fall (caf writing exer)

there where I lived, wind-touched
and fed on sun and rain,
tickled by insect feet,
sung to by birds at every hour,
and cicadas on sultry afternoons,
was where I fell in love.
this is my new fall:
my love,
when he was orange-red,
was taken by a squirrel’s hands
to make a bed,
and I’m undone,
floating in a lazy spiral,
the grace of which
belies my death.

7J49

She slid the roses and her briefcase to the far side of the cab’s back seat, and lowered herself in carefully, grasping the edge of the cab’s roof to ease the strain on her damaged knee.

“One-eighty… can you hear me?” The window in his plexiglass barrier was shut. Unusual. “Can you hear me?” she said loudly.

When he turned and nodded, she continued giving her destination. And then, her preferred route: “Sir, please take the next left. OK? I’d appreciate it if you’d take Riverside all the way up.” He nodded again. “Thanks,” she said.

As the driver took off, she thought about the closed barrier window. Who did that, these days? No one. The city’s crime levels had been way down for years. Some drivers had even removed their barrier partitions. Most of the drivers who still had them had complied with the City initiative to have screens installed in the barriers.

The screens had GPS displays of a cab’s location and current route, as well as options for passengers to view news, weather, or tourist information. The drivers listened to the news and weather along with the passengers. The screens linked passengers and driver, at the same time they gave the drivers more freedom from passengers’ sometimes overly-intense focus. Barrier windows were almost always all the way open, these days. Cabs were generally more friendly. This guy’s window was closed. And he didn’t have a screen.

She pushed the window button, so the window went down half-way. The October night air cooled her cheeks. She leaned against the corner of the seat and watched the city speed by.

Her eye was caught by something hanging loose from the driver’s head. A turban, coming undone? No, it was something else. She looked for the driver’s ID card, but he’d shoved it behind the cab number card so a passenger couldn’t read his ID or name.

Hiding the ID card was a habit many of the city’s Muslim taxi drivers had started on 9/11. When a habit is born from sudden panic, it takes a long time to fade. Even now, eight years after 9/11, with many more Bangladeshi and Lebanese drivers than ever — more brothers to stand up together against any religious or ethnic hostility, and the legal right to do so, too — many cabbies still hid their ID cards from their passengers’ eyes.

But by his looks, this guy wasn’t Muslim. Nor was he a Sikh. They rarely hid their cards, anyway. No, this driver was African-American. And he was wearing a knitted winter cap, of striped wool, with a long dangling tail that had a small pompom on the end. Kind of stylish in a weird way.

As they rolled up Riverside, she closed her eyes and hummed Maule Mere to herself. She felt herself starting to doze off. The breeze on her cheeks had stopped. Sleepily, she realized the cabbie had shut the window. He must have been too cold. She loved chilly air. Most drivers didn’t.

They were about a quarter-mile south of the place of cabbie indecision, the point on her favorite route home where inexperienced cab drivers had to ask her which of the three ways to turn they should take. She stopped humming and sat up, ready to answer the driver if he should ask. And she guessed he would ask, as he was in the right-most lane, which meant he was anticipating an upcoming right turn — a turn he shouldn’t take, if he was following her route correctly.

And then they were there, and he started the right-hand turn. “Excuse me, driver! Please go straight!” He continued with the turn, as if he didn’t hear. She said it again, this time trying to open the barrier window to make sure he heard her. It wouldn’t open. He turned and looked her straight in the eye, the streetlight making his eyeballs glisten at her, as he finished his turn and continued up the hill. She pounded on the plexiglass barrier and shouted, “You’re going the wrong way! Please stop. Sir!! Sir? Stop right now and turn back!!”

The driver ignored her. At the top of the hill, he turned left.

She screamed through the closed barrier, “Sir, I asked you to go a different way! You’re supposed to go the way I ask you to go! It’s the law. And you know it! Stop this cab right now!”

The cabbie slowed, and slid the barrier window open. “Do you want to beat the fare? Huh? Do you want me to stop? Come on. I’ll stop and you can beat the fare! Want to beat the fare?”

What was he saying? Beat the fare? Was he mad? “Stop this cab right now and turn back!”

