once the firing squad in my head was quiet. The result of three
hours of solid sleep and no hangover. It was 5:30 AM. Just dawn.
The long subway ride from mid-town to my taxi garage in the South
Bronx had been made easier by revisiting a thin volume of e.e. cummings'
It was mid-July in Manhattan, already
seventy-five degrees at street level. By six o'clock that night
I would lose another five to seven pounds of sweat. Ten or eleven
hours on the seat grinding out a living in the boiling New York
heat in an un air-conditioned fucking cab.
I picked up my trip sheet and found
#371 parked in the sea of yellow in the lot next to the taxi dispatch
office. For once, the inside of the rear passenger area was fairly
clean. Only a handful of cigarette butts and a crumpled McDonald's
Hamburger bag. Whoever had driven the cab the night before had had
a slow night.
Rolling all the windows down, I started
the car. So far so good. No clunking in the engine or screeching
fan belt noises. I checked the radiator and the oil dipstick. They
were both okay. Inside the cab behind the wheel, my next order of
business was to copy the odometer mileage on the top of my trip
sheet in the slot provided. I read the numbers off the dash and
transposed them to the red box on the card: 184,261. #371 had been
a new Dodge taxi thirteen months ago. These days it gasped and wheezed
and regularly overheated twice a week.
It was now fully daylight. The blazing
orange fireball in the east was working its way up between the tenements
across the East River in Long Island City. My boom box was on the
seat next to me beside my poetry notebook and my cummings volume.
I clicked the "on" button then dialed to the "all news"
station to get the day's forecasts: 90-93 degrees and humid. Another
seven pounds of sweat. Forcing #371's gear shift down into "D,"
I punched the gas pedal.
In ten minutes I was down The Bronx's
Grand Concourse and across the Madison Avenue Bridge into Harlem
on my way to mid-town where the fast money is. My two daily steadies,
both Wall Street guys, weren't due for their pick ups until after
eight o'clock so I was in the hunt for my first fare. With no one
hailing me, at 96th Street, I turned east toward Lexington Avenue.
That's when I saw her.
Being a New York City cabby requires
a highly-tuned sense of danger. Vibes and street smarts are everything.
After five years on the seat, after being held up and knifed, I
was no exception. The woman on the curb looked okay. No problem.
In her late twenties, Latin or European, lipsticked, and dressed
in a maroon warm-up outfit. Her died-blond hair was combed straight
back and tied with a ribbon. But there was something else as she
got in and recited her destination. It may have been her smile,
or the way she said the words with the trace of a Puerto Rican accent.
Something genuine and open. Special. Different. For me, a guy always
on his guard against people, a guy who spent his days and nights
alone as much as possible, drinking and reading and typing, or just
drinking, it felt like walking into a flower shop for the first
I make it an imperative to say as
little as possible to passengers, but a conversation started anyway.
The name tag on her jacket spelled out Leslee. I learned
that she was a massage therapist at BLOW UP, a high-rent gym on
57th Street, and a college dropout art major. Born and raised in
When we got to 57th and she paid her
fare, her smile filled the back of my cab. "Thanks," she
said, swinging the door open; "jou're a nice guy, Bruno. Hab
a wonda-ful gooo day. I mean it." "Ditto," my inarticulate
idiot mouth replied. "You too." Then she was gone.
As it turned out, the next day was
a repeat of the first, only ten minutes later in the morning. I
had gotten a slow start because #371 needed a gallon of radiator
coolant. On my way down 5th Avenue, after no one hailed me, I again
turned left at 96th Street. There was Leslee. This time she looked
rushed. But the smile was there like the sweet blast of air conditioning.
"Hi Bruno," she said, in her wispy Puerto Rican accent,
remembering my name. "Wha a nice surprise. Goo to zee jou?"
I nodded and tried on my best to return the smile.
"Can we hurry. I'm late. I been
burnin' my cannle ah bot ends."
This time my unsophisticated yap did
better. A hip, literary answer, courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Mallay
herself. "Oh," says I, quoting: "Your candle
burns at both endsÖit will not last the nightÖBut ah, your
foes, and oh, your friends, it gives a lovely light."
