“We’re having the time of our lives
We’re lost in a cruel paradise”
“We’re here. That’ll be $23.”
“I’m not leaving your cab until you kiss me.”
“Um…I’m alright. I have to get back to work and besides, you don’t want to do that. I have cooties.”
It’s something that supposedly exists in the Big Apple. I’m not referring to how I feel about the city that has become a cratered, frozen wasteland in recent weeks but the actual emotion that two people can feel between each other. Once in a blue moon, I get to see it actually take place in the back seat of my Taxi and no, I’m not talking about those rare instances where couples are getting it on. I mean the real thing – actual love between two people who aren’t exchanging cash for favors as part of the relationship.
It’s not everyday that I feel that New Yorkers are capable of loving each other. The Bible teaches us to do that but hate is so much easier to find on the streets, certainly from behind the wheel. I see enough middle fingers, angry drivers, and pedestrians who are caught up in their own little worlds all the time, to the point where I just brush it off and move on as soon as the light turns green. It even happened on Saturday night when a livery cab driver got pissed off at me as if I ruined his entire evening. Tossing his bottle of water at my windshield may have made his night easier to swallow, but I just turned the wipers on and stared ahead, undeterred by his growing rage.
Gotham can be a form of cruel and unusual punishment underneath the glitz and glamour. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, a vast majority of New Yorkers work hours that put my 12-hour shifts to shame, all the name of building a career, identity, or name for themselves. The upside is that many people leave the city in search of greener (and calmer) pastures once they’ve established their vocational track, as a chef from Austin also reminded me on Saturday night. For all of the exhaustion that I could see and feel emanating from her as we made our way to Bushwick under the El, it was all worth it for her if and when she returned home to the Lone Star State, since she knew that she’d call all the shots once it came time to open a restaurant there.
That’s one of the rare instances where love of someone else has been trumped by a love of self, and I don’t mean that in a selfish way. A career is how every working New Yorker finds identity and self-fulfillment – from the lowly dishwasher to the Lawyer who wants the corner office on the top floor. There’s a reason why I ask my passengers what they do and it goes beyond finding out about people’s occupations or wondering if a certain career track is right for me. It’s because far too many people that I’ve been entrusted to take home or out on the town do nothing but work during their waking hours, and that job ends up becoming their entire existence.
In the process, they lose themselves in that particular field. A certain asexuality takes hold over many New Yorkers as their day becomes nothing more than a means to an end. Leisure time, jaunts on the town, and goofing off disappear completely from a person’s schedule, only to be replaced by overtime and more billable hours. While I do not receive any of the latter perks as part of my job, I certainly know what it’s like to lose yourself in what you do. The old saying of “moonlighting becomes you” implies that that person’s day job has not already become their life while their night job slowly creeps in and crowds out everything else. In New York, the day job has already choked off all other forms of life before that even has a chance to happen.
Naturally, this also includes romantic relationships. There have been many, many instances where the person that’s gotten in the back seat of my Taxi has captivated me – because of that person’s looks, ambitions, position, personality, or je ne sais quoi. More often that not, she has someone that has gone out with her for the night but when she hasn’t, I do my best to get to know her without being overtly forward. While not easy to do while battling traffic, the process of learning about a passenger is almost always sobering at best.
More often than not, that person is tired, stressed, or just uninterested. A smart phone may give her an excuse to ignore me and the outside world but it ends up making the person using it pretty dumb when there’s so much to be gained by looking out onto the streets of the Big Apple and pondering over thoughts with the driver that’s taking that person home. Even if I never speak to her again, I do believe that I have something to offer and something to learn from every passenger that gets in my vehicle and communicates with me, no matter the level of romantic interest. Given how rare it is that I feel a spark with all of the people that I come into contact with on a daily basis, I’m amazed that anyone could find someone to settle down with in New York.
Statistics seem to back that up as well, as the average age of marriage has been creeping up for several decades now. When I was growing up, my parents got married in their early 20’s and they often told me it was because “everyone else did that”. I never thought that they were lemmings but I was well aware that the Baby Boom generation tied the knot young and for the marriages that lasted, quite a few offspring resulted from those celebrating the sacrament of Matrimony fresh out of High School. Hearing that someone is a stay-at-home-Mom or wants to remain in New York to settle down and raise a family seems so foreign to my ears now that I express my amazement during the few instances that I hear that after asking someone what they do for a living or wish to do in the future.
Courtship is a lost art in New York, as evidenced by the utter buffoonery that many males practice when going out on the town and finding someone to take home that night. While I don’t dispense relationship advice unless asked (yeah, it’s not that often), I usually come to an opinion on the couple that gets into the back seat, and not just on Saturday nights. Nearly all of the time, it’s a business relationship and nothing more. People have something that others want, and whether it’s money, sex appeal, an enviable status, or just a superficial return of their infatuation, New Yorkers are good at consummating relationships that disappear as quick as nearby locals on Tinder.
When I was growing up, New York was romantic. Fred and Ginger danced in fancy supper clubs, Art Deco made a nice revival in the 1970’s, Woody Allen’s Manhattan provided the soundtrack to anyone’s romantic dreams in the era of Municipal Bankruptcy, and even The Wiz soulfully asked us to Ease on Down the Road, right toward the Chrysler Building. Like so much of New York yesteryear, those dreamy scenes and scores have been replaced by the almighty dollar. Tourism may have helped the city reach new highs but it’s brought about an economy based on comfort, accommodation, and familiarity.
And we all know what that breeds.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the rebound in the city’s economy along with the gradual depreciation in manufacturing only made matters worse for those who provided the labor in the postindustrial economy. Housing prices skyrocketed, job requirements became more strict, and white-collar industries rose in prominence. All of those combined to make standards of living increase but the correlating rise in life expectancy came with a heavy price:
Longer working hours.
And with it, the fall of romance in New York.
I can see it in my job – in the faces of those who put in grueling hours, year after year. Driving a Taxi wasn’t always a 12-hour shift and the older guys in my garage and in the business always talk about how they used to do well financially driving a cab and how they had free time during their shift to eat and take breaks. For me, it’s a big game of beat-the-clock once I pull out of my garage and fly over one of the East River crossings to start another night of fare-finding. Too many times, I have to stop and look up when I get to a red light or sit in traffic.
At the buildings.
At the skyline.
At the people going by.
And at the proverbial sand in the hourglass of my life going from the top to the bottom.
I’d always hoped that everything that I put in would be worth it – that one day, someone would come into my Taxi and fulfill the promise that I’ve heard for so many years; that that person would be the one that I’d spend the rest of my life with, that that person would make me feel that I’d always known her, and would make me forget about every heartache, breakup, and rejection that I’ve endured time and time again. That she’d make me forget about every ticket, pothole, fender-bender, nonpaying fare, and ungrateful passenger that has made me want to turn the meter off and pull back into the garage for the last time and most of all, for all the tears that I shed for those who exited my life far, far too soon.
To this day, I’m still hoping to come across her.
For now, I hold out hope – that New Yorkers will not be so jaded that they cannot see the beauty in the architecture, natural world, and people around them and will take the time out to stop and smell the roses in the midst of their packed-to-the-gills schedule that they live day in and day out. While a cabdriver like me cannot force them to put their phones and Blackberry’s down for a moment, it is possible to get them to slow down for a while, unplug from the potential to land another client or make another sale, and just take some time out to get to know someone on a personal level. It’s a futile task but during the rare instances where I make a connection, it’s worth all of the frustration and effort that went in to brightening someone’s day.
And that’s the part of my job that I love the most.