“Come on, wanna beat the fare? I’ll stop now. Come on. Beat the fare!”

“What are you saying! Stop the cab, turn around, and go the right way! Where the hell are you taking me? I’m going to report you!”

The driver snapped the barrier window shut and sped up. She shouted again, but he wouldn’t stop. She pulled out her phone and made a note of his cab number. 7J49. She noted the time. 10:20 PM. The cab stopped at a red light.

The driver turned and opened the barrier window again. “If you report me, I’ll get you. Go ahead, if you report me to the TLC, you’ll have to go to court. If you don’t go to court I’ll sue you! If you report me, you have to go to court. I’ll sue you if you don’t! How many reports do you have with the TLC?”

“None! What the hell are you talking about? Are you mad? You must be mad! Unlock these doors right now! I’m getting out! I’m reporting you, and I have the cab number!”

He looked at her again, and closed the barrier window, this time locking it with a heavy click. Suddenly a light flashed.

It took her a moment before she understood he’d taken her photo with a disposable camera.

She saw the cab was near her home. There were always cabbies parked, waiting for fares, at the top of her hill. If it came to it, she could get their help. She realized the driver was mad.

He turned to her again. “Wanna beat the fare?”

Suddenly she realized he was trying to provoke her into not paying for her ride. That’s what he meant by beat the fare.

He wanted to make her into a bad passenger and report her. He’d followed her route almost till the end, and then he’d deliberately veered off course. He’d closed the window she’d opened, locked her in, frightened her on purpose, and he’d taken her picture. He mostly kept his barrier window shut. He even had a solid latch for it, something she’d never seen, which protected him completely from anyone in the passenger compartment.

Yet now he’d taken her almost to her destination anyway. She watched as they took a left turn at the top of her hill, and descended the street, past the idled cabbies. They came to a stop at a red light, a block from her regular corner. She decided she’d get out there, if he’d let her out.

“Unlock the doors!” she said. She hear a click and saw the door locks jump slightly. She opened her door part way. “Take this!” She stuffed a twenty into the fare drawer. “No tip! Give me my change! No tip for you, sir!” The fare was twelve dollars and sixty cents, about ten percent higher than normal because of the cabbie’s wacky detour. He should return seven dollars and forty cents.

The fare drawer opened back at her. There were bills, but no coins. “Where’s my change?” she shouted.

“That’s eight dollars, lady. I gave you a tip.”

“I don’t want your sixty cents. Here’s a dollar. Now you have a forty-cent tip. I don’t want to wait for your coins!”

She pulled her flowers and briefcase from the back of the cab, and limped down the hill, watching the cab from a corner of her eye.

The cabbie put on his emergency signals and highs, made an unnecessarily wide turn right on Cabrini, and rolled slowly up the street, his emergencies flashing, and his highs bouncing against the long stone wall on the east side of the street.

She skipped getting the mail. In the apartment, she couldn’t remember having waited for the elevator.

She heated some soup and a paneer paratha, and had them with a glass of thick October apple cider.

She didn’t unpack her briefcase.

The next day was a company holiday. She watched films and slept. The October light was long and bright, when she took a walk in the late afternoon. She watched the Hudson River and the Palisades, through the elms at the north end of Cabrini.

That night, she remembered the mad cabbie. She thought about the danger he might pose to other riders. She’d left her phone in the pocket of her coat. Her coat had hung in the closet all day and night. If anyone had called, she hadn’t heard it. She went to the closet and took her phone from the coat pocket. No calls, just some texts. And her memo to herself: 7J49.

Should she call the TLC? Today was a Jewish holiday, Succoth. She was Christian, but the company owner was Jewish. This year, for the first time ever, he’d decided to give the Christian employees time off on for the Jewish holidays. She appreciated the spirituality of this gesture.

She wouldn’t report the guy. It would be so easy: just dial 311 and tell her story. But it meant labeling this man, and maybe getting him thrown out of work. He could have hurt her, he could have abducted her. But he hadn’t.

