Looking back at it later, that’s the way it seemed.
Someone less familiar with the nuances of a scene - its details, the usual flow of its particles - might not have noticed that something was not right.
But I did. Something, some nebulous something, was out there.
It happened on a midsummer night last year, July 31st to be exact - around midnight - and that’s about as midsummer as you can get. I took a twenty-something female from lower Manhattan to McDonough Street in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a so-called “inner city” part of New York. She was fine, paid with a credit card and gave me a twenty percent tip. But there was a little thing that happened a few blocks before we got to her destination that caught my eye. While we were stopped at a red light a group of about twenty kids, teenagers in that danger-zone between fifteen to twenty years old, walked by on the opposite side of the street. It was the way they were moving, along with a group attitude and a certain buzzing among them, that created the blip on my radar screen. I’ve been watching people walk across the street for thirty-five years. This was a particle that was not flowing smoothly. It was sticking.
But then, as my passenger departed on McDonough Street, I heard sirens from a few blocks away. They have a language of their own, these sirens. Police, fire, EMS, they’re all slightly different. These were police, I knew, and in the parlance of police sirens they were in the “we mean business” band. (You can tell this by the duration of the wailing and by the speed the police car is traveling which, even if you can’t see it, can be determined by the time it takes for the siren to increase in volume if it’s moving toward you or to decrease in volume if it’s moving away from you. It also lets you know how serious they think the emergency is.) That there was more than one siren was significant, as well. There were two, about a block from each other, and moving in the same direction. Then there was a third, this one from a bit further away.
Something was going on.
Then I heard distant shouts, coming from that same vicinity. And not from one source, but from two or three.
My sacred Taxi Driver Instinct told me, quite clearly, “get the hell out of here”. I flicked on my “Off Duty” light, locked the doors, and began heading back toward Manhattan, the opposite direction from where the commotion, whatever it was, was originating.
“Take me to Manhattan?”
It was free money. I unlocked the doors and he slid onto the back seat.
“Where in Manhattan do you want to go?”
Perfect. Right across the Manhattan Bridge.
I turned the meter on and thought about what I had just done. It was all right. This guy, although a rough kind of character, represented no threat to me in a physical sense. Just by his age I was certain of that. Morons who think it’s worth the risk of possible consequences to pull out a gun just to get a hundred dollars from a taxi driver are either in jail or dead before they get to the age of thirty. This guy appeared to be around forty-five. Plus he was taking me away from the area where I perceived the danger to be. No need to even use my
“Three Strikes And You’re Out” system to protect myself. Just get on Atlantic Avenue and make a right.
But I hadn’t driven half a block when my passenger spoke. “Pull over, he’s getting’ in,” he said. I looked around. A guy who looked like Bad Bad’s older brother was approaching the cab. I didn’t like it but I was in a situation where I had no choice.
The second passenger got in.
It set off an alarm. My happiness at having an unlikely return trip to Manhattan evaporated in the night air and was replaced by an anxiety, which was only heightened by the next development in the plot.
“He’s goin’ to Buffalo Avenue,” the first guy said.
“Buffalo Avenue,” I repeated, rather robotically. This was not what I wanted to hear. Not only was Buffalo Avenue in the opposite direction from Manhattan, it meant that in order to get to it I was going to have to drive toward whatever was causing the commotion that I’d already been trying to avoid.
“Goin’ to a card game,” the second guy said.
“Then you’re going to Manhattan?” I asked the first guy.
Then, abruptly: “Make a left, make a left!”
I didn’t like the tone. It had suddenly gone from “I’m doing you a favor by picking you up when my Off-Duty light is on” to being ordered around by my passengers, who were seizing control of the ride. And to make it worse, the street they were ordering me to turn onto was Fulton, a two-way road with a single lane in each direction.
I didn’t want to take that route, I wanted to take a parallel avenue, Atlantic, which also has two directions of traffic but with two lanes in each direction. On Atlantic you could move around if something got in your way, but on Fulton you’d be stuck if there were to be an obstruction.
I momentarily considered just telling them forget it, I’m only going to Manhattan, not the other way, but then I would be in a confrontational situation with the Brown brothers which could lead to who-knows-what. Besides, I wanted that ride to Manhattan after the Buffalo Avenue drop-off.
I made the left onto Fulton.
We went two blocks and then came to a dead stop behind a line of cars that looked to be a block long. Not good. After thirty seconds of not moving at all, I realized that the cause of the delay was the thing I’d been trying to avoid. In the distance there were people running. There were people shouting. Like a tornado, it seemed to be coming toward us.
