Yellow Hack Lost
Habib ought not to have rolled down his window.
His yellow cab was stopped at a red light behind a bus in the tar-dark Queens night when I approached. But roll down his window Habib did. And from there Habib’s immediate future was sealed.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, for us all.
Habib is a Manhattan hack who had the misfortune of dumping a fare over the river. Or actually, the misfortune of rolling down his window after dumping his fare over the river and entertaining my pitch. Misfortune because Habib had no business thinking that he could negotiate the streets of Queens efficiently (and if not efficiently, then efficaciously). And no business because Habib couldn't have found an intersection even if he rolled right through it -- which, it turned out he did with great frequency, if not alacrity.
All of this became immediately apparent when I hopped into the front seat and announced my crew's intended destination. There, flashing through Habib’s eyes were two thoughts: “perhaps you’d better step back out of this cab, Sir” and “I can do this! I’m sure I can.”
In the battle of voices -– we might label Habib's contending thoughts "red" versus "green". Red being “stop this nonsense (right now!)” and green being “for the love of money (let's jump on it!)”. Unfortunately for our side, green prevailed. And after muttering our destination, “Rockaway Boulevard” to himself three times, Habib shifted into Drive and away we did.
"Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here. I know where to go . . . " Habib continually repeated, as if reassuring himself. He certainly didn't reassure me -- as, with each next turn, Habib delivered us into the lap of the next inevitable, quizzical dead-end.
First north, then west, then south, then east we drove -- Habib being an equal opportunity geographer; followed by northeast, then southwest, then north-south, then east-west, as we retraced our tracks. Habib being a flexible -- though far from systematic (not to mention unsuccessful!)-- explorer.
Unfortunately, Habib was also a man with a modicum of pride. Or else that might simply have been a fetish for profit. For he refused -- for minutes, as the meter relentlessly ticked higher -- to call the hotel and fix our ever-shifting destination.
In time, though, “I can do this, I can do this” and "Oh, I know, I know, I know" became replaced by “. . . the fuck!” (muttered under his breath so as not to offend the [already steamingly offended] clientele, of course). And then, when Habib finally relented and did place the call, we had probably surveyed three quarters of Long Island and burned most of the cash in my wallet.
Ultimately, Habib and I had a discussion about retiring the meter. But any money I ultimately handed over was much too many for my daughter’s taste. Which might have been worth the price of this entire escapade. For, that was the moment that I spied the world's future: wherein my seventeen year old angel became transformed into a 35 year-old dragon. A formidible beast seething righteous smoke and hissing moral indignation. Well, good for her! But, woe is be the person on the receiving end of whatever injustice they might have the misfortune of directing her way in that faraway future.
The world has been forewarned.
Habib might have been lost, but unfortunately -- so were we! Having arrived from Boston with a car rented a week before in Manhattan, this had been the day that we had to return our ride back to Alamo at West 40th and 7th Avenue. So, why were we out in Queens this glorious (though fast-fading) evening? Because the next day’s flight to LA was an eight-thirty jobbie and the 7 minute complimentary shuttle ride that the HoJo in Queens offered to JFK was preferable to a 80 dollar, 45 minute limo from the city. Besides, the hotels out in Queens ran for half -– easy -– what a Manhattan hotel would have cost. So this was a no-brainer -- at least when it comes to the economic factors tipping the balance in the peripatetic's calculus.
Stay in Queens, cut the hotel rates by half. Only problem: if you venture into the city, good luck trying to make your way back to your luggage in time for your 6:15 shutlle to JFK tomorrow morn. Unless you happen to luck into a yellow cab meandering through the Queens streets.
"Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here."
The only problem there was that we were returning from Manhattan -– where we’d dined at a glorious Italian restaurant (what else is there?) next to Rockefeller Center –- and now had to make our way back to a hotel we’d only driven to (and away from) once, staying long enough to drop our bags, and from which we'd received a calling card, but no dependable map. Armed only with a street address and phone number we now had to make our way back to our digs -- and with Habib, alone, as our savior.
If you were a person with money to wager . . . would you even chance it?
