“Taxi Driving Man: Hail and Farewell”
by Jules Stewart
January 1, 1970
Ninth Avenue at 6 a. m. is a surrealistic study in flaming trash cans and steaming manhole covers. In the pre-dawn gloom, the streets are dimly lit by fruit and vegetable merchants preparing to display their wares on the sidewalk. From inside the cab, all is still, but unnaturally still, and since it is New York, the stillness only heightens your anticipation of an approaching cataclysm. It is an exceedingly ugly street, even for New York. But in its monumental ugliness it commands that special morbid fascination that all New Yorkers feel toward their city, despise it as they may.
Driving down toward Port Authority, the feeling is more that of crossing the River Styx than one of Manhattan’s commercial arteries. You have the road practically to yourself, yet there is a restraining force which causes you to drive along slowly, at a steady pace. You are in a phantasmagorical place, and you better not disturb the unholy balance of things, lest you be spotted as an outsider.
It was in that frame of mind that I decided my career as a cabby was to come to an end. It was a decision I turned over in my mind throughout the day, and although the circumstances hardly warranted it, toward turning-in time, I began feeling a little cheerful, mostly because I couldn’t see any footing beneath me to which to sink from here. There was, I thought, cause for optimism. Leave the job, I assured myself, something worthier is bound to come through. (It seems that one side effect of a middle-class adolescence is that in the pinch, you are taught to rely on everything and everybody but yourself. Just when you are at the peak of your desperation — if you have been weaned on Hollywood westerns — is when you most expect your salvation to come galloping across the plain and smash that redskin to smithereens before he detaches your scalp. What entirely eludes the realm of possibilities is his one day making off with it — consequently, you grow up totally unfit to face reality.)
My last passenger of the day was a decrepit old woman with bony, heavily rouged cheeks, whose accent might have originated anywhere from the east bank of the Danube to the Urals. I mentally took a bet on Hungarian refugee and, as it turned out, I wasn’t far off the mark. We headed down Seventh Avenue.
“You not have rrahdio?” she asked, rolling about four extra Rs onto each syllable.
“Too bad. It must be lonely, young man like you, no rrahdio.”
“It’s not too lonely.” To settle my mental bet, I asked her where she hailed from.
“Oh, I have been born Rrussia, but now here 45 yearrs.”
I supposed that if it had been 145 years her syntax would never have improved. After a spell, she tapped on the plastic divider the company throws into their cars as a bone to the driver’s peace of mind.
“Tell me, this glass bullet-proof?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Ah, too bad. You better have bullet-proof, no?”
Another silence. Then, as we passed through Times Square:
“You like pretty girls?”
“Yes, they ‘re okay.”
“Yes? You like young pretty girls?”
“Sure, young ones.” We waved our way between the hand trucks in the garment center.
“Maybe you like meet young pretty girls? Yes?”
We turned east on 15th Street to Sixth Avenue and got held up behind some trucks. I cursed at the trucks so as to avoid following the bait. She came at me again, this time in a more determined tone.
“No, I don’t think I want to meet any just now,” I answered.
She feigned shock.
“No? You not want meet pretty girls?” There was a brief pause. “You like meet young boys, maybe?”
Her voice didn’t betray any sign of facetiousness; it was very routine. I pulled over at 16th Street and threw up the flag, trying to avoid her glance and remain aloof. She took the hint, I guess, and paid and got out.
There was no reason to take her seriously, but when you drive a cab, you run such a daily gamut of these two-bit desperadoes that it soon ceases to be a laughing matter. I started back to the garage very pissed off.
At 17th Street, I turned west and saw a car pulling in on my left. He had the right of way, so I went to slam on my brake to let him pass. I slammed on the accelerator instead.
It was over in about two seconds: I scraped the car, veered right to get loose, ran straight for a pedestrian sitting on a fire hydrant, he jumped up, I knocked him back down, jerked the car left to avoid the hydrant — not far enough — and came to rest half on the hydrant and half on the back of a parked truck. At last, just before pushing all of 17th Street in to the Hudson River, I remembered the brake pedal.
