Saturday, October 30, 2010

If A Tree Falls In A Forest...

It takes about twenty minutes of driving around the city without a passenger for a taxi driver to start getting edgy. It's at about the twenty-minute mark that you realize I am not making any money and things begin to look oh-so-serious. So I was delighted on a Thursday night at 2 a.m. a few weeks ago when I picked up a fare right at the twenty-minute mark - two men in tuxedos, bow ties removed, with an older woman in an evening gown - who wanted to go to Fort Lee, New Jersey.


The out of town ride is like hitting the jackpot. You usually wind up making double the money you normally would have made for the time spent it takes to get there and back. The fare is not done on the meter - it's a "let's make a deal" situation, the price being agreed upon by driver and passenger before the journey begins.

My three passengers climbed into the back seat. It took me five seconds to conclude that they were merrily sloshed. There are mean drunks and there are happy drunks and these were the latter, which of course is better than the former. The older lady, in her mid-60s I would guess, and one of the men took the middle and right-rear positions on the back seat, behind the cab's partition, and the other man sat down on the left side, which meant he was in a better position from which to have a conversation with me through the opened partition window. The other two wound up kind of slumping over each other, laughing and chattering away only between themselves. The charge for the ride was negotiated with the fellow more directly behind me and what we agreed on was $40, to be paid in cash at the end of the ride. It was actually a bit on the low end for the twenty-minute trip to Fort Lee, but it was still good money for thirty minutes of my time (twenty to Fort Lee and ten back to the Upper West Side of Manhattan), so I was happy. I drove straight across 57th Street to the Henry Hudson Parkway, and we were on our way.

Well, the first thing I wanted to know about was, why the tuxes? Obviously, there had to have been an event. The gentleman behind me, who turned out to be an able conversationalist, explained. They had been to a fund-raising event at Cipriani's for a charity that provides medical treatment to children in South America who were born with a cleft palate. Doctors are flown in and perform corrective surgery on indigent people free of charge. It's something he and his family had been involved in for many years. The woman to his right was his aunt and the man beside her was her son, his cousin.

When he told me that, it immediately struck me that his aunt and cousin were more physically engaged with each other than I was used to seeing between a mother and an adult son. Her head was nestled just beneath his shoulder and he was caressing her hair in a manner more commonly seen with lovers. The way they laughed and spoke softly to each other created a kind of bubble around them which would prevent an intrusion from unwelcome visitors, another thing that lovers tend to do. But I dismissed any suspicions of an incestuous relationship and attributed their behavior to having spent a bit too much time with Johnnie Walker and Margarita. Still, it was odd. Fortunately I had this other fellow to talk to.

I commended him on the good work his family was doing and for the remainder of the ride learned something about cleft palates, cleft lips, and how the condition, a birth defect, could be surgically repaired. It was really a wonderful thing the charity was doing, the kind of information that rehabilitates a belief in the goodness and generosity of people in general.

We crossed the George Washington Bridge and were instantly in Fort Lee, where I was directed around several darkened side streets until we arrived at their destination, a parking lot beside a church. Normally passengers pay me by handing money through the partition window, as they should, but instead of doing that, all three of them got out of the cab at the same time. I wasn't concerned. It was crowded back there and it could be difficult to reach into a pocket in a cramped space. I expected the passenger with whom I had been chatting to appear at my driver's side window with my forty bucks, but he did not. Instead, the other man, with whom I had not spoken during the ride, appeared beside me and just stood there without making any attempt to pay me. Ten... fifteen... twenty seconds went by without a word or a dollar coming forth, so finally I said:

"Uh, that's forty dollars, sir."

I thought I would see him reach into a pocket for the cash, but instead I heard this:

"I paid you."

I was stunned.

"You haven't paid me yet, sir," I said.

"I just paid you," he replied firmly, although through a drunken haze.

"Uh, sir, you have not paid me," I returned without raising my voice.

"Hey, I just paid you, you shit!"

It turned out the guy was not a "happy drunk" after all - he was the other kind. I was suddenly confronted with a situation which I had occasionally wondered about, but which had never occurred in all my years. What would happen if a passenger simply insisted that he'd paid you? How could you prove to a cop that he was lying? It would be your word against his, and as long as he didn't fear he'd be physically assaulted by the cab driver, it seemed to me he could get away without paying by just pretending that he'd paid.

But this fellow wasn't pretending. He'd probably stepped up to the side of the cab with the intention of paying, but once he got beside me an image in his boozed-up mind of having already paid the fare had become his reality. As far as he was concerned, there was no question about it: he'd already paid me and the transaction had been concluded. In fact, he may have been just standing there because he was expecting me to give him change!

And then the absurdity took a turn for the worse.

Keeping my cool even though he'd just referred to me as "you shit", I repeated in an even voice that I had not been paid. His response:

"You wanna get your ass kicked, shithead... huh? Come on, get out of the cab, you fuck!"

That "I am on the wrong planet" feeling came over me. A grown man in a tuxedo who was returning home from a completely worthwhile charity event is now preparing to duke it out with his taxi driver over a currency dispute caused by his inability to differentiate his own fantasy island from the physical universe. Beam me up, Scottie!

It was time to call for the cousin.

Fortunately I was able to get him to come over without having to step out of the cab and possibly getting slugged. After just a few seconds of explanation he realized what was happening, apologized, and handed me $60, keep-the-change style, and that was that. I pulled out of there and headed back toward the George Washington Bridge.

The incident got me thinking about the nature of reality. What is "reality", anyway? If you have the courage to look this word up in a dictionary, you will find ambiguity and contradiction. One definition has it as the state or quality of occurring as fact - that is, not imaginary or fictitious. Another definition includes a kind of existence or universe either connected with or independent of others, as in "alternative realities". Another calls it the totality of "real" things in the world, independent of people's knowledge or perception of them. But right there, the question could be asked how something could be assumed to be actual if we cannot perceive it. And, if we were to assume that there were things that were in existence that were beyond our perception, wouldn't that make them imaginary and therefore, by one definition of reality, not real?

You see how this can drive you crazy.

As far as my belligerent passenger was concerned, he had paid the fare in full (and perhaps had even given me a generous tip) and now I was trying to cheat him. And it made perfect sense to him that he shouldn't let a dishonest creep like me get away with it. This was quite real to him.
It brings to mind that most basic of philosophical questions: if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it as it hits the ground, did it make a sound?

I now have the answer to that question.

The answer is no.


And now that that's been resolved, why not click here for Pictures From A Taxi? It's sooo real.