Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dancers of Paris

video

Christmas Eve

Idlewild—such a mysterious and enchanting name, one that invokes a place where enormous birds touch down to land. Idlewild Airport had its grand opening when I was only 108 days old. Fifteen years and one assassinated president later it was renamed John F. Kennedy Airport. However, for me it will always be Idlewild, the place where great steel birds glide in, stay a little while, and then glide out once again.

However, on this evening, Christmas Eve at 10:00, there were no birds landing and there was a wind chill factor of minus twenty. I sat alone in my cab hoping to escape from JFK with a living, breathing passenger and avoid a boring and unprofitable forty-minute “dead head” trip back to the city.

I always drove a cab on holidays. Business was great, tips were generous, and folks were really happy to see me. People said things like, “Gosh, you could be home with your family, but here you are rolling around the streets of New York helping others connect with loved ones to share their holiday cheer.” Or my favorite, which was usually said in a voice a little above a whisper by older women who lived on the Upper East Side, “You and Santa working together on Christmas Eve—you’re a great pair.”

Yes, that was me, motoring around a place the Dutch called New Amsterdam in a checkered yellow vehicle, escorting various citizens of the Big Apple to their desired holiday locations. The mother on her way to see her new grandson, the lover on his way to meet his sweetheart, the poor fool who had to work the night shift, the two gay lovers necking in the back seat, and the actress on her way to the theater would all enter and depart my vehicle during this festive night.

On holidays it was always best to work Midtown and stay away from the airports. In Manhattan on Christmas Eve people fought over you. Folks would see you pulling over to let someone out, and the race would be on. I was a rolling people magnet, and one that could possibly return home to Brooklyn with $250 cash in his pocket—a tidy sum for 1975.

The day had started off promising. As I was departing the company garage on Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues, I immediately picked up a fare going out to JFK. That I could get from Flatbush Avenue to the airport in less than twenty-five minutes always amazed my customers. To them I was like a great Sherpa in Tibet who guided travelers through the Himalayas. Instead of snow-capped mountains pointing their peaks toward the heavens there was Linden Boulevard, Bushwick Avenue, and my knowledge of a back entrance to JFK that only a few of the cabbie illuminati were aware of.

Best of all, at this south entrance there was a granite marker with the fading but still visible words “Welcome to Idlewild Airport” written upon it. I dropped my fare off at United at 3:15 and then zipped over to American to catch the 3:20 coming in from Houston. I had a little book of my favorite arrivals that I always kept on the front seat. The key to success at the airport was being aware of both where the plane arrived from and at what time of day. For instance, the 3:20 arriving from Houston on a Wednesday afternoon would have some young executives going into Midtown Manhattan, probably to the Hyatt or the Sheraton on 57th Street. On a later flight I might pick up someone in management going to one of the more upscale hotels such as the Pierre or the Royalton.

By 3:20 it was already down to ten degrees, and the wind was whipping. It was hold-on-to-your-hat time out at JFK. Fortunately for me, the airport was “stripped and working,” meaning very few cabs and a great number of frozen life forms all desiring a warm ride into the city as soon as possible.

There were hoards of them all shivering in front of the arrival terminal, like lost children begging to be taken home. When I saw a line of folks and no cabs, I pulled up, and before anyone could get in my cab, I yelled out, “I can take a few parties to Midtown.” Three folks who had never met before got in my cab. At that time it was a $15 to $17 tab into the city.

After they settled in and felt how nice and warm it was inside, I said, “Welcome, pilgrims, it’s $20 each, tip included, to get you into Manhattan today.” This statement was met with some resistance at first.

“Oh no,” one of them said, “can’t we just split the clock and give you a bigger tip?”

“Not on the day of Christmas Eve,” I replied. “It’s ten degrees and getting colder, so if you’d like to wait for another cab, be my guest.” I started to open my door to let them out.

One of them said, with a bit of an edge in his voice, “OK, fine, just get us into the city.” I then turned around and collected my twenties before engaging the gas pedal.