“Shit!” I said aloud, disgustedly, and threw the car into Park. That was all. My victim knelt on the ground, nursing a battered leg. He moaned some, and coincidentally enough, also said “shit!” Good. At least there would be no manslaughter charge, I thought to myself.
The only damage, aside from the leg, was a touch of shock, so with the help of a few bystanders, we stretched him out on the front seat of the cab. Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my brand new 60-cent cigar which I carried in my shirt pocket. As I looked down at my victim’s leg, I vaguely remember hoping that the cigar didn’t get smashed in the impact. All in all, my indifference to everything except the cigar should have appalled me, but it didn’t.
There was one regrettable moment, when I realized that I had left the cab’s motor running and that in the collision I had inadvertently knocked down the flag. The meter was ticking away, and I dashed into the cab practically having to climb over my victim’s prostrate body, to turn off the ignition. This, just to save myself a few pennies. I admit it was a disgusting thing to haw done, but at the time it seemed quite logical and proper.
The truth is, there was really nothing else to do. The driver of the other car got out and we chatted a bit and whiled away the time explaining to the bloodthirsty spectators that the fellow on the seat wasn’t dead.
One woman shouted from the opposite corner to her friend. “Tell me if he’s dead. I can’t go over, I just can’t look.”
“It’s all right,” she shouted back, “he’s alive,” and her friend crept over to join the crowd.
The police came by too and had a look. They took everybody’s papers and went back to the patrol car to sort them out. By now, I began to feel like a fool. Every now and then I’d lean into the car to ask my victim how he was getting along. He mumbled that he didn’t know, he was very cold, and when would the ambulance arrive, please? The police called three times for the ambulance, meanwhile jotting down more important data. The spectators bunched up around the cab, three or four deep, to have a look.
The ambulance eventually arrived, and after several attempts to jerk my victim off the seat, they decided to go through the bother of rolling out the stretcher.
I quietly backed away from the crowd and called the garage. The police departed, then the ambulance. The driver of the other car stayed around for a while, hoping for a quick settlement with the company’s inspector. Finally, he too moved off with the rest of the crowd, and I waited alone with the cab, in the darkness, for the tow truck.
After making out a preliminary report at the garage, I walked up West 46th Street toward the subway, counting my day’s take. It was a Friday, supposedly the best day for hacking. Forty-five dollars and 90 cents in bookings, half, or more correctly 51 per cent, of which belongs to the garage, and about $10 in tips. Thirty-two dollars for 10 hours’ work, and on the best day.
Halfway up the block, I stopped to look at some new pushcarts standing outside a sort or garage-warehouse arrangement. They were the type you see in front of the Museum of Modern Art or up near Central Park, loaded down with pretzels and chestnuts. I stood for a minute, dumbly examining the crude workmanship, when an enormous hulk approached me from behind and dribbled out in old-time Newyorkese: “So, tell me sumpin’.”
I looked back, not sure of what the come-on required for an answer.
“You buying or selling?” he asked.
“Selling,” I said instinctively, since my situation wouldn’t have allowed me to take the other alternative much further. Then he wanted to know what I was doing now. I said nothing, but he insisted and playfully ran down a list of down-and-outer possibilities. We settled on part-time actor.
“Here you make 50 bucks a day. Fifty, 60, 70 — whatever you want. You lose nothing. I give you the pretzels at four cents apiece and the chestnuts for 20 cents a pound. You sell them for whatever you can get. You interested?”
I was just desperate enough to get suckered in, so I let him hustle me into this dark cavernous hole on the West Side, and when my eyes became accustomed to the shadows and I had a look around all I could think of was Dickens. Off to one side was a group of old people (women, I believe) crouched over a mountain of chestnuts. Some were splitting the shells, others passed them on to still others who were doing the roasting. I say “women” hesitantly, because at about 10 yards and in the darkness , it was difficult to make out what those grubby specimens really were, wrapped in about six layers of tattered cloth. Some amateur carpenters were putting together new carts or patching up old ones. And some more of those ogres were off in a corner doing something to the pretzels I won’t describe (I will never eat another).
My friendly giant took me closer to them and said in a loud, obviously theatrical tone; “Here our motto is ‘Fuck the People!’ ” There were a few assenting grunts from the old men-women of “Yeah, fuck the people!” It warmed my heart to see that there are thieves left in New York who are still only after your money.