Mad as he was, she could see he was trying to be a man, as best he could. He had to live by someone else’s rules, to earn his bread, and he surely hated it. He surely hated the contempt he must often suffer from the arrogant, entitled attitudes so common to many passengers. He was playing a game, where he disturbed the sense of safety and control that passengers expected. In doing so, he maybe earned a few extra coins on the cab’s meter by taking them off their routes, but he lost many more coins on the tip. For who would tip him after a ride like that?

She understood his rebelliousness, the hard conditions of his job, his working twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, driving other people around, in a polluted city. This was why she’d called him “Sir.” Even when she was locked in his cab, frightened and screaming at him, she’d still addressed him as “Sir.” She always called cabbies “Sir” or “Miss.” She always wished them a good day or a good night, and she did it in their own languages whenever possible.

As mad as the driver of cab 7J49 was, he was in some ways more sane than the average man. He knew what made him angry. He knew what he had to do to make a living despite hating having to do it. He was honest with himself. It seemed he meant no evil towards his passengers. He rebelled against the constraints of his job in a risky but ultimately harmless way. And he penalized his own rebellion: he must be perennially tip-less.

She laughed about his attitude, his intelligence, his wiliness. It was a strange laugh. It was with him, not at him. And it was at herself, about her fears and worries that he might harm someone in the future. Mostly, though, it was suffused with a sense of tragic pity for his dilemma. She understood that someday she might act as madly as he had, in her own way.

She cleared the memo from her phone, plugged in to charge, and lay down, pulling the sheets up lightly. She folded her arms behind her head. Now that was progress. Six weeks ago, she couldn’t do that. Sitting up again, she took a sip from the glass of cider on the table. Then she slid back down under the sheets, reached for her laptop, and began to write:

“7J49…”

Columbia U: a NYC tale for you

last night, I went into a stationery shop across from Columbia’s main entrance
to look for a book light, a small lamp I could read by in the middle of the night
the shop was long and narrow with ceilings about 20 feet high
all available space from floor to ceiling from front to back was taken by rows and tiers of zillions of kinds of pens and paper and notebooks and various junk
there were just two long corridors between the stacks of goods through which one could walk to find things
the shop was closing soon, so I asked the shopkeeper where his book lights were, rather than search them out myself
somehow he looked surprised when he looked into my eyes
he took me very seriously and was polite and even a little kind though he was surly with everyone else, from patrons to assistants
I noticed it and just thought of it again now
he didn’t have the book light I wanted so I left
and in the 8 AM light, I remembered being at Pratt when I was 18
and how little money I had for books and brushes, pens, paint, ink and paper
and how cruel the shopkeeper was, at the art supplies store across from the Pratt entrance
and how humiliating it was to be a student with few resources and nowhere to turn
and I realized the shopkeeper by Columbia was like that with everyone, too, but not with me, last night
and I think it’s because when he looked into my eyes
he knew I could see the truth
and he didn’t feel like fucking with me
but all day long he otherwise fucks with the students who come to buy
because he thinks they’re rich because they’re in college
and he fucks with his assistants to show himself he’s better than they are
and because he’s feeling guilty because he’s not being true to his better heart all day long
if he knew how hard it is for so many of those students, money-wise
he should take himself into the little Morton-Williams supermarket two doors south of his shop
and watch how the students walk around for half an hour to find food for twenty-four hours without spending more than five dollars
how the mother with two sons in Columbia has come with them from Spain
and is advising them to buy milk in half-gallon or gallon sizes rather than in single quarts, to save half a dollar
how some of the young women buy things full of sugar that will ruin their health and impede their focus, because those things are cheap
how some of the young men buy nothing but hot dogs and beer for the same reason
how some buy a single apple, and a single portion of fish
and how some walk in and drift around, holding coins, not bills, in their hands,
and walk out, buying nothing, looking hungry and desperate
he would reduce his fucking with others time and feel better inside
anyway I am glad that he doesn’t fuck with everyone 100% of the time
it’s raining this morning
I like the sound of the tires on the wet street
and how it’s starting to smell like fall
it was a day like this when I first came to Pratt
I was born in NYC but we left when I was a year and a half old
the city light in the morning
is very beautiful
long angles
lots of depth
somber energy
the start of another day