Well, sure. Knowing what you know now. But how about then? Waiting at a pitch-dark bus stop in an alien city at 10:30 the night before you have to make your getaway? With a yellow cab waiting -- tantalizingly vacant -- at a red light right beneath your nose?
Think about it. Then try to argue against notions of fate, fortune, serendipity, luck, opportunity, uncertain outcome, entitlement, blessed existence.
The subway was the easy part, thanks to a nephew who helped us score four tickets and usher us through the turnstiles in the right direction. But from there it was all inspiration and guess work. Oh, and our friend, Habib.
As a rule, yellow cabs don’t operate outside the city. At least that was what we were told by our nephew; and also by the kindly (!) middle-aged librarian type who ventured over to our bench on the subway to ask whether we might require some assistance. Who says Nyu Yawkahs are all gruff and unhelpful? This one, at least, was great -- only, she had never been out as far as we were heading and hadn't any kind of clue what we ought to do once we got to the last stop on the "E" line. Rockaway was nowhere close to that stop, she said.
"Just make sure to fix the price before you hop in the car-for-hires" was her parting advice.
And then, spying Habib's rig, I thought we had made out even better than we had fretted about. As you now know, it turned out far, far worse.
Habib was a man of Asian extraction. Slightly-built, darkly-complected, balding, thin mustache, inflected speech. An immigrant, clearly. Like nearly every other cabbie we had encountered in our 5 days in the city. But, as we learned during those 5 days, among the cabbies there is a wide variation. From the NPR-listening gent with the philosopher's beard, and granny-glasses, taking evening classes at NYU, to the political refugee from Lebanon who sells real estate on the side and exclaims in the midst of an unsolicited anti-Bush harangue: "America is a free country . . . oh yes, sure. . . for those with power! Now that I am an American citizen, I am free to have an opinion . . . but only if I have the money to back it up!"
For Habb's part, there were few harangues forthcoming. He being unassuming and undemonstrative (except fot the occasional “. . . the fuck!” muttered under his breath so as not to offend the [already steamingly offended] clientele). Watching Habib in action one senses that he is used to screwing up. After all, he didn't even know that the streets in Queens are numbered so as to reflect the three digit street one might be traveling on and the 2 digit avenue that crosses it. That much I had gleaned from the kindly librarian gal on the train. Nor did Habib understand that numbers tend to run consecutively in directions: for instance, 151 would follow 150 in one direction, which would be preceded by 149 in the other. Amazing how clever a system that is. Only Habib was having a heck of a time grasping the pattern. Thus was it that, by the time we had moved from 145 to 131, I had to chime up and inform him that perhaps we were moving in a counter-intuitive direction.
Of course, I didn't use that word. After driving only 2 or 3 minutes it was pretty clear that Habib wasn't much of a vocabulary-kind-of-guy. Nor did it appear that he could really handle much math. "Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here . . . " notwithstanding.
Well, after 3 phone calls to readjust our uncertain progress, we finally did get to the HoJo. Habib's geographic (mathmatical and linguistic) deficiencies, notwithstanding. My daughter's opinionated recommendations also (heavily) discounted.
As for Habib, he looked at the twenty I placed on the armrest between us in the front seat and didn't put up any sort of fuss. In fact, he seemed rather embarrassed by the whole affair. Besides, at that point he was more engrossed in pointing out the numbers stenciled on the fence cross the street. "See! See that over there? Now how can one be expected to find a place like this? With numbers like that? I ask you, now, sir. I ask you?"
What I spied when I looked was 153 96 -- the even-numbered counterpart to the 153 95 we had been searching for.
But maybe that is just me. Seeing coincidental logic where there may not have been any intention for it.
Besides, who needs logic when they have been treated to Habib's touring skills? Thank you, Habib. Thank you much for the impromptu automotive and residential survey of half of Long Island. A short hop back to HoJo's on Rockaway Boulevard would have been preferable, but I have found in life that one has to be thankful for the gifts one receives.
Even when it comes in the form of a yellow hack, lost in the heart of Queens, the (late) night before one's (early morning) departure from New York.