Sunday, September 21, 2014

Running The Gamut, Number Three

One of the great things about driving a taxi in New York City - perhaps the greatest thing - is that on any given day you may run the gamut: that is, you may pick up people who are able representatives of both the top and the bottom of the social spectrum. Your first passenger may be a nun who works for God and your second a street hooker who works for Jake the Snake, her pimp; your third an assistant district attorney and the fourth the guy he’s sending to prison. And so it goes - the parade of humanity enters and exits through your doors. It’s magnificent, really.

(Note: I’ve written two other posts on this subject, “Running The Gamut”, and “Running the Gamut, Number Two”. If you’d like to read them please click here and here.)

So, in this episode of Running the Gamut, we’re going to zero in on a specialized zone of activity in New York City, the world of baseball. For those of you who may live in a part of the planet where baseball is not played, let me fill you in on the basics:

- baseball is the number one sport in the United States. It is played on many levels, but the ultimate goal of any player is to make it to the top level, which is called the Major League.

- the first Major League game was played in 1871.

- there are thirty teams in the Major League, spanning across the country in most of our principal cities. The season goes from April until the end of September, with the three-tiered playoff games continuing until the end of October. The regular season consists of 162 games for each team.

- in New York City there are two baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets. The Yankees came into existence in 1903 and have long been the premiere team of the sport. Many of baseball’s iconic players (such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle) were Yankees. They have won 27 championships, far more than any other franchise. Their home is Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Mets have been around since 1962. They have won two championships in their 52 years. They play in Citi Field in Queens.

On August 7th, a Thursday, I started my shift at 5:30 pm, as I normally do. My first passengers were two ladies - one middle-aged, the other a twenty-something - going from Columbus Circle down to Penn Station. They were both wearing the pinstriped jerseys of the Yankees - the familiar, interlocking “NY” on the front and, I noticed, the number 2 on the backs of both of them. The Yankees had played a game that afternoon so I knew without even needing to ask where they were coming from. A conversation began.

Yes, they told me, they’d been at the game, adding that there was some kind of delay on the subway, which was why they were in my cab - and they had only twenty minutes to catch a train to New Jersey. Could we make it? I told them to relax, I’d get them to Penn Station on time. And we were on our way.

I soon discovered that they were mother and daughter, both big Yankee fans, that they go to at least one Yankee game together every year (“it’s a tradition”), that the game they’d just attended was the only game for them this year, and that, hooray, the Yankees had won. Still, the mother said, they were “greatly disappointed”.

“Why?” I asked (of course). I mean, the Yankees won, you’re supposed to be happy.

“Because Jeter didn’t play!” they both answered, almost in unison.

“Oh, gee, that’s too bad,” I said, completely understanding their dismay.

Again, for the benefit of those readers who may not know baseball, allow me to tell you why this fellow named Jeter not playing in that game would be such a letdown to my passengers. Derek Jeter has been a star player - the captain of the team, actually - for the Yankees for the last twenty years. During his tenure the Yankees have won five championships and gone to the playoffs 17 times. On a personal level he has broken so many statistical records that they seem endless. He ranks sixth on the all-time hits list. (That means that, going back to 1871, only five players have had more hits than he.) And off the field he has been the very epitome of what we would hope a star athlete to be. Hard-working, generous, respectful, always upbeat, never involved in a controversy, never a bad word said against him - he is truly a role model not only for America’s youth, but for everybody. All around the country he is regarded as the “face of baseball”. People are naming their children (and their pets) after him. And now, at the age of 40, he has announced that this season will be his last. Fans of opposing teams are crowding into their own stadiums to get one last look at him when the Yankees come to town and are giving him standing ovations when he comes to bat. He is the superstar of the world of baseball.

So this was why my passengers were so disappointed even though the Yankees won the game. Being devoted Yankee fans and fans of Jeter in particular - the number 2 on their jerseys is his number - they, too, had wanted to see him play one last time. But, alas, he’d been given the day off, something that happens from time to time during the course of the long, long season.

Nevertheless, my passengers were in good spirits as we approached the entrance to Penn Station at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, despite the presence above us of a gigantic Nike billboard featuring a thirty-foot image of Derek Jeter acknowledging the adoration of his fans.

“Re2pect” was the only text accompanying the image.

As mother and daughter left my cab with smiles on their faces and five minutes to spare, my eyes wandered to the shop directly on my right. It was a Modell’s Sporting Goods store, one of many in the city, where they sell mostly apparel for fans. The entire window displayed t-shirts, jerseys, hats, buttons, and every other imaginable form of commemoration featuring, guess who?

Yes, it has been a Derek Jeter year in New York City, if not the entire country. “We need our heroes,” I thought, as I pulled out into the quagmire of traffic on 7th Avenue. And indeed we do. In this age of super-cynicism, is it not something of importance to have a counterbalance to the liars, the cheats, the pretenders, and the thieves who show up for a free meal at every opportunity? It is important. Let the good guys win every once in a while.

