Columns

Gimme Shelter: A working holiday

This column appeared on Thanksgiving Day 2017.

The first New Year’s Eve I worked, I got to the garage in the early afternoon and took a seat on the bench in the drivers’ room. The cabbie next to me had two rolls of paper towels and an industrial-size plastic jug of Lysol. When I asked him what they were for he looked at me as if I truly had been born yesterday.

New Year’s Eve certainly turned out to be  Amateur Night for those drinking before they turned pro. But it was also a nightmare of people from Omaha coming to New York to see the ball drop and thinking a yellow cab was some kind of tour bus where a friendly driver with amusing patter would show them the sights.

And no one had told these farmers that tipping was mandatory.

Still, I worked a couple of New Year’s Eves. You did make good money, even if it produced cabbie PTSD that could last into March.

“The usual parade of skells and knuckleheads, but now and then there’d be a regular person standing with the height numbers behind him, looking at the camera like he was about to be hanged,” Donahoe said. “It was, like, an uncle who had been invited by some family member who thought he’d finally make up with a relative he hadn’t talked to in years — and who hated him. But too many cocktails and it all started over again. Fist fights, and you know, at Thanksgiving you have those serving forks? And knives? It was awful, these guys in nice clothes with blood on their shirts, asking me what came next, you know? What could I tell them?”

Mary and I got married in August and on Thanksgiving, figuring we could use the money and then have a long weekend, we had the meal and did the family thing and I got to the garage about four in the afternoon to go to work.

There were just a few guys waiting for cabs to come in off the day line when I took a seat on the bench next to Fitz to pass the time. Fitz was an old guy (“old,” younger than I am now) who was one of the great raconteurs. Everybody talked and listened to him; everybody, from the young black and Latino and white guys to the old cabbie wizards like himself.

Fitz was an immigrant, who came to America as a young man and achieved the dream. He started out selling insurance and worked up to running his own agency in Queens, getting married and starting a family.

But then he lost it all — the family, the business — through years of backing slow running horses. Finally coming to his senses at rock bottom, he got help and started over, driving a cab. He helped some other guys in the garage — D.J.’s as they’re known, “degenerate” gamblers, to find help.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he greeted me. “Get out of here. Don’t you have a home to go to?”

I told him I’d heard it was a good night to work. Lots of happy — and generous — people foregoing the subway or bus and splurging on cabs. Plus all the restaurant workers and everyone else punching clocks on Thanksgiving would be ready to treat themselves by hailing a cab home on the holiday.

“But you didn’t answer my question,” Fitz said, and told me a story.

One Thanksgiving afternoon he got a fare 20 minutes out of the garage on Park Avenue — an elderly man, holding a bouquet of two dozen roses, impeccably dressed in a three piece bespoke suit, camel’s hair topcoat, leather gloves and a felt fedora at a jaunty angle.

“The smell of those flowers in the cab,” Fitz said. “The smell of money.”

The old gentleman gave him an address in Little Falls, New Jersey. Any trip beyond the city limits automatically meant the fare on the meter when the destination was reached would be doubled.

“I told him about double the meter and he knew all about it. I thought, ‘I’m gonna be rich tonight, mining gold in Little Falls, New Jersey.’”

The dapper old gentleman was going to his sister’s, he said. He and Fitz chatted about Thanksgiving, a pleasant conversation between two men with the gift of gab, covering everything from the proper way to cook a turkey to whether the Lions had a chance against the Packers.

“He directed me to Little Falls and then started to direct me through the streets,” Fitz said. “It was already dark when he said, very quietly, ‘Here. Here we are.’”

It was a cemetery. The passenger directed Fitz in through the gates. “I saw him in my mirror slumped in the back, his face white as a sheet. Staring straight ahead.”

The passenger told Fitz to stop and wait for him, got out and climbed a hill with his bouquet, stopping at a grave.

“After awhile I could see his shoulders heaving,” Fitz said. The bouquet was hanging down from his hand, touching the ground. Fitz waited 20 minutes before he got out and went up to the man and put his hand on his shoulder.

He’d pulled himself together by then, putting the flowers on the grave, drying his eyes.

Back in the cab the man apologized, saying he was alone today — some kind of old family dispute — and had suddenly wanted to be with his only sister, who had been kind to him. He had somehow neglected to express his love for her when she was alive. “I’m alone and so is she,” the man said.

Fitz suggested a cup of coffee. “We went into a diner, sat and talked. He was a terrible old man, really,” Fitz said. “Tossed his life away by not paying attention to those nearest to him.”

On Park Avenue the old gentleman paid the double fare.  “And stiffed me on the tip,” Fitz said, with a smile.

“Bastard,” I said.

“Where’s the wife today?”

“Home,” I said.

“What are you doing here?” Fitz asked, his voice soft. “Do you have to work today?”

I took the subway home, and going down the hall to our apartment, I saw the light under the door.

It was then I realized I’d forgotten to ask Fitz why he was working on Thanksgiving.