Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A cabby picks me up at the cabstand at La Guardia Airport, but not before I’m handed a bright yellow brochure titled Taxi Information. In three languages, the brochure lists sample fares from the airport to the city’s five boroughs. There’s also space to record the driver’s medallion and license numbers if the cabby is rude or refuses to go to a particular neighborhood — the South Bronx, for example. “Driver is required to take passengers to any destination in the five boroughs of New York City,” the brochure states. This new customer-service program is all part of Mayor Giuliani’s campaign to make New York City friendlier — and to prevent any more Japanese businessmen from paying $150 to get to Manhattan, a trip the brochure says should cost around twenty-five dollars. (Japanese, however, is not one of the three languages used in the brochure.)
I soon learn that my driver is a Russian immigrant, one of many who landed on America’s shores after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He tells me that he hates Giuliani for the friendliness campaign and for requiring all cabs to display a map of the city in the back seat so that passengers can track their route. As for driving to the South Bronx, this cabby sometimes refuses, risking a five-hundred-dollar fine: “If I have to choose fine or my life, I choose life!” I heartily agree with him.
We are barely out of the airport complex before he has told me his story. In 1980, he attempted to escape the Soviet Union but was caught by the KGB. Ten years later, after the collapse of the communist government, he successfully fled to Austria and then Italy, where he was put up for eight months, all expenses paid, by a Jewish relief organization. “Rome, Venice, Tuscany,” he remembers with a smile. “It was like . . . vacation.”
When he arrived in the United States, the cabby first lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, then moved to a more spacious flat in Park Slope, and finally to his very own house on Staten Island. Like many hard-working immigrants, he has achieved economic prosperity and now owns half of the cab he is driving. And as a new American citizen with First Amendment rights, he feels entitled to give me his opinion on every subject from the Middle East to Monica Lewinsky.
He gestures to a grove of trees and begins to lecture me about the “animals.” At first I think he is referring to the squirrels. “If you take care of the animals,” he says, “they won’t attack you.” Then I realize he means that if you throw the homeless a few crumbs now and then, they won’t rise up and threaten decent, industrious people like us.
Minutes later, warming to what I suspect is a well-worn conversational path, he expands “animals” to include Palestinians. “I am Republican,” he announces. “I love Reagan, Bush, Gulf War, right wing, military. You must be Democrat?” he asks, looking me over in the rearview mirror.
What gave me away? Was it my thirty-year-old sports jacket and forty-dollar watch? My scuffed shoes and uncombed hair? My smile?
“So why didn’t you emigrate to Israel?” I ask.
“Because I can’t live next to animals. There can be no communication. They are children. They only understand force and blood. They should be wiped out! Completely!” He points to the red digital numbers on the meter. “The animals see green. I see red. There is no other color in between. There is no other way!”
Maybe I should say something, offer an olive branch, quote Gandhi. Instead, I stare at the red numbers, which are now hitting thirty dollars.
When we enter Sheepshead Bay, my father’s neighborhood, the cabby says that his wife works as a teacher at a nearby junior-high school. “But it’s no good,” he says, shaking his head and gesturing toward a group of teenagers. “Too many animals!”
They look pretty harmless to me — at least, as harmless as kids can look at that awkward age.
“Back in Russia, we have three people who get VIP treatment: the priest, the soldier, and the teacher. Here, the animals respect nothing. Blacks, whites, Latinos — we should not live together!”
Near the tiny Holocaust Memorial Park at the end of Sheepshead Bay, a crowd has gathered in the street. A bicyclist lies motionless on the pavement, a dark stream of blood running from his head toward the gutter. His bike is crumpled beneath the front of a Ford Bronco, whose driver sits behind the wheel, looking stunned. Several men are talking excitedly on their cell phones, but no one is helping the injured man. Traffic congestion brings us to a stop directly alongside the accident. The man is so still I think he is dead. An eerie buzzing fills my head, louder even than all the honking horns.
“That poor man,” I say.
The cabby snorts and gestures disgustedly. “I don’t believe it. This is for insurance only. No, I don’t believe this at all!”
“That looks like real blood to me!” I snap back at him. “Are you telling me that someone would throw himself in front of a moving car to collect insurance?”
“I see this all the time!” he shouts, honking his horn as if it will magically make the cars in front of us go away. “You think he’s hurt now, but when insurance hearing comes, he will be fine with his lawyers. Animals!”
