Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Two Cabbies, a Knife, and Second Avenue

Hey - you know what?  It's been a long time since I've told you one of my "only in New York" stories.

And with all the talk about Muslims in America these days, I had a flashback yesterday to one night in Manhattan, when I was living there in the early 1990's, and an absurd, politically incorrect event that rattled me as much as it rattled the taxi cab in which I was riding.

Yes, the stereotypical jobs for many Muslims in America run the low-wage gamut, from counter clerk at convenience stores and gas stations to cabbies in cities large and small.  These jobs tend to be comparatively risky, and wholly unglamorous.  They're jobs many of us tend to marginalize, and although they're all around us, Muslims working these lowly jobs rarely become anything more to middle class white Americans like me than a means to an end - like paying for a quick snack of junk food, or being shuttled from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.

So it was, then, late one Manhattan evening, and probably after I'd stood around longer than I thought was necessary for a bus, that I hailed a cab for a ride down Second Avenue to my apartment on East 28th Street.  Second Avenue is mostly residential, with no attractions for tourists, and no major office buildings, so after the evening rush, traffic would thin out fairly sparsely - by New York standards, anyway.

And my ride down Second Avenue began normally enough.  The cab clattered and rattled as it bounced over Gotham's ubiquitous potholes, and I hadn't bothered to consider the ethnicity of my driver.  What difference did it make?  By the early 1990's, white cabbies had become extremely rare; most were from the Middle East, Africa, India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.  Many wore turbans, but I'd quickly learned to differentiate between the Muslim style - thicker, fuller and more circular shaped - and the slimmer and sleeker folds of more oval-shaped Sikh turbans.

Nevertheless, it was at an ordinary red light that I learned what appeared to be my cabbie's religion.   How can I remember that?  Because when we stopped at the intersection, my driver - a young, stocky, olive-skinned Middle Eastern man - glanced over at another cabbie who'd pulled up alongside us.  The other driver looked very much like mine.  Suddenly, however, my cabbie began yelling expletives at him (I'm assuming they were expletives) in a language I didn't understand.  Our car windows were rolled down, both men were loudly yelling at each other, and I remember that both of them were wearing the same type of thick, round turban.

Okay, so yes; I reached my conclusions through basic stereotyping.  But hey:  If they weren't Muslim men from the Middle East, they sure weren't convincing as anything else.

Then, the light turned green, and both cabbies were off - tearing down Second Avenue like there was no tomorrow!  And the way they drove, I began to wonder if I literally had no tomorrow.  David Letterman used to joke that riding in a New York taxi was "like watching your life flash before your eyes."  I'd taken plenty of those types of rides; most Manhattan cabbies believe speed limits, lane striping, turn signals, and brake pedals are for sissies.  But this ride had instantly become something far more perilous.

Indeed, I quickly realized theirs wasn't simply some disagreement - and this was back in the days before we had "road rage."  Some major hatred existed between these two cabbies, and since Second Avenue was wide open - about four traffic lanes with hardly any traffic at all - our two cabs surged and dueled across the open blacktop; potholes, uneven manhole covers, and all.

If any pedestrians had been trying to jaywalk, or walk against the light, they'd have been splattered all over Second Avenue.

We were flying.  Well, flying as much as two heavy American-made sedans can fly down a poorly-maintained big-city boulevard.  I'm pretty sure we did get airborne a couple of times though, however briefly.  And as we flew, the cabbies never stopped yelling insults at each other.  At least, I figured they were yelling insults.  I didn't understand a word of it, except that theirs were words of scalding anger and utter contempt for each other.

Before too long, my cabbie reached down and brandished a big knife - a weapon he likely kept under his front seat in case he was ever robbed.  He leaned across the front passenger seat to wave his flashy flesh-slicer at the other cabbie.  The whole episode had crossed from the merely bizarre to full-blown lunacy!  They weaved their cars back and forth across the empty traffic lanes, and even bashed their vehicles into each other!  I kid you not.  I used to wonder how New York's taxi fleet could look so incredibly beat-up and tattered, but if this is what cabbies do when the streets are sparsely-trafficked, now I know.

When 28th Street came up, I had to scream at my cabbie to stop and let me out.  By that time, he seemed to have forgotten that I was still riding in his back seat, having braced myself between the two rear doors, practically anticipating a horrendous collision, but still fascinated enough by such raw drama to maintain my ringside perspective.

He slammed on the brakes, obviously furious over the delay I was causing him, as his nemesis continued full-throttle down the avenue.  I threw a couple of bucks into the front seat - not the full fare, and certainly without any tip - and hurriedly scooted myself out the passenger-side door.  I didn't even get to close it completely before my cabbie was off again - his barely-latched back door rattling ajar as the yellow sedan tore down Second Avenue to continue the fight.

Now, I'm not telling y'all this story to bash Muslims.  I have no idea whether the grievance between these two men wearing Muslim-looking headgear had anything to do with religion, Islam or otherwise.  Maybe they recognized each other at the stoplight as being rivals for the same woman, as unlikely as it may be for two cabbies to meet like that in all of the many intersections that comprise Manhattan's street grid.  Maybe they simply recognized the serial numbers on each other's cabs as meaning they were employees of rival cab companies, between which bad blood brewed.  Since they were both headed in the same direction on a long boulevard, maybe they'd already clipped each other's cars further uptown.

Nevertheless, regardless of the reason for why two men identifying as Muslims (at least by their turbans) would pursue such a reckless and vicious episode of road rage down Second Avenue, that experience remains for me a strangely fascinating example of New York City's freakish character.

And, frankly, I thought I'd better commit this story to narrative form before political correctness silences such vignettes from being retold for fear of insulting anybody.

So, for the record, here is a list of everybody who looks bad in this story:  cab drivers, Middle-Eastern men, men who wear Muslim-looking turbans, as well as the entire workforce in New York City's street maintenance department.

Oh - and me, for not being more patient and merely waiting for a bus.  Or for not simply walking some 40 blocks back to my apartment.

Or those of us in this entire list combined - plus New York City's eight million other residents -  who apparently think putting up with such incidental experiences while living in the Big Apple is worthy of civilization's greatest city.

I have to admit I'm glad I can recount this tale from the relative sanity of bland ol' Arlington, Texas.

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