Friday, February 03, 2012

Islands In The Stream

There are three things that can happen between drivers and passengers during the course of a ride in a taxicab:

1) Nothing. The passenger looks out the window, talks on the cell phone, or (rarely) watches the canned programming on the cab's TV monitor. The driver drives.

2) The driver becomes a fly on the wall and either voluntarily or involuntarily eavesdrops on the voices coming toward him from the back seat, whether it be from multiple passengers talking to each other or from a single passenger on the phone.

3) A conversation takes place.

In a huge metropolis like New York, where the flow of particles is so continuous, it's quite natural to think of the motion of the city as having a similarity to the current of a river. The river runs, ever onward, and the taxi driver is a ferryman of sorts, his cab a temporary haven on an endless journey to who knows where. People who may or may not ever meet again engage in conversation, as if to acknowledge that it's better to float down the river in the company of others than to brave the waters by oneself. If a taxi driver has an affinity for this unique situation he is in, it's this third possibility, the things that can happen through communication, that can make the job so interesting.

Some of these conversations, like particularly intriguing islands in the stream, may startle, disturb, reassure, delight, or educate the intrepid explorer. I had three in the course of a single shift a few weeks ago.

5:45 pm, Penn Station to North Moore in Tribeca
It was the "survival of the fittest" time of the evening when the quickest and most alert are most likely to get the next available taxi. As I was assisting an elderly gentleman out of my cab at the Long Island Railroad entrance to Penn Station, an attractive young miss appeared on the cab's opposite side and waited with her hand on the door (as if to say, "It's mine!") until the old fellow's delicate extraction was completed. Getting in with a smile, she told me her destination and we pulled into the heavy traffic on 7th Avenue.

Now, there are certain nuances that tell a driver that the newly arrived passenger is a candidate for a conversation. There's the smile, the return of the driver's "hello", along with, perhaps, an "how are you?"; there's the friendly tone of the voice; there's the position of the seating - the passenger doesn't slump out of sight behind the partition but, rather, sits right in the middle of the seat, perhaps even leans forward a bit; and often there's eye contact in the mirror. The attractive young miss had all of these, helped, I felt, by some admiration on her part at seeing a taxi driver performing an act of kindness for the fragile passenger who had preceded her.

Aware of all this, I started in with some common chit-chat - the traffic, the weather, the difficulty of getting a cab at this time of day in Midtown - and this rather magical process we humans are capable of went into gear. Back and forth, back and forth, and then - wham! - suddenly the person on the other end of the conversation is telling you something that's no longer in the realm of the chit-chat mundane - something personal, a bit surprising, perhaps. Kind of out of nowhere, she tells me she's a boxer. A boxer! This friendly, rather petite-ish, altogether feminine-looking female gets in a ring and tries to punch the beejeebabs out of other women. Not professionally, but at the next level down, in organized matches in gyms. Career-wise, she's in the related field of sports rehabilitation. One of her clients, she said, is the famous boxer Pacquiao.

It's always kind of fascinating when the way a person is does not match one's own stereotype of what a person does and I will admit that I find the sight of women going at each other quite entertaining (what the world needs is more mud wrestling). So this particular conversation was really holding my interest. And then it did something that communication can do when people listen carefully to each other, acknowledge what is said, and create a space that is comfortable and safe: it led to a further, more insightful revelation about the other person, something that opens a window into their inner world.

What was revealed was a situation that was eating away at her, something that was consuming her attention the whole day long, a problem that would not resolve. She told me what it was and, to her credit, it wasn't actually her own problem. It was a tangled mess that was endangering the future - perhaps even the life - of someone who was dear to her, her brother.

Growing up in an environment where one's fists are at least as valuable as one's social graces, he, like his sister, had also become a boxer and a couple of months earlier, at the age of twenty, had turned professional. Shortly after that he had a "bad break-up" with his girlfriend who, to get revenge, did something quite evil - she enlisted the services of some thug she knew to beat the crap out of him. How do you beat the crap out of a professional boxer? You get a dozen of your thug friends to help you. In a modern version of tracking somebody down, the jilted girlfriend gave the thug his Twitter address. He and his gang read his tweet messages to locate him when he was alone, shooting hoops in a schoolyard. Then they ambushed him and battered him so badly that he had broken teeth, broken ribs, a concussion, and needed thirty stitches to close the wounds to his face and head.

"Did he go to the police?" I asked.

"No, he's got some goddamned Sicilian code of silence," she lamented.

Now I understood why she felt a need to talk about this thing. It wasn't over and it wasn't likely to end well, either. Her brother is thick-headed and would handle it "in his own way", which would mean more violence. After that there would be further retaliation and he might be killed or spend the next twenty years of his life in jail. She had the wisdom to understand this, but she had no solution. So she was living each day with a helpless feeling of dread. It was like trying to hold onto someone who was dangling off the ledge of a mountain.

