The woman flagged impatiently as though it was his fault she couldn't be at the curb sooner. Not that Bob was a gallant, but he usually stopped for women. He might've said always, but up here in Harlem one should not be that absolute.
Anyhow, this lady was well dressed and seemed genuinely harried. So Bob hit the brake, stopped with squeaking tires that suggested he would rush her there, wherever 'there' was.
She wanted to get uptown - to an apartment complex near the hospital. "You know such a place? Off Fifth Avenue?" she asked urgently.
"Yup! Ma'am. Be there in a jiffy," Bob assured her.
Of course he knew the place. Great views for high rents, the complex came with uniformed security and doormen, a spot of paid privilege equal to any in the Apple. A nice place to live in Harlem where, as anywhere else, there was also grime and ugliness. Yet, the unique pulse of paradox in this vital village was that, just as 'New York' evokes visions of excitement to most people of the world, 'Harlem' conjures up thrills for native New Yorkers.
The gypsy cab Bob drove was a reconditioned checker cab: one of those quaint, square, high-topped frames so roomy and comfortable inside. After six of leasing it, last year he had realized his ownership dreams. He bought a personal license plate that said 'Easy Street' and delighted in his cab as a workplace. Recently, a fare told him that less than a hundred of the model remained in service. Fancy that! he'd beamed. Owning an antique. For a wonderful machine it was indeed, and with an engine still mechanically commonsense enough he could tinker and tend. So Bob maintained his cab devotedly, kept it purring like a pussycat. One convenient installation was an extra-wide rearview mirror that kept an eye on his backseat. No way voyeuristic and to a point quite tolerant, yet on occasion he could scarcely believe the goings-on back there.
One more traffic light then a right turn, and they'd be at his passenger's destination. To alert her, he moved his head and tried to catch her eye in the mirror. He found her a million miles away, staring blankly at her worries. Plus side of forty, body well managing the fact, although her eyes were puffy as if from crying. Bob nudged around the corner, snailed down the block. "This it, ma'am?" he asked.
She peered out the window searching for numbers.
Bob guessing she didn't know, ventured, "They've got a driveway, ma'am. The numbers are on the buildings when we enter."
She looked at him uncertainly.
"It's a nice place, ma'am," he added. "I've been here before."
A brief smile relieved her face, a glimpse of a playful persona in another scenario. She caught Bob's eyes in the mirror. "Thank you," she said.
Bob steered his gypsy up the curved driveway, stopped at the lobby. The doorman shimmered forward and opened the passenger door. Bob checked the meter: four-fifty. A habit of his, he predicted a five-dollar bill with the fifty cents as tip.
She rummaged in her pocketbook, handed over a twenty. As Bob reached to his pouch for change, she said, "Keep it. I'll pay for your time if you wait a few minutes and take me back. I'm going to get some one. Please."
A certain desperation modulated her plea.
What the hell, thought Bob, my time's paid up. "Okay. Ten minutes and I'm off," he said.
"Fifteen?" she haggled, surprising.
"Take your time," Bob told her, admitting to himself that he'd have stayed anyhow.
From under his seat, he took out his text on Zen Buddhism, tried to get into higher mysteries.
Must have dozed, though.
His fingers still loosely held the book as he awoke to grunts of resistance and scraping sounds of struggle approaching the cab. As he craned his neck around to locate the scrabble, he moved saliva around his mouth ridding it of an aired-out feeling. He saw his fare returning, grasping the arm of a young woman whose truculence and physical resemblance suggested: the errant daughter embarrassingly busted.
She was a stunning seventeen or thereabouts, beautiful, with a body lush as blossoming Spring. Her every feature was a burst of female allure a lucky few might know for a moment in their lives. Full pouting lips. Large, sullen eyes. Lush ropes of black soft dreadlocks. A sultry petulant manner. A general grace for which every woman craves all of her life. Without even trying this girl taunted the hanker in you. Worse was that she was clearly a child still ignorant of her potent force.
Unkindly, Bob envisioned her spoiling that uncommon beauty with humdrum habits and empty calories. Shallow appetites too-soon fulfilled would waste her promise. After which people would shake disappointed heads and comment emptily, "She used to be so special."
Nevertheless, right now she was hot as Habanero!
Firm grip on the daughter's arm, Bob's fare steered her into the backseat. Stiff-legged, defiant and distressed by her abduction, the girl succumbed reluctantly. With contemptuous eyes, she immediately cast Bob as the driver-henchman in the play. So he pulled his eyes away as she sulkily entered the cab.
