Ed and I would meet at the Belmore Cafeteria on lower Park Avenue at 28th street and swap stories. The neon sign in the window proclaimed the Belmore “New York’s most fabulous restaurant.” Owner Philip Siegel kept the cafeteria open twenty-four hours a day. It was a cavernous place that sat 500 customers. You entered through a turn style, took a ticket, served yourself, paid and found a table or a booth along the walls. Before Siegel installed track lighting and potted plants in the late Seventies, nothing much decorated the place. You can see the Belmore, pretty accurately recreated, in Martin Scorceses’s 1976 movie Taxidriver, the year I started driving. In fact, that movie gives you a good picture of New York in those years
Non cab drivers in the Belmore were either students or elderly people on fixed incomes. Most drivers in the Seventies were Italian and Irish, not many blacks, not many Hispanics, not many foreigners, only a few women. Many drivers carried a lead pipe next to their cab seats and told stories about having to use them. They didn’t pick up “niggers.” They resented the first wave of gypsy cabs that were becoming more and more popular in the city’s slums. The gypsies’ word-of-mouth advertisement said it all, “We ain’t yellow,” the color of New York’s licensed cabs. The students read, the elderly stared into space and the cab drivers kept up a constant stream of discontent and anger.
Ed and I sat amidst this human wreckage and talked. As he grew older Ed began to resemble the statues of his Inca ancestors. He was Indian and Spanish. As he aged his face grew more square, darker, his eyes heavier, stone like. Ed always carried a book, and never a novel or a mystery or anything contemporary for that matter. He read originals, favoring first accounts of historic explorations: Bernal Diaz’s book on the Cortez conquest, Lady Blunt’s adventures in Arabia, tales of the Silk route, Thesinger crossing the Empty Quarter.
Ed was one of the best conversationalist I have ever known. Many of my readers may not have any idea what I mean by a “conversationalist.” Today we might say that Ed was a great bullshitter. He could talk about anything and always came up with an intelligent, witty alternative to the conventional way of looking at things. “Only hit a child in anger,” he advised. And, of course, that advice makes perfect sense when you think about it. “Wash your hands before you pee, not afterwards. Urine is sterile and what’s cleaner after a day on the streets, you hands or your pecker?”
Ed had mastered cab driving, just as he had mastered other trades. “Never wait in cab lines,” he advised. “Know when to talk and when to shut up.” “Get a radio and work it to avoid dead heads,” one way runs to the end of Brooklyn or Queens where you have to drive back to the city empty. “Keep moving.” He told me I could catch the lights on 7th Avenue uptown without a stop, if I could keep my speed at about 51 miles an hour. He knew where best to cross Central Park at different times of the day or how on Saturday morning you could make good money hauling working class women around the Bronx on their shopping trips.
Ed was contentedly working class and had no patience for white-collar compromise. “They’re all playing games. Everybody’s pretending to be someone else, someone they think will be approved of by their buddies and bosses, but none of them are real.” Ed took a sip of the hot, Belmore coffee, a weak tea color heavy in caffeine. He put the cup down on the formica booth table and looked at the juke box on the wall, then turned back to me. “Working class people are so low on the totem pole, they can be whoever they want, at least when they’re off work.” Unlike Clint Jenks, Ed had no love of the working class as an instrument of social change. He hated war and took part in marches against the war in Vietnam, in part for their sheer theater, but he had no real hope that demonstrations would do any lasting good. He said that he had read too much history to have much hope for the wishes of the common man,
After a final slurp of coffee, we headed back to the streets. Ed owned his own medallion and the value escalated tremendously during his tenure. I drove for a share of the take, after expenses, which included gas and oil, maintenance and insurance. It was enough to save up for a deposit and first month’s rent and move into my own apartment, another railroad flat on 105th just off-Broadway, with a window at the far end opening on another air shaft.