By the time we reach my father’s house, the red light on the meter reads forty dollars: an all-time high for this particular cab ride. According to the brochure, tipping is optional, but I give the cabby seven dollars anyway, because I’m a coward and don’t want any trouble. He lifts my luggage out of the trunk. We shake hands and, for the first time, stand face to face. For the size of his opinions, he is surprisingly small: an undistinguished man in his sixties wearing shorts, white socks with red stripes at the top, and canvas tennis shoes. His blank face hides the vile thoughts in his head. Here is where hate begins, I think, not with a tank or a missile, but with one angry man whose heart is so hardened that he can see only red.
Yet how do I react to this man’s twisted rhetoric of vengeance and ethnic cleansing? Do I argue? Do I protest? Do I offer alternatives of peace and love? No, I am silent and compromising. Of the two of us, who is more dishonest? Who is more dangerous?
Sheepshead Bay is one Brooklyn neighborhood that, I can assure you, is in no danger of being gentrified. The bay itself is a slack pool of warm slag filled with castoff plastic, tangled fishing lines, bicycle skeletons, baseball caps, and other remnants of our affluence, which collect at the north end, where there is no outlet. I once saw a dead cat with a string tied around its neck floating serenely among some styrofoam cups. (At least, I think it was a cat.) But I’ve also seen live creatures: large horseshoe crabs drifting on the water’s surface like aliens, and once a black-necked tern that hovered in front of me for an entire minute before diving to snag a fish. One afternoon, in Holocaust Memorial Park, I saw a couple in their seventies breaking up.
Both were dressed in the mismatched, hand-me-down wardrobe of the poor. The man wore a sports jersey with the number 60 on it and stained shorts that hung down almost to the tops of his white sweat socks. The woman wore a short skirt — too short for someone her age — and sat with her knees spread wide apart. I watched from a nearby bench as she taunted him mercilessly: “Go ahead, leave! But remember this. Remember this moment!”
The man walked away slowly, as if his legs were filled with concrete. He carried a shopping bag, and his shoulders drooped. His expression was the saddest I’ve ever seen on another human being. The woman was not impressed: “What? You want me to wave goodbye? OK, I’m waving goodbye.” She waved sarcastically.
Then she called to him in a gentler voice, “I’ll write you a letter.” Quieter still, she repeated to herself, “Yes, I’ll write you a letter.”
The man wandered off. No one tried to intervene. No counselors attended to their emotional needs. No friends showed up to talk them out of the breakup. I was thoroughly depressed.
Today I walk over a footbridge where a small crowd of mostly Russian immigrants are foolishly fishing out of the dirty bay. I walk past the El Greco diner, where I once heard a woman say, “I’d rather be mugged than go to Alaska.” I walk past the bakeries and fruit stands, past the clothing stores filled with racks of polyester, past the crowded off-track betting office littered with torn tickets and cigarette butts. I walk underneath the rickety Sheepshead Bay train stop, with its mammoth newsstand selling everything from poetry to pornography. Out on the boardwalk, a man cautions his young female companion, dressed in a miniskirt, black fish-net stockings, and spike heels, “Don’t get caught.” He is referring to her heels and the gaps between the planks. Because it is the off-season, the Russian cappuccino houses are closed. There’s no one strolling on the sand. The benches are occupied only by old women and pigeons and a man and a boy playing chess. The elevated trains roar by every four minutes. Ocean smells mingle with the odors of cat spray, cigars, and dog droppings. On the horizon floats a garbage barge on its way to dump another load in the open water.
Whenever I come to Brooklyn, I see the same woman roller-blading through traffic near Papa Leone’s Pizzeria. She dances to the music of a Walkman clamped tight around her ears, oblivious to the danger of passing cars. Sometimes she carries a kitten in her arms, sometimes a dog. From a distance she looks attractive, but up close her hair turns out to be a thick tangle of brown snakes, her stretch pants are stained, and she has the faraway look of a refugee.
I come to New York City in part to be reminded of all the possibilities this country offers. In the small Western towns where I have lived for the past thirty-odd years, your life lies stretched out before you, from cradle to career to coffin. But New York City changes every second, like a deck of cards being shuffled. New people are constantly arriving with the intention of changing their lives, shaking up their tired existence. Some succeed, many fail, but all leave behind stories.
What is the roller-blader’s story? How did her life get to this point? Who was the dead bicyclist? Why did the elderly couple break up? Is the Russian cabby ever thankful? What is the Korean immigrant thinking as he shuffles through subway cars pulling a cardboard box full of wallets, flashlights, and fake cellular phones, shouting, “One dollar! One dollar!”? How did the Inca band end up on Fifth Avenue playing the theme song from Titanic on panpipes and charangos? How about the bike messenger with his dreadlocks, purple pager, and African beads? What’s his story? Or the young woman on the Q train bobbing her head up and down and praying out loud from the Torah while next to her a man reads On the Road? Or the homeless woman who once grabbed me and cried, “Help me, I’m starving!”?
