The election of Donald Trump reminds me of the time I had the business end of a handgun pressed hard against my neck.
This was the winter of 1982 when New York hadn’t quite emerged from its “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era. “I ❤ New York” and Ed Koch were trying to uplift a dysfunctional graffiti-strewn place of poverty, crime, and rage. Billionaires, Brooklyn, and man-buns were unknown. I was driving a cab out of Dover Taxi, the Greenwich Village garage another driver had turned it into the Taxi sitcom. The gritty garage, featured in the show’s exterior shots, was torn down nearly twenty years ago, replaced by a “luxury” red-brick condo with a sprawling Rite Aid at street level.
Near Columbia University, I picked up an elderly yet spry blue-haired woman who clearly didn’t get out much. House dress showing under her overcoat. Going to her hairdresser ... two blocks down Broadway. Weird. Nobody takes a cab for two blocks. We arrive, she pays and she’s exiting, and—weird again because it’s too soon, like it’s choreographed―a guy is descending a stoop just ahead, with an armload of books, flagging me. Student? This is Columbia territory. No, too old. Probably 30. Slender, medium height, casual dress, good-looking. Black. Was I a racist to consider this? If so, the worst racists then were black drivers. In 1982, the cabbies least likely to pick up black fares were black drivers. I knew them; they told me. These black American drivers (not African immigrants) worked long hours, lived in dangerous places, and knew that among their neighbors were predators who fed on cash-carrying cab drivers.
I discriminated based on the eyes. I judged the person who flagged me by optics. In an instant: safe or threat? If the eyes looked back at me directly, I “saw” them and let their owners on board. I didn’t pick up eyes that looked away, flinched, every so imperceptibly sometimes, trying hard to remain fixed: the tightened muscles gave them away. These eyes I drove on by without “seeing” them. But not this time. I didn’t have time to give my eye test. The lady was out, he was in. I let danger into the cab.
“Gotta go to Metropolitan.” Pause. “You know, the hospital. 97 and Second.” Yes, I knew. East Harlem but just barely north of 96th, the magic East Side divide between perceived safety and danger. “OK?” Uh. “Yup, ok,” I say, and we’re off. “Hey, got some books here. You a reader?” I already knew the books were a dollar a dozen. Props. Old, cloth-bound, no covers. He pushes one—an obscure title―through the wide opening in the safety partition. No smart cabbie ever closed and locked that portal to better tips. “Yeah, that’s ok,” I say, idiotically.
We’re working down Broadway to 96th. Then: “Oh, I forgot. Gotta pick up Momma. Taking her to the hospital.” “Momma?” I repeat, dead man driving. “Yeah, gotta get her first.” “Where’s she?” I ask, knowing she was nowhere good. “Oh, yeah. 129th and 7th.” Pause. He knows what I’m thinking―the projects―St. Nick Houses― but we’re both actors now in his play. “Hey, listen, it’s ok…(now headed east on 96th toward the park crossing)…if you don’t want to go there, that’s ok. You can just let me off right here.” Not: “I can get out here.” But: “You can let me off here.” Meaning: it’s on me. It’s my decision. Am I a scared whitey? A faux liberal? No, I am not. “It’s ok,” I say. “You know how to go? Up this side of the park.” “I know,” I say, proudly displaying my broad knowledge of the urban geography. But he already knows it’s about my pride.
So, on up to 129th and 7th, aka Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (as if there’s anything like a Parisian boulevard in Manhattan). Not much talking now. Here we are: headed to the projects to pick up Momma and then, with any luck, back down to relative safety.
We get to where we’re going. A cul-de-sac in the gang, drug, and murder capital of central Harlem, 1982. What now? “Gonna go up and get Momma. Be down in a couple of minutes.” Uh-huh. “Don’t worry. Not gonna beat you on the fare. Right back.” Pause. “Look, I’m leaving my books. Let the meter run. You can just drive away if you want.” Yes, I want. But I don’t because I feel I shouldn’t. “It’s ok. Hurry up,” I say, the fool in the elaborate drama.
I wait. I could leave at any time. My intuition screams bad scene but I want this to be ok. Five minutes, and here he comes. He’s back in. “Ok, Momma’s at her place. Cupla blocks.” “Where, exactly?” asks the mark. “128th, toward Lenox. She’s waiting.” And off we go again. Come to momma.
We’re on the block. Unlike the project, which had a form of life, this block is burned out or boarded up brownstones. Today, fully renovated. “This is it.” The one building, mid-block, that seems occupied. “Right back,” and he’s gone, climbing with purpose up the stoop, just as he descended a stoop back when this play began, which seems a lifetime ago. Then, he’s gone and coming from under the stoop is another guy. Could be a building super: short, squat, maybe Spanish. New guy is carrying two black trash bags. He crosses behind my cab and then, the rear door street side is open, the trash bags are going in, and the guy is speaking loudly: “Damn Momma. This guy and Momma. Got her stuff here. They’re driving me crazy.” “Yeah, me too!” I offer, as I turn to see just why he has followed Momma’s bags into the backseat. Leaning my head toward the gaping partition, the guy grabs me by the scalp, his other hand pressing a point of cold metal in a paper bag against my neck. A gun I presume.
“Your wallet.” He’s twisted my upper body by pinning my head against the seat back. With my free left hand I find my wallet in my cashbox and pass it to him. It has all the money I’ve made since Friday, three days earlier. I’m sure these guys had calculated that Monday morning I’d have a wad of undeposited cash. He gives back the wallet, intact, cashless. I drive away. I stop on 5th Avenue in the upper 90s. The bags of course are filled with trash and it stinks.
Where are my robbers now? If they’re alive, they’re seventy or so, maybe in jail. But the art of their con was so impressive. We all remember Momma, want our momma. My robbers knew that. They planned, played on the pliant mark who so much wanted to disbelieve their badness. They did it many times to others I learned. Such a deviant beauty in all this. Such self-assurance, self-confidence that I somehow wanted to let them succeed in their violent deception. I didn’t have to go along. There were so many offered opportunities to pull out that my victimization in the end was voluntary. I wanted this to happen.