It's often been said that New York is a city of infinite variety but, to be more accurate, I prefer to say it's a city of infinite realities - infinite realities all jammed together in such a tight space that you are in a constant state of exposure to them. It can be amazing how quickly you may find yourself in an utterly different reality than the one you were in just moments ago.
No one knows this better than a taxi driver...
Last Monday night just before midnight I sat in front of Nobu's on 57th Street waiting for a fare. Two middle-aged women came out of the trendy, expensive Japanese restaurant and climbed in. One was going to Gramercy Park and the other on to the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. In overhearing some of their ebullient chatter I ascertained that there had been a party at Nobu's to celebrate the opening of the movie MUSIC AND LYRICS, a romantic comedy which premiered at the Zeigfield Theater in midtown earlier in the evening.
"Did you see Drew?" one asked the other.
"Not at the restaurant," replied her friend, "but she was sitting right in front of me in the theater."
After the first one was dropped off at 21st Street and 3rd Avenue, I kind of continued the conversation as if I'd been involved in it all along. I learned that my passenger was the casting director of the movie - she had made the decisions as to which actors would play which roles, including Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I asked her various questions about casting and about this film in particular, and she was quite conversational, but I saved my big question until the end of the ride.
"So," I asked, "if you were casting me in a movie, what kind of role could you see me playing?"
"I don't know," she said, "I can't see your face."
I turned around and moved a bit to my right so she could see me clearly through the opening in the partition.
"A leading man!" she exclaimed.
I laughed out loud a bit past the time normally allotted for laughing out loud because this was a JOKE. I may be vain, but I'm not vain enough to imagine that with my oversized nose, bald spot, and baggy eyes I could ever be cast as a leading man in this lifetime. (Although, then again, there is Woody Allen. Hmmm....)
"No, come on, seriously," I said with a smile.
She took a better look. "I could see you as a teacher," she said. "You're an intellectual."
Well, I was happy with that! My feeling of self-esteem had been upped a notch and she left me with a big smile on my face (and a nice tip in my pocket) as she exited the cab and ascended the steps of her brownstone. I headed back to Manhattan on Atlantic Avenue and in eight or nine minutes I was gliding off the exit ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, ready to find my next passenger, wherever that may be.
And then, in the blink of an eye, that city of infinite realities thing kicked in, big time.
It was a cop thing. As I headed west on one of my downtown routes (Worth Street), I noticed something only the experienced eye can perceive at a glance. There was police activity suddenly occurring, but it wasn't just any police activity - it was something big. Police vehicles - patrol cars, detectives' cars, even a few taxis that are actually undercover police cars - were appearing from all directions and they were moving faster and more erratically than they would under normal circumstances. There were sirens blaring north of me, south of me, east of me and west of me. Whatever was going on, it was big and I was in the middle of it.
I crossed through West Broadway on Worth Street just moments after a police car slammed to a halt on the north side of the intersection. The doors of the cruiser opened simultaneously and coming out of the vehicle was something I'd seen only three times in 29 years of taxi driving: cops with guns drawn.
You might think otherwise if you'd never been to New York City and the only thing you really knew about it were the things you'd seen in movies, but a cop with a gun drawn is an extremely rare sight here. I'm told most cops go through a twenty-year career without ever having drawn a weapon. It's not something that is done lightly.
I stopped the cab on the west side of West Broadway and tried to decide what to do. It was a safety versus curiosity dilemma. An officer holding a pistol in both hands was crossing the avenue and moving very carefully on foot toward a parking lot to my right, his body shifting from left to right as he tried to extend his range of vision. Oh, yes - I was in a dangerous place.
My digital camera, which I carry by my side at all times, has a video function which I've just lately been starting to play around with. A moment of truth was at hand: do I get the hell out of there or do I stay and take pictures? I knew it was a photo op that might never come again, but on the other hand there was the thought that I could be a paragraph in tomorrow's newspaper.
I went with some kind of journalist's instinct. I reached into my backpack on the seat next to me, pulled out my camera, and started fumbling with it.
I adjusted the control knob to "video" and tried to push the right buttons to get it going. It was one of those moments-seem-like-minutes time expansions: the cop with the gun was crouching down and pointing his gun at an SUV that was parked in the lot - I finally got my camera rolling and started pointing it at this cop and other cops with guns drawn - it occurred to me that this might not be such a great idea after all - the cop turned away from the SUV and looked at me - I put the camera down, thinking he might think I was pointing a gun at him - the cop shook his head at me (I realized a couple of minutes later that he thought I was a cop in an undercover taxi and the shake of his head meant there was nobody in the SUV) - I decided to get the hell out of there - I drove to Hudson Street and made a right.
That all took place in a span of about 20 seconds. Sorry to say, the video showed only blurred images, which is too bad because I would have loved to have been able to post it here. (I did learn one thing: you've got to be ready and you've got to be fast.)
My next passenger was waiting for me as soon as I turned onto Hudson. I drove him to Astoria in Queens and we had an interesting conversation about cops and photography.
Later in the night I looked at all this in retrospect. The shift in realities could be compared to changing channels on television. In the blink of an eye I had gone from romantic comedy (the casting director) to action flick (the cops). It was like YOU'VE GOT MAIL meets THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
New York City.
After reading all those words, what you need now is a picture. So click here!