The Old Man and the Strike

by

01/05/2006

116th St. & Broadway 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

You would think that everyone would know about the New York City Transit Strike, with its coverage in newspapers and television around the clock.

On the 2nd day of the strike, I discovered I was wrong.

After meeting with a friend at a Starbucks in Morningside Heights, I faced the prospect of either walking to my apartment on 23rd St. or hailing a taxi. I decided the latter would be more reasonable and less exhausting, albeit more challenging. Yet, as luck would have it, I found a taxi with no one in it right outside Starbucks. I jumped in giddily and exclaimed: “Oh wonderful! Thank you so much for stopping! I’m going to 23rd St. and 6th Ave.!”

The driver, who spoke something that sounded like French Patois into a device that looked straight out of Star Trek, smiled and said, “OK honey.”

Like other New Yorkers, I found the strike a happy challenge to my getting around the city. I had to be creative, I had to problem-solve, I had to be ingenious. Twenty-degree weather? No problem! I put on my black winter jacket that made me look like a Labrador dipped in ink. Far-away destinations? No problem! I could share taxis with fellow New Yorkers or walk. Had to get to a certain place on time? No problem! I would get up earlier than usual and watch the sunrise while sipping a cup of coffee from the peanut vendor in front of my building. Can’t get to a place on time? No problem! Blame the strike!

I settled back, taking up the entire back seat. A taxi all for me!

We stopped at 90th and Broadway. A woman with black hair and tortoise glasses peered her face through the passenger window. “We’re going to Chelsea.”

The driver looked at her nonplussed.

“Chel-wha?”

“Chelsea. 20th and Broadway?”

“Yeah,” he said motioning his thumb to the back seat.

What I didn’t know was that this woman came with a bonus: a man that looked like he was 135 years old.

I moved over to the left window, while she got in first and the man got in last. “I’m going to 23rd and Sixth!” I said cheerily to the woman as she sat next to me.

Before she could respond, a voice bellowed: “Move over!”

“I can’t, there’s someone already sitting here,” she said.

“What? How can that be?” He closed the door. “What kind of a taxi is this?”

“There’s someone else sitting here, darling.” Darling? She looked like she was 55. Tops.

“Why?”

“Taxis can take up to four passengers.”

“Well, that’s cheap. Why?”

“Because there’s a transit strike.”

The taxi started moving along.

“What do you mean there’s a transit strike?”

The woman sighed. “The subway conductors and the bus drivers are on strike.”

“Well, that’s selfish.”

“No honey, they’re trying to get better pensions and health benefits. So taxi drivers can take up to four passengers because people have no transportation.”

“Hmph.”

The old man, whom I will call Harry, a name that has always connoted crustiness in my psyche, looked at the driver through dirty thick-lensed glasses. “Hey, the meter’s not on! We’re going to get ripped off!” He deliberately screamed this last part.

The woman followed his gaze and confirmed his statement: Horror, the meter was indeed not on.

She moved up to the little plastic window next to the driver. “Excuse me, how many zones is it to Chelsea?”

“Wha?”

“Zones, how many?”

“Wha….”

“How much will the ride cost?”

“Fifteen dollars.”

She mulled this for a minute.

“Fifteen dollars? That’s crazy!” Harry screamed.

I decided I had to intervene. “It usually costs 15 dollars from the Upper West Side to Chelsea.”

If looks could kill, I would not be alive to tell this story: Harry looked at me, his mouth turning into an upside down semicircle. His eyes narrowed, his hand massaged the end of his cane rather brusquely. I could see his fingernails were black with dirt.

There was silence for five minutes. I looked out the window and concentrated on counting how many people were walking on the sidewalk and listening to Mayor Mike’s press conference on the radio.

“Excuse me, could you turn off the radio?,” Harry bellowed and then coughed violently.

The driver looked at Harry through the rearview mirror and turned the radio off.

Harry lowered his voice and said to the woman: “Why are we going so fast? Are we in a hurry? I don’t think we are.”

“The play is in 2 hours honey.”

“So we’re not in a hurry, what’s the hurry?” Harry tapped the plastic panel with his cane and screamed: “Go slower!”

The driver slowed down considerably.

“Good,” said Harry.

Of course, I was in a hurry. I had to get home quickly, so that I could pack and then run to Penn Station to catch a train to Boston. But I’m sure that if I had voiced the fact that I had a life, Harry would have had an aneurysm. Which might not have been a bad thing, now that I think about it.

I continued to stare out the window. We had arrived at Columbus Circle, where I looked out at the Trump Hotel and marveled at its tackiness.

“I don’t feel well,” Harry announced to no one.

I looked at Harry, who was looking out his window, where the choreographed lights in the lobby of the Time Warner Center beckoned the walkers warmly.

“Can you hold it?,” asked the woman putting her right hand on his left knee and squeezing it. For some reason, I gripped my purse.

“I want to walk,” stated Harry. He coughed violently.

“You realize we’re about 40 blocks away.”

