Monthly Archives: November 2012

Driving into the Line of Fire

HOW I SAVED MY LIFE FROM ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH

Driving through the dense mist, I pulled to the curb in front of a Carroll’s Pub on Bell Boulevard in Bayside, NY. The wind picked up and the drizzle became a squall as the late Frankie Lyman’s sepulchral, heroin-stained voice cried from my Ford LTD’s raspy speakers. The pub door flew open at last and an umbrella, wriggling as if it had a nervous system, thrust through the heavy rainfall

 Behind what appeared like a rapier, I saw Pat, a regular, parrying and thrusting with the blade of her umbrella stumbling headfirst toward my cab. Whack! Pat’s head hit the door frame with such intensity I winced from the heavy thud of bone on the unforgiving steel. I watched her distorted face–upper and lower lips compressed against the car’s window like a mutant snail contorted into an absurd clownish look as it left a trail of her crimson lipstick on the glass–as Pat’s lips slid down the window, and Pat struck the sidewalk. On her feet, before I could assist her, I held the door as she plopped into the passenger seat. With her dentures slipping, she asked, “Do you wanna get laid?”

I heard her say, “Do you wanna get paid?”

Her muddled comment registered while I stared at Pat’s lacquered hairdo. Dyed coal-black, it seemed as if her hairstylist had constructed it out by welding black wire hangers together into a hair sculpture. She asked if it was raining as the mist had become a deluge as if the water had become a solid pane of glass. The water clogged the four sewers on that corner and created a wave that curled across the street, the Beach Boys would have immortalized in a lyrical homage. With the surprising speed of a cobra, well, albeit a sedated one, her hand, flashing iridescent red acrylic nail spikes, landed in my crotch. She again asked if was raining as the rain and wind pummeling the white LTD seemed to move the car and the downpour was tantamount to a Malaysian monsoon.

Sweetie, can I be a bad girl?” Pat asked. Her wig now fell forward, dangling from a single pin, and her head nailed my crotch.

Politely, I told Pat it was busy and she could be a “bad girl” some other night. She lifted her head, her eyes jerked back and forth, and her head toppled forward again into my crotch hard enough for me to consider wearing a protective cup. Her destination was the Tip. The Tipperary Lounge in Flushing. We arrived at the Tip and Pat looked up from my crotch and asked, “You wanna get laid?”

   “Some other time, Pat, it’s busy.”

She struggled to lift her head but banged it on the steering wheel, and her dangling wig, without her knowing it came loose and hit the floor. She poked me in my head with her umbrella. Pat lay on her back draped across the seat, her legs flailing away like a giant turtle, and she grabbed the dashboard in desperation but gravity helped her from my lap and the seat to the floor. She emitted an eardrum-bursting, emphysema-strangled wail. Screaming for assistance, her arms and legs flailed about. I opened my door and stood in the street for leverage, lifting her under her shoulders, I dragged her out through my door.

 She hadn’t realized that her wig was on the floor. Fastened with pins, her hair was a roll of matted curls. When she reached to straighten her wig, her shriek all but cracked the window before I returned the wig to her and she placed it on somewhat sideways like the way young boys wear baseball caps. For my trouble, she offered me one last shot at “bumping uglies.” She gave me a fin for my trouble and grunted, “Fuck yourself.” I watched her stumble toward the “Tip.” A man exited and Pat asked him, “Wanna get laid?”

 A comment that irritated his female companion and they exchanged raised middle fingers before I pulled away the curb, headed for my next call.

I had a fever and as I drove to my next destination, I took two Tylenol and parked in front of an apartment house. I ran into the lobby and rang the customer’s buzzer. She informed me she’ll be right out, she’s another regular and “Right out” means I have time to eat a slice of pizza, read The Odyssey, and lean how to perform open heart surgery.

  At last, The Lady in Black sat beside me but with a look on her face that suggested abject terror. She told me about her son, Sandy, and how what happened to him wasn’t his fault.

 “They went into him,” she said.

   Is she a paranoid schizophrenic slouching toward dementia or suffering from alcohol-induced wet brain? She struggled through her pockets, as it was a straitjacket, and found her matches. With her tottering hand, with nails as long as baby’s spoons she lit her cigarette. She stared at me. The Lady in Black smelled like a handful of candy.

 “I’ll never forget your face,” she said. “Do you know what day it is? Good Friday. You know, don’t you?”

Yes.”

 “You’re him aren’t you?”

  “Yes.” Convinced I was God’s son. We drove to the nearest 7-Eleven for beer and cigarettes and a return to her building.

  “Is it two or three?” She waits for my response. “It’s three, isn’t it?”

  “Yes. How did you know?”

  “Thank you. I just knew.”

 I parked in front of her apartment, waiting for her to pay me. Tears dribble down her cheeks while she squeezed my hand. She thought she was going to die. 

