Mangled pieces of cabs line the walls of the garage. Doors. Fenders. Hoods. Tires. A rat skitters in and out of the piston holes in an engine block. A line of busted-up cars lean haphazardly against the concrete wall, axles bent, pans with dirty engine oil. This is my father’s habitat, my playground. I can say I grew up in a taxi garage although that wouldn’t be accurate. This is not an environment you grow up in. This was my father’s domain. I was the boss’s son, with all the respect and coddling that went with it. The gas pumpers, the dispatchers, the body bangers, the drivers, they were family. They brought my father food. Pans of lasagna. Big bowls of pozole. Breads, pies, tiramisu. Offerings to the boss and his offspring. We fattened up on these offerings.
The effort to endlessly patch up the taxis of Malay Maintenance required a sizeable group of mechanics headed by Hot Dog, a Dominican, the head Malay body banger. Hot Dog is tall, handsome and distinguished, a confidante of mine and a stabilizing force in the chaotic taxi world. Several times he saved me with soothing words and a touch that got me past my fathers’ psychological traffic jams. Hot Dog would take me by the shoulders and say simply “Your father loves you,” and it was the most soothing and religious, and intimate moment in my life. If only I believed it.
The Waiting Room of the taxi garage was a small concrete square alcove with no windows. A bare light bulb dangles over the church pew carved with names of drivers who spent untold hours in there waiting, waiting, waiting, for their cabs to come in. The room is empty, but the ghosts remain.
I know the Waiting Room well. I ticked off many hours of my life “Shaping up,” as they called it, waiting for a cab that I could command for 12 hours. I quit my job in publishing and decided to devote myself full-time to writing but the necessary evil of earning a living intruded. Like many creative types in New York, I found a job that was flexible and didn’t demand mental energy. I wasn’t cut out to be a waiter. Driving a cab was the simplest option. What I didn’t foresee was the debilitating physical and psychic impacts of the job. After two years of driving the night shift, 5 PM to 5 AM, I was burnt.
The garage is deathly quiet late this Saturday in July, a stifling summer New York night, smokey and sultry. No mechanics, no drivers. One tow boy on duty. He’d spend the night hauling in busted-up cabs chained to the bumper of another busted-up cab that was temporarily functioning.
Behind the scratched plexiglass divider in the dispatch booth sits Vito Ditaglione alias Vito Ditto, aka Vito Two Times, a shamelessly fat obsessive eater, inherently sinister, leering, and quiet, custodian of the cash. Vito mushrooms out of that stool like a giant self-perpetuating and self-consumptive fungus.
“My father?” I yell to Vito. When dealing with Vito I dispense with simple pleasantries. He’s in there,” Vito says and nods twice in the direction of my father’s bunker. I surmise that Vito’s curious ditto affliction is the result of a nervous tic or a neurological disorder precipitated by a massive accumulation of evil in his bloodstream.
It was sweltering outside but it was nearly cold enough to freeze water in the bunker, a concrete structure built to withstand Armageddon. As a scion of New York’s largest taxi fleet, I knew my father to be a street-smart businessman who could deal with drivers of all nationalities and religions and levels of intelligence, but in this bunker, he became frozen in time, increasingly paranoid, and irrational. It was my sense, and that of my brother and my mother, his ex-wife, that he was dying, shriveling up inside himself. So, I was alarmed but not surprised that he summoned me to the bunker in the middle of my Saturday revelries, my day of escape from the taxi world.
We were worried about my father. He’d developed a cockamamie theory that all the roadblocks in life were psychological traffic jams, and he equated that to a grid of Manhattan, where the main intersections clog up for no apparent reason. It was all psychological. He figured that if you could drive through those psychological traffic jams you could break free and be your true self. In a way he didn’t realize, my father became a Buddhist. His preparations to die were a way for him to find meaning in his life.
What did my father want? What was so important? Why did he summon me on a Saturday night? He wanted me to go to Chinatown to get him some roast duck won ton. That’s what he wanted.
He had to have it from this one place, sacred in family lore, on Hester Street. Fung Lung was the name of the hole-in-the-wall basement restaurant. Rows of glazed ducks hanging in the window. Open until 4 AM. The best roast duck won ton in the city, according to my father, and he had sampled his share of roast duck won ton.
“Here,” he said, throwing me a set of keys. “Take Old 59. Hot Dog worked on it. It’s running again.”
