Mohammed Elwaleed was a 44 year-old immigrant from Sudan who leaves behind a wife and two small children.
It was yet another one of those stories that sobers one up to a disturbing aspect of living your life in a big city - or, really, just living amongst other human beings in this civilization. It's that invisible volcano beside which we are all building our huts. It's needing the ability to know when the stranger who's just appeared in front of you, Special Delivery from Fate, is about to explode.
I had such an incident myself a few weeks ago. I seem to get one or two of these a year on the average.
It started at the beginning of a Saturday night shift when I was assigned the cab 5A48 for the evening. The taxi garage was "sold out" that night. That meant that every cab was out and should you be unfortunate enough to have a breakdown, you were stuck with that car. You couldn't bring it in and exchange it for another one.
As I headed out of the garage with the meter and rate card for 5A48 in hand, another driver noticed the identifying paperwork I was carrying.
"You've got 5A48?" he asked with a disapproving look on his face.
"Yeah... why, it's no good?"
"I had that cab last night," he said quite seriously. "Whenever it hits a bump, it stalls out. Twice it stalled out on me on the highway. I could have been killed."
This comment led to a discussion about how to start a stalled car that was already in motion. The driver who was giving me such a grim warning turned out to not know that in these situations you are supposed to put the car in neutral and start it up while it is still moving. Instead, he had brought the cab to a full stop on the highway, put it in park, and then turned the ignition key.
"No wonder this guy almost got killed," I thought, "he doesn't know how to drive!"
Nevertheless I returned to the dispatcher's window and asked the weekend guy, Wilfredo, about the condition of the taxi. He assured me it had been fixed.
I then returned to the driver and told him what Wilfredo had said.
"If God loves you," he replied, "you will not be harmed."
And on that bright note I made my way to where 5A48 was parked. I did my usual prep on the cab and after about 15 minutes I pulled out onto 10th Avenue to start my shift.
I drove six or seven blocks.
I hit a bump.
5A48 stalled out.
As I put the cab into neutral and started it up without stopping, I assessed the situation. If I brought the thing back to the garage and had the mechanics try to fix it, it could take hours. This was not a common mechanical problem. In fact, in my thirty years of taxi driving, I had never had a cab that stalled out whenever it hit a bump. (It still amazes me that after having driven literally thousands of different taxis, I can still discover some new mechanical malfunction that I have never experienced before.)
On the other hand I could just continue with 5A48 and hope that I could make it through the shift without any mishaps. After all, the problem was really in the category of a major annoyance rather than a real danger. And since money was at stake (I would not be compensated for time lost in the garage), the choice was obvious.
I stayed with 5A48.
As the night wore on, it was clear to me that I had made the right decision. Although the frequent stalling out was a very major annoyance - the damned cab was stalling out about once every 3 minutes, thus adding up to over 200 stalls before the night was over - I had not lost any business because of it. However, it was contributing to the stress level of the Saturday night shift, which is normally crazier than any other night of the week, anyway. Saturday night is always filled with loud, stupid, and drunk party people and, even without a particularly outrageous incident getting under your skin, it has a way of wearing you down.
All of this set me up for that fare I get once or twice a year.
At 4:53 I was hailed by two guys, one white and one black, at 35th Street and 6th Avenue. They wanted to go up to 125th and Amsterdam in Harlem. Although I was tired and my shift ends at 5:00, it was a good last-fare-of-the-night ride. It would bring me about $15 extra income and I would be able to make it back to the garage by around 5:30, within the acceptable return time.
I headed west to 10th Avenue and figured I'd just ride up 10th, which becomes Amsterdam at 59th Street, all the way to 125th. The lights are synchronized in "the wave" on that avenue, so I would be able to make the entire trip with no red lights. Plus the pavement of Amsterdam is nice and smooth so I didn't expect 5A48 to be stalling out much.
We were on our way.