“I’m getting out of here,” I called back to my passengers, who were immersed in a quiet conversation between themselves and oblivious to the outside world. And with that I made a U-turn on Fulton and headed back in the opposite direction, away from the tornado. After a couple of zigs and zags we were on Atlantic, the avenue I’d wanted to take in the first place, heading swiftly toward Buffalo Avenue. I thought there might have been a protest from the back seat since I had countermanded their instructions and had taken them a few blocks out of their way, but there was nothing.
But better than that, I’d avoided the fracas, whatever it was. It is rare in life that we are grateful for things that didn’t happen, right? This was a case of an experienced cab driver relying on his knowingness to keep himself and his passengers out of harm’s way. There’s no virtue in becoming a victim, mate.
Two minutes later I got them to their building, a tenement, on Buffalo Avenue with $8.70 on the meter. The first guy then surprised me by handing me a fifty and telling me to keep ten.
“You can pay the fare when we get to Manhattan,” I said, as I tried to return the bill.
“We’re both gettin’ out here,” he replied.
“You’re not going to Manhattan?”
“Nah, I’m goin’ to the card game,” he said.
Damn. There went my “free money”. It pissed me off - I immediately wondered if he’d ever intended to go to Manhattan in the first place. Maybe he’d just used that as a ploy to get me to take him deeper into Brooklyn. But what could I do? I can’t force people to stay in my cab. Especially this guy.
I handed him two twenties as his change, said “thanks”, and expected to hear the rear door open and the two of them depart. But instead the second guy handed me my twenties back and said he needed smaller bills.
“Smaller bills?” It was an odd request. I’m not a bank.
“For the card game.”
“Oh… all right.” Okay, that made sense. I counted out eight fives and handed them over.
“What do you play? Poker?” I asked as they opened both rear doors simultaneously.
“Hey, good luck!”
My blessing was either ignored or not heard as it brought no response - they walked away and disappeared. I drove off toward Atlantic Avenue, disappointed, but not overly so - after all, even though they’d delayed my return to Manhattan, I did make ten dollars for the inconvenience, and that’s not to be discounted. I kept the “Off-Duty” light on, locked my doors anew, and got back on Atlantic wondering if I should take the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge back to the city.
When I had driven about a mile past the general area where the commotion had been, and knowing I was beyond the reach of that problem, I began to feel hungry. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to meals - you could set your clock by my stomach - and midnight is feeding time in my taxi. So I found a quiet spot and pulled over. Out of my backpack came my pre-prepared chicken fingers and my whole wheat bread and I began munching away.
I was reviewing mentally what had just transpired with my last ride and suddenly I was jolted by a thought. Wait a minute… they’d paid me with a fifty… and I hadn’t bothered to check it. I pulled my wad out from my pocket and found the bill.
Cautiously, I held it up to the dome light of the cab.
And then, oh, oh no, nooooo… Shit! SHIT!
Forget about teenagers and wildings, if anyone on the sidewalk had heard my wails of anguish they would have thought that I was a source of danger and they’d have crossed the street to avoid me.
The bill was a fake.
How can you tell? There are three ways:
1) First, and easiest, you hold the bill up to a strong light and look for the “ghost” in the blank area on the right side. Pictured on a fifty is Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union forces during the American Civil War and the eighteenth president of the United States from 1869 to 1877. A ghostly image of Grant can be seen in that blank area if the bill is genuine. The high-tech copying machines that are used to produce counterfeit money are not high-tech enough to reproduce the image of that ghost. This bill had none. A fake!
2) Second, similar to the first, is to hold the bill up to a light and look for the bar. On a fifty the thin bar runs the width of the bill, just to the right of Grant’s head and reads, repetitively, in tiny print, “USA 50”. This bill did not have that, either.
Or just the obvious choice, use it to pay for something at a retail store. Yeah, that seemed like the way to go. But where?
It was this that was on my mind as I crossed the Manhattan Bridge, touching down on Canal Street in Chinatown. Immediately, as if Manhattan itself had supernatural powers, my luck turned. My next passenger, a middle-aged fellow who’d perhaps had too much to drink and didn’t want to wait around at train stations, took me out to Jersey City, New Jersey. These OT (out-of-town) jobs are flat-rate and lucrative. We charge much more than the normal, metered fare because a) we can, and b) by law, we’re not allowed pick up passengers outside of the New York City limits - we are required to come back to the city empty.
I was paid $45 plus an $8.50 tip for the twenty minute ride. Travel time back to Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel would be only another ten minutes, and that’s good money, but even better than that, I suddenly realized I had a perfect opportunity to pass off my fake fifty. A godsend, really.
There are about a dozen gas stations lined up in a row near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Gas is always cheaper in New Jersey than in New York due to lower taxes, so it saves a few dollars to fill up before entering the tube. What better place than an oil company to pass off a counterfeit bill? After all, haven’t I been getting raped by these people my whole life?
And now, ha-ha, it was get-even time.
I pulled into the station. Funny, even though it was where it was supposed to be, the place looked different. I realized it had been renovated - it was bigger, shinier, and better lit. The attendant came over immediately, but he wasn’t the same guy.
“Uh, yeah, regular, cash,” I replied.
The total on the pump came to $29. Giving no indication by voice or body language that I was trying to pull a fast one, I handed him the $50 bill. A moment of truth was at hand, and that’s what it was - a moment. It took the guy maybe two seconds to recognize that the bill was a phony. He abruptly handed it back to me.
“What do you mean?” I replied, showing surprise and very genuine concern at hearing this startling revelation.
“How do you know?”
“Hold it up to the light.”
“I’m really, really sorry about this, man.”
I handed him some actual money to pay for the gas.
Oh, and I tipped him a dollar.
Emerging from the tunnel in deepest thought, I realized I had been given an integrity wake-up call. There was simply no way out, integrity-wise, but to swallow the loss. Right away I started feeling better about myself. Hey, it wasn’t the end of the world. All I’d actually lost was forty dollars (the change I’d given for the fifty) and the time it had taken me to drive those guys to Buffalo Avenue. Not that big a deal in the larger scheme of things.
Still, it stung.
What was going on? I’m a karma guy. I felt like I was in a rowboat and was being tossed around in Somebody’s Ocean. Why was all this happening to me? I believe, as I wrote at the end of the “Karma Versus Coincidence” chapter of my book, that “what can be fully viewed will vanish” (if I may quote myself). What was I not fully viewing? I did not know. Shouldn’t my slate have been wiped clean, so to speak, by the realization that the ethical thing to do was to not pass along the fifty? So why was I continuing to pull this crap in?
I did not know.
I decided to finish the shift in silence. Passengers had become too dangerous to communicate with, and that was that. I spoke not a word to the next fare, a couple of tourists traveling from the Village to the Upper West Side, nor to a finance guy on a long ride from Midtown way up to Washington Heights. I felt if I could just tip-toe my way around Whatever It Was, maybe it would blow out to sea by tomorrow.
Well, the strategy seemed to work. I had no further trouble with passengers for the final three hours of my shift and had almost forgotten about my extraordinarily lousy night when I pulled into the Hess Station on 44th and 10th at 5 a.m. to fill up.
And that’s when the screaming began.
“THIS IS NO GOOD!” she screamed again, waving the twenty dollar bill in the air.
What??? I walked over to the booth. This information was not being processed mentally.
On some moronic level I must have been thinking that I’d already met my quota of counterfeit money that night so there couldn’t possibly be more. Of course this made no sense whatsoever to the enraged cashier who continued to wave the twenty in the air as if it were a flag.
I picked up the bill and looked at it. Oh my God, it was indeed a fake. Not nearly as well made as the fifty - the green ink was too bright and anyone who handles money could see at a glance that this one was suspicious. Except me, apparently.
I handed her another twenty dollar bill from my wad, making sure this one was not also a fake, and then, as I walked toward my cab in a daze, it hit me. Oh, God, no, could it be?
I opened up my roll of bills and looked warily at each of the twenties. There was the counterfeit she’d just returned to me. The next twenty was perfectly fine, nothing wrong with it. Then another, also fine. And then… oh, shit, there it was - another fake twenty!
So the whole thing had been a set-up, beginning with the first guy telling me he was going to Manhattan, which he’d never intended to do. There had been no “card game”. They didn’t need “change”. I’d been royally conned by a couple of very smooth operators. Damn, I’d even told them “good luck” as they left the cab.
It's been just over a year now and I still have attention on the events of that shift. Had there actually been “something in the air that night”?
Yes, there had been danger without, the turbulence in the vicinity of McDonough Street.
So what is one to do?
Be more alert.
Be more honest.
Try to raise your level of confront.
And may the storm pass you by.