Old 59. Over 250,000 miles crisscrossing the strafed streets of Manhattan, a potholed obstacle course 12 miles long and two miles wide at its widest, shaped like a pignoli nut. She showed her wear and tear. The harsh light accentuated the scratch marks in the places where Hot Dog patched her together after a series of freak accidents a couple of winters ago when the ice storms raged. But Hot Dog’s spray paint jobs couldn’t hide the layers of grime and rust bubbling through, eating at her skin.
Old 59 was one of the last Checker cabs left in the city. It was big and boxy with a jump seat and a lot of room in the back. There are 12,000 taxi medallions issued in New York City. Only four or five of those go to Checkers. They’re museum pieces rolling through the streets. I only got Old 59 a few times in the two years I was driving, four days a week. Each time was special. Stepping into Old 59 was not just a ride, it was an experience.
I opened her door gently creaking and peeked inside. Underneath, she smelled like the residue of a thousand degenerate nights. Puke, ammonia, bubble gum, sweat, dirty money, sex, amyl nitrate.
I started her up. Ah, the sweet muffler-less, valve grinding grrrrrr. At her age, she could be forgiven for her inelegance. I put her in gear and she jerked forward. I slammed on the brakes and she screeched to a halt. Hot Dog cleaned her up revved her up. She was ready to ride.
I sped down the ramp, honking the horn twice as a little screw you to Vito Ditto. Old ’59 spit out onto 10th avenue and that rush of freedom came blowing back. She was loose and rattly, but she had a good feel. I got a few blocks on that rush of speed and then I broke down, I pulled to the side of the street, shut her down, leaned my head against the window, and cried. I was utterly overwhelmed. My life was static and rootless, my relationships were failing, my family was blown apart, and my father was dying. It’s one of those moments when you lose track of time, an abyss of grief.
Then there were three rapid, loud taps on the window. I jumped. I turned to see a massive face looking at me with pleading eyes.
“Go to Brooklyn?” a big man asked.
I stared at him with blank pity. Brooklyn? I was on a mission. No passengers. Besides, if you drive a cab you don’t want to leave Manhattan unless you get a trip to the airport. Brooklyn? No. You can wind up in dicey neighborhoods. You have to ride back into the city empty. No.
“You know what’s in this bag?” the big man asked.
I shook my head. A bomb. Half a million bucks in unmarked bills. A kilo of crack. The head of his best friend? How should I know?
“Manicotti. Fresh baked,” the big man said.
I hadn’t thought of that.
“You get me to Fort Greene while it’s still hot I give you twenty bucks over the meter,” he said.
“Can’t,” I said.
“Thirty,” he said.
I shook my head. I wanted to see how far this could go.
“Fifty,” the big man said.
I shook my head.
“A hundred bucks.”
“Get in,” I said. “Must be good manicotti.”
“The best,” the big man said, wheezing as if all this talking put him on the verge of a heart attack. He maneuvered his prodigious frame in the back and spread out.
“I haven’t been in a Checker in 20 years,” he said.
I slapped the meter on and hung a right and took off. I was ready to blow out that grief. I was ready to move.
He was going to Fort Greene, one of the first neighborhoods on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. Chinatown was on the Manhattan side of the bridge. I figured this trip would add maybe a half hour to the mission if I really jammed it.
I came up to 58th street and Seventh Avenue. The light was red. I looked to the right and saw a pack of cabs down the avenue, over the Carnegie Hall hump. Nothing to the left, except Central Park. It was the easiest and best light in the city to jump. So I did. And whoosh, I was gone, cranking up to the pack of yellow cabs, weaving in and out of barely marked lanes that taxi drivers uniformly did not heed. It was a free-for-all, demo derby on the streets of Manhattan for cab drivers.
I was soon flashing by the neon spook house of Times Square, where the lights turn night into day. A large plume of white smoke drifted up from a manhole. I drove through it, and emerged from it. Pedestrians scattered like frightened pigeons when they heard Old 59 coming up, maladjusted wheels clanging frenetically.
When I crossed 42nd street I let it fly. Before me was a string of green lights over a hilly, cratered patchwork of unevenly tarred blacktop and unfilled chuckholes. I put the pedal to the floor and tried to skim over the surface, with no success. As soon as the wheels clunked into a hole they were on their way out and into another.