I slogged along in the evening rush for the next few hours. At 6:50 three out-of-towners went from 77th and York down to the Astor Place Theatre in the East Village to see Blue Man Group, a nice twenty-dollar run on the FDR Drive. Then there was a short ride over to Alphabet City. On my next one, from the Bowery down to the intersection of Allen and Chrystie, I found myself sitting in a bumper to bumper jam-up on 2nd Avenue. Looking around at the environment, I noticed one of those gigantic double-decker tourist buses just to the left of me which was decorated with - well, will you look who’s here again? - fifteen-foot-high Derek Jeter action images on all sides. “Jesus,” I thought, “this guy is everywhere.”

The next few fares took me to the West Village, up again to the Upper East Side, down to 60th and 5th, and then, at 8:30, to 22nd and 8th in Chelsea. 8:30 is around the time for my ritualistic coffee break, so I parked at 6th Avenue, went into the Starbucks at the corner, got my tall Pike (no room for milk), returned to the cab, dug through my bag to retrieve my carrot muffin sliced into bite-sized pieces the night before, and began munching away in happiness. Ah, that feeling of the hot coffee meeting the muffin… bliss.

Okay, back to work. My next fare was a chatty fellow going from the popular Eataly restaurant and market on 23rd and 5th all the way up to 157th and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem - $28.50 on the meter and a $5 tip - a great ride. After that it was 73rd and Columbus down to 15th and 5th, followed by 14th and 4th down to Gold Street in the Financial District. The night was wearing on, and I was doing pretty well, both in spirit and in money.

At 11:12 a twenty-something woman beat out another twenty-something woman in a rush to get to my cab at 27th and Park - it can get quite busy in certain sections of Manhattan at around that time on a Thursday night - and directed me to drive to LaGuardia Place and Houston Street on the southern boundary of Greenwich Village. When I arrived there eight minutes later I pulled over on Houston at the intersection but had to wait a bit for her to swipe her credit card - it took several swipes to register - and then to gather her stuff together and open the door. As she did so a particularly attractive young lady standing a short distance away noticed that my cab was becoming available and began moving quickly toward me with her hand in the air. Seeing the hail, I remained at the curb instead of pulling out onto the street. She hustled up, opened the door, got in, and said, “Someone else is coming”, with a concerned look on her face. About five seconds went by until the person we were waiting for came jogging toward the cab, being pursued by three or four shouting females who were basically begging him to pose for a picture with them. He stopped at the opened door of my taxi and stood with the girls for a few moments, flashing a very familiar smile while they snapped away and thanked him profusely.

And then Derek Jeter got into my cab.

“It’s number 2,” I said, sort of half to myself and half to them, and a bit in shock.

“Hiya buddy,” said Derek Jeter.

“I can’t get away from you!” I exclaimed (in jest).

“I’m following you, buddy!” Derek replied, smiling.

Their destination was a street in the West Village, so this was to be a short ride, only five minutes or so. Immediately I knew I had a problem, and a sort of panic set in. Derek Jeter has descended upon my cab from outer space and is all mine for five minutes. I knew from his friendliness upon entering that he would be open to conversation - but what should I talk to him about? One thing I’ve learned about major celebrities is that you try not to talk to them about the thing for which they’re famous. When I had Paul Simon in my cab, for instance, did I speak a word to him about his music? No. We had a memorable conversation about baseball, actually. (That story is in my book, by the way.) So here was the Crown Prince of Baseball sitting in my cab. If not baseball, what should the topic be? The answer hit me with the impact of a Randy Johnson fastball.

I had heard several months ago what Derek plans to do after he retires from baseball and, when I heard it, it really grabbed my attention. It’s not what you would expect. You’d think it would be broadcasting, managing a baseball team, or even becoming the owner of one. Something along those lines. But no. He plans to publish books. Derek Jeter, book publisher - doesn’t that open up a side to him we never knew existed? Amazing. So our five minutes together were spent primarily discussing books.

Out of respect - or should I say “re2pect” - for the confidentiality of a private conversation, I will not say more than that. But I will say this:

1. One of the fears some people have upon meeting a celebrity they’ve admired from a distance for many years is that the guy or gal will turn out to be a jerk in person. There should be no such fear regarding Derek Jeter. He wears it well, as was said of Jackie Kennedy. Derek Jeter is a nice guy, a caring person. There’s a kind of goodness that radiates from him.

2. Many people, when I tell them I had a certain celebrity in my cab, want to know about the tip. “How much did he tip you?” they ask. Well, I won’t say that, either, but I will say that Derek has surpassed Leonardo di Caprio as the best celebrity tipper I’ve ever had in my cab, a mark that had stood for 18 years. (That story’s in my book, too.) So there’s another record broken by Derek Jeter!

