“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
In the early 1980s, I sold my ‘75 Ford Pinto and moved east from California to Park Slope. Back in those days, I made my money working as a waiter at a now-defunct upscale Brooklyn eatery called Charlie’s. The job afforded me — not a new car — but the occasional pleasure of taxi trips to and from Manhattan.
I remember heading back to Brooklyn on a hot August night, after seeing A Chorus Line at the Shubert Theater, Donna McKechnie’s jaw-dropping Music and the Mirror still swirling behind my eyes. As we rumbled downtown towards the Brooklyn Bridge, light after light on our side, I cranked down all the windows. The wind tousled my still long and still brown hair, and my delight with being a New Yorker was about as complete as it has ever been.
Years later (and my days waiting tables far behind me) I now live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Recently, I hailed a cab to take me twenty blocks uptown from my corner at West 77th Street and Broadway. The driver of a tiny Toyota taxi saw me from across the intersection, flashing his lights to indicate he would be stopping to pick me up as soon as the signal changed.
From out of nowhere emerged a stout, middle-aged woman racing towards my cab, purposefully unaware of anything that might exist in her periphery—myself very much included.
The cab driver shrugged. I shrugged in return, both of us saying, I suppose, “Well, that’s just New York. What are you going to do?”
Still, something in me flared for a brief second, something jagged and acrid.
“Let her have the cab,” I almost immediately reasoned to myself. “This is my mitzvah for the day.” The woman slammed the door of the cab shut and looked away from me as the cab proceeded through the intersection.
I am known amongst my friends for having a talent to always see the silver lining in the bleakest of situations. “You are always so cool and calm,” I’ve often been told, thinking it was a compliment. But with each passing year, I am aware that my much-lauded coolness (read: fear of confrontation) has slowly begun to fray.
A few moments later, another cab picked me up.
It was a beautiful Manhattan night. After a series of dishrag damp days, the night’s dry air was a special relief. In fact, this particular evening was reminiscent of that post-theater ride home back to Park Slope many years ago, with me sitting in the back of another cab, humming song after song from A Chorus Line under my breath.
After giving my destination to the driver, I settled back down into my seat and closed my eyes for a moment. Traffic was slow, and when I opened my eyes, we had gone only three blocks, from West 77th up to West 80th. My eyes drifted to the meter.
Eight dollars. Wait. Three blocks for eight bucks?
Though I am undeniably in a better financial situation today than I was back when I served prime rib, baked potatoes and escargot at Charlie’s, eight dollars for three blocks still felt a little rich for my blood. I mentioned to the driver to reset his meter.
The driver, a purple-black, heavy-set young man shook his head, “No.”
I leaned forward a bit in my seat and pointed several times in the direction of the meter as we came to a stop at the light on West 81st. “You need to reset it,” I repeated, a bit more firmly this time.
In thickly-accented English he said something, nodding his head emphatically towards the meter. I nodded enthusiastically in response. “Yes, yes!” I said a trifle louder, thinking volume would bridge the distance between our varied grasps of the English language.
The light changed, and we crossed the intersection continuing to head north.
He said something else I couldn’t quite make out. Whatever his native tongue, it was clear that he was a fairly recent arrival on Lady Liberty’s shores. He glanced over his shoulder at me. I was able to make out, “…no, not meter! City rule.”
Eight dollars and fifty cents had ticked up quickly to nine dollars and not even a quarter of my journey completed.
I consider myself fairly liberal, with an open-arms policy towards newcomers seeking a better life here. Still, what happened next suggested the possibility of my being a recent graduate of the Stephen Miller School for Expunging African Immigrants. I started to sweat—not a good sign for someone known as cool and collected—and a roar ripped out of me, sounding like the pained scream of a jet coming in for a landing at LaGuardia.
“Pull the damn cab over!”
Was this fiery combustion simply residue from anger I ignored when the woman stole my cab moments before? Was it the unvoiced irritation with the man at the front desk of my building who didn’t bother to inform me that flowers had been delivered until they had begun to wilt? Was it having gone to see a lousy movie with a friend a few nights before when what I had wanted to see was a play?
Was the cab driver getting the tail-end of a life-long build-up of toxicity after many years of ignoring my desires in order to make life easier for others? Who knew and who cared.
At the moment what I knew was that the driver still hadn’t pulled over. I could see his face in the rearview mirror, his brow furrowed, eyes too dark to reflect any readable expression. We were now almost up to West 84th Street. I gesticulated towards the curb and switched into my best Darth Vader rumble, “Pull over right now!”
He did. I fumbled for my wallet, extracted a couple of bucks and threw them into the cash slot. “That is all I’m giving you.” He swiveled in his seat still trying to explain something I was either unable or unwilling to hear.
“No!” I interrupted. “That is all this ride was worth!”
I grabbed my briefcase and reached to open my door. He engaged the lock from the front seat arm panel.
This was too much. I ripped my phone out of my briefcase and spoke in a detached icy voice that frankly scared me. “If you don’t unlock this door immediately, I will call the police.”
He hesitated, weighing his options and the depth of my sincerity. I noticed there was no ID card in the plastic pocket provided on the cab divide.
Seconds passed. Finally, he unlocked the door.
“You have to pay,” he said softly as I opened the door to let myself out. “You have to pay,” he said again as I slammed the door behind me. “You have to pay,” he said a third time, louder now, to which I whirled around and responded with a resounding expletive.
He stared at me, looking more puzzled than angry. I flagged down another cab and jumped in and, like the stout lady, I looked in the opposite direction as we shot past my former taxi. I then glanced at the new cab’s meter.
Seven dollars and not a block gone. What was happening?? I felt trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The new driver was English-speaking with an accent which indicated he hailed from the Bronx. He explained to me that there was a new—literally within-the-past-couple-of-days new—surcharge on taxi fares during rush hour.
“Oh,” was all I could muster.
At West 97th, I paid my second driver, who I over-tipped extravagantly, guiltily. I was into this twenty block trip for almost twenty dollars now. Early for my appointment, I walked out to the center-divide on Broadway and sat alone on the bench there, parked between two overflowing trash receptacles, and stared at the traffic inching by in both directions.
What just happened? Is it possible I have been that much of a closeted push-over all my life to vent so shamelessly now? Maybe.
Lately, though, I have found myself blaming pretty much everything that seems wrong in the world and in my life on the current political administration and, more specifically, Donald Trump. Each day, I am more and more convinced that the cheating, lying and manipulating he has proven himself beyond a doubt to be engaged in are most likely mirroring many previous administration’s own devious machinations in the Oval Office.
This adds a whole new level to being made to feel a push-over, I suppose.
And will it really all be over after the 2020 elections? Will it?
My own past free-wheeling handling of the truth comes more and more into focus as I gaze superciliously upon the actions of our current president.
Words, I remind myself, actually mean something; they have power and they have consequences. And, I guess no matter who I blame — at the end of the day, I am only mad at myself for the actions in my life I didn’t take, for the words I didn’t speak, for the petty lies I’ve told, for the blind eye I have turned.
Hmmmmm. All of that may well be true.
But will someone please explain my excuse to the cab driver.
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