4. Ecclesiastes, old people, and the 2 rules of life…
One of the handicaps I have which keep me from being a very good taxi driver is that, like many native New Yorkers, I really don’t have a firm grasp of where the hell anything is in this city. On top of that, I have an inherently awful sense of direction. I suspect it's genetic. You could probably call me a geographical dyslexic (as well as a moral, spiritual, and philosophical dyslexic). Let me put it this way: at any given point along a journey, if given a choice between a right turn or a left turn, I can be sure of one thing—I’ll make the wrong turn. I defy even chance: I’m wrong virtually all the time. Fact is, I suspect the only reason I got this job, my one and only qualification, is that I can drive without a turban and that seemed to amuse Mr. Sammy, my sadistic anti-American Sikh boss.
Every night, as I peer out my windshield, trying to remember what comes first if you’re heading east, Madison or Park, I’m amazed how some guy just plopped down in the middle of this mess from a featureless desert in the remotest regions of Kurdistan, for instance, can find his way unerringly to York or Bond, while I’m still having trouble locating the Empire State Building in the same place from one night to the next. Of course, that might be because my Afghani counterpart has spent the last ten years studying terrorist maps of Manhattan in a desert cave. But that’s another story.
Idling at the light on 42nd and Broadway, the fare I’m ferrying towards Rockefeller Center via Port Authority is weakly tapping on the dividing glass between the front and back seats and saying something that sounds like she’s asking me if the hotel they are staying at allows ironing. It takes me a while to realize that the older of the two women, and they are both as old as the origin of dice, is saying something about the theater we are momentarily stuck in front of, the Ford, which has been showing The Lion King for what seems like centuries now, as if it’s the crowning achievement of Western theatrical art.
This is the street, 42nd, that was once famous as the sleaze strip of the world, the hangout of prostitutes and pushers, now the home of Mickey Mouse and Pikachu. This is what they used to call urban renewal, but what nowadays everyone recognizes as pathological denial.
I say something relatively neutral, like, “Yea, the Lion King.”
Then I bear down on a rival taxi, cut him off for no good reason, and lean on the horn, scaring a bunch of inebriated teenagers caught in the crosswalk, who recover just in a nick of time to give me the finger in unison, and beat on the hood of my cab with sloppy fists.
Welcome to the cultural capital of the world.
Believe it or not, I make a few more wrong turns, race blindly up this or that street, and I end up in front of Rockefeller Center almost by accident, flags of all nations flapping, ice-skating rink if this were winter, the golden statue of Mercury, messenger of the gods, all that.
“Rockefeller Center,” I announce, as amazed to see it sitting there as anyone.
The two old mummies climb out of the back seat in stages, unfolding themselves like those cheap plastic lounge chairs people use on the beach. I pull their improbably heavy tartan bags from the trunk, and even I’ve broken a sweat. Each bag feels like it’s packing a dozen bowling balls. How the hell are these decrepit fossils going to manage these bags, I’m wondering, with real disinterest.
I watch them as I soften up a wad of chewing gum, moving slowly down the broad walkway towards the golden Mercury, who has no message from God, or anyone. There’s really nowhere to go around here at this hour of the night. Did these two old dames really mean to stop here? They keep moving, dragging their luggage along behind them as if they were hiking up the side of a rocky ramble of snow and ice, an Everest of a sidewalk, but perfectly flat.
Old people, I’m thinking, when exactly does that happen to you? When is it official?
I’m thinking, at a certain point, what’s the point? I mean, of course, there’s never a point, but how obvious does it have to become? How hard does it have to be to put on your socks in the morning before you say, “Okay, that’s it, I’ve eaten enough waffles. I’ve looked at enough junk mail. I’m ready to die.”
Back in the cab, I head vaguely toward the upper east side, if that’s where Lincoln Center is considered to be, and what I’m doing, basically, is cruising for a guy in a tuxedo standing next to a woman in a black evening dress, one of those black evening dresses that have those two crisscross bandoliers in front to cover her expensively upgraded tits. I can picture it like I’m a fortuneteller. These two will be standing there, waiting for a cab, which I’m conveniently driving, to whisk them back to their luxury hotel after they’ve spent four hundred bucks for orchestra seats at a performance of Mozart or Puccini, someone like that. The guy will still have a money clip thick with money, plenty for the big tip he’ll peel off for yours truly, after he has me cruise through the park for an hour getting his money’s worth in the back seat from his silicon escort.
