Sunday, February 24, 2019

What It Takes, Part 3 -- Epilogue: McEnroe Returns

Note: Best to read Parts 1 and 2 below before reading this one. 

Epilogue (noun) --  a section or speech at the end of a book or a play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened. (the Apple dictionary)

I love epilogues, especially when one occurs in real life, as if life itself were a story. In the context of a ride in a taxi in a big city like New York, epilogues are rare indeed because in most cases you will never meet your passenger again.  So whatever you may have found to be interesting, or quirky, or disturbing about your passenger -- whatever the circumstance was --  it will remain unresolved in your mind.  You may occasionally find yourself wondering, "whatever became of so-and-so?"   You wish you could meet that person again just to find out or so you could satisfactorily end the story yourself.

I had an epilogue in my cab last year on April 22nd, a sunny Sunday with birds chirping and happy trees serenading the city with a concerto in the key of delicate green.

As I was waiting at a red light on Central Park West a bit before 4 p.m., the right rear door opened and a passenger jumped in.  Before I could say "hello" he barked, "59th and York and make it fly!"   Apparently he was in a big rush.

This kind of request is usually made in the form of a polite question, not a blunt command.  I looked in the rearview mirror to evaluate the situation.  In other words, why should I drive any faster than I  normally do?  Is this really an emergency?  I had one of those Nissan minivan cabs that day

which has a partition running the entire width of the cab.  One of the few things I like about this vehicle is that it allows the driver to fully view the passengers in the rear.  It also has an intercom that actually works, enabling the driver and passenger to hear each other.  So I was able to take a good look at this guy.

Hey, wait a minute -- he looked familiar.

Oh my God, it was McEnroe.  Again.  Much older.  After thirty-four years he has returned to me, the prodigal passenger.

"Mister McEnroe!" I exclaimed.

Big mistake.

If you recall from the second story in this series, the correct way to address John McEnroe is by referring to him by his last name only.  I should have remembered this and I immediately suffered the consequences of my blunder.

"WE DON'T HAVE TO TALK!" he screamed.

Now if this had been virtually anyone else in the world I would have tossed the guy out of my cab.  It's a dignity issue.  You can't allow people to talk to you that way unless, of course, they are drunk and much bigger than you.  But this was McEnroe. Actually, it was kind of charming.  I smiled as if he'd said, "Hello there, how are you?", which in his own way is sort of what he did.

I stepped lightly on the gas and we began moving downtown on Central Park West. His destination required me to make an almost immediate left turn onto the transverse which runs through the park at 65th Street.  It's the fastest route to the East Side.  But the transverse was closed due to a parade on 5th Avenue that day, so we had to cut over to Broadway, a detour.  McEnroe didn't take this lying down and began venting his rage at Mayor de Blasio, the tyrant who had no doubt orchestrated this outrage.  Ridiculous to get so upset, you say, but think about it. This is McEnroe.  Everyone knows how McEnroe feels about referees and mayors are pretty much the same as referees.  Right?

I realized there was no point in continuing on in that vein.  Instead, I said:

"Hey, do you remember what you were doing in the evening of March 13th, 1984?"

This non sequitur caught his attention.  He perked up and forgot about the mayor.

"I have no idea."

"You were in my cab.  I picked you up from your place on East End Avenue and took you to the Garden to a Knicks game.  We talked about sports.  I told you about the time I hit some balls with Martina Navratilova's coach."  

McEnroe's face lit up.  "I think I remember that ride!"

Well, that handled his don't-talk-to-me and his I'm-in-a-big-rush state of mind. Suddenly McEnroe was friendly, conversational, and in no particular hurry.  We began a rambling conversation about various subjects, one thing leading to another, as often happens in a lively exchange.  My long tenure as a taxi driver interested him and he asked me some questions about my more memorable rides.  One that I mentioned was the ride with a couple of Mafia hit men to Newark Airport.  That led to him telling me about a book he'd been reading at the time, I Hear You Paint Houses, which led to how much money Netflix was reportedly paying Martin Scorsese to direct the movie version.  And so on.