If I'd thought of it at the time, I would have advised her to find someone to intervene in the conflict, someone whom all parties involved knew and respected, if such a person exists. Or I would have advised her to bring her brother and the ex-girlfriend together in some kind of counseling session to confess what they'd done to each other and to apologize for their actions. That might have handled it. But, as is often the case when someone says something startling, you don't think of the right thing to say until later. In my business people enter and exit rather quickly and I'm often left in the middle of the story.

And that is one of the downsides of the taxicab conversation.

1:45 a.m., 47th and 6th to Astoria, Queens
He was a gaunt, middle-aged man - long, black overcoat, no hat - who hailed me with his right hand while taking one final drag on a cigarette with his left. Before even entering the taxi, he gave me the impression that he was a "serious" smoker. He was probably coming from a job where he couldn't smoke and since you're not allowed to smoke in a cab anymore in this NO SMOKING city, the time between the workplace and the taxi becomes the time to have that thing you've been craving for all night. My impression was confirmed when, just a minute into the ride, he asked me if he could light up a new one.

Now, this is a situation I actually enjoy. The taxi driver in New York City is usually taken somewhat for granted and is not accorded the kind of respect that certain professionals enjoy. I mean, you'd never say to a pilot as you entered his aircraft, "I'm late, step on it," right? But a passenger who would ask his driver to break the the rules so he can stick that little white cylinder in his mouth is on the other end of the respect spectrum. This guy is an addict, someone who is living in the moment, and to him the taxi driver is the Gatekeeper Of Bliss, The Man With The Plan. Hey, how ya doin', dude? I mean, sir.

If, after observing how the person seems to be, I think he or she has a sense of humor, I have been known to say something like this:

"Well, I'll consider it, but only under two circumstances."

"Sure, no problem."

"I haven't told you what the circumstances are yet."

"Oh, okay."

"First, you've got to keep the cigarette inside the cab. Don't hold it out the window." (This is because the danger here is that the driver can be fined if a cop happens to see the passenger smoking in the back seat. I've never heard of this ticket actually being written but, who knows, it might be "Give Tickets To Cabbies Who Allow Passengers To Smoke Week" at the Police Department.)

"Oh, yeah, man, no problem, no problem."

"Good. And the second thing is... you've got to beg me."

"Beg you?"

"Yeah. You see, this is the only time I can ever get anyone to beg me for anything. It's good for my self-esteem. So if you wanna smoke, you gotta beg."

Now, as I said, I wouldn't say this to someone if they seemed too solid mentally. You've got to size them up before saying it. But so far I haven't missed and they jump right into it with a smile.

"Oh, please, please, Mister Taxi Driver, can I smoke a cigarette? Please? Pretty please?"

"Yes, you may."

And it's off to Puffland.

Looking at my current passenger in the mirror, I decided right away, nope, no begging joke with this guy, he looks like he hasn't laughed in two years. So I just told him about the no-holding-the-cigarette-out-the-window rule and not to light up until we got onto the 59th Street Bridge, about a minute away. He thanked me.

Well, although he may or may not have appreciated my sense of humor, there was something in the way he was that made me curious about him. I wasn't sure what it was. He just seemed to be someone it might be interesting to talk to. So I decided to delve, as is my tendency.

"You must be a serious smoker," I said, as we were approaching the bridge. Being that smoking was the subject at hand, it seemed like an easy way to get a conversation going.

"Why?"

"Well, I've noticed that when people ask me if they can smoke in the cab, it's because they want a cigarette really, really badly."

"I just wanted to finish the one I started."

"Yeah, you see, that's what I mean. You're a heavy smoker?"

"Just three or four a day."

"Packs?"

"Cigarettes."

This surprised me. I would have bet he went through a pack a day, at least.

"Since I quit."

Ah, so there it was. I was right. The thing about him that I was trying to put my finger on, I realized, was that it was impinging on me subconsciously that heavy smokers have a certain kind of demeanor. Something about the way they look, their body language, their voice, that has cigarette smoking as a component part of it. That's what was making me curious about him.

"Oh, so you had been a heavy smoker?"

"Yes," he replied, rather half-vacantly. Sometimes when people say something you have the feeling they're only half-speaking to you, the other half being diverted to another, invisible, entity.

"What did you do, a pack a day?"

"Two or three."

Heavy smoker, indeed. "Wow... well, and now you're down to just a few cigarettes a day?"

"Yes," he said flatly. There was no sign of pride in his voice at making progress toward an objective. You would have expected a bit of positive emotion here, but this guy was flat as a board.

"Good for you."

"Since the cancer," he said, the focus of his eyes extending no further than the partition which separates driver from passenger.