That’s the idea.
I go one for two, because there’s a guy, but he’s alone, not in a tux, but a very nice-looking Italian suit, good haircut, and shoes, that, as I see when he slides expertly into the back seat, look like they only walk on red carpets or the polished marble of high-class financial institutions.
I figure I know what he’s looking for at this time of night. But I ask anyway, “Where to?”
He says, “Town Hall.”
Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that. Right off, I know this is going to be a challenge. I have, to put the best face on it, only the fuzziest notion where Town Hall is, but I figure, as usual, I’ll head off in the general direction and ask some well-timed questions along the way. Glancing in the rearview, I’m thinking, this guy looks like a man-about-town. He looks like he knows where he’s going. I shouldn’t have trouble coaxing directions out of him. As it turns out, though, I needn’t have concerned myself with the whereabouts of Town Hall because we aren’t going there, anyway. He’d only been waiting for me to mosey aimlessly down some dark and desolate drive, like the one alongside the river I’ve just turned down, hopelessly lost, before he gets down to business.
“Make a left,” he says.
I’m surprised at first because even I know that Town Hall isn’t left of wherever it is we are.
“Are you sure?”
I look up and meet two of the hardest, coldest, most vacant eyes I’ve ever seen in my rearview. Looking into these eyes is like looking into a tunnel that’s heading straight to the end of the universe from which no light ever comes.
There is a little column of cold air passing through the base of my skull. It’s the track of the bullet I’m imagining will explode out of the gun he’s pointing at the back of my defenseless head if he decides to add just a few more ounces per square inch of pressure to the finger on the trigger, or we hit an unlucky pot hole, among other vagaries.
He says, “Oh, I’m sure.”
# # #
Earlier this evening, driving around through Tribeca, I saw this bit of graffiti splashed in paint the color of blood on the concrete wall of a defunct parking garage: Everything dies. Dare Everything.
Words to live by, straight-up, I remember thinking at the time. The first precept pretty much no one has any problem obeying. But the second? That takes some balls to pull off.
# # #
Ecclesiastes once said, there’s a time and a place for it all, and I’m sure hoping this isn’t the time and the place to have my brain blown out of my forehead. So, I say, as nonchalantly as one can when you think you may be seeing your next thought splashed messily on the inside of your windshield at any second, “So where am I going, anyway?”
He says, “Go to the tunnel.”
I’m guessing he means the Lincoln, because the Holland, even I know that must be clear across town.
I say, “I don’t really go out of the five boroughs.”
He says, “Tonight you do.”
The gun at the back of my head has done wonders for my navigational skills, it’s really cleared up priorities, no more daydreaming, I’m really focused; that gun has gotten me to pay attention to the here and now better than any course in Zen meditation or self-hypnosis, that, and the fact that from the back seat, this guy is telling me, in minutest detail, every single move to make: merge left, pass that van, slow down, use exact change, exit here.
“Can you tell me what this is about,” I ask about twenty minutes after we emerge on the Jersey side of the tunnel.
We’re driving along the turnpike and I’m looking at all the surrounding swampland and thinking how easy they made it to dump a body out here.
“No,” he says.
“If you want money, this really isn’t necessary.”
He says something, but not to me, and not in English, nor in any other language that I recognize, and a quick glance in the rearview confirms he’s not talking on a cellphone, unless it’s one of those subtle earpiece and wire jobs, only even more subtle and invisible than usual. I hope that’s what it is, because otherwise he might (it makes me queasy to even consider) very well be talking to an imaginary friend.
South, south, south, we go, the petrochemical plants dwindling away, IKEA in the rearview mirror, and the swamps opening up to marinas and green hills where the jeweled eyes of deer consider suicide by auto. I’m directed to take an exit just ahead and we’re soon driving up a road along the ocean, at least I think we’re by the ocean, there’s a big long wall of gray rocks to our right separating us from something black and immense, closed-down fish restaurants and boat yards on our right, and lots and lots of sand all over the place.
“Off here,” he says.
And I veer onto an access road, passed a big brown sign that announces we are entering the Gateway National Recreation Area. Part of the federal park service, the place is officially closed after sundown. But there are no barriers anywhere and we sail right through the booths usually manned by park service employees collecting admission fees, checking inspection stickers, forbidding this and that, monitoring everything. Where the hell is Big Brother now? Where is He, when you really need Him?
“Cut the lights,” the guy behind me says.