The mother crowded in after her, slammed the door - Bob hated that, but let it slide because of the obvious. She named a mid-eighties address on the West side.
Bob set off, although all of a sudden he was of cooler disposition regarding the goings-on. The address she gave meant better-bred folks of privilege and standing. To him, that address spoke of trappings only comfortable wealth could maintain. Special features like lofty apartment ceilings, and proper table silver polished by servile elbow grease and sweat. The common toil of people like himself. So to Bob's thinking, such addresses deserved their petty problems.
Meanwhile, in a seething constant hiss, the mother was battering her child: assaulting her with charges of Ingratitude, of Selfishness, of Stupidity. Bob could only catch the gist, but it occurred to him that the mother's onslaught was mainly defensive aggression. Instead of laying down house rules, she seemed setting up self-justifications. More curious about her rationale, he concentrated on eavesdropping.
". . . those school friends of yours. Huh? That's what we pay for? You realize the privileges you're dumping? Risking all this for such . . such . . such a . . a person. I mean, haven't we given when you asked? And you said you were happy. You said you loved me!"
She broke into dignified, controlled sobs, the hanky patting her painful-looking eyes. Then she continued with a litany of wrongs done to her : the irresponsible telephone bill, her decreasing hope for the future, the fragile state of her mental health.
Not pleasant at all. The soap opera emoting was sapping his passive interest. A hope for relief, Bob decided to head down Eighth Avenue. He was gambling for lighter traffic, favorable lights, and a faster escape. Meanwhile, he opined to himself that for psychological survival, Mankind's next taxi-driver had to be a robot.
Yet, first red he obeyed, Bob sneaked a curious glance at the daughter. Found her there, waiting in the mirror, daring him to intrude through the breach her mother was betraying.
Guiltily, Bob declined.
As soon as the light changed though, automatically, he glanced back, found her intent at the mother. In whispered attack, she was shredding Mother's argument. Menacing her on private matters. What? Bob couldn't guess, but the effect was devastating. The mother was breaking down.
With naive cruelty, the girl continued to shed fury on her mother. Then pitched just enough for Bob to catch, she stabbed, "Nothing you say can touch me, Mother! Nothing! Okay! So no need appealing to hoi polloi for sympathy. Okay!"
Oddly offended, Bob thought, So hoi polloi am I, eh!
He understood the daughter's anger, though. Considering Youth's general dementia for privacy, she must've gone nuclear about her mother statements in front of strangers, broadcasting their personal affairs. Jury of one to all this exposure being him, a gypsy cabbie. Yup! Bob could understand the girl's outrage.
He was glad it wasn't him suffering her barrage.
Eager to end this harrowing ride, he noted that it was but a few more blocks to freedom. They had gone silent, but the quiet in the backseat didn't mask their misery. Obvious and old as bloodstains, it was. A quick glance back caught a stone-faced girl, a suddenly aged and exhausted mother.
"I'm sorry, but I can't manage this affair by myself anymore," muttered the mother.
The girl looked away, out the far window.
Hard-voiced, more finally, the mother said, "Your father will have to know. He'll have to take care of it."
The daughter turned to her and spat out, "And what he'd do? Try to fuck me again?" She accented "again" harshly as she stared into her mother's face not three inches away.
The mother uttered a small choked cry, her purse dropping from her clasp, her wobbly chin sinking to her chest.
But mercifully, Bob was at their address. He braked to a smooth stop. "This is it, ladies," he announced. "Six twenty by the meter."
The girl picked up her mother's purse, rummaged and pulled out a bill. Then she tossed it on the front seat as if Bob's reaching hand was a turd. "Keep it," she said, and helped the still dazed mother out the cab.
They stood close on the kerb, daughter holding mother around her shoulder, steadying her.
Bob met the girl's eyes, felt obliged to. "Thank you, ma'am," he said.
Proud, disdainful, she glanced him acknowledgment as he heard her say gently, "Come on, Momma. We're home."
Bob drove off wondering. Was she truly that cruel? Was she, as well, truly that forgiving? Was this she, everyday? Did she see herself as others saw her? Whatever! With the lecherous shit she must get, handling it had to come from somewhere deep: some special female place. For it had to be more than plain pride or vanity. At this thought though, Bob flushed warmly from private chagrin. First eyes on her, he too, had drooled lustful.
Just then, corner of his eye on the other side of the street, a hand went up, and directed Bob's musings back to livelihood. He glanced over, met the fellow's eye and acknowledged a contract. So Bob slowed his cab, made a U-turn over to the uptown lane and stopped for the new fare.
(c) Kelvin Christopher James