 “How much?” she asked, “A month, two months? You know, don’t you?”

 “You have at least twenty years, probably more.”

   “My God! You’ve given me room to breathe.”

 Her hands searched my face as if she was applying the finishing touches on a sculpture, “I’ll never forget your face. You’re God, aren’t you?”

Yes.”

Sighing,she kissed my hand, produced nine crumpled singles, and squeezed them into my palm. After eight hours of driving and breathing carbon monoxide, my double vision neatly folds the curtain of night. A soft wind combines with the image and I follow my fatigued eyes toward the black door sill of the horizon.

It’s one am., the radio is crackling and the sadist who was dispatching that night had barely enough time to distribute the calls. Behind the open mike, I heard the screeching of telephones and the breathless patter of drivers, stating their locations and driving toward their customers at a rate approaching the speed of sound. All of us choked up by the frenetic rush, all of us blinded by the sound, the delicious jingle of money. Then the dispatcher summoned me to the base for a call.

 I parked the white, Ford LTD on the gravel driveway A man in his early twenties dashes from the office and climbs into the backseat. He speaks with a deep voice, “113th and Roosevelt.”

Trouble. The address was near the Candy Box, which means he’s looking for crack.

Waiting long?” I asked, backing the car into the street.

Twenty minutes, a half hour.”

The cab I drove had no interior lights. In the darkness, my passenger leaned in the corner as if hung on a hook, enabling me just to see his eyes pierce the shadow in the rear-view. Then, breaking eye contact, he slumped in the middle of the seat as if a hammock.

“So how are you tonight?” I asked.

“Tired.”

“How come?”

 “Drinking.”

 My intoxicated passenger and I were headed toward a place that sold coke like chocolate ices, and that meant, based on a priori knowledge, he was going to rob, and perhaps shot me in the back of the head.This occurred during the height of the crack epidemic and forty or more livery drivers were murdered for four years in succession.

How the fuck can I get out of this alive? My passenger’s demeanor his closed posture, signal a sense of menace and danger alerting any experienced driver. Without Plexiglas, my passenger could use my unprotected skull to play croquet if he was so inclined.

Contrary to what most people think, the most dangerous job in the city, is not a golf caddy, or a cop, but driving a cab. From 1985 to 1989 on average,  more than forty livery drivers have gotten murdered, or assassinated, each year, and as one detective told me, that made driving a cab eight times more dangerous than fighting fires, being a cop, working at an all-night convenience store, or eating sushi.

While I’m driving, the former national spelling bee champ in the back, can open my skull at his leisure. I think back to my college animal behavior classes for a possible solution to my current predicament.

My opening gambit: “I’m feeling tired myself. Bad cold. I guess you can tell?”

My strategy is to emphasize our similarities. By doing so I will, according to ethologists, reduce what they call mutual repulsion.

A mugger’s translation of mutual repulsion: “I need product–coke, heroin, etc, and the asshole driving has bread. I might as well kill him because they’ll never catch me. If they do happen to catch me, say before Diana Ross eats her next meal– I’ll cop a plea and finger my connection.”

He grunted answers to my questions, and I watched the top of his head drop from the rectangle of the rear-view as he slumped farther into the seat. I feel a chill, owing more to my insensate companion than the onslaught of my flu. The images floating before me varied between Edvard Munch’s The Scream!  I imagined my body slumped over the steering wheel while the horn blared.

He caught me looking at him in the mirror and again he broke eye contact. The junkie’s eyes switched back and forth like a metronome. Since I have been able to look into his eyes, it’s a good sign. The car– it seemed a cage to me then–swerved around the curves of the Grand Central, down the ramp and into the dark heart of one of the most drug-ravaged neighborhoods in the five boroughs.

  Restrained by the responsibilities of my job, and the mores of society. I slipped into a mode of calculated helplessness, trying to forge a human connection from the nexus of our combined anxiety. As we approached his goal, his agitation increased, and I had to defuse the pipe-bomb of his drug withdrawal angst, or I was among the forty plus drivers killed that year.

One-thirteen and Roosevelt. Right near the Candy Box.”

 “Right.”

I must have done about a dozen drug runs between Bayside and the Candy Box. You looking for some product?”

  As I spoke, my companion leaned forward, close enough for his elbow to touch my shoulder. I felt the heat from his body, smelled the rank odor of fear emanating from his sweat glands.

Everyone gets ‘product there.’ He dribbled the words out and slumped back into the darkness of his seat, re-establishing an antagonistic posture. But I had made progress. He knows that we have a similar lineage. He grunted again, and his lethargic snort was less than enthusiastic enough to diminish our mutual repulsion. I needed him to snarl, implying “When I first got into the car, I hated you, but now I see you in an entirely different light. We’re obviously members of the same species, and, instead of hostility, I feel rather tender toward you my good buddy. People think I enjoy shooting helpless men in the back of the head. Most of the time it’s just something people have come to expect. That’s a lot of pressure. Anyway, I don’t really enjoy it. Well, you caught me there. I love it, but I’m willing to change because we bonded.”

Get in the left lane!” He snapped. As the timbre of his voice registered his increased apprehension, my fear made me giddy.

  “Make a left!”

  “Relax, you’ll get your product.”

I had to match his antagonism and gain some control. His agitation was severe and escalating. I believed he was the man responsible for a rash of executions in Queens, and he was on the verge of exploding. Under no circumstances should a driver, or anyone staring into the eyes of danger and apparent helplessness, give in to their fear. If you can remain calm, the thug might respect you.

In the mirror, I watched him shift to the far corner of the cab. Now sitting up, his spine rigid, and he’s as motionless as though dangling on a hook. I began hyperventilating but used all the discipline I had to control my ascending fear.

On command, I made the left on 37th Ave. in Corona. A Continental rushed at us in reverse at about sixty miles an hour. I stomped on the brakes and checked the rear-view, as he shifted for his gun in his windbreaker, I thought it was a .22 automatic, he switched from his right hand to his left, and I needed to look into his eyes because without face-to-face contact, I suspected he would shoot me. On the Moluccas Islands, a head hunter kills his enemy only from behind. If he looks into his eyes of his victim before killing him, it’s considered murder.

 “Park under the trees in front of that apartment house!” He was nervous, and his voice reverberated with a metallic twang.

 Night’s embrace, a noose, encircles my throat as I stopped beneath an awning of branches and in the dark. Then I feel the hard barrel of the gun nuzzling against my skull. Aimed at my brain stem, he forces the warm metal into my neck driving my head forward into a humiliating posture. A .22 caliber automatic is the hit-man’s gun of choice for in-your-face intimate jobs. The .22 rattles around your brain like a rat after some cheese in a maze. I was just getting back into shape. The thought of eighteen years of jogging, doing calisthenics, skimping on desert, ice cream and meat, hoping to live to one hundred, only for an agitated junkie to turn my head into a jack-o-lantern pissed me off.

Give me your wallet.”

I struggled with my wallet and heard the jingle of my cardiovascular system pulsating in my ears.

 He barked, “Is that all of it? Muda-fucka, I usually hurt people.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him rifle through my wallet. He tossed it on the seat and my wallet landed like a bird with a broken neck and spread wings.

 “Let’s have it,” he said. “All of it! You wouldn’t do anything stupid for your company’s money.”

There was a handful of loose change in my right pocket that I might need in an emergency as if this was anything less. In the obscene quiet and freeze-frame of my dissociation, I imagined he heard the coins scratch each other. 

Turning slightly to the right, the gun tracked me, and I handed the coins to him, and stared into his eyes. By doing that I was taking a risk, but I knew the only way to save my life was to continue establishing our ancestry, making it much more difficult for him to murder me. The stench of fear suffused our cell. Good. The junkie’s scared, too.

 He leaned over the seat, with the gun in his left hand; I saw his profile. The new tone of his voice reflected his dominance. As he leaned on the seat, I could smell his fear. Aware of the relative peace and quiet surrounding my death cell, I wondered what his agenda was? Was he going to execute me? Did he seek punishment for some imagined or real transgression? Driven by fear, or perhaps latent homosexual tendencies, did he want to go to jail. Or was this just a means of getting money for drugs?

With my head bowed–a rat kills from behind by biting through its prey’s neck–I heard him count each bill, sliding them back and forth in the dim light from a street lamp. I’m confused as if I observed the unfolding drama from a distance, and I looked out at the Grand Central in the foreground and the lights on Shea Stadium in the distance, I really didn’t want to die. I imagined the headline: CAB DRIVER’S HEAD SPLATTERED ON THE WINDSHIELD LIKE A JACKSON POLLACK KNOCK OFF. The coroner’s autopsy report reveals enormous unblocked arteries like the autobahn. I DON’T WANT TO DIE!

He had finished counting the money and said, “Not bad. Not bad at all. Now… I’m getting out and I want you to drive away very slowly or else.”

I heard the door slam and I engaged the transmission and allowed the car to roll slowly beneath the canopy of branches. Rolled slowly waiting to hear the shot, rolling, and still alive, I picked up the microphone and called the dispatcher. “Car 42 is light, very light, I was just robbed.”

I have little doubt that had I not engaged him in a conversation, had I not looked directly into his eyes, and had I panicked, I would not have lived to write this story. If possible, if you can do so, please try to make it more difficult for a mugger to shoot you by proving that we are all descended from the same progenitor and we each represent billions of variants from the same ancestors.

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