I had stepped on a landmine and I knew it. What the hell do you say to a stranger who's just told you he has cancer? I didn't know what to do. I could say nothing, pretend that I hadn't heard it. But I thought that would be cold-hearted, even cruel. I could acknowledge it - just say, "I'm sorry" - and leave it at that. But quite possibly he'd said it because he just felt a need to talk about it with another human being, another island in the stream. God knows the despair and loneliness this man might be enduring, and although listening to him might not be able to do anything to cure his disease, it might help him change the way he dealt with it. And that could be a very good thing. I waited until we reached the Queens side of the bridge (so we might better be able to hear each other - bridges and tunnels are tough on the acoustics inside a taxicab), and then attempted to resume the conversation.

"What kind of cancer do you have?" I asked.

There was silence. Not just any silence, a dreadful silence. Had I gone too far? Had I trivialized the seriousness of his situation by reducing it to taxicab chit-chat? Or had he just blurted it out and then regretted having said it? I looked at him in the mirror. He had that same solidity, what appeared to me now as a half-dead look, and gave no sign of having heard my question.

I didn't know what to do. Should I ask him again? Probably not, I thought. I mean, what could be more of an imposition on someone than to pry into his perhaps-terminal illness? But he'd brought it up. Wasn't it possible that he simply didn't hear me? What was I going to do, ignore him? I gritted my teeth and raised the volume of my question a quarter of a notch.

"What kind of cancer do you have?" I repeated.

I watched him in the mirror, almost praying that he'd say something. But he was gone. He sat there silently, his gaze fixated on the parade of darkened buildings passing by on Northern Boulevard. Not only had my attempt at conversation been a failure, my attempt at offering him some comfort had nose-dived into an abyss. The remaining two minutes of the ride, not surprisingly, made my Top Ten List of Most Awkward Silences of All Time.

He paid with a credit card, giving me a $1.90 tip on a $13.10 fare. Other than my "thank you", no other words between us were exchanged, and he disappeared into a shadow on Steinway Street.

He never did light that cigarette.

A fare like that can haunt you, and some cabbies may conclude that it's better not to attempt to communicate with their passengers at all. I have always resisted this. That's not to say that you have to communicate with everyone. You've got to respect a person's right not to communicate, too. It's just that the interplay with passengers is the essence of this job and to let the occasional disaster shut you down is to lose a lot. So I soldiered on.

3:45 a.m., 79th and Columbus to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
Now here was a ride that from a driver's point of view was just about perfect. For one thing, it was the final hour of the shift and what you want at this point in the night is a good, long, money ride with just enough time to make it back to the garage by 5 a.m., the shift end. And this ride was that. And for another thing, the passenger, an upbeat, intelligent, well-mannered thirty-something fellow, was as easy to talk to as you as your favorite drinking buddy, if you have such a thing.

Now, this wasn't a drama ride or a pathos ride like the ones I've been telling you about. This was simply an educational ride, quite common in a taxicab, by which you learn something about life or the world that you didn't know before. Drive a cab for a few years and these conversations accumulate into an impressive reference file, making a cabbie a walking encyclopedia with an opinion about everything.

I don't know how we got into it, but he started telling me about his wife and her job. He described her as an Armenian by birth ("How did you meet her?" "In a bar."), lovely to look at, highly organized, a go-getter, and she was now working for what he described as a "Russian oligarch".

"And what is a 'Russian oligarch'?"

He told me about what's been going on in Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Industries which had been owned and controlled by the state became privatized. This opened the door for big-time entrepreneurship and the accumulation of great wealth and power by a relatively few aggressive individuals in a short period of time. It was kind of like the "robber barons" in the United States a hundred and fifty years ago. And that's what a Russian oligarch is.

My passenger's wife worked for one of these people. He'd made a fortune as an arms dealer and then legitimized his business by moving into the metal refining industry in a big way. Due to his nefarious background, he can't enter the United States because the State Department won't issue him a visa. But that doesn't stop him from doing business all over the world. His wealth is so great that he owns a private yacht, complete with a crew of five, that he has never set foot on. It's used to entertain clients.

The wife's job is to manage the finances of the yacht. She does this primarily from their apartment in Brooklyn, but she does have to travel occasionally to Europe, where the yacht is located, to personally oversee matters. And that's where she was on this particular night, somewhere in France.

As I said, there was no drama or pathos here. It was just a typical example of a taxi ride that includes a conversation between driver and passenger. As I entered the Belt Parkway and headed back to Manhattan with my off-duty light illuminated above me, I had gained not only an $11.50 tip on a $43.50 fare, but a bit more understanding of the world in which we live. Who would ever imagine that, walking down a street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, you could walk by an apartment building and behind one of the windows of that building would be a woman sitting behind a computer who was managing a yacht anchored off the coast of France which was owned by a modern-day Jay Gatsby with a Russian accent?

As is usually the case, the stopover at an island in the stream had left me better off for having been there, and happy to have made the visitation.


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Looking for a nice little island in the stream of your own? Click here. Plenty of 'em at Pictures From A Taxi.