The lights immediately following the main intersections — 57th, 42nd, 34th, 14th, Houston, Canal — were out of synch and had a tendency to turn faster than the others. 34th was no problem. I breezed through. 33rd street was another story. It’s where subways and buses and Herald Square and big store traffic converged into a knot of congestion, The light was turning red. There was split second lag time to decide. I closed my eyes, put the pedal to the metal, and didn’t open my eyes until I was past the intersection and again faced only green. That was one psychological traffic jam I broke through. My father would be proud of me.
“Yes,” I said and slapped Old 59’s dash a couple of times in appreciation.. Her lights blinked, she ground between gears and then she hummed merrily along as if she was responding to his support.
Knuckles rapped on the half-open bullet proof Plexiglas divider.
“I want to be alive to eat this manicotti,” the man in the back said.
“You gotta let me drive,” I said.
He was my passenger, my captive, only one person has the wheel. Somehow, that sense of control excited me.
“Okay. But if you kill us I can’t pay you,” the big man said.
I let up on the accelerator and settled into an even, steady pace, and exhaled.
I was in the no man’s land of Broadway between 33rd and 23rd. Nothing here but stray heroin, the wandering homeless pushing shopping carts full of garbage, empty welfare hotels, closed-up novelty stores.
I made the switch smoothly at 23rd street where 5th Avenue crosses Broadway and led the pack down the narrow strip to the precarious Union Square circle.
I hugged a huge, exhaust-spewing bus around the circle and jammed it through the red light at 13th street and suddenly the impossible didn’t seem so improbable. The thought began to materialize. In the two years I drove a cab, averaging 40 trips a night, I never made it from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn without hitting a red light
Knuckles rapped on the plexiglass.
“Where’s the fire?” the big man in the back asked.
“Brooklyn. If we can make it there without hitting a red light,” I said.
“Not a chance,” the big man said.
“Willing to back it up?”
“Two hundred bucks,” the big man said.
I would have done it for nothing. I clenched my teeth and bore down on the accelerator. Old 59 responded beautifully, kicking in with an instant rush of speed. She was young again, right off the assembly line.
The man rapped on the plexiglass again.
“Bet’s off if you kill us,” he said and managed a demented laugh. He was holding on to the strap in the back for dear life. He was digging this.
When I zoomed by Houston St. I knew it was within my grasp although many traps lay on lower Broadway. The lights turned faster. They had a mind of their own. If the lights felt like turning, they’d turn. It was the quirky personality of lower Broadway.
The lights were coming faster and faster now. Yellow after yellow after red after yellow. I had no mind to stop. I couldn’t if I wanted to. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the big man in the back clutching his bag, staring out the window, terrified, excited.
Canal St. lay up ahead like the invisible wall of Chinatown. A yellow turned quickly to red and cars were ready to move from east to west and west to east. Halfway through the intersection I jammed on the brakes, skidded 45 degrees, and wound up facing east on Canal. Two cars skid and honked. The guy in the back was alive now, banging on the back of his seat. “Ohh, ohhh, ohhhh,” he moaned. It was a terror to the point of death. Or it was sexual for him, orgasmic.
I was cooking now, in synch, maneuvering on hair-trigger reflexes. Inches from a left side mirror, inches from a right rear bumper, squinched between commuter traffic, trucks, and cabs, the Manhattan Bridge in sight.
“Don’t stop,” the man in the back muttered. Okay, now it was really sounding sexual.
Then I got stuck behind a noxious, filthy fuel truck. In the left lane was a confused idiot from Jersey hemming me in. The light turned, and I banged on the steering wheel and jammed her in reverse. I nearly hit the guy behind me. He was leaning on his horn as he died on it. I drove around the Jersey idiot into the opposing lane, where I sideswiped an old black Dodge that had all the markings of an unmarked police car.
Crossing Third Ave. I maneuvered between a Rastafarian on a ten-speed bike and a red Porsche. I sped on to the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn in my sights.
I exhaled, settled into a nice easy pace, and began to wonder how the lights were timed on Flatbush Ave. and if I could make it through Brooklyn and to the Verrazano Bridge without hitting a red light, and then through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin and Minnesota and South Dakota and to the Pacific Ocean. Knuckles on the Plexiglas.
“In my line we can use drivers like you,” the big man in the back said, two hundred dollar bills protruding from his thick fingers.
I took the money and felt a charge up my spine, an electric jolt. I knew then that my father was dead.