I learned the city. I enjoyed the glimpse I was getting of New York, closer to that of a cop than a private citizen. The Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world, dominated the New York City skyline and seemed to declare the unspoken mantra of my Wall Street clients, “We are masters of the Universe.” They were the “keep the change” crowd, giving you 40 cents on a $5.60 ride. To most of them you were simply an object, the driver. One businessman with his fashionable girlfriend, caught me stuffing a twenty dollar bill into my sock to hide it in case of robbery. “Look,” he guffawed as we sped up Broadway from Wall Street toward the Village, “He stuffs his money in his sock just like a whore!” He was laughing and pointing at my legs. He had no idea what it was like to have a knife pressed against your throat on a dark street in Harlem as I had only two weeks earlier. The girl laughed politely.
At dusk, the hookers who gathered on lower Lexington just above Gramercy Park in mid afternoon, moved up to Times Square. I would swing by if I was in the area and pick up a cab full. They never tipped. I asked why and one of the women sneered, “You’re a man.” Another time a skinny little girl, ran out from a doorway in a drenching downpour, hair matted to her head, thin dress soaked and clinging to her body and offered me a blow job for a ride to Penn Station. I dropped her off for free, kept the glass partition closed and hoped she got back home.
The best tippers were the bus boys, at the bottom of the economic pile. I looked for them after 2:00 am when the restaurants finally closed and I loved to pass up the half drunk rich kids looking for a short ride to a late night bar to pick up a busboy half way down the block. The bus boys knew I had to deadhead back to the city and they appreciated the ride. I always needed directions, and they gave good ones, never stuck me for a bill and tipped heavily.
A good run at around 2:30 to 2:45 in the morning, if I were down below the Village, was up 11th Avenue past the gay bars at the end of Christopher Street. Most gays partied in the village, but many lived on the upper west side, so I could pick up a fare that would pay my way up town, almost to my garage at 127th Street. And gays tipped well.
One night I was waved down by a six-foot six man in jeans and a jeans jacket, spiked blond hair and a big, square, scowling Germanic face. He climbed in back and in a thick German accent, asked to go to 11th Avenue and 39th Street. This was a deserted warehouse district at night. I jumped to the conclusion that I had a crazed Nazi in the back seat and started looking for a police cruiser, when in a deep voice, garbled by emotion, my passenger asked, “Is it getting big yet?”
I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw his intense eyes boring into mine as he asked more insistently, “Is it getting big yet?” His shoulders seemed to be pumping, and I adjusted the rear view mirror to get a full look at him. He was kneeling on the back seat, pants down around his ankles, jerking off. “Is it getting big yet?” he asked more and more urgently. We reached 39th Street before I found a cop, so I pulled over to the side and told him the fare. He was completely out of it, focused only on the urgent demands of whatever masturbatory fantasy he was going on. He wouldn’t budge. I finally got out of the cab, opened the back door and pulled him out. I climbed back into the driver’s seat, locked all the doors, and pulled away without my fare. I could see him in the rear view mirror, standing there, on the abandoned street, pants still around his ankles, looking betrayed. Sometimes everyone I picked up seemed to need help.
Three months into driving, I knew the city well and booked high. The 125th Street Cab Company gave me a brand new Checker, the last model ever made. It was a magnificent vehicle, built on the frame of a Chevy half ton pickup truck with a back seat that comfortably held five people, leaving an empty seat in front next to the driver and plenty of room in the luggage compartment for suitcases and gear. I was making a living wage, had my own apartment and a new girlfriend, introduced to me by Mimi and Ed. She was a beautiful professional singer of Medieval Madrigals and other church music, teamed up with two gay men in a musical group that couldn’t quite pay the bills. She had long, black hair, dark eyes that seemed romantically gypsy to me, with all the warmth and good sense of her working class Italian family. I had managed to land on my feet but I was not satisfied.
My new Checker was air-conditioned and cruising through the familiar streets of New York with or without a passenger in the late summer heat was not unpleasant, but I could have stayed in New Mexico as a member of the working class, living in a landscape I loved.
Ed was happily working class. I wanted work that I thought of as more satisfying, I wanted to have an impact, maybe even test myself against the giants, for whom I had so little respect. After Labor Day, when employers were back from summer vacation, I started a new round of appointments.