The passenger looked up to the second story of the brownstone building and pressed his window switch. As the tinted window lowered, his wife could be seen through the sun’s glare off the window of their second floor apartment. She held their daughter in front of her as she stood in the window seat waving to him. He could almost make out her lips saying, “Bye, bye, da-da” and in his head he replayed that little voice eking out the phrase.
The first two lights were green, “Great timing” the driver said, “Hey, want a smoke” he said as he offered an open pack of Marlboro Reds to the passenger. It caught him off guard.
“Uh..no” he stammered, “Thanks for the offer though”
The passenger marveled at the stale and decaying gesture. Offering a cigarette to someone?
“What are the odds that someone under fifty still smokes at this point”, the passenger thought to himself. It must have been ten years since someone offered him a cigarette.
“Mind if I have one?”
He should have seen that coming.
“Uh, yeah.” He said, and then thought, “This isn’t going to end well.”
“Huh?” the driver mumbled.
“Yes, I would appreciate it if you didn’t”
The driver tossed the pack onto the passenger seat.
After a moment he felt the need to look like less of a puritan for some reason, “I just quit, you know. It’s tough to be around it. Don’t mean to be a…”
“No worries pal” he interrupted, “…good for you. Filthy habit.”
The week was long, the nights were short and his daughter was still nursing every few hours. He wished there was a market for sleep so he could have stocked up months back. He wondered how life could be if he could have purchased some sleep futures instead of investing in gold and platinum futures this morning. If he could pull up a chart for the price of his theoretical sleep purchases it would show a precipitous price increase peaking during the birth of his daughter, then it would jump again as the market anticipated a round of teething or maybe cold and flu season.
He snapped out of it suddenly thinking about the time. He nervously pressed his right hand through the part in his hair several times then checked his open hand for any strands that separated. There were none. “Nice”, he thought to himself.
“How are you feeling about making a 3:22 train?” the passenger said.
He didn’t want to make the guys wait another thirty minutes for him if he missed this train. One by one, all of their free time had gradually become so scarce. Like poker pros with the winning hands, kids greedily raked time off the table. The tight economy sucked out the rest by leaving double the work with half the workforce.
The driver looked back at him in his mirror, his face didn’t instill confidence.
The passenger cut him off before he could express his pessimism, “You can take the Battery Tunnel if you think it’s faster.”
“Let’s do that”, he responded in a thick Brooklyn accent that sounded like, “dat”.
The driver reached and flipped his turn signal from up to down and the green indicator arrow went from right to left. His tufts of curls created a head full of graying corkscrews.
The aging, navy blue town car sat halfway across the crosswalk as they waited for the light to change. They looked directly at Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn through the pock marked windshield and watched car after car hammer through the intersection. Across the street sat the dirty bodega nestled against the twenty-four hour check cashing operation. The latter representing the universal sign post indicating that you were now in a neighborhood yet to be fully gentrified.
The static laden, smoke addled voice of the dispatcher interjected as they eased their way across the lane separating residential Park Slope from industrial Gowanus. The passenger imagined the dispatcher as a homeless Burl Ives.
“Fourteen, what’s your location” emanated from somewhere underneath the dashboard. More static was followed by a garbled but obviously perturbed response. It was truncated by more static.
The driver groaned, “That guy in fourteen is a moron. Always complaining, leaving his finger on the mic so everyone can hear his take on why we’re all rallying against him, you know, us and the world against him. That’s what he says.”
“Repeat fourteen!” bellowed the dispatcher.
Relaxing and escaping were all that was on the passenger’s mind. He wanted to embrace this rare moment without a baby to entertain or a wife to relieve from duty. “Finally, a weekend away, two cold beers on the train, a book and some quiet” he tried to mentally lower the volume on the radio, he tried to escape this leg of his escape.
“I’m here…talk to..” crackled from the radio.
“Say that again fourteen”, the dispatcher said, “In English please!”
The driver dove under the dash, twisted a knob and pressed a button. Silence took over the car. After a moment the passenger broke in.
“That dispatcher is quite a character isn’t he?” he immediately regretted starting a dialogue. His mother had passed on her need to strike up a conversation with anyone within arm’s reach while his father passed on the curse of a short-attention span and a general dislike for most people. He constantly battled both inclinations and usually lost.
The driver’s credentials were hanging from the back of the driver seat. He noticed the driver was wearing the same sweatshirt in the picture as he was wearing today.
“He’s a hard ass, always something digging in his side but not a bad guy.”
“Last time I took a car with you guys one of the drivers was complaining about him…I guess there’s one good dispatcher and one other that nobody likes?”
They could see the line of traffic waiting to get on the BQE. There were no doubts about spending the extra few dollars on the tunnel. If they were going to reach on time it was their only choice.
“Which driver? Was it the old, uneducated fat guy with gray hair? No not me…there’s another guy”, the driver chuckled to himself as he looked in the rearview mirror for the passenger’s reaction. The passenger laughed too.
“I don’t really remember what he…”
“Let me tell you about that guy” the driver interrupted, “He’s a liar. He comes in new to our company and he’s trying to be all buddy-buddy with me because he sees that I got an ok relationship with the dispatcher. Let me tell you, the dispatcher has a bad disposition but he and I get along fine now. You know why? I saved his life. I diagnosed his heart problem, you know, because I had some problems myself a few years back. He wouldn’t go to the doctor, I kept tellin’ him, you know, you gotta get that checked and I called the doctor myself from his phone and handed him the receiver? He went in the next week and needed that angioplasty. Straightened him right out. Since then, I get the airport runs and the nice Sunday morning ride. I’m not usually on these late day midtown runs. The dispatcher, he’s a Jewish fella like myself, so, you know, we grew up in the same upbringing. He tells me he takes one of the cars home every night then leaves the house an hour early, stops at the airport for an airport run then pockets the money. He tells me that you know? I come in now, I tell him he’s a fat basti’d and he tells me to go to hell. That’s how it is.”
