." Personally, I doubt he'd ever gone beyond Cliff Notes.

I took him home in my taxi once and he talked to me as he was an aristocrat straining to communicate with the common man. ("I mean, what do say to such people?" ) He told me that before he'd been "chosen" as a dispatcher (i.e. connived, lied, bribed and blew his way into the job) he was "just a cab driver."

Jake showed us "just cab drivers" what he thought of us every day.

The shifts changed daily at 4:00 pm. And, every day at precisely 4:00 pm, Jake went to the bathroom. He stayed there for 15 or 20 or 25 minutes while dozens and dozens of drivers waited in line losing money, while dozens and dozens of customers desperately wondered why there were no cabs on the street. When he finally showed up, wiping his runny nose, Jake looked at the line of waiting drivers with a sardonic glint and nonchalantly, slowly, started handing out the medallions.

One day, when he'd taken an especially long time fixing his nose, when he was finally reaching out to give me the my taxi license, his hand stopped in mid-air while he started hitting on a nearby woman driver. All smiles and charm. This went on and on.

"Is it okay if I get my medallion?" I finally snapped.

He looked at me and tossed the metal through the window with contempt.

"You don't have to be rude!"

"I don't have to be rude?!!! Fuck you!"

I was walking back to get my cab when a big hand grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around to see Jake hunched a little over, ready to launch a round-house right at my head.

"Come on asshole!" He screamed, "Come on! Fuck me?! Fuck you!"

Jake was as big as I am and, with those big hands, could probably hit hard enough to do some damage but he didn't know how to fight. He was getting ready to throw a slow, sweeping punch. I'd have stepped inside, blocked it and hit him fiver or six time before he could react. It would have been the only punch he threw.

But, I made a mistake. I hesitated and waited for him to move first. And, when I hesitated I thought - thought about how beating on him would cost me my job and how I only took it in the first place because nobody else would hire me. On top of this, Jake would probably have me arrested for assault. All the guys in line would testify on his behalf because they were in the same situation as me.

Suddenly, Jake was right up eye level. My hesitation had emboldened him. He filled with the courage of a beast preying on the weak.

"Come on! Come on!" He screamed, getting closer and closer until he almost bumped my chest.

I stared at him, paralyzed by realism.

"That's right!" He yelled, backing up a step while sticking a finger at my nose. "You don't fuck with me! You wanna get along around here, you get along with me! You got that?"

I turned and walked away. He grabbed me by the shoulder again and spun me back around.

"I asked you a question!" He demanded, "You got that?"

"Yeah," I finally said, "I got that."

I turned and looked around me, my face turning red with humiliation. The other drivers were all staring at the the ground.

I felt the same sense of humiliation every time I saw him after that, every day that he kept me waiting before handing me the medallion with smug superiority, every time that I handed him the $5.

Even more humiliating was the thought that it was all my own fault that I was even there. I should have been the doctor or the lawyer my parents wanted me to be. I should have written better books. I was a "cabbie" - a loser - and Jake rubbed my nose in it every day.

I try to be a follower of Mahatma Gandhi but I'm not that pure. If I'd hit Jake, I never would've thought about him again. I might has well have. They "didn't like my attitude" and canceled my lease a few months later anyway. As it was, as it is, I'd let the anger fester and grow for 20 years ... over a pretentious smuc.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Living the Blues

Tori thought the staging in Aida was tacky.

"Did you expect Radames to ride in on a real elephant? " I asked

"They didn't even have a horse for the triumphal march."

"It's a recession," I said, "they save money on the staging."

"But with Aida the sets are are the main thing," Francoise added.

A specular trio (mezzo, tenor, soprano) finale made me forget everything else about Aida. For me the music is always what it's about, but I wasn't going to argue - it was Francoise's night. After 20 years, she finally owned her medallion; 20 years of driving cabs five or six nights a week to raise three kids on her own; 20 years with no vacations; 20 years of worrying every month about the rent. No, I wasn't going to argue. I raised my bottle of beer.

"To Francoise," I said toasting her.

Tori and Barry,  Francoise's daughter and her boyfriend whose names I never caught joined in, clicking bottles and glasses.

"To Francoise!"

She clicked her glass with us and tossed back a warm, lovely, impish smile.

Yes, I was drinking my beer from a bottle. Inappropriate for a discussion of Aida, perhaps, but perfect for the dumpy, half-empty, blues bar we were sitting in.

It was a pickup night and an old black man standing next to his wheel chair was singing Otis Reddings' Dock of the Bay backed by two aging white guys, a young Asian and a middle-aged Samoan playing  guitars; a half-blind Mexican on a toy piano and a young, blond woman blowing wonderfully on a harmonica. You tell that they either were (or had been) professionals but they were a little out of sync. When the piece ended, a couple of guitars introduced themselves to each other.

As the night went on they got better and better as our conversation grew warmer and friendlier.

We were a good match for each other, the band and us. We were all a little beat up and maybe had seen better days.

Tori, Francoise and I could all have lost 30 pounds without noticing it and Barry always wore a hat to cover his bald spot. Tori and Francoise were artists, Barry a cameraman and I try to write but we all earn our living driving cabs. Probably always will.

We been lied to, we'd been cheated, we'd been robbed, we'd been mistreated.

But, at that moment, as a bass guitar played a duet with the gravel-voiced singer and the harmonica jabbed beautifully over the top, as we rocked in time to the soulful beat, as I noticed Francoise's daughter smiling with adoration at her mother, I wouldn't have lived it any other way.