“I don’t care, I want to walk.” He made a gagging sound that reminded me of my brother’s cat coughing up a hairball. I swallowed hard. “This taxi is too small….I’m feeling claustrophobic.”

The woman squeezed his knee again. “Remember what Dr. Katz told you, breathe in and breathe out.”

“I. can’t. breathe. dammit.” Harry let out a loud wheeze, that made the driver ask, “You OK?”

“Yes, continue driving,” said the woman sharply. In a more unctuous tone, “Honey, let’s do abdominal breathing, you know how to do it. Breathe in and I’ll count to eight. Then let it out slowly…1….2….”

Now it was I who wanted to walk. However, I decided to do the abdominal breathing too, that way I could benefit from this impromptu yoga session. As the three of us breathed in and breathed out, thinking of a “quiet sanctuary” as the woman put it, we arrived in Times Square. Harry had stopped talking for a full five minutes. It had been beautiful.

Until he saw The Color Purple on a billboard outside a theater.

“Oooh, The Color Purple, we should go see that.” He coughed. “Were the reviews good?”

“So so,” replied the woman. “Neither good or bad.”

“It’s a musical right?”

“I think.”

He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “Do you remember when we went to see Guys and Dolls? That was so much fun.”

“It was.”

“You were beautiful that night and we–” he stopped as the cab came to a sudden stop. “Why are we stopping?”

“Because there’s a gridlock honey,” said the woman. “Evidently,” she added.

“Why can’t he use another avenue?”

“Because I’m sure they’re all the same.”

Harry snorted. “I doubt it.” He tapped the plastic window with his cane. “Excuse me!” he screamed. “Could you take another avenue?”

“Wha…?”

“A-no-ther a-ve-nue,” Harry yelled.

“Nah, nah, all the same. Because of strike,” the driver said shaking his head.

“We’re getting ripped off!” Harry said settling back on his seat.

“No we’re not. There’s a transit strike, I told you that.”

“Fine time to go on strike. Very convenient. This is New York, people can walk home, not take taxis.”

“Um, they ARE walking home,” I said, still looking out the window. I did not want to meet Harry’s look of death, which was now penetrating a hole into my spinal cord.

There was an awkward silence and then, “They are walking home, look,” the woman said. Apparently Harry looked and said, “Well well, they are. The lucky bastards are not stuck in a taxi like we are.”

“Dear, it’s freezing outside. I wouldn’t want to be out there for the world.”

There was another moment of silence where we all heard the rusty wheels in Harry’s brain moving. “True.”

The cab picked up again, moving into another lane. We moved slowly and I concentrated on counting the people on the street again.

“Have you noticed there are no Dunkin Donuts left in San Francisco?,” Harry asked.

“Of course there are Dunkin Donuts. I think there’s one near Ghirardelli Square.”

“No, they closed it down. But look at all these Dunkin Donuts here…and why are they next to a Baskin Robbins? Are they the same company?”

The woman sighed. “Maybe.”

“God, those donuts are fantastic. They make such great donuts, especially that chocolate one I take with my medication in the morning. So good.”

The woman didn’t say anything. We were now right in the middle of Times Square.

“Am I bothering you?,” asked Harry. I didn’t know whether he was talking to me or the woman next to me. I turned around but he was looking at the woman.

“No, no you’re not.”

“I think I am.”

“No you’re not.”

“I think I’m going to shut up now.” Harry looked out his window.

The woman sighed again, more heavily. “You don’t need to shut up, it’s fine.”

“I’m shutting up.”

I looked up at the impressive banner of Memoirs of a Geisha. I really wanted to see that movie because—

“They’re showing Memoirs of a Geisha, honey,” the woman said, poking him in the ribs.

“I’m in the process of shutting up.”

This could be another beautiful moment. But beauty, like time, is ephemeral, because five seconds later:

“Of all the times we had to come to New York, we get this. THIS.” Harry said, pointing to the people on the streets.

“I think it’s quite nice, dear. I mean, here we are, stuck in the middle of Times Square with all these lights shining down on us. I think it’s fantastic.”

“Hmph.”

The taxi turned onto Broadway and then onto Fifth.

“What is he doing?” Harry screamed.

“He’s turning onto Fifth because she’s going to Sixth Avenue.”

“But WE are going to Broadway, are we going to have to walk?”

“You said you wanted to walk before, now you don’t want to?”

“Hell no. It’s freezing outside.”

I looked away from the window and said, “I can walk from Broadway, it’s no problem.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Taxi, go to Broadway please!” he screamed.

I’m sure the driver’s name was not Taxi, but he complied. When we got to 23rd and Broadway, I had to ask Harry to get out because I could be run over if I got out on my side.

“Fine,” he said and opened the door. He whined as he climbed out. Apparently, I had caused him to slip a disk. The woman followed.

I handed the driver a twenty for being a saint. He was very thankful.

“Good night,” I said to Harry. “And good luck,” I said to her.

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