The passenger looked at the clock on the dashboard. It read exactly three o’clock. He pulled his blackberry from his pocket and checked the time there, it read two fifty eight. They would probably make it in time but they were in traffic behind the World Trade Center. The passenger looked quickly into one of the most storied plots of land of his time. He met his wife at work in an office on Cortlandt Street. The air will always feel thin in this neighborhood like a sudden trip to high elevation. Half a lifetime and some of his favorite romantic stories pinned to a pit full of horror. He wanted to get by before his thumb unleashed the flip book of memories and the rush of conflicting emotions.
“So anyway, that guy in fourteen…you know the under educated old fat guy? The liar? He’s always asking me if he can give me a ride home, not just me you know, every guy. Some guys take the bus back home at the end of the shift. So one night I tell him I’ll take that ride. I figure I can get past the smell, did I tell you he wears the same sweatshirt every day? So on the ride home he tells me, You know, I gotta tell you something but it’s just between, you know, me and you. You can’t tell this to all the other guys right? So I tell him, yeah right, you know, I ain’t one of those guys that goes around talking about other people’s business you know? You tell me something and it’s with me. So you know what he tells me? He tells me he’s a retired federal marshal. Can you believe that guy? I mean, I never made good marks in high school but I finished. I read the news. I ain’t ignorant but who is this guy trying to impress, right?”
The passenger looks back at him into the rearview mirror, raises his eyebrows and shrugs. He looks to the left at the sand volleyball courts set on the pier stretching way out into the Hudson and remembers shanking a pass way over the high netting surrounding the court and into the river. They joked about someone on a Staten Island beach picking it up and making a Tom Hanks reference.
“So the next day we’re waiting in the office, you know, me and some of the other guys so I says to one of the other guys, this Hispanic guy who rides home with him sometimes. That guy tell you he used to be a Federal Marshal? The guy looks at me and laughs then another guy jumps in and says he told him the same thing and, just like me, he told them not to tell nobody. So, get this, the guy shows up while we’re all talkin’ and he’s got The Post folded under his arm smiling and all. So I says, Hey, it’s the Federal Marshmallow! Everyone breaks up laughing. The dispatcher, you know, he’s all over this guy, he says, “Look at the Over-Fed Marshall!” It broke the place up. That moron is doing nothin’ but rush hour trips over the bridge now. “
“Every place you work, you get your crazies” the passenger said as he spotted the miniature Jets helmet glued to the dashboard.
“How about those Jets? They’re looking quite a bit better than my Bills” he left the bait hoping the desperation to change the subject didn’t show in his voice. He just wanted to get to the train and leave out the office politics. Sports were an escape; stories about creepy drivers were not.
“No playoffs for ten years after four straight Super Bowl losses. You guys are payin’ the freakin’ piper up there in the great white no’th!”
“Your Jets had a rough run but your defense is looking stout this year…if that…”
“Don’t hold your breath. You’ll be watching Jim Kelly’s kids throwin’ touchdowns before the Jets make it. This young kid, they’re startin’ to figure him out. It’s going to be a rough second half if you ask me.”
“I saw a guy last season come out of The Carriage House bar on my corner. They have the inflatable Jets players out front on Sunday. This guy came out at half-time once and punched one of them right in the chest.”
“Hah, that may’ve been me. I’ve seen guys try to bang them in the ass. Even when they sucked the freakin’ Jets couldn’t never cover the spread. You bet with’em and they lose by twenty, you bet against and they score in garbage time to bust ya. I’m in there every Sunday watchin’ these losers. You should stop by and join the party sometime. Get in there now before it turns into a freakin’ funeral again.”
He thought about the chances of him ever stepping into that bar at all let alone on a Sunday. Not likely the way things have been. Plus his once or twice a season trip to McFadden’s to commiserate with the other pathetic Bills fans was plenty of bad vibe for the year.
“So I’m heading to Atlantic City this weekend. You have any tips for me?” Normally he would go with the weather here but there was potentially a lot of time left to the train station and the fall weather was so static he needed something that would stick. Trying for silence was not an option.
“So, you know your buddy the Marshall?” the driver said.
The passenger didn’t know how he had re-lit this fuse.
“The dispatcha’, he tells me he knows the owner of a car service over on Smith Street. The Ma’shall worked there with the Arab guys for a few months. This guy, he’s been all over Brooklyn and Queens driving. His buddy over there on Smith Street says he lives in a nice two family house with his mother out in Bay Ridge. You know where he got the money for the house?”
The passenger looked up at the pause but didn’t know it was a real question.
“Come on Clark Kent…you look like a smart guy. I’m goin’ somewhere with this…stay with me”
The passenger pulled the one remaining ear bud from his ear and said, “Uhm, he was really a Federal Marshall?”
The passenger didn’t intend it as a joke. It could be that this guy was a Marshall. He had heard a story recently on “This American Life” where the inept super in some building claimed he was a former hit man for the Brazilian Government. He confided in a few people in the building but nobody believed his story. At some point during his tenure as super a double murder plot was hