There should be a picture here: the aging yellow Crown Vic’s dashboard floating beyond pillow grey vinyl seats; the bolt-on jet-fighter cockpit center dash, all its lights flashing green and red out of an Eighties anime epic, streetlights smeared by rain. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.
Thursday I am downtown late after a show. My mind reels from an improv group that performs in the style of David Mamet: a half-dozen guys in suits finishing each other’s profanity-laden sentences, all faux smoking. Very tight, very funny. It’s eleven and I haven’t thought about getting home. Buses run, but any that work for me are an hour’s wait. Streets are full of orange light and second-string panhandlers: old black guys layered with grime, dazed post-teens claiming to be veterans needing just one more quarter for the bus. The world is not hostile or frightening, just late. I feel rushed and uncharitable. They know the game and turn away.
What is it I feel? Not worry, not really–I have never understood those who say they feel unsafe in the city night, no matter what city. Letdown from the surreal state of being enclosed by drama? Maybe. Christmases have come and gone along Fourth, parades for Fourth of July. It’s dark, more cool than cold, gently raining. It could be any time. I could be any age. I have to go to work tomorrow, not school.
I could get a cab. The thought is not so much sacrilege as a mid-grade temptation. I never take cabs. In New York, on those rare occasions when my parents would consent to expose me to what they seemed to believe was an urban battle royale, my father would insist on driving, or we’d take the train from Doylestown, to Philadelphia, then up to the city. My grandmother went a few times, hand wrapped tightly around her purse, her right hand closed in a death grip around a wad of mid-sized bills. We are on a bright summer street, a sea of traffic nosing by, and are late for the train. A snap decision: we will get a cab. In my kid mind it is one of those adult decisions made in a communal stressed instant where everyone knows what they are getting into and holds their head high anyway, keeping everything quiet to ready for the fight later. Get a Checker, my grandmother insists. You always want a Checker–they’re white. The cabs are all big yellow Fords. Mom, mom– My dad has flagged one of the yellow ones but my grandmother persists on the curb, looking out at the oncoming traffic as if to deflect it from stealing her purse.
Getting a cab now is like my still-frequent realizations that I can buy booze or porn. Oh, right, I can do that. I half-pace in front of the Macy’s considering: I have a book to read and could wait. There is no reason to get up early. But I don’t want to get home after midnight, and the cat is hungry.
Cabbies are part of the street and have its smarts, so when one pulls up and rolls down the window I am unsurprised. Most of successful salesmanship is reading obvious signs and closing in. Needaride? Hah? I step close. The guy is a typical American cabbie: black-skinned from who knows where, supporting who knows how many others, fleeing something, paddling hard to get to the crest of the Dream. I can see his earnestness in his open but not smiling expression, his lack of ridiculous jewelry, his dash free of a Virgin Mary.
Going to Georgetown. Yah, yah, I take you. Dithering on the street empty but for other cabs: well…I don’t want to spend more than twenty. Ahhh, okay, sure, I take you, no problem. Come in, come in, yes, yes.
The cab is as described for the photo I should have taken, worn but clean. No divider separates the driver and me–the space is cramped in the way a big car interior is, but the space is full of us. I see you, I think, maybe he looking for a ride, yes? So I stop and I wave and you come over and here it is. I say something to apologize for making him go out of downtown. Oh, is not a problem. I need to go home anyway.
The cab does not so much drive as float along the wide, empty streets, lights turning green as we approach them. Here, earlier, was cops everywhere, street blocked off. Someone robbed the bank! All crazy, man. Crazy! Now the street is empty but for us and a few other late-night stragglers, the bank’s glass entrance held together with tape. I said I’d heard on the radio that ten thousand bank stickups happen every year. You mean real banks? In this country? No shit. No way. Really? I say it’s just something I heard on the radio.
Even at forty-one, it feels low-grade bad to be out so late. School tomorrow! The adult mind knows it’s not that late. The whole point is to shave an hour and be in bed when the bus would arrive. This is the time when all the good kids are asleep, I think, or they would have been thirty years ago, parents in the other room with the TV on. Cars going by outside my childhood bedroom window had to be on special missions, my kid mind thought. Everyone is supposed to be asleep, getting asleep, corralled and in the dark waiting for sleep. Will we ever lose that childhood sense of night having this determined purpose?
He gets on the freeway, the big car feeling like an innertube on a waterslide. We aren’t talking about anything, not really, but I enjoy talking with him. He is an anchor of real people who work. You married? No, divorced. Kids? No, no kids. This shocks him, as is typical. Why you married but no kids? It takes too long to explain my fear of them, my unwillingness to give up so much time to them, my sense that it would be wrong to create kids when it’s clear what kind of climate disrupted world they’d get. What I say won’t make any more sense to the kind of person that usually asks this question, but it is simple and easy. Didn’t want any. What, you or her? She might have but I never did. How long you married? Fifteen years. Fifteen years and no kids?That really flips his lid.
When you grow up in a small suburb, the conversation with a high school friend goes, you’re given the standard template: find someone (of the opposite sex, it goes without saying), marry them, and have kids. Don’t dawdle. It’s never explained why this pattern is sacrosanct and must be followed with such speed. The interpersonal crucible of marriage is never explored, certainly not the stresses of your getting older and realizing you want to do things and grow. The person you married is a simulacrum of what he or she once was, children demanding, always bills. These are in the template too. They aren’t questioned. This is what you do.
The cabbie is from a place where the template has had no holes cut through it. It is unchanged even as the land turns to desert and people level out at a consistent, sepia poverty. Is this world better or worse than mine? In mine most couples no longer have an interest in marriage, although the governor just signed the law letting same-sex couples dive in. Here everything is shifting as much as the culture warriors wheeze on. People keep living longer and reading more pop psychology, keep having revelations and keep reaching for the sun. Women aren’t owned any more, not here. Women are people and get the same bumpy ride.
Neither the cabby’s home nor his adopted country are better or right. I am convinced of this. People live inside their various frames and feel various levels of comfort as they miss or attain the sanctioned measures of success. Looking hard within and without and asking the deep questions yields deeper, more recursive questions, which is freedom. The endless questions are freedom’s horror, but at least you never run out. The cabbie comes from a place with answers.
Dualities are meeting here, which I did not realize until now: the night of childhood versus the adult night where no one keeps track of what time you get home; a world centered on work and family and another based on the fast-play next-frontier 24/7 paradigm shift; the sense of day and time being okay and the vague sense of something wrong with the shadows.
The cab is a Ford Crown Victoria, an American car from an era ten years after Detroit had had its ass handed to it, nobody but cops and taxis buying them for twenty years. Ford only stopped making it this year. Inertia is a powerful force, but can be overcome.
Here is fine, in the street. There’s no need for him to pull inside our raging-rapids driveway and bottom out the big car. The meter says $17.10 and I hand him my last twenty. Thanks man. The money is crisp and slides easily from my fingers. My touch is very light. Is no problem. Thank you. Take care. The door closes like a heavy pillow and the car floats away. I feel light, a little smart. I bought myself an hour, and how often can you do that? I feel I have walked somewhere new, freer and more open.
I remember that summer New York day, my grandmother’s small figure against the city’s great tide, looking for the white one in the yellow sea. Here is what I am learning: I do not have to look so hard.