By the time we were about halfway to 59th and York I suddenly realized that I had the rarest of rare opportunities at hand.  And that this was really going to be fun.

Let me explain: in the last 34 years I have told the stories in Parts 1 and 2 of this series to countless passengers in my cab.  If the subject of tennis comes up, or if anything to do with what it takes to be the champion in a sport comes up, if time permits I will tell my passengers those two stories together.  First the story about how pleased I was with myself that I was able to hit the serve of Mike Estep, Martina Navratilova's coach.  Then the story about what McEnroe's response to me was, seven  months later, when I told him how pleased I was with myself that I could hit Mike Estep's serve:

"Well, Mike's never been known for his serve," McEnroe had said.

It burst my little bubble.

This always gets a laugh.  Then to make my point I really dig into McEnroe, putting emphasis on certain words.  I'll say: "here's a guy who is number ONE... in the WORLD!  NO ONE can beat him!  In the WORLD!  NO ONE!  But he's just a little concerned that maybe his TAXI DRIVER can hit his serve.  But then, oh, wait, it's okay.  It was only Mike Estep.  I'm safe."  

After a brief pause for more laughter I'll put the finishing touches on my speech:

"What we're looking at here is compulsive competitiveness of a magnitude that is borderline insane!  This guy is asylum bait.  He's surrounded by assassins.  Even his taxi driver, for God's sake, is a potential threat to his dominance in the world of tennis."

And the point I make is that this is what it takes to be Number One.

So -- the rarest of rare opportunities at hand was this: due to the high level of affinity that had been created between us by our free-flowing conversation, I knew I could now tell McEnroe the story I'd been telling passengers for 34 years about him to him.  Just the way I tell it.  In life this just never happens.

So I set him up.

As we hit some traffic on 57th Street, I asked him if he remembered what he'd said to me in 1984 about my tennis session with Martina's coach.  Of course he did not, so the door was open.  I started at the beginning with Mike Estep hailing me on 6th Avenue in August of 1983, how friendly he was, how he was telling me things about the men's tour he probably shouldn't be telling anyone, about how he always beats Martina in a real match, and so on, leading up to his invitation to come out onto the court so I could see what it's like to try to hit the serve of a pro, and then later observing the ferocity of Martina when she played him in a practice game for real.

Watching McEnroe in the mirror, it was clear that he was enjoying the story and I was in safe territory when the story became about him.  So I brought it on...

" it's seven months later, March 13th, 1984 to be exact..."

"'re going to the Garden, you're in my cab, we're on the FDR Drive..."

"...I'm telling you how happy I was with myself that I was able to hit his serve..."

" move forward in your seat, a look of concern on your face..."

"...what was his name again? you ask..."

"...Mike Estep..."

" move back in your seat, all relieved..."

"...well, you know," you say, "Mike's never been known for his serve"...

I check in the mirror to see how McEnroe's responding.  He's loving it.  I continue, with emphasis:

"'s 1984.  You're the Number ONE tennis player in the WORLD!  NO ONE can beat you!  In the WORLD!  NO ONE!  But you're just a little concerned that maybe your TAXI DRIVER can hit your serve!  But then, wait, it's okay, it's only Mike Estep.  I'm safe."

Looking again at McEnroe, I see he's just about doubled-over in laughter.  I move in for the kill.  In  mock exasperation, squealing:

"Mike's never been known for his serve?"

And then, the coup de grace, both middle fingers raised high in extended triumph:


Now he is doubled-over in laughter.  

I tell my passenger to go fuck himself and he loves it.  A great accomplishment for me, but I knew it wouldn't offend him.  Self-deprecation has always been one of McEnroe's sterling qualities -- his saving grace, actually.

A feeling of calm set in as the laughter subsided.  We rode in silence for half a minute or so, then  traffic for the 59th Street Bridge brought us to a complete stop at Park Avenue.  I told McEnroe I knew a cab driver trick to get around it and proceeded to turn one block south to 56th Street, which is always completely empty.  As we began to zip along at a decent pace, I remembered that in our previous ride back in '84 I had kind of set him up for giving me a big tip.  We now had only a couple of minutes before we'd arrive at his destination, but I realized it could be done again.

"You know, for many years you held the record for being the best celebrity tipper in my cab," I said.    

"Really!  Who broke it?"

"Leonardo di Caprio.  Back in 1997.  He wanted to know who was the best celebrity tipper I'd ever had in my cab and I said, 'believe it or not it was John McEnroe, who gave me double the meter.'  Then he said, 'well I'm gonna give you triple the meter.' And he did.  Pretty impressive, considering he was really just a kid at the time."

Looking at him in the mirror, I could see a certain look of concern appearing on his face which I'd seen before.  Remember, this is a man who suffers from Obsessive Competitive Syndrome.  

I continued:

"That record stood for 17 years until it was broken by Derek Jeter.  Jeter gave me quadruple the meter."

McEnroe was indeed concerned.  "What was Jeter like?" he asked.  "I've never met him."

I told him Jeter was as advertised -- friendly, funny, easy to talk to, unpretentious. 

We arrived at his destination, the Sutton East Tennis Club (of course!) at 59th and York.  The fare was $19.30 and  I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind -- "should I give this guy quintuple the meter?"  That would be almost $100.  Could he do it?  The title of Best Celebrity Tipper Of All Time was within his grasp -- again! -- and the tension was almost palpable. 

McEnroe, like most people these days, was paying with a credit card.  As the passenger is touching a screen in the back to enter the tip, the driver can watch on his own screen in the front to see what's happening.  McEnroe began tapping.  If this had been taking place in a stadium, the crowd would be hushed in nail-biting anticipation.  

Could he do it?

The numbers began coming up on my screen, ever so slowly, one digit at a time...  a five, then a zero, then a period and two more zeroes.  Fifty dollars.  A valiant effort, ladies and gentlemen, but, alas, not enough.  He had come up short.  So sad, really, to see Father Time catching up with them.  Even the great ones must fall eventually to his relentless pursuit.  

But wait!

Number of times what's on the meter is only one way of determining the winner. Simple quantity would be another, more accurate, means of awarding the trophy. Di Caprio's ride in 1997 had been a short one and triple the meter came to about fifteen dollars.  And Jeter's ride was also a short one, around $8 on the meter and he gave me two twenties.  A $32 tip.    

So actually McEnroe had done it!  After 34 years he had come back to reclaim his title -- the Best Celebrity Tipper of All Time In My Cab. 

Without question the greatest comeback in taxi history!

I immediately decided he should receive a trophy -- my book.  I always keep a copy handy on the dashboard should the need arise to show it to passengers and this was just such an occasion.  

Thanking him for his tip, I announced that I had something for him -- "because you're special!"  And I held it up for him to see.  I couldn't hand it to him because the partition in these Nissans is solid with no window, so I told him to come around to me to receive his prize.  While he was on his way I wrote an inscription: "To John McEnroe, Thanks for that double the meter in 1984!  Best wishes, Eugene Salomon."  
I handed him the book, we shook hands, and by the big smile on his face it seemed to me that he was as happy to receive it as he was when he'd been handed one of his many trophies for winning the U.S. Open.  

Although that could be something of an overstatement on my part. 


I found myself basking in the afterglow of that ride as my day continued on.  While taking a break at one of the many Starbucks around the city I reviewed mentally what had transpired earlier.  By confronting and skillfully communicating with an angry passenger I had turned the ride into a pleasant experience for the both of us.  I had transformed "we don't have to talk" into a fifty dollar tip.  I had explained to the passenger the route I was taking and expertly navigated the city streets to get him there in the shortest possible time.  I was so able to get myself on his wavelength to the point that even saying "fuck you" to him was completely appropriate and appreciated.  And I had given him a book written by his own taxi driver, something that is not likely to happen to a passenger even once in a lifetime. Putting all modesty aside, that is what it takes to rise to the very top echelon of a subset of our culture called "taxi driver".