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: