In the lexicon of the world-weary, "agony" turns out to be a big word, indeed. As years go by it becomes increasingly understood that efforts to reach even the most minor of goals will inevitably ripen into fiasco and be attended to along the way with spoonfuls, nay, bucketfuls of agony. Yet still we soldier on, what's left of our optimism buoyed up by the scratch-off ticket that puts an unexpected five bucks in our pockets. Life ain't so bad after all. Until the next thing comes along.
Four in the morning is cut-off time at the bars in New York City which creates, potentially, yet another source of revenue for the cab driver. The late-night drinkers - uh, "drunks" - emerge from their lairs, hands in the air, waving at anything yellow that might get them home. As troublesome as they may be, drunks are nevertheless a welcome sight for the cabbie. The shift ends at five, so if you can get another ride or two in at the end, it feels like free money.
That's what I was thinking as I was driving through Chelsea at that hour a few Thursdays ago in search of that last good ride. There's a popular gay bar called "G" on 19th between 7th and 8th, so I thought I'd give the place a look before heading over toward my usual cruising routes. Sure enough, two guys, twentyish, emerged from the place and hailed me. (Driving a cab in New York is like being a fisherman. You have to know where they're biting at any time. It's a skill.) Their destination was the Upper East Side, so our route was going to be a straight run up 8th Avenue with a crossover through Central Park on the 65th Street transverse.
We were on our way.
It was a non-conversational ride, at least between me and them, which was fine with me as I'd been driving for eleven hours straight and feeling it. A joie de vivre at this hour I am not. They just sat there in the back, talking to each other a bit and not moving around too much, and I was riding the wave up 8th. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Now, when I say "riding the wave" I am referring to the synchronization of the traffic lights on the one-way avenues of Manhattan. If you drive at a speed of about twenty-seven miles per hour, theoretically you will never hit a red light if there aren't many other cars or obstructions on the avenue. And, if you're at the "front" of the wave, the red light in front of you will turn green just as you approach it.
Riding the wave requires a high level of driving ability, especially when you're trying to do it safely. And that means never - never! - running a red light. Just before entering each intersection, the masterful driver must first ascertain that the other guy's light on the intersecting cross street is already red or at least yellow. Then he must adjust the speed of his own vehicle so it will enter the intersection at the nanosecond his light turns green. But before actually doing that he must first turn his vision for just a split second toward the direction of traffic on the intersecting street to make sure no other vehicle is about to run his own red light and crash into him. Only then does he actually enter the intersection. This is all done on an automatic basis, without thinking.
Master cabbies use this technique when in competition with other drivers for business. It's basically a horse race to hold "position" on the avenue. Should there be a passenger somewhere up ahead, you want to be the first to get to him. Since I already had passengers in my cab, however, I was not riding the very front of the wave. I was close to the front, just out of habit, about three seconds off the pace of the lights, but I was not in competitive mode. Why drive like a racing car driver when you're not in a race? Three seconds is a ton of time in this situation.
Then, just as we were approaching 48th Street, it happened.
You can ride the wave for ten years, using the skillfully safe technique as I've described it, and never once find yourself in a situation in which you actually had needed to be so cautious when coming toward an intersection. And then - pow! - it suddenly pays off in the form of not having what would have been a ghastly accident.
Out of nowhere, coming from my left on 48th Street, was a car racing through at about forty miles per hour. Driven by a drunk or a psycho (choose one), this thing was not even close to going through a green light. His signal had been red for about four seconds, yet there he was in highway mode, a two-ton rocket with no intention of checking what was coming toward him on 8th Avenue, no intention of slowing down, and no intention of stopping. It was a death charge, the thing you most fear encountering as a driver, of the suicidal or homicidal variety (choose one).
It was that quick, automatic glance to my left that saved me. "Jesus!" I screamed, as I simultaneously slammed on the brakes and brought the cab to a very abrupt stop. The fuckhead behind the wheel of the oncoming car, whoever it was - I didn't have time to notice age or gender - just kept going without braking, missing me by about twenty-four inches, and miraculously making it across 8th Avenue without crashing into any of the other oncoming vehicles who all - very, very fortunately - were also about three seconds behind the changing of the light.
"Jesus!", I screamed again, "unbelievable!"
I watched the car continue speeding down 48th Street for a moment until it was out of sight, half expecting to next see a police car in pursuit, but there was nothing. Then, as I began to recover from the shock of the close call, I cautiously stepped on the gas again and started moving forward on 8th Avenue. Combined emotions of disgust and relief rippled throughout my psyche. I was pissed. It felt like I'd been assaulted, actually, and I began wishing for some kind of retribution against the driver. I didn't like sharing the road or even the world, come to think of it, with maniacs like this. I imagined what the person would have said if he'd crashed into someone, killing or maiming them. "My light was green!" he would have said. It was disgusting.
I decided to put my rage aside and get back to work. Onward to the Upper East Side.
