Saturday, September 20, 2008

no more diapers

Of course everyone has a story about a New York cab driver, so I'm offering nothing new here; but my journey from Newark Liberty into Manhattan earlier this week was a journey which lived up to the billing. The stereotype of NYC cabbies – or hacks – is that they talk fast and furious, negotiate the roads with psychotic abandon, and are, basically, nuts. The other stereotype, probably the truer one, is that in the yellow cabs of New York City you see immigration in action; wave after wave of economic migrants working the roads, united by their ambition for something better on the one hand and the depth of the story which led them there on the other. Somewhere between the two stereotypes is the fact, probably, and my hack was located exactly there. He was friendly, jovial, welcoming, and also hard to follow, disconcerting, intimidating – each in turn and all at once.

I climbed in the cab at the end of the afternoon, but having flown across the Atlantic I was shattered and at the tail end of a long day, my body telling me it was coming up to midnight. But when the driver – a tall, lean guy with a five o’clock shadow - welcomed me warmly I tried to engage him in conversation, and when I explained my job was treated to a loud and familiar story; that one day he would write a book and everyone would read it. It would be a life-changing book. We talked about the importance of reading, the importance of stories, and I believed him when he said that his life would be a story worth reading of – colourful because of where he came from and where he ended up, and important because it was true. At the same time, of course, I shrank back a bit – when I tell people I’m a publisher they often tell me that one day they'll write a book. I live in fear of them asking for a business card. And I spotted quickly that residing amongst the good humour there was a good deal of frustration. The book would tell it how it is, he told me, would talk of mis-justice and poverty, and the moral worth of the city he worked.

Where do you come from originally, I ask him, because he’s telling me about coming to the US. He tells me he is from Morocco, and so I tell him of the time, just the other week, when I ate at a restaurant in Southern Spain, and could see the North African coast on the horizon. As I say it, I speculate that I may be making a mistake. I’m right.

"What did you see between Spain and Morocco", he asks, and my heart sinks.

"Gibraltar", I tell him.

"And do you think that it is fair", he asks me, "that Gibraltar is considered the property of Britain".

I tell him that I don't know a lot about it, but that it doesn't seem fair to me, no – a response he scarcely notices as he launches into a long, protracted and hard-to-follow rant about imperialism, about the way the rich always fuck over the poor. Because I suspect I'm broadly in agreement with this, feeling that there’s a terrific unevenness in the world, I nod and provide the odd uncertain endorsement, which he occasionally acknowledges, but not always warmly – often I find I've either misunderstood a poorly explained point, or he suspects me of being a hypocrite or a rich-boy, and glances back sternly, repeating, "you understand what I’m saying?", again and again, to which I can only answer, falsely, "yes".

In Morocco, he tells me, everyone is happy. "But in Manhattan everyone goes to a psychiatrist. Why is that?"

He expects me to answer, but I'm growing weary and irritated now, refusing to provide him with responses. "There is no morality here", he says. He waves across the Hudson, which I'm getting an especially good look at, as he has completely missed a turning and is now having to take me in over the George Washington Bridge, doubling the length of the journey.

He's wistful for a moment. "It's beautiful. Do you have a camera?".

I shake my head.

"Over there, it is fun, yes?" He asks. I say yes. "Drink. Eat nice food. Go shopping. Nice girls?".

I realise that he's not talking up Manhattan at all, he's talking it down. Drink, food, girls – these things are not enough. I don’t tell him that they sound exactly like enough to me.

"And they all end up in psychiatrist!", he shouts. "Normal man, comes to New York, drinks, eats, fucks girls, gets to sixty and now he sees the psychiatrist. And then – pffft – all of a sudden, shits himself. And he is dressed in diapers. Diapers!".

I'm frankly a bit surprised that the conversation has taken this turn, so elect to stay quiet for a bit.

"In Morocco, no-one sees psychiatrist. No one wears diapers, shits himself. So what is it about this place that makes people like that?".

I don't answer so he repeats the question. I have a half-hearted go at trying to answer – mumbling something about economics and leisure time, but he cuts me off with another question. "Who decides that it costs sixty dollars to take this cab into Manhattan?", he demands. "Do I decide?". Before I can answer, he tells me no, he doesn't decide, someone else does. And he hammers the steering wheel with his fist – not angry, but vexed. "And it’s fucked up, man", he tells me. "Fu-ucked up".

After a bit more of this, his mood turns a bit sunnier. "This is what my book will be like!", he tells me. "You see, it will deal with big subjects! New York Taxi Driver, oh yes. I have lived in Spain. I have lived in Africa. Now. America. Is this not a good story?".

I tell him he should write his book, wishing I could append write it and shut the fuck up, to the suggestion.

"This is a good conversation", he declares, all smiles. He turns round – without slowing down – and shouts "high five".

In the most embarrassing, British way, I flap my palm against his. Despite everything, I'm sort of enjoying myself – it's impossible not to enjoy being driven across the Hudson, watching New York shimmering in the sun ahead of me. And this is, I keep reasoning to myself, an experience.

We've crossed into Harlem now, and I'm pleased for a moment that the journey has taken this wayward route, for it's a part of the city that I mightn't otherwise had time to see. It's amazingly vibrant, full of people, kids, old men sat in the sun. Everyone looks happy, I think.

"Here", the hack tells me, "everyone is happy. No psychiatrist. Because family is strong, you see – parents know where there children are, what they doing. Good place. I lived in Harlem. And where I lived in Morocco was like this too. Good community. No diapers".

Before long, however, we're heading downtown and the change of scenery effects another change in his temperament. He's back to cursing Manhattan morality, cross because he saw two kids skateboarding through lower Harlem, one Hispanic and one African-American. "What do you think happens when these different cultures mix?", he asks me. It's the latest in a series of questions I don’t want to answer, so I decide to stay silent, and let him rant while I sink into the back seat. By the time we finally reach the Upper West Side, where I'm staying, I shake myself awake to find him calm again, describing the contents of his book once more. "All the psychiatrists", he says, "they will be out of business when this book arrives. Do you know what it will be called?".

I can see my apartment block now, and the cab is stationary. I fumble for my money and pass him a wad of notes. I suddenly want to hear the answer.

"What will you call it?", I ask.

He makes me give him one last high five.

"No More Diapers", he tells me.


James said...

greetings jonathan. tis james barlow here.

sounds like ny was muchos fun and i enjoyed that little anecdote. i will be eternally jealous that you appear to have met a character from a saul bellow book that was never written.

much love.

Anonymous said...

a slight overlap with netherland, a book im reading at the moment in which an englishman gets involved in the underground world of the new york cricket scene through his meeting with a NY cabbie.
some nice anecdotes in that too about the narrators visit to a restaurant frequented by immigrant taxi drivers.