Her smile back said it all.
So that was the beginning.
Leslee's fist massage client of the
day would be an intense Madison Avenue CEO who arrived at 6:15 sharp
every morning. A hundred bucks plus tip. She wanted to know if I
would be willing to pick her up on a daily basis so she wouldn't
have to worry about being late for the guy and finding a cab so
early in the morning? "Okay. Sure. No problem," said my
glib mouth. "That'd be fine. I'd like that." So that's
how it started. That first, deep penetration of the ice pick.
I began to open up to her. In the
beginning it was tough for me, this sudden, clumsy candidness. But
by week's end, after a coffee date in our free time, and a couple
of endless phone conversations about who and how rich her massage
clients were, and her wanting to see my poetry and me viewing two
books of her drawings, eventually, rebelling against my own prescribed
isolation, weary of vodka and porno videos and my seething, genocidal
thoughts, I convinced myself that I might somehow be starting to
care about somebody else.
Then, on Friday, a clammy, drizzling
New York morning, as I was dropping Leslee off, she leaned forward
across the back of my seat to pay, as usual, and I got a surprise.
A kiss. A firm, determined tongue forced itself between my lips
then withdrew quickly. "I been wantin' to do tha all week,"
she breathed. "Me too," my throat croaked.
Then came the time, the only time
as it turned out, that we made it. It was in my cab. That too was
another ad-lib surprise. I had picked her up from work at five o'clock
and we were heading north on 3rd Avenue in the heavy rush-hour traffic.
"Hey," she whispered, "jou wana see somethin'? I
been keeping it cool for jou?"
At the next red light I turned and
looked back over the seat. My passenger was naked in the bumper
to bumper traffic. Shaved pink crotch. Legs apart, wearing only
her beaming, million-peso grin.
I should have known. The flashing
orange caution light going off in my brain was delivering a sweaty
message: THIS IS ALL TOO EASYÖSOMETHING'S WRONGÖ But, in truth,
in hindsight, I know I was lost. Nothing else but that wondrous
thing resting itself lovingly on the vinyl of my back seat mattered.
I had never gotten-it-on with anyone in a cab in open daylight before.
Between parked cars.
It was the following Monday that I
had my first visitation. A redness between my legs. An itching.
A blotch in my pubic hair that by the end of the day became a coin-sized
When I mentioned my problem to Leslee
on our ride downtown the next day, her response was blasé.
No big deal. Whatever it was would go away. Then the smile. The
no prisoners - gimme all your cash and credit cards - I love you
forever - smile.
By the following morning my herpes
sore was in full blossom, oozing and burning like mad. My taxi company's
HMO witchdoctor took one look and diagnosed it immediately. Along
with his free medical opinion came a stern unsolicited warning to
ease up on the booze, a flash of brilliance I'd put together for
myself years earlier.
Leslee denied everything then unaccountably
By the end of the week when none of
my phone calls were returned, and she was no longer on the corner
of 96th Street in the morning, I took matters into my own hands,
stopping by her gym after parking #371 in a hotel hack stand five
The desk guy at BLOW UP eyed me up
and down as I walked in. He was muscular, smiling, stupid, and unhelpful.
I was a slob. He buzzed into the massage area on the intercom. After
hanging up his George Clooney charm was gone. He announced dryly
that Leslee was "occupied" with a client. I said I had
all day. I would wait.
So, for the next hour, I sat in one
of the expensive gray leather chairs outside the spa area keeping
my eyes on the little window in the massage room door. Finally,
another guy in a towel sat down next to me.
"Who you waiting for?" he
whispered. "Which girl?"
"Leslee," I said back. "Hey,
me too. Jesus! Shit! Maybe she double-booked herself!"
"I don't have an appointment,"
His eyes narrowed, then he snickered.
"Well," he whispered, "you
should sign up and get in line. "You won't be sorry. For an
extra fifty she'll give you the whole deal, the total-body massage.
And, for fifty more, what do you think you get?"
"I already know," I said.