Taxi Driver: The True Story of a Man Who Saved My Life



Neighborhood: Queens

Taxi Driver: The True Story of a Man Who Saved My Life
Leaving New York by Jeremy Keith

I’d written down the wrong rotation number and reported to LaGuardia instead of Kennedy. Easy mistake for a new flight attendant: Rotation 1010 – LGA to Kansas City. Rotation 1001 – JFK to Madrid.

Rotation 1010 meant the Kansas City Best Western, watered-down orange juice at Waffle House, and no in-room movies.

Rotation 1001 meant a 48-hour layover of tapas, sangria, bullfights and dancing.

I’d planned on the waffles. I didn’t have my passport. I was at the wrong airport and it was 5 p.m. in my beloved New York.

The Grand Central looked like a packed subway car. The Van Wyck, a clogged hive.

I told this to the scheduler on the phone. His name was Sheldon. He was in Atlanta. “Hot-lanta!” Sheldon would say and hoot. Woot. Woot. Yeah.

Sheldon hated New York, New Yorkers. It wasn’t a secret. He told me so a month back when he short-called me to Newark during the Macy’s Day Parade. “All you turkeys look out for that big blow-up turkey now!” he said. “Woot! Woot!” He laughed and hung up.

I’d never met Sheldon in person. Maybe if I had it would have been different between us. It’s easy to be cruel long-distance.

“Well-hell,” he said this time. “Well-hell, y’all just have to do your best then.”

Sheldon talked like he was chomping cotton. He talked like there was a tongue depressor in his mouth. If I didn’t make it to Kennedy in an hour, Sheldon would make sure I lost my job.

This is how it is in the airlines. One mistake and you’re done. In training, my instructor liked to tell the story of the flight attendant who, on her way to an early sign-in at LaGuardia, choked on a muffin. The flight attendant was driving. She pulled over, got out of her car on the Grand Central, threw herself over the hood and did an improv’d Heimlich Maneuver. She hocked out the muffin, got back in her car, fixed her hair, wiped the muffin-spit off her regulation silk scarf, and made it to the airport in time for sign-in.

“That’s the kind of dedication we’re talking about,” the instructor, a perky blonde with a furriest face I’ve ever seen, crowed. “That’s initiative.”

“She could have died,” I said.

“Exactly!” the instructor said, and beamed.

A month after we finished training, my friend Allen showed up late for a flight and was fired on the spot. He had to buy his own ticket back to Jackson, Mississippi where he got a landscaping job cutting rich people’s grass.

“I’ve been grounded,” he said and laughed too long at his own joke.

I’d never been fired from a job and most days I hated this one, but I needed it. I’d left home and everyone I loved to move to New York. It had been my dream as far back as I knew. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” Sinatra sang. “You’re going to make it after all.” That’s The Mary Tyler Moore theme song. But now I wouldn’t make it past this day.

I hung up on Sheldon and knew it was hopeless.

“Home,” I said to the cab driver when he asked where I needed to go, and of course by then I was crying.

“What’s wrong with you?” my cabbie said. He looked in his rear-view mirror. “What’s your trouble?”

And I couldn’t help it. I told him everything, more than he needed to know, more than I needed to say. I’d become the crazy person on a bus, spilling my story to this stranger who was probably sorry he’d asked.

“It’s o.k.,” I said finally, and wiped my face on my flammable blue polyester sleeve. “I can go back to Pittsburgh. I can type. I can wait tables. I can get another job.”

My cabbie friend’s eyes squinted down to coin slots. “This person who says you have to get to Kennedy,” he said. “Doesn’t he know this is New York?”

“He’s in Atlanta,” I said. “He doesn’t care.”

What is it that makes one person choose to help another?

What’s the key to compassion?

My cab driver was from Zimbabwe. His English was edged, precise, better than mine. Maybe he remembered what it was like to be helpless and far from home. Maybe I reminded him of someone. Or maybe he hated Atlanta the way Sheldon hated New York. Whatever it was, I’m still, years later, grateful.

The cabbie said, “Atlanta?” and winced. He said, “Atlanta. Ha!” He said, “I will get you to Kennedy.” It was a vow, an oath. “As God is my witness, I will get you to Kennedy.”

He said exactly that, like a line he’d learned from the movies, and then he threw the car in drive and drove.

He drove up over the berm, off the side of the road. I’ve never seen anything like it or since. He kept at the horn. He stitched the cab in and out of the lines of cars. He rolled down his window and waved his arm like a propeller.

At my apartment in Queens, he kept the cab revved and I ran up four flights and back down with my passport. He peeled out and took some back roads.

When we hit the Van Wyck, he drove on the embankments and the car tipped sideways and I covertly tightened my seatbelt. I didn’t want him to see. I was afraid I’d hurt his feelings, like I didn’t trust him, like I doubted, and it was true — I thought we’d never make it. But we did.

At Kennedy, he leaped out of the cab and tossed my bags from the trunk to the curb in one fluid move like a shot-putter. “Run!” he said, “You go! Fuck them!”
And I did. I ran. I made it through security and onto the plane just in time.

The A-line flight attendant rolled his eyes and said, “Nice of you to join us.”

The first-class passengers looked up and scowled.

Within minutes, I was strapped into my jumpseat and the plane was lifting up, all impossible airy grace and light, and the city stretched out below me like a promise.

I wish I’d written down my cabbie’s name or cab number.

I wish I’d had the time or the tip money to thank him properly. It was all sudden and unexpected, the way it is with all miracles, the way it was with that one good man and his lesson – in the face of everything else the world offers up, sometimes there’s kindness.

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Miss New York Has Everything (Warner/Hatchette 2006). Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5 AM, River Styx, and elsewhere. She left New York in 2001 and has felt a little off balance ever since.

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§ 2 Responses to “Taxi Driver: The True Story of a Man Who Saved My Life”

  • Jessica Faller says:

    I loved this piece. Ms. Jakiela wrote it in such a way that you feel like you’re there. Soulful and hilarious- her description of horrid Sheldon (“Sheldon talked like he was chomping cotton”) was marvelous. Look forward to reading more of her her work.

  • I liked it a lot, too.

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