One story I do know belongs to my father. Years ago, he lived with his family from his second marriage in fashionable Westchester County and commuted to Manhattan. The two children attended private schools, and his wife drank. I rarely heard from my father during those years, and my mother led me to believe this was his decision. (Decades later, I would learn she had not been entirely truthful.)
His second marriage was going under. While his intoxicated wife stormed around him in a violent rage and the kids cowered in another room with the cats, my father would sit at the dinner table and calmly, deliberately stack the dirty plates, cups, and saucers, one by one, the tension mounting with each successive layer of china. He was looking for a way to climb out. He thought he may have found it when he met Irene.
She was a research scientist at the university where Dad worked. He looked forward to her morning visits, listening for her sharp footsteps on the marble floor in the lobby, her hearty greeting to his secretary. And then she was there, standing before his desk — an angelic vision in a white lab coat, surrounded by an aura of natural light from a sunbeam that slipped between the skyscrapers and fell in his window. She looked so directly into him that he didn’t have to put up a front to disguise his hurt. Dad and Irene shared memorable Manhattan lunches, discreet only because he was at that sad, ending stage of marriage where he told his wife no more than was necessary to get through each twisted evening. During those lunches, he learned that Irene’s much-older husband, Ben, spent most of his time in his native Greece. Despite the distance and their twenty-year age difference, Irene and Ben were happy.
As an adult, I have learned that my father is an honorable man. He may have failed at parenting and a couple of marriages, but I can believe he never crossed the line of intimacy with Irene. I can also believe he needed her desperately. He was hardly alive when they met.
Is it adultery to gravitate toward sanity? How is it that one person can bring out the best in you while another bounces off and makes no impression at all? When you find that one person, suddenly you can’t stop talking. Doors fly open inside that have been shut for years. Time passes too quickly, whereas before each hour felt like a month. If you are lucky — and luck is a huge part of it — you can have a long-term relationship with that person. But oftentimes the meeting is brief, like the arc of a shooting star. All that remains is an imprint of what it means to be truly alive, to love yourself and everything around you.
We all want our stories to end a certain way: The protagonists escape life’s complications and live happily ever after in a rent-controlled apartment overlooking Central Park West. Flowers bloom, birds sing, air fares drop. The Russian cabby embraces the Palestinian immigrant and shakes his head in shame: “Let’s get drink. I’ll buy.” The bicyclist gets up from the pavement, brushes himself off, and decides, after his close call with death, to live his life differently (and to purchase a helmet). The elderly couple reconciles and goes on to win the lottery. The roller-blader cuts her hair and is discovered by the New York City Ballet. My father and Irene run off together to a small house in Iowa on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, where they raise beefsteak tomatoes, red potatoes, and sweet corn. They are so in love they don’t even notice the humidity.
But this is not how the story ended.
When Irene went missing for three days, it was my father who got the super to unlock her apartment. She had lain dead all that time, alone, clutching her heart. And in that first, horrible moment in the doorway, my father thought his heart would burst, too.
That should have been the end of the story; that would have been enough. But my father felt an obligation to contact Irene’s husband in Greece. He could find no phone number or address in her apartment, so he placed ads in newspapers and on the radio throughout Greece, careful not to mention Irene’s death. After a week, he finally located Ben and went to meet him at Kennedy Airport. I picture my father standing there among the limo drivers, holding a sign that says, BEN, and looking for an older Greek man he’d seen only in photographs. When they met at last, Ben grabbed my father’s arm and cried in halting English, “Don’t leave me!” Dad didn’t.
A bond formed, a dependency. Ben couldn’t eat unless Dad was with him, and Dad wasn’t so keen on going back to the house of madness and stacked dishes. So Dad started spending time at Ben’s apartment, preparing meals for him. They’d sit in silence because of the language barrier, but communication takes many forms. Who needed whom more? I don’t think even they knew.
This strange relationship went on for years, a silent tribute to Irene by the two men who loved her most. It ended only when Ben finally passed away. Dad was the sole mourner at his grave.
Today, on my walk, I pass the spot where the bicyclist was hit. The blood has been wiped away, but a large stain remains. In Holocaust Memorial Park, a row of ancient, peeling planer trees offers shade to the elderly people on the wooden benches facing the bay. Some tell stories. Others slap down dominoes on tables. A few sit alone clutching canes and walkers. No one looks particularly happy — or unhappy, for that matter. Everyone seems to be passively waiting out this moment in time in Brooklyn.
Stephen J. Lyons