As I left off on my last entry; Taxi Driver; Ladies of the Night, I had decided to keep this part time job just a while longer. As crazy as it sounds, my brief encounter with the two prostitutes had restored a bit of the optimism I had when I first started this job. The incident with the well respected, wealthy and powerful business man ( Taxi Driver) had deflated me, embarrassed me and made me want to quit. A short ride across town with two “hookers” had restored my hope….. odd, eh?
Anyway, I found myself working the early shift one Sunday morning. The weather had changed and it was a beautiful , crisp morning in New York. Why I decided to work on that Sunday escapes me now, as Sunday, especially early on Sunday, was not a very productive time to secure good fares.
Nevertheless, after attending 9 AM Mass, I traveled to the garage , secured my cab and took to the streets. There were not many people out and about yet and, especially for New York, the streets seemed fairly deserted. I drove around with no real destination in mind, enjoying the beautiful morning and sipping coffee. I passed a few lone pedestrians walking to unknown destinations. Johnny Cash’s version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” came to mind. Early Sundays mornings in the city always brought this song to mind, but it echoed loudly in my mind this particular morning.
After a while of my aimless meandering around the streets, I decided to make my way to Grand Central Station to see if I could perhaps pick up a decent fare from someone coming into the city to enjoy the day; perhaps going to Central Park or attending a matinee on Broadway.
As always , there was a decent line of cabs waiting outside of the train station to pick up embarking commuters. I pulled into line and determined there were about 10-12 cabs in front of me. Normally a line of 10-12 cabs moved very quickly at Grand Central, but being Sunday morning, it took almost 25 minutes for me to reach the front and secure a passenger.
He walked up to my cab, smiled and jumped in the back seat. I guessed he was in his mid-thirties, an age that I thought was pretty close to ancient at that point of my life. He had thick brown hair and looked to being good shape. He wore a Navy Pea coat ( very popular then) over a soft looking flannel shirt. The jeans he had on looked well broken in and they went well with the hiking boots he wore. He carried no luggage other than a small, leather shoulder bag. His face was pleasant and his voice soothing.
“Let’s head to Poughkeepsie “ he stated calmly.
“ Poughkeepsie?” I thought to myself, “that’s almost 95 miles upstate… probably a two hour drive. The Taxi fare would be over $100.00”
There were ways for me to handle this that were not unusual. I could simply turn off the meter ( so the company would not know I was driving a fare and charge a flat rate), but that was clearly against policy, and I didn’t need to get fired for theft … it wouldn’t sit well at home). I could also just say nothing , turn on the meter and start driving . Perhaps this guy had no clue as to what a fare would be to Poughkeepsie. I decided to be upfront and I turned around to face him;
“Umm, Yes sir…. but do you realize that we are talking almost 90 miles , one way? that could be close to $100.00, one way…. same thing coming back … you’re looking at over $200.00 cab fare.”
He didn’t blink an eye, just smiled gently and said;
“Thanks for letting me know… that’s nice of you… but, I’m aware of the distance”.
I wanted to double check and give him another option or two.
“Ok, I said….”but you could actually rent a car cheaper or even hire a private driver “.
I had turned around again to face my steering wheel, so looked for his response in the rear view mirror.
Again, a soft smile and calm words.
“ Yep, I know that. I would like to do it this way, but thanks again”.
By now , the cabs behind me were starting to honk their horns to get me moving and out of the line.
I glanced at his face one more time, shrugged and moved out into the flow of traffic.
City Traffic was relatively light this morning, allowing me to get to the FDR parkway pretty easily. The FDR was light as well, so I made it to the Willis Ave Bridge and crossed the Harlem River pretty quickly. I was careful to use my trusty fold out map, as I was unsure of the best route to take.However, my passenger seemed to be in no rush . He sat back gazing out the window at the passing city sites. I did try to engage in some small talk; “ You going to be in the City long”? “You have family in Poughkeepsie?”…” Are you originally from the City?”, but his answers were very short and vague; “ No, I’m leaving right after this visit”, “Nope”, “Yea, I was born here”.
That was it, no expansion of the conversation, no other details. He didn’t even tell me his name after I had introduced myself. It was very apparent that he wanted to be left alone so I ceased trying to have conversation. The map took us to the Major Deegan Expressway to the Taconic State Parkway. I had fond memories of the Taconic State Parkway , as that was the route we always took when I was a kid for our family gatherings at my Aunt Mildreds and Uncle Santinos’ house in Connecticut for a long Thanksgiving weekend. How I remembered the excitement and anticipation of those drives! It felt very different today. Driving a Taxi, in college, thinking about potential careers. For a moment, I felt myself “missing” being that kid in the far backseat of my Aunts station wagon.
Since my passenger was content with silence I enjoyed the leisurely ride. The Taconic is a beautiful route and the hills and trees that bordered the road were a nice change from the hectic and busy concrete streets of the City.
From time to time I glanced at the rear view mirror at my passenger. He appeared to be lost in his own memories. He clutched his small bag close to him as he gazed out the window at the lovely landscape . Whatever he was thinking about had him fully engrossed .
As we finally neared Poughkeepsie, I asked him if he could direct me to his destination as I did not know the town at all. He snapped out of his private thoughts and looked out the front window of the cab.
“yea,” he said, “Take the next exit and I’ll direct you from there.”
I nodded my assent and took the next exit. The outskirts of Poughkeepsie are very rural;country homes, farmland, etc, and the exit we took put us on a narrow county road. On either side were large open spaces of land , mostly farmland . We stayed on this particular winding road for about three miles. Not a word was spoken other than my passengers direction to “ just stay on this road”. When we came to a slight fork in the road he told me to stay to the right.Since exiting the highway,I had not passed nor seen another vehicle.While I was enjoying the beautiful scenery, I was also very curious as to our final destination, but didn’t utter a word.
After taking the slight right turn we drove for about a quarter of a mike when my passenger said:
“ Here we are… pull over anywhere near that fence.
On my right was a worn and clearly old wooden fence, something like you would see in an old cowboy movie. Beyond the fence was an open field, a few cows leisurely grazing . In the distance was an old, single story home…. it had clearly seen better days. I pulled over to the fence and as he got out of the cab, said;
“Keep the meter running, I won’t be too long.”
I didn’t say a word,my curiosity building. He got out of the cab and slowly walked to the old, beat-up fence. He stopped there , planted one foot on the lower portion of the fence and just gazed at the field and the old house. I watched him from my cab, wondering what was going on. A few of the cows ambled a bit closer, probably also curious about the stranger.He remained gazing at the field for at least 20 minutes . He then slowly opened his small bag and pulled out what appeared to be a photograph. ( Remember, this was well before cell phones with cameras). He started at the photo a few minutes and then returned his gaze to the house and field. I so wanted to get out of the cab and walk up to him and ask if all was ok, but I knew that would not be the right thing to do. After another 15 minutes or so of gazing at the photo and then the field and house, he appeared to give a deep sigh and returned the photo to his bag. He took one more long , deep look around before slowly walking back to the taxi. I quickly whipped out a newspaper , trying to appear uninterested in the scene I had just witnessed. Somehow, I knew it needed to be an “alone moment” for him. He got back in the backseat and simple said; “ Ok, let’s head back to Grand Central Station.As he settled in, I turned to face him and said ; “ Yes, sir …on the way”
I could not help but notice that his eyes were moist.
I badly wanted ask so many things! …Things that were none of my business .
Naturally , my mind played out all kinds of scenarios in my mind. Perhaps this was a childhood home, full of wonderful memories, but now relegated to the distant past. Perhaps his parents had died here? Or maybe this was the home of a long lost love? The girl of his dreams that never became his. Was that photo a shot of her? or perhaps his patents? Was it a photo of him as a child playing with his brothers in that field. A brother who had died in the horrible war in Vietnam? Of course, all my speculation and guessing was just that ; speculation. I wanted to know, but that was clearly not going to happen.
The only words we spoke the entire way back was a quick question I asked him.
“Would you like me to stop for a cup of coffee or anything?”
He said that would be nice and I pulled into a rest stop to grab a couple of cups. I jumped out of the cab quickly to buy them, while he insisted he pay,
I told him no way was he paying for a cup of coffee on this very expensive ride. His smile seemed sad as I handed him the coffee.
That was it…. no other words until I pulled back up to the front entrance of Grand Central. The bustling around the station was in sharp contrast to the strange calm and silence of the field in Poughkeepsie. He paid the very high fare and gave me a nice tip. He got out, and looked at me through the passenger side window. He looked me straight in the eyes and simply stated.
“Thank you…. I mean it….. Thank you very much”
Then, we was gone.
I found myself staring at the station entrance as he disappeared behind the large doors. Why had he so earnestly thanked me? For not bothering him?, for respecting his private time? I will never know.
Over the years I wondered many times about that strange trip to Poughkeepsie . I wondered about that field and that house… who lived there? what about the photo? who was in that picture?
it’s a been long , long time since that day. If my estimate of his age at the time was correct, the mystery man would be close to 85 today.. assuming he is still alive. From time to time ,I still wonder……
I hope his life was happy. If those were sad tears I saw in his eyes that day, I hope they dried up long ago…If they were happy tears… I hope they lasted a lifetime.
You meet interesting people driving a taxi cab in New York…. very interesting.