Now let me tell you something. All of the above - this near-death experience - this wasn't "agony". No. In the world of the taxi driver, this was merely short-lived annoyance, something, outrageous as it was, that would be forgotten about in five minutes because, after all, there had been no collision.
The Agony was about to begin.
A voice came up from the back seat. "Stop over here," the voice said. Puzzled, I nevertheless complied, pulling the cab over to the curb on the left side of 8th Avenue.
"What's the matter?" I asked. "Are you okay?"
I received no answer. Instead, the back door opened and my passengers got out. Then they started to walk away without paying me.
"What's the matter?" I repeated. "Where are you going?"
"We're taking another cab," one of them said as he stopped and looked behind us on the avenue to see what was coming.
I was startled.
Again, no response, but I already knew why. These guys had no idea why I'd braked so hard. All they knew was that they'd been jolted. So I tried to explain.
"Didn't you see what happened? Some lunatic ran the red light! If I hadn't braked so hard we would have crashed into him!"
"I hit my head," one of them said.
"You did? Are you okay? Do you want me to take you to a hospital?"
No response. Again they started to walk away.
"Wait a minute," I said, opening my door and stepping out onto the pavement. "Hey, look, I'm sorry you hit your head. But if I hadn't braked like that we'd have been in a big accident."
"We're taking another cab," the guy who said he hit his head said, the implications being that a) he thought I was full of shit, and b) I was a lousy driver.
I felt like I was being slapped in the face. Their reactions were all wrong. The right response would have been to express some understanding of what I was telling them. It would have been to make some kind of comment about how badly the guy had been been hurt if, in fact, he'd been hurt at all. Instead they were trying to walk away indignantly as if they'd been assaulted by me. It was all wrong and I wasn't buying it.
"Are you kidding?" I called out, the anger now showing in my voice, "didn't you hear what I said? We would have crashed into that guy if I hadn't braked so hard! You should be thanking me!"
Once again they ignored what I was saying and then turned and started walking away from me across 8th Avenue. "Where are you going?" I yelled as I followed them into the middle of the street. "There's seven dollars on the meter. You can't just walk away without paying me!"
"Don't you touch me," the guy who said he hit his head said.
Allow me to step away from the action for a moment to introduce another term which has become a favorite of mine...
Theater of the absurd: twentieth century dramatic movement based on a belief in the irrationality of man and the absurdity of life. Theater of the absurd uses incongruous or meaningless dialogue and unconventional plot structure and characterization to express a feeling of alienation and futility. (Macmillan Dictionary for Students)
Yes, like an actor interrupting his Hamlet soliloquy to suddenly start strutting around on the stage clucking like a chicken, the scene on the street had taken a sharp turn, at least for me, into the realm of the absurd. You drive a cab on the Wild West streets of New York City for thirty years, perfecting your driving technique to the point of being virtually accident-proof, and then, even though you'd been on the shift for eleven hours, your reaction time is still so fast that you are able to rescue yourself and your passengers from what certainly would have been a gruesome, perhaps even fatal, collision. And the reward for your competence? You are treated as if you were the scum on the inside of a toilet bowl. Plus you are being ripped off for the fare.
It was theater of the absurd.
And I was livid.
"I'm not gonna touch you," I screamed, "I just want to get paid for what's on the meter!"
They kept walking.
"Okay, let's get a cop," I said, not really knowing what to say.
The guy who said he'd hit his head stopped and turned. "If you get a cop, I guess I'll have to tell him what happened," he said, the implication being that I would be accused of some kind of criminal behavior.
At this I balked. I had to suddenly consider whether it would be worth my while to pursue justice over this transgression on my dignity. As I was trying to decide, they hailed an empty taxi coming up the avenue. As the cab stopped and they were about to step into it, something within me prompted me to add one final touch to the absurdity of the scene, just to put a cherry on it.
A little Idiocy, s'il vous plait...
"I saved your lives!" I screamed.
"I saved your lives!" I screamed again.
The door of the cab closed and it started moving up 8th Avenue.
"I saved your lives!" I screamed a third time, adding "You fucking idiots!" to the sentiment, even though by now they were out of earshot.
I returned to my cab with an internal volcano ready to explode. It was bad, and I knew this incident was going to be hanging around in my universe for quite a while. How pathetic had I become, standing on an avenue at four in the morning, trying to get drunk morons to understand that I'd just saved their lives? What I needed was a therapist, and she appeared five minutes later in the form of my next passenger, a considerate and caring woman who was kind enough to listen to my tale of woe as I drove her up to Harlem. God bless that lady, now I no longer feel a need to carry a machete around with me in the cab.
Nevertheless, when I got back to the garage half an hour later to end the shift, I was still reeling. All I wanted to do was take out a cigarette, stand by myself in a dark corner somewhere, and sneer.
And I don't smoke.
But I do click, and encourage you to do so, as well. Like right here for Pictures From A Taxi.