They also noticed that I didn’t throw the flag down, and the meter showed all zeros. When they were so bold as to ask why, I simply said that I was putting all the money in my pocket and that was that. Just to make sure the deal was closed I turned around and lifted my hands, palms up. “Is there a problem?” I asked. They then bowed their heads and grimaced as if I were the devil himself.

I attempted to crack a few jokes, but my passengers seemed content to stay in a somewhat subdued state. It was a quiet ride into the city. I dropped them all off by 4:10 and then I continued to roll. From the Sheraton to the Village, and then up to 86th Street and through the park to the West Side, I was magic. It was one in, one out, and everyone wanted to ride with me.

I was sailing, and by 7:30 I had over $120 on the clock and $70 in my pocket. The cabbies and the company split the clock fifty-fifty, so I was on my way to at least a $250 night.

I was staying away from the hotels, as a trip to the airport now would not be in my best interest. There was an ice situation happening, flights were being canceled, JFK would be a tomb, and dead heading back when the city was working would not be the right choice. I also knew that during an ice storm some of the roads around JKF became impossible, and slipping around the wilds of Queens was simply not on my dance card.

Traveling north on Park Avenue I was hailed by a doorman. It was 7:30. Probably some well-to-dos out for a night at the theater, rushing to make an 8:00 curtain. “Open the trunk, please.” Words of doom, I could feel it. Oh God, a late night airport call. Before I could make an excuse, two elderly women slid into the back seat. As they did the one with the large hat said, “We need to make a 9:00 at Air France, we’re taking the red eye to Paris. Get us there in time, and we’ll give you a $10 tip.” I thought of just refusing, but I could tell they were seasoned New Yorkers, and they could probably talk a leopard out of its spots, so I opened the trunk, put the baggage in, and headed out.

I then began to ponder my current situation. I could get them to JFK by 8:20 and grab the 9:00 United flight coming in from Miami. That would ensure me of taking a nice little Jewish man with a great tan to an apartment in Brooklyn. That was acceptable; as the ride would roll me out of the airport, and I could then work the discos in Bay Ridge, pocket some more dough and, I hoped, catch a fare back into Midtown.

I delivered my Park Avenue fare to Air France in plenty of time, and as promised they happily handed me a ten for the tip. The wind was really picking up, and it was starting to hail. The 9:00 from Miami couldn’t land, and many planes were now being diverted up to Connecticut. It was either dead head it back to the city or take my chances at another terminal. There were cabs everywhere, all the lines were sucked up, little yellow vehicles as far as my eyes could see.

It was time to cut my losses. I’d work the shorty line, where I’d humbly take a local call, usually $6 to $8 to Forest Hills or Brooklyn. I’d been fortunate all night—why should it stop now? My little radio told me that many streets in Queens were becoming caked with ice, so I’d take that short fare out of the airport, stay on the main boulevards, and make my way back into the city.

I noticed there were at least seven cabs on this line. When there was a fare going only a small distance, the dispatcher came out, blew a whistle, and extended his arms over his head about a foot apart, thus denoting a local or a short call. However, on this night he kept blowing his whistle. No one seemed to want the fare, and as each cab pulled up, the driver took one long look, shook his head, and took off.

How bad could it be? As I desperately needed to move out of this frozen tundra, I made the move and rolled up to the dispatcher.

I pulled my sock hat down over my ears, threw on my gloves, and placed myself in front of the man with the whistle. “They’re going to Inwood, Long Island,” he said. “You got to help these people out, they’re about to freeze to death.” Inwood, Long Island, the worse possible address from the airport. Inwood was east of JFK, in other words away from the city. To make it worse, it was not an O.T. An O.T. means out of town, and you could double the clock, but Inwood was the last town within the city limits, an $8 fare at best, and you had a fifty-five-minute drive back to the city with no chance of picking up a passenger. I knew the area—the streets would be frozen solid. He noticed my hesitation, and then gazed at me with a death stare and yelled, “For God’s sake, it’s Christmas Eve, they’re both crippled, and they’ve been sitting out in front of the terminal for half an hour shivering in their wheelchairs. The terminal is going to shut down in ten minutes—you have a heart beating in there, pal?” He poked his frozen finger into my wet and icy pea coat. Sure, I thought, I have heart, but on nights like this I just like to give it a little time off. The dispatcher looked dragon like with all the foggy breath coming out of his mouth as he repeated, “You want these poor cripples to sit here all night and freeze to death?”

