The dog day 1981 Philly air had that sexy, crapulous swamp-tang to it that anyone who has sweated through a summer there either loves or hates. I’d arrived from the Midwest but a few weeks earlier, and I loved it. As it happened, I was wadded into a ball in the back seat of a cab like a sweaty mash note, jib to the wind, headed toward the Curtis Institute, immersed in a winsome bagatelle about composing music with the driver.
“I hear music in my head,” he said.
“Me, too,” I replied.
His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.
“But I feel it, first,” I said.
He twisted the knob on the radio in the dashboard and the Vivaldi that had been purling from the speakers like the sound of fat bumblebees mixed with an old Singer sewing machine melded into the sound of traffic.
“On MTV I heard Eric Clapton say, ‘I feel it, I put my hands on the guitar, and I play how I feel’,” he said, skeptically. “Is it like that for you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But for me it’s like there’s static between my heart and my brain and I need to get better at notating what I’m feeling to eliminate the static,” I said.
“You gotta practice,” he said.
“Pretty much,” I agreed.
“I get home. I plug my guitar into my amp in the basement. I turn the knob to nine. I hit a chord. I feel it,” he laughed. “And for that I don’t need to practice.” He twisted his mouth into an upside-down smile and nodded for emphasis.
“That sounds fun,” I laughed.
He slammed his palms on the wheel and unleashed a stream of Punjabi at the big dude in an SUV ahead of us. I understood not a syllable. But I was swept along by the magnificent roiling emotional intensity of the sounds. They shot from his lips like illumination rounds; they stuttered and flashed, hit their mark, and ended with him hitting the horn a few times for good measure. Traffic was gridlocked. We weren’t going anywhere.
“You felt it. You said it,” I ventured.
“You bet your ass,” he agreed.
“I have no idea what you said,” I observed, "but I loved the colors, the richness, the warp and woof of it, the rhythm….”
“You loved the music of it,” he corrected me. “You don’t speak Punjabi,” he laughed. “If you did, and you knew what I just said about his mother, it would be different.”
I laughed. “You’re right. I don’t want to know what you really said.”
“Exactly. You are a poet. You want to hear what you want me to have said.”
“No. I want to hear what you felt, not what you meant,” I answered. “I got that, loud and clear.”
The knot of traffic loosened for an instant and we shot forward. He glanced at me again in the mirror. “I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.
“I’m not offended,” I said.
“You said ‘take me to Curtis Institute’,” he observed. “I assumed.”
“What? That I was a poet?” I asked. “I know lots of musicians who aren’t particularly poetic, humane, or even intelligent.”
“But you said you feel music,” he said. “That makes you a poet. I hear other people’s music in my head. I feel things when I hear music, or when I play my guitar, but I do not hear my own music,” he said. “You hear instruments. And voices—.”
“Not exactly. I think that would make me psychotic,” I teased him.
“No. Not crazy,” he said, seriously. “Poet,” he insisted.
Rittenhouse Square stood before us, Rindelaub’s bakery to the right. Traffic was awful. He reached for the meter and shut it off. Twisting around in the seat, he said, “This ride is on me. You stay in the cab, and we’ll talk until I get you to Curtis. That’s how you’ll pay the fare.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I’ll bet I make more money than you,” he observed.
“I’ll bet that you do,” I agreed.
“I sit in my cab all day and I think, you know?” he said. “I think about what the people in the buildings that I drive past do all day. Do you think that they think about me?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I doubt it.”
“Me, too,” he sighed. “Can I tell you something?”
“Of course,” I said. It’s your time, now.”
He laughed. “I will tell you why I came to the U.S. from Pakistan.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I saw on television a movie called West Side Story. I thought to myself look at those hoodlums, they are so beautiful flying across the screen like that. Then I realized that of course they are actors and it is a movie, but I thought how amazing that a movie should for a moment make me forget that.”
We turned right and began circumnavigating the square. Then, traffic snarled again, and we were stopped in front of Henry McIllhenny’s townhouse. “You know how the fellow who lives in there made his fortune?” I asked. “By mixing jalapeno peppers with water and selling it.” The driver leaned over and looked out the passenger side window.
“Amazing,” he said.
“America is amazing.” I warmed to him. “The amazing thing is that he has spent much of that money supporting the work of playwrights like Tennessee Williams, painters like Renoir, composers like Rorem, who teaches at Curtis.” We crawled forward towards the Barclay Hotel.
“What makes you a poet, my friend,” I ventured to the cabdriver, “is that you are self-aware enough to have marveled at, to continue to treasure, maybe, your own ‘suspension of disbelief’ and to want more. For a moment, you didn’t see the hoodlums, you saw their souls in flight. An appealing ‘American Dream’,” I observed. "Suspending disbelief is more than just the sacrificing of realism and logic for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment; it is an extension of faith on a person's behalf in an artist's ability to illuminate human truths and to help us regain (and maybe even improve upon) our humanity." He didn’t answer.
"Honestly," I concluded, "I think that in today's world it takes courage to knowingly enter into a work of art." We turned left in front of the Barclay and stopped at the corner of 18th and Locust.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
I un-scrunched myself, grabbed my tattered boy scout knapsack, yanked the door handle, and slid out of the cab. I rapped twice on the roof of the car to signal that I was clear, and he stuck his head out of the window.
“Don’t stop feeling the music,” he said.
“Don’t stop suspending your disbelief,” I replied.