New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.
– Dave Barry
My first trip to New York City was in 1987. I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection. (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.
Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity. I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college. They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education. I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers. One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died. In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state. He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship. I asked him why he would want to work at a department store. I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received. It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.
My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding. He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing. This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well. I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp. I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.
“This is my first trip to NY.”
“How far is it to West 79th Street?”
“My brother’s getting married.”
I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”. He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa. I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.
“So what country are you from?”
The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters. I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows. We were moving slowly. I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.
The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light. He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road. I muttered a silent Rosary. So this was it. While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?” I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls. I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.
“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”
The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night. An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven. He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle. I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.
We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator. The lift could comfortably accommodate one person. I hesitated as the door opened to two people. My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman. I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined. I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.
The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer. The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike. August heaved up from the subway grills. It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.
The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts. I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living. As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted. The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations. I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.
The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes. Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles. On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video. At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.
God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges. One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony. 27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City. I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station. It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family. It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.
Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses. The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt. It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light. The City prefers to walk on a day like today. A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this. It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded. Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving. To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.
There is no place to hide from life in the City. It finds you. Everything is shared. I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event. Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.
I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid. A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances. In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.
The City will change with the seasons. No day is guaranteed. The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground. NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight. It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note. It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar. It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.
As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.
“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train. Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK. It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.
I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again. I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.
Soon, it will be cold. I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go. I endure winter to get to summer. Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.