Sunday, May 19, 2013

Racial Realities #3: Places

[Friend and fellow blogger Gloria Diaz wrote a personal account of copiloting in the front passenger seat of a taxicab for a Creative Writing course she enrolled in:]

-Every time someone interviews me they want to know when taxis started.
-Well that's the kinda shit people want to know!
-Yea but they have always been around in some sort of fashion. People used to carry people on their backs (and still do)! It's the oldest profession in the world.
-Either way I am not interviewing you. I am just asking you some questions.

I met Avi when he would move my stuff out of my Washington Heights lovely one bedroom to a storage space, as I was in between homes and off to travel. In the warmer months it is his side gig to do small moves and make a little extra . He came recommended to me by a friend who knew I needed help moving. But what Avi really did for money was drive a New York City yellow cab. A few months after my move he would invite me to copilot with him in his taxi and riding with him would become a fairly regular activity for me.

Yellow cabs are a constant of New York. Passengers are variables. The weather, construction and street fairs are variables. The rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the cops are variables. But day in and day out cabbies are the same in this city. You are looking for them and they are looking for your hands outreached in the air, that they speed up and cut each other off to get to.

I join Avi in the cab when I can't sleep, when my soul is unsettled, when I have a lot on my mind, when I miss him and when I need affirmation that I like the company of someone in this city and that someone likes the company of me. Avi is tired and smells like bike chain grease, gasoline, cigarettes, and Polish beer. He has on his fingerless gloves and his eyes dart from one side of the street to the other, seeking out other projectiles, pedestrians, and passengers. He is contained hyperactivity, a swirling ball of energy contained in the driver seat of a yellow cab.  He talks to me in electric surges while rearranging his world to include me in it. Backpack in the trunk, he checks his water bottle, his piss bottle, his ipod, his pockets, his cell phone, his meter, rolls his window up and down to meet some sort of height requirement, adjusts the rear view mirror, adjusts his ass in his seat side to side as it screeches with its leather until he finds his nook. Rests both of his gloved hands at the top of the steering wheel and then finally looks over at me and smiles.

"Excuse me can you turn off the television? Yea- can you turn of the television? Yea just push the button on the screen. Thank you so much! It's just that it repeats the same thing over and over and over again and it's playing right behind my head. It drives us (cabbies) nuts! I'd rather listen to music, wouldn't you? I have over 3,000 songs on my ipod. I have everything! So what would you like to listen to?" 


"The gays, Avi, you gotta have Beyonce for the gays."

"Sorry, no Beyonce! You like Hip Hop? 

Avi has a different cab every time and perhaps I have ridden in the same exact one twice but probably not. It feels the same to me regardless. The front seat is a bench seat and is wide. Wide enough for Avi to put his knee up against his door comfortably and still steer and for me to sit Indian style. Wide enough to provide physical and emotional room for us to escape to our respective corners and sit silently if need be. Normally at the point I enter the cab it is too dark for me to see anything except for the glow of the meter, a portion of Avi's face, and the street tumbling into us, in front of us and for us. The window is like a giant movie screen accentuating these pathways that I have walked down, biked down, or stealthily subwayed under. But in the front seat of a cab all is different. You are low to the ground and moving in a herd of other yellows. Every body on the sidewalk scape is a potential patron and you are looking for that signal, that body language that indicates that they may want to be in your back seat. The skyscrapers of New York, whose tops you largely ignore walking around during the day, are accentuated against the sky and the city seems larger than life. But at the same time cradling you and saying, "I love you," warmly showing you everything it has to offer in one seamless, streaming view.  