3. He likes to call you “buddy”. Aside from how he greeted me, I’ve heard this as well from a couple of different sources. Apparently everyone is Derek’s buddy. With this in mind, I found a fantasy had elbowed its way into my universe…

Derek Jeter At The Pearly Gates

There had been much excitement when the word spread around Heaven that Derek Jeter would be arriving the next day. Angels, spirits, and souls of all types left their clouds at the break of dawn to ensure they would be there in time to catch a glimpse of the Face of Baseball and give him a warm, heavenly welcome. At the appointed hour, amid a chorus of trumpets and harps, Derek arrived at the Pearly Gates and was greeted with great joy by none other than Saint Peter himself. After the speeches were over and a choir of children sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, Saint Peter pulled Derek over to the side and said, “Come with me, Derek, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” At once the clouds parted, thunder roared, and Derek found that he was standing alone with his host in some kind of divine baseball field. A bright figure appeared from the dugout and floated toward them. “Derek,” whispered Saint Peter, “I’d like you to meet... God.”

God: “Derek Jeter! What a pleasure to meet you at last!”

Derek: “Hiya buddy, how ya doin'?”

God and Derek exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes until an angel suddenly appeared to escort Derek to his next engagement and drove him off in a golf cart.

“Wow,” Saint Peter said to God as they disappeared from sight, “Derek Jeter!”

“Look,” said God, beaming - “I got his autograph!”

And so did I - on my trip sheet…

Back to work, I must admit I was on Cloud Nine. My Derek Jeter experience had elevated my emotional tone up to a steady flow of enthusiasm which carried over to the rest of the passengers in my cab for the remainder of the shift. Each new arrival soon learned that, “Hey, guess who I had in my cab just a little while ago? Derek Jeter!” What amazed me, however - and this is such a New York City phenomenon - was that of the eight more fares who rode with me until I quit at four in the morning, half of them had never heard of him!

A pleasant thirtyish woman in Brooklyn, going from Grand Street in Williamsburg to Dean Street in Crown Heights, was happy that I was happy, but she was from Germany - no baseball. A fellow coming from a gay club in Hell’s Kitchen en route to Astoria thought it was interesting, but he was from Indonesia - no baseball. A kid who was actually wearing a Yankee cap took me from 73rd and 5th Avenue down to the Lower East Side and barely grunted in reaction to my Jeter announcement, but he was from the Twilight Zone - no baseball. And then, to top it off, I had a young lady from Japan, where the entire country is addicted to baseball, admit to me that she didn’t know who Jeter was, although she did know who Matsui and Ichiro are, Japanese stars who have both played on the Yankees.

“I am sorry,” she said, “I’m a street performer and I’m drunk!”

Well, that’s New York City for you. A city so huge and so diverse - bursting at the seams with all kinds of people from every corner of the world - that such a thing could be possible. If a superstar of baseball had played for twenty years on a team in any other city in the country it would be inconceivable that virtually anyone living in that city would not know him well. But in New York this can be so.

So I had run the gamut of the world of baseball, from the adoring mother and daughter who were so disappointed because they didn’t get to see Jeter play, to the object of their affection himself. Imagine if they’d stowed away in the rear compartment of the taxi - merely six hours later they could have met him in person! I wish I knew who they were so I could tell them that! But it was my very last passenger who made me realize that I had also run a gamut of another kind.

I was driving up Amsterdam Avenue just a few minutes before four o’clock, en route to a gas station at Broadway and 130th Street, when I spotted a figure in the shadows about a block ahead at 113th Street who apparently was trying to hail me. As I got closer I could see that he was crouched over a walker, appeared to be in pain or at least in some discomfort, and that the entrance to the emergency room of St. Luke’s Hospital was just down the street. I pulled over and stopped.

He was a gaunt man, quite small, I think Hispanic, and I judged him to be about 40 years old. He thanked me for stopping - there aren’t many taxis around at this hour - and asked if I could help him get into the cab. He was quite frail, barely able to lift his leg high enough to make it into the rear compartment, and was, in fact, coming from St. Luke’s. Taking care that he didn’t slip and fall, I held his arm and guided him in, then placed his walker in the back. As we drove off he told me about his condition, a spinal injury which had left him crippled. I sensed no self-pity or blame, it was just the way it was and he was carrying on. His destination was a mere ten blocks up the road to a project complex at La Salle Street. When we got there he paid me the $5.50 fare in cash, no tip, and asked for a receipt, so he could be reimbursed. He put the receipt in his pocket and we began the reverse process of extricating him from the taxi. That took a minute and then he thanked me for my help and began moving toward his building in his walker, an inch at a time.

I was done for the night and drove a few blocks over to Broadway and the gas station. After filling up, I had some time to reflect on the events of the evening, particularly this last ride. That frail man had sat in the same seat where Derek Jeter had been sitting only a few hours earlier. Both were about the same age. Aside from his fame and charisma, Jeter is a physical specimen, taller and more impressive in person than I had realized. If you had no idea who he was and saw him walking down the street, you might well have thought he could be a professional athlete. My last passenger, by contrast, was at the bottom of that scale.

New York, the City of the Human Condition.

We carry on.