Within a minute into the ride I could see by the way these two guys were sitting closely together that they were gay and by the way they were talking softly to each other that they were not conversational as far as the driver was concerned. This was fine with me as I was rather exhausted and not in the mood to be chatty anyway. So I turned the radio to the smooth jazz station and headed for 10th, where I turned right and headed uptown.
All was well on 10th Avenue until we got to 51st Street. At that point we hit a delay because there had been a serious accident, with an overturned car, and the police had closed the avenue and were diverting traffic onto 51st toward 11th Avenue. I explained what was happening to the passengers, who didn't acknowledge what I'd said. What it meant was that we were going to have to circle the block and wind up back at 10th Avenue on 52nd Street. The delay took about five minutes.
As I got rolling again on 10th Avenue, the voice of the black guy piped up from the back seat. "Why didn't you take the highway?" he asked. This was not a friendly question. His voice had an edge to it.
I could have taken 11th Avenue up to 57th Street, gotten on the highway that runs along the west side of Manhattan, and exited at 125th Street. It would indeed have been faster, although it wouldn't have been any cheaper because the distance is slightly longer and we would have no waiting time on Amsterdam. So I told him the truth.
"This cab has been stalling out on me all night whenever I hit a bump," I explained. "I didn't want to take the chance of it stalling out on the highway."
My explanation was met with a distinctly stony silence - there was a lingering feeling of distrust and resentment in the air. But I was tired and chose to ignore it. We continued up Amsterdam with no further communication between us until we arrived at their 125th Street destination, about ten minutes later.
The fare was $17 even. The white guy exited first and started to walk across 125th, a wide, two-way street with four lanes. Apparently their place was on the opposite side of the street. The black guy stayed behind and handed me the fare, with no tip, through the partition window.
Not getting a tip was no big deal. Obviously the guy was not totally happy about the ride and not tipping is a customer's prerogative. I was ready to drive off, but before he closed the door, my passenger decided to have some words with me.
"The next time somebody runs off without paying," he said, "that will make it even for this ride."
It was clearly an insult. The guy was saying I had ripped him off and lied to him about the reason for not taking the highway and that, no sir, you could fool some of those suckers but you sure as hell couldn't fool him. And not only that, he had appointed himself the ombudsman for all the inner city kids who run off without paying the fare.
It was a comment that was totally mean-spirited and had a racial undertone to it. Plus, he was totally wrong. In a more perfect world, I might have calmly attempted to handle his considerations or just shrugged my shoulders and driven off.
Instead, I resorted to sarcasm.
"So you feel that you paid too much," I replied, my own mocking tone implying that his comment was idiotic and that he was a moron. "And that's the justification for ripping off cab drivers. Did I get that right?"
The guy at this point was standing on the street but had not yet closed the door. His response to my sarcasm was to open the door a bit wider, lean into the compartment, and send a ball of spit straight through the partition window and into my face.
He then began nonchalantly walking across 125th Street without having closed the door.
I was, of course, outraged and humiliated. This piece of dog doo had insulted me and now had assaulted me. Nevertheless, my reaction was immediate. I wiped his spit off my face with one of the napkins I always have handy behind the visor, and then did something he hadn't anticipated when he decided to launch his saliva missle at my head. I swung the taxi around in a U-turn and suddenly was in position to run him the fuck over as he crossed the street.
And that was the manslaughter moment.
It's that briefest little speck of time in which you either cross over the line or you do not. Most of us do not. And most of those who do spend the rest of their lives wishing they could take that moment back, as is likely the case with the man who ran over Mohammed Elwaleed.
As for me, I swerved close enough to the jerk to let him know I could have killed him if I wanted to, and shouted out a word at him to indicate that he bore a resemblance to the part of the digestive system that is responsible for expelling waste products from the body.
By the time I got back to the garage my anger had pretty much subsided and I felt grateful that I had been given the ability not to act on impulses.
Perhaps God does love me.
Or perhaps He can barely tolerate me and that's why he made me a taxi driver in the first place.
There is still one place where it is perfectly acceptable to act on impulse, by the way. And that is to click here for Pictures From A Taxi.