He went on to enumerate a few more highlights of the profession and wound up with a cheery “and remember, here you don’t pay taxes to no one.”
Again, the grizzly chorus: “Yeah, no taxes!” accompanied by a few chuckles.
He told me to come in the following day, Saturday, which, along with Sunday is the most lucrative in this business, provided it’s good and cold. I left feeling like I had stepped out of a primitive picaresque novel, complete with beggars, harlots, and assorted outlaws and outcasts.
So I was to sell pretzels. That was something worth considering very carefully.
The train was delayed at the Times Square station. After that day’s experience, I had little desire to get on a subway, so I loafed around a hot dog counter, sipping an orangeade and looking at the hordes of commuters running every which way like animals trapped in a forest fire.
Above the tumult and the screeching of the trains, I slowly became aware of a sharp tapping on the pavement outside the lunch counter. It was as audible as tapping on a glass with a fork in a crowded restaurant and I don’t think I would have caught it had my nerves not been so keyed up. The tapping, I soon saw, came from the canes of two blind people — a man and a woman — slowly moving toward each other along the platform. Maybe you’ve seen them. They usually ride the Brighton line, though not together. They are beggars who play the accordion and, if I’m not mistaken, she sings. He is undistinguished, much like any other shabby, middle-aged beggar. She, on the other hand, has an enormous shock of frizzy red hair and resembles a relic from the worst days of the 1940s. Anyhow, I was impressed by their calm, steady manner, how they seemed to head for each other like homing pigeons, following the tapping of their canes, apparently oblivious to the shrieking and shoving of the other million or so blind beggars around them.
The tapping of the canes was enough for them to find each other, and when they finally did — my God — I have never seen such an embrace in my entire quarter century in this god-awful place. They flung their accordions over their shoulders and held on to one another — brilliantly smiling, mind you — with a passion that could only be observed with a trembling lip.
For a moment, I was taken back to my senior year in college. I remembered standing in the hall one morning between classes, trying to recruit a friend for the NYU Fascist Club which I had formed out of sheer maliciousness or boredom or both. He said he hadn’t the time to hear about it, he was expecting his girl from Philadelphia whom he hadn’t seen in months. After a while she showed up, freshly scrubbed and in madras, and when he spotted her, my friend dropped his books on the ground next to him and they ran for each other. He gave her a big kiss and hug and threw her into the air and then, just for a second, out of the corner of his eye, I saw him look back at the books he had so heroically thrown to the ground. There was something in the look he gave those books, while holding his girl, that explained everything. At once, all the disgusting repressions, fears, anxieties, and miseries that have turned this country into the grandest shithouse on the face of the earth gushed in torrents out of my poor friend’s eyes.
Back at the BMT station, I stood watching these two blind beggars. The longer I watched, the more I felt a strange sensation coming on: one of being totally washed out, limp from physical and nervous exhaustion, yet somehow cleansed, like after a day at the gym and steam room. And as I watched, gradually all the sentiments and pointless words made into mush and emptied of meaning by the hippie-flower-beautiful people crowd — sentiments like compassion for a pathetic humanity, words like happiness, charity, and love — began to come to life and, to my own amazement, acquire a freshness and meaning l had long given up for lost within myself.
This, I thought, would be a good time to take the next train downtown. So I went home, thinking about pretzels and chestnuts and two blind lovers, and not feeling bad at all.
[Editor’s note, January 1, 2020: This essay originally appeared in the Voice’s Personal Testament section, “a department open to contributions from our readers. They may write on any subject and in any style they choose, with the editors selecting manuscripts for publication on the basis of literacy and interest.”]
“THE SIXTIES: Remembrance of things past — and present”
January 1, 1970
IT BEGAN with the beats: Tuli Kupferberg, in front of the Gaslight on MacDougal Street (top left); at the end of the ’60s there were the militants: Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and David Dellinger; in between, and throughout there was Allen Ginsberg and a school strike that ripped New York apart (left); and finally — nudity: its first intimation was brought to the big stage, at Hunter College, by the Anne Halprin dancers. (Photographs by Fred W. McDarrah)