It’s eerie driving among the sand dunes in the moonlight, just me and this well-dressed guy in the back seat pointing a gun at my cerebellum. I’m hoping, now more than ever, for a bit of explanation. At the same time, I’m trying to figure out my odds of survival if I pull some kind of cop show antic. I’m trying to decide if I veer off the road and towards the side of a dune, jumping out of the moving car just before impact, what is the chance that I won’t end up breaking my neck? Are my odds better or worse if I just do what he tells me? If I do exactly what this guy says every step of the way and he still ends up turning my head into a broken bowl of gray pudding I’m going to really be pissed off: at him, at myself, at God, everything.
“Look,” I say, “I’ve really been pretty reasonable about all this. If you just tell me what you want…”
He says, “I want you to shut the fuck up and make that next right.”
Rude, I’m thinking. Is that really necessary? But then, that’s what a gun does for you: it finally lets you treat people the way you’ve always wanted to treat them. It lets you say whatever’s really on your mind without worrying about the consequences.
I’m not crazy about where we are now: a dark little winding road between midget pine trees and rolling dunes covered with scrub and no view longer than twenty-five feet in front or back. I’m trying to think of all the people who could want me dead and really there are precious few who give that much of a damn about me one way or another. Maybe there’s no one who could work up enough passion to have me killed. No one who even wants me dead? That’s really a bit sad, I’m thinking. What have I been doing with my life? Where have I gone wrong.
And so it goes.
Our first instinct is always to find meaning in a tragic situation. It’s human nature to try to make sense of things. And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m trying to find meaning in why I may be about to have my head blown off. What’s really terrifying to consider is that there is absolutely no meaning to it at all. All the jogging and racquet ball in the world and you still drop dead of a heart attack before you’re fifty. All those goddamn pounds of bran flakes in the morning and you end up with a tumor the size of a shrunken head in your rectum. I’ve got to face facts. There may be no meaning at all in my getting killed out here in the middle of nowhere. It may just be one of those things.
That’s what no one really wants to consider: that everything is mercilessly random and there isn’t a single goddamn thing you can do about any of it.
Any moment, now, I’m thinking, any moment now I’m going to make my move.
Yup, any moment.
Moments keep passing, and I keep following orders, and I’m still alive. Which is basically how we all live our lives, with or without a gun at the back of our head. Because let’s face it, there’s always a gun at the back of our head. And because I want to keep living, and since doing nothing is working so far, I continue to do nothing.
“Up ahead,” he says.
Squinting, I can see the road ends in a great big wall of blackness that turns out to be the sky above a dead-end dune of sand held back by a log barricade, all of it indicative of a parking spot for fishermen, stargazers, and hitmen. I’m tensing up for my big move, although what it’s going to be, I have no clue, but the first thing I do is turn off the ignition, and the sudden quiet is startlingly and sickeningly intimate, like a testicular exam. I’m getting the sense, though, that my kidnapper is not going to kill me, after all, at least not imminently, and I’m not exactly sure that I’m not just getting this sense because some sort of endorphins are flooding my brain to protect me from the certainty that he is, indeed, about to kill me. Brain chemistry, especially under these kinds of circumstances, is notoriously unreliable. I might be in shock: the kind of shock you see an antelope go into when it’s brought down by a tiger.
He says, “Get out.”
Right now, not a second later, I think, is the time to start running. The car is between us, the dunes along the impromptu parking lot are still about twenty yards of clear shooting space away, but it’s dark, he may be taken by surprise, maybe he’s not such a good shot, and even though I’m not lucky, I could get lucky tonight. But I don’t run, I don’t do a lot of things I probably should if you take things at face-value. I’m thinking something is up. I’m beginning to suspect there’s more to this than meets the eye. At least I’m hoping there is because if there isn’t, I’m done for. Basically what I’m doing is waiting to see what happens next.
“Move,” he says, indicating with the gun where I have to go to find out what happens next.
So with me in front and him with the gun trained between my shoulder blades, we are marching down the beach, through the soft sand, towards the ocean, which I start to see, at least the foam on the curling waves, the crash and roll and sizzle and all that, and I can make out the beginnings of a figure seated in a canvas folding chair. His legs are genteely crossed at the knee and he’s wearing a three-piece suit and a snap-brim hat, like a banker from the fifties, or an FBI agent from the same decade, and goddammit if he doesn’t appear to be sitting there in the moonlight, calmly and patiently fishing.
Coming soon: Junk food, fishing, & looking for nada