Photo by KiHoon Park
I was running late for a new faculty meeting at NYU.
“411 Lafayette,” I said, jumping into a cab. The driver looked at me in the mirror with squinting, my-English-is-not-great eyes.
“411 LA-FAY-ETTE,” I said, raising my voice, hoping to hurry us along. I checked the time: If traffic was very light I might—might—make it within the reasonable fifteen minutes of lateness.
“Which is street?” he said, making an X with his hands.
“I don’t know the cross street,” I said.
He slumped down in his seat a little, and tapped his GPS screen.
“Machine is,” he wagged his finger, “Not cross? You don’t have?”
I hadn’t counted on my driver not knowing the way. Up until being rescued by NYU, I’d been treading water in a series of adjunct professor gigs throughout the city, so I wasn’t especially excited about walking into my first faculty meeting twenty minutes late. “No,” I said, irritated, “I don’t have.”
The driver then did something I’d never seen a cab driver do before: he pulled over, turned off the meter, and put the car in park. We sat idling briefly at the corner of 86th and 1st, in front of a bus stop. After a long minute passed and I felt I’d let out the right number of sighs, I raised my voice and said, “Excuse me, but do you not know the way?”
“I can call. Wait. Friend,” he said, “I call.”
This wasn’t the answer I’d expected. I wasn’t even sure if he was calling me his friend or he meant he was going to call a friend. I should get out and get another cab, I thought, maybe even slam the door, swear … but it had taken several minutes to flag this one, and I’d already invested nearly ten minutes in this guy. We’d gone exactly half a block. I took my hand off the door handle. We were already too far in the red for me to profitably cut my losses.
He spoke into his phone and since the subject was clear and narrow I got the idea: There’s this guy in my cab and he doesn’t know how to get where he needs to go, Yes, Lafayette (here he turned to me to confirm the number), 411, uh-huh, no, he doesn’t know the cross street, that’s why I’m calling you, can you check, sure I can wait, no big deal, check…
Since I was now irretrievably slipping into the range of the truly late I began to notice other, non-time aspects of my situation. For one thing, it was actually sort of pleasant to be inside a problem that wasn’t being solved by a screen. Usually, everything gets answered so fast there isn’t even time to not know. Everyone either knows or is in the process of finding out, perplexity and curiosity immediately dispelled with a few nonchalant finger swipes. But since I’d forgotten my iPhone, the guy’s GPS wasn’t working, and his phone looked to be ten years old—its hazard lights blinking alongside the information superhighway, unable to merge—we were simply stuck with what we had to offer out of our own experience and acuity.
Which, admittedly, was so far not very much.
“It’s near Bleeker,” I said, when he got off the phone (no progress, it seemed), “Bleeker is around there.”
“Ah ha,” the driver said, encouraged, “If is Bleeker I go down. We look. One is Houston, one not. This is business?”
I didn’t have any excuse for not knowing the cross street, since I’d been where I was going before, but I didn’t want to let on to this. Frankly, I’m so bad at knowing my way around that even after seven years in the city I can scarcely get a tourist to the Met, let alone deal with the part of the map where numbered streets turn to names, and the famous pinpoint grid turns to an Escher drawing.
At least we’re moving forward, I thought, and toward FDR … or we were, until the driver suddenly blurted out, “I take Park,” and pulled a wide, ambling U-turn across the whole of 86th street, setting off a chorus of horns around us.
“What are you doing?!”
“Park. Better,” he said.
“Jesus,” I muttered.
We rolled down the wide, clean, fuck you expanse of Park Avenue. Not only was the traffic outrageously bad, but our pace was all wrong, and he kept changing lanes pointlessly, as if seeking out the next UPS truck that would, a half block later, double park and stop us entirely.
“You really should have a working GPS,” I said when we hit our third red light (something I’d thought impossible on Park, “I mean, how are you going to drive a cab and not know how to get anywhere?”
The driver looked at me, raising his eyebrows in the mirror.
“Cross, very helpful.”
I shook my head. “It’s part of NYU,” I said, finally. I wanted to add, pointlessly, I TEACH THERE!, as if this might impress or humiliate him — or, I suppose, both.
“Oh, come on man. NYU. New York University!”
“No. Not dorm,” I said, practically spitting the words out, “N-Y-U. The school. Downtown. Very nice.” I stopped abruptly. I felt myself slipping into the easy, anonymous asshole role we’re all offered to play every ten seconds or so in New York. “Look, just go to the Village. Just get passed Union Square. Down,” I said, “Keep going.”
I sighed: “It’s NYU, but it is not a dorm.”
“My son,” the man said into the mirror, “he lived there. Lafayette. At dorm. NYU,” he said, “yes?” He lifted his eyebrows in the mirror.
“Your son went to NYU,” I said. I heard my tone, which sounded all wrong.
He looked at me in the mirror.
“He did under, now is graduate student,” he said, “public health. My daughter, too. NYU. She is doctor now.”
He picked up his phone. “Wait,” he said. A moment later a woman’s voice came into the space of the cab, where it sounded strangely private and domestic, loving even. I realized he’d called his wife to ask her the address of the dorm their son had lived in. I pictured them picking up and dropping off the kid’s laundry, maybe five or ten years ago, or having dinner somewhere in the Village — the cab driver, his wife, and their NYU son.
“Your wife?” I said, when the call was done.
The man nodded at me in the mirror. “80,” he said, “Dorm. 80 Lafayette.”
I nodded. “Where are you from?” I asked.
I was a bit embarrassed to have no follow up question, so I just said what everyone says to someone who is from a place they’ve never been: “Nice.”
“Here is better,” the man said, “but this,” he pointed at his steering wheel, looking at me in the mirror, smiling very big, “is worst job in whole world!” He smiled big and shook his head when he said it, overjoyed at the declaration. Then he smiled again, “the very worst,” he said, “in whole world!” I laughed out loud, for the perfect incongruity between his smile and what he’d said.
“Ah,” he said, still smiling, “it is just terrible. Terrible!”
When we reached Lafayette he pulled the car over again and began looking for numbers, rolling forward slowly. I saw the building we were headed to in the middle of the block, but I didn’t say anything. When he saw that we were heading in the right direction, he pressed down on the gas and sped up.
Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches at New York University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Anderbo, Kino Kultura, Connotations, Highbrow Magazine, Marco Polo, and elsewhere.