"Glo, you don't talk too much and you don't talk too little. You are the perfect copilot." I do my best to be by paying attention to fare amounts, adding descriptions for his painfully intricate taxi logs. Detailed accounts of each fare, pickup and drop-off location, amount of fare vs. amount given (totaled every few hours), and a brief description of each passenger based on aesthetics or interaction. At first keeping track in his journal caused me anxiety. His handwriting is meticulous, small, and linear. He has clearly developed a system and order to how each fare is entered. There are lines and numbers that are circled and numbers that are bold. I remember trying to frantically figure out this system so I could replicate it. I tried to ask questions and he'd respond, "Gloria just whatever, whatever. I just like it when my copilots write in it and then I see their handwriting and I remember who was in the cab with me that day and it makes me happy!" I eventually grow comfortable with my own style. When potential customers are confused by my presence in the cab I roll down the window at Avi's prompting and yell, "available!" I jump out at requests for Gatorade and Snickers, cigarettes, and cheese pizza slices. His favorite 99 cent slice is on 41st and Ninth. "I want two slices and a Dr. Pepper. No! No, a root beer! I go get slices for us both. Avi is a semi-practicing Kabbalist and eats 'Kosher'. No pork. No dairy and meat in combination (it confuses the soul between death and life).
"This slice of pizza tastes like pork. Doesn't it taste like pork to you?"
"Are you telling me you think they made this pizza with pepperoni and then removed the slices of pepperoni and are now selling a pork flavored cheese pizza? Is that what you're telling me?"
He blushes a little and laughs saying "nooo," but then with a more serious face says, "maybe." We pull to the side and pick up a touristy family headed to---?

-Avi. Remember when we picked up that French family? It was like a year ago. Remember we met up early for that free skin cancer screening and then I did the rest of your shift with you? 
-Yea I vaguely remember that. 
-It's where you can catch the ferry. Battery Park?
- Yeah it was Battery Park. One of two locations from which to catch a ferry over to the statue. The other is in Jersey City from Liberty Park. That's where you can see Lady Liberty's ass across the water". 

The French family is shiny and white. Sneakers and Polo shirts and laughing and smiling at each other as they pile up in the back seat of the cab. Avi practices his French and charms the family. Their love for each other and their excitement for being in New York is contagious. They say "Au revoir." I jump out to dispose our morning pizza waste and back in the cab we move not even half a block before we pick up a handsome old woman. She requests a drive by of Ground Zero if Avi doesn't mind. Anything you want, it's your fare.

Between us and the passengers is the thick plexi glass that postures some ability to protect the cabbie from harm. Behind that is a back seat foreign scape that I don't feel comfortable venturing into when on my trips with Avi. I feel comfortable in our space and no desire to know theirs, out of respect for their privacy. Sometimes the passengers, when feeling a particular need to connect with what is going on in the front seat, will stick their head through the small opening in the middle. Like the drunk Latina full of woe who we picked up Christmas morning by the Port Authority at the border between late night and early morn. When she hopped in the cab I could smell she had no money and would be soon making an attempt to play on Avi's empathetic nature. After Avi agreed to take her up to Washington Heights for almost nothing she put her face to the window, asking us if we were married and Turkish. Not married and Israeli/Colombian and Puerto Rican (mystery browns). She says, "oh but you're not a typical Puerto Rican girl, you're like spiritual and arty." As I debate in my mind if I consider this comment a compliment or kinda fucked up, Avi puts his hand on my knee, "oh Gloria's not the typical anything."

Now when catching a cab on my own I have to resist my own desire to climb in the front with them, follow normal societal etiquette, and pay and get out once we've reached my requested destination. When I am with a party of four and a front seat rider is required, that is where I go. "Look at Gloria so chummy with the driver." Having honed my copiloting skills I try to break the driver with a joke, an entertaining story about my night, with a nod of understanding to the fact my best friend is a cabbie. They usually say, "Oh yeah? Which garage?" and we momentarily taxi bro down. Inevitably they smile at me with warm empathetic eyes because they know I love a cabbie and that I do my best to keep him sane. And they know exactly how sane cabbies are not in the face of their six-day-a-week twelve-hour- shift-lives. When people ask questions about my cab rides they ask about the passengers, drugs, and sexual escapades. They never ask about the most interesting figures, the drivers themselves.

-Since you started driving six years ago what do you think has changed the most?
-The fucking GPS tracking systems and credit card machines! They're always an issue. They don't work. It freezes, then the passenger has no cash, and in the end they blame everything on the driver. 
-Yeah but culturally, do you think there is less respect for cabdrivers?
- There's disrespect but there's a lot of love too. But if you're in New York who do you blame? Mean, ugly, rude, the slime balls, the nobodies. You made all the good cabbies leave cause the whole thing sucks. What self-respecting, intelligent person would stay in this job?

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