"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Diversity In The Back Seat Of A Taxi–A Social Metaphor But A Mess To Clean Up

I was a taxi driver in New York City a number of years ago – quite a few as a matter of fact in the raw 70s before the makeover, gentrification, and cleanup.  It was a nasty place in those permissive days.  Subway windows were blackened with graffiti, litter was everywhere, civility was down to a bare minimum, manners irrelevant and the idea of a commonweal absent.  

The city was permeable.  No high-end enclave was exempted from ghettoes, bums, or hooker trash. Solicitation, mugging, intimidation, vomit, shit, and garbage were everywhere.  Given the raggedness of the city, my happy Christmases at FAO Schwartz, Rockefeller Center, and Fifth Avenue – toys, graceful ice pirouettes, lights, and elegant women – could not possibly have ever happened except in dreamtime. New York had become a nightmare.

Everyone at one time or another takes a cab in New York, and the living for a young man, a cut of the take plus tips, was decent.  It didn’t take long to figure out the streets, the after-work crowd, the theatre district, uptown and downtown, the best way to the airports, the Village, or the Upper West Side.  There were no prescriptions, codes, or routes.   It was an independent enterprise with risk and gain.  The Off Duty light was turned off to avoid trips to Brooklyn or Harlem.  There were no cameras, no surveillance and the public, used to the insults of the city, never complained.

Image result for images ny taxis early 70s

For me, however, it was an unbeatable adventure.  After midnight, not only were the streets clear and uncrowded, but everything came out of the woodwork.  The scene was like La Coupole, the Parisian brasserie, the haunt of every spectacular, operatic queen; every hustler, every clown and every artist, anyone and everyone who wanted to see and be seen.  It was a European Andy Warhol Factory, a gender spectrum of the most outrageous, theatrical, and spectacular sexual show.  No one was what they seemed, everyone was someone else, a runway get up of misfits, fashionistas, and thieves.

Image result for images viva andy warhol factory

I searched out their haunts, cruised past the clubs, and trolled for the weird.  There were no plastic shields between driver and passenger, no police call button, no secure industrial locks, so this world was my turf, my territory.  

Few drivers wanted any part of it and chose to service the after-after dinner crowd, the workers and waitresses getting off the late shift or starting the early morning one. Theirs was  conventional commerce – honest, good passengers, and drivers who were in it for the money, the security, and the calm.  Not for those of us on social sabbatical, fugitives from Beacon Hill or Rittenhouse Square, escapees from good breeding.  We reveled in la nostalgie de la boue.

I lived in a small apartment in Little Italy, across from the Italian-American Social Club, one block from Café Luna, two from Ferrara’s, three from police headquarters, and five from the Bowery.  It was still an old Neapolitan neighborhood, protected by the mafia, kept Italian through Tammany Hall whose politicians were paid enough to keep the Chinese in Chinatown, and still served by butchers, grocers, and pastry shops. It was a civil place, a traditional place, and although far from picket fences and white steeples, familiar enough in its Catholicism, cooking, and spirit that I felt, if not at home, at least close to it. 

Image result for images mafia social clubs little italy 70s

It remained a secure place in a bad city, an enclave not very American in habit but in principle. 

For all the theatre of the other New York, diversity had its dark side.  I was the one to clean up the puke, the come, the needles, the condoms, and the shit from the back seat of my cab.  There was no criteria for entry, no rules of behavior, no right of passage; and those who were responsible for the disgusting, foul leavings of the back seat tipped well.  There was a tacit understanding between driver and client, both working class, a sense of fairness, value, and respect.  Clean up at five in the morning before the daytime drivers were to report was still a gross, disgusting job; but I never held it against my fares.

There are certain things in American life which, more than the hectoring and preaching of the progressive Left, encourage 'diversity' and tolerance.  One is the Angola maximum security federal penitentiary in Louisiana, a no-exit place for society’s worst elements – multiple murderers and child rapists, in for the most heinous of crimes, irremediable, and locked away for good, mainly in solitary for their life sentences.   

Angola is a place where traditional morality does not exist.  An inverted code of conduct has replaced it.  A prison murder cannot add years to a life sentence in solitary, and given the code of ‘fang and club’ a perverse twisting of ‘Do unto others’, an amoral bit of hateful, vengeful, survivalist authority, the prison was human nature exposed as its most raw, vile, and intemperate.

In Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz realizes just before dying that not only are the pagan savages of the jungle primitive and insatiably bloody, all human beings have the same capacity.  When he says, ‘The horror…the horror’, he sees clearly the universal savagery of human nature.  Conrad would not be surprised by Angola prison.

Image result for images heart of darkness

If we all are savages, there is more room for tolerance than if only a few of us are.

Everywhere, in very corner of America, unspeakable acts occur, some of which are of intolerable cruelty, but most of which are merely the crude, often violent, but always perversely unusual acts of frustration, insecurity, or dismay.  Sherwood Anderson was perhaps the best known fictional chronicler of all this.  Winesburg, Ohio is a book of misfits, weird, obsessive characters with no hope of normality and only seeking some kind of solace, refuge, or just recognition.  Flannery O’Connor in many ways is Anderson’s heir, for most of her short stories are about impossibly deviated behavior.  If one twisted, tormented, frustrated person exists, then we all could be like him.  He is not the other, but ‘one of us’, the famous line of the movie Freaks.

In the back seat of my taxi every possible sexual act occurred – a side show of every combination and permutation of gender copulating as men, women, or combinations of both.  There was never any violence, so obsessively 'diverse' was the sex.  This was not the time or place for slapping or abuse.  It was a time to do things that both wanted, that needed space, and felt good.

I never made much of disaggregating or categorizing in those days.  Identity was a thing of the future, and only incidental to the sexual variations enjoyed in my back seat.  I still care little for pigeonholing sexual preferences.  As a cabbie, even had I taken a good look in the back seat, I would have been unable to disassemble anything, or decide what was what.  There was sex, good sex, and apparently limitless sex which might or might not continue after the cab ride, but which would certainly happen again.

I never knew if I had any repeat customers.  New York is too big a place to have any of the same people flag me down; and in all the tangle of clothes and undress, I never got a look at faces.  After a while, life in my back seat became the new normal; and as long as I drove in the middle of the night the scene in the back seat would continue to repeat itself.  The side show in my cab was no different than the Park Avenue matrons, Wall Street financiers, midtown real estate moguls, or Broadway out-of-towners in uptown cruising cabs because for all its diversity and inclusivity all became routine after a while; which is why I eventually left hacking and New York, and went back to New England.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.