I looked at the couple; and their helpless faces looked back at me. Two forlorn and frigid bodies staring intently at the same individual who recently hustled three businessmen from Houston, Texas. However, they didn’t see that part of me; they saw deliverance, they saw warmth, they saw home.

“OK, fine, I’ll do it. Can you help with the wheelchairs?” I asked.

“Sorry, pal, I got a job to do here, it’s your gig now,” and he walked away into the frigid night. I wheeled the woman to the cab. I helped her up and into the back seat. The man was really large, maybe three hundred pounds and approaching fifty or so years old. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and literally dumped him beside his wife who was somewhat younger and at least one hundred pounds lighter. I opened the trunk and just managed to stuff the two wheelchairs in. I had to remove my gloves to work the catch, and as I did I could feel my flesh start to stick to the metal. The night was now turning extremely cold and very unprofitable.

Seven dollars and fifty cents later I pulled up in front of Dave and Blanche’s house. The roads were slippery, the street was dark, but with a little luck I could help these folks into their home, jump back in the cab, hop onto the Long Island Expressway, and be back in action.

As I shut the clock off, Dave handed me the keys and asked if I could unlock the door first to minimize the time they spent in minus-twenty-degree weather. His request sounded reasonable; however, as I approached their gate, I realized that my sojourn in Inwood, Long Island, was just beginning. The walk to their door was a good fifty feet, and it was covered in at least two feet of snow with six inches of frozen sleet on top.

I jumped back in the cab. “How long have you been away?” My blue lips quivered.

“Oh, two weeks. We were down in the Virgin Islands, we had a great time.”

And as Blanche was about to give me a description of her tropical vacation, I held up my hands and said, “Why didn’t you hire a neighborhood kid to shovel your walk when you were away?”

“Well, it wasn’t snowing when we left,” Dave replied, with a late-night, post-vacation, jet-lagged grin.

“Is there a shovel around?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s one in the house,” Dave said.

I had already shut the clock off; this was now my time we were working on. I could have been in the city raking in the cash, and instead I was stuck in Inwood, Long Island, in a cab with two people and two wheelchairs and a dead-end street with one flickering street light.

I closed my eyes and tried to conjure all the available intelligence that I could muster on a snowbound Christmas Eve in the middle of nowhere. I then asked Dave, “How well do you know your neighbors? Perhaps one of them might have a shovel and help us out.”

“Folks on this block are really not too friendly,” Dave replied. I looked at Dave’s and Blanche’s anxious faces, and I realized that no matter what happened I had to get these people back into their home. It was now pushing 10:30, and I suddenly felt a surge of confidence. I was just one friendly neighbor with an available shovel away from rescuing Blanche and Dave. I left the cab running with the heat on, and started on my journey down Christina Street with a frozen nose and a hopeful heart.

Halfway down the block I saw lights on and a Christmas tree flickering. As there was no bell I knocked, and a suspicious face soon peered through a glass window. I smiled and said, “Look, I’ve got two folks in my cab and they’re in wheelchairs, they’re crippled, you know, and I need to borrow a shovel so I can get them inside. Can you help us out?”

He shook his head and said, “I don’t know you or those people, go away or I’ll call the police.”

Hmm, that was not the response I was seeking. I tried another house. “Please, I’m in a desperate situation here. I’ve got to help Dave and Blanche get into their home,” I said with the most humble expression I could muster.

He looked me over and replied, “OK, I’ve got a shovel, but I want a $20 deposit.”

“OK, fine.” I pulled off my gloves with my teeth and removed a cold and crisp twenty from my wallet and put it in his hand. Without making any eye contact at all he folded the bill in two, slipped it in his pocket and quickly shut the door. As I walked back down the street I comforted myself with the thought that my mission had taken a positive turn.

I stood in front of the cab and held the shovel up, and Dave and Blanche applauded and gave me the thumbs up sign. I headed toward the walk. Dave rolled down his window and asked if I could jump back into the cab and find something pleasant for them to listen to on the radio. I agreed and twisted the dial until we found a lovely version of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I turned around and asked if the music of Handel was to their liking, and Blanche said, “You are just the nicest cabbie we have ever had. Both Dave and I think you should get some kind of recognition for how much you’re helping us and on Christmas Eve as well. And if you don’t mind me saying this, you know you do look a bit like Jesus with your long hair and beard and all. I hope you don’t mind but, you know, you really do.”

They both laughed as I exited the cab with shovel in hand and commenced to dig. After twenty minutes or so there was frost inside my nose, and my fingertips and earlobes were numb. I thought that as far as mitzvahs go, this was a big one, a really big one. I did wonder if seeking a reward from the almighty for my good deed was really in the spirit of a mitzvah, but at that time my brain started to freeze, and thus my internal spiritual discourse was suspended. I shoveled the snow off the three steps and made it to the door. However, as I was taking their keys out of my pocket, I noticed that there was a three-inch sheet of ice on the landing in front of the door and it was rock hard. It was now 11:30. Where would I ever find an ice pick?

As I walked back to the cab I could barely feel my feet. High-top Converse sneakers and three feet of snow are not symbiotic. Dave and Blanche were looking through the frosty windows with hope. They smiled at me and I smiled back at them and held up one finger so they would know it was almost done.

I stood in back of the cab hoping for either an inspiration or better yet a divine intervention. I looked to the sky and the sky just looked back. I lowered my head and almost started to pray when I realized the answer was right in front of me. Yes, the lug wrench from the car jack. With a new burst of enthusiasm I quickly open the trunk. As I removed the wheelchairs, the metal was so cold it sent a shiver up my arm and down through my back.

Hallelujah, I found the lug wrench, closed the trunk, and started walking toward the house. As I was passing the cab in a hunched-over, frozen stagger, I must have looked like an enchanted fairy as my beard, hair, and eyebrows were all glistening with ice. I proceeded to repeatedly bang the sharp part of my lug wrench on the doorstep.

After a few minutes of chopping I stopped to rest, and as I did I glanced back at the cab. Dave and Blanch were kissing, and their hands were touching each other’s cheeks. They had large heads, which bobbed up and down in a little dance as they embraced. A smile spread across my face, and I made a small but humble bow in the direction of the lovers canoodling in the rear seat of my cab.

My restored faith coupled with a new sense of purpose enabled me to crack through the remaining ice and open the door. I held the lug wrench up to the sky and cried out, “Home, sweet home!” I returned to the cab and shut off the engine. I lifted Blanche into her chair; I wheeled her up three steps and into the living room. I returned to the cab; I lifted Dave up and wheeled him into the house as well. I found the thermostat, and in a few minutes glorious heat was pouring through the home of Dave and Blanche.

Dave opened a bottle of scotch and mixed it with hot water, and we all defrosted together. I explained about the deposit on the shovel. “No problem,” Dave replied “Here’s the $20 for that. We’ll return it tomorrow. Oh, and this is for you,” he said as he handed me a fifty. The impact of the large tip and the scotch hit at the same time. Yes, I thought, I’m back on it! I looked at the clock. It was midnight. I could return to the city by 12:30, work until 2:00, and make my $250 night. I said my farewell to Dave and Blanche. “Oh please,” they said, “take a load off, and have another scotch.” I told them both that duty called and I must roll on. As Dave shook my hand he said, “Well, this is a Christmas Eve I won’t soon forget.”

To which I easily replied, with the last gulp of scotch sliding down my throat, “Neither will I.”

I stepped back out into the chill, walked down the now accessible path, hopped back into my cab, skidded down a few side streets, and then happily entered the Long Island Expressway. As New York’s illuminated skyline came into view, I turned up the radio, laid into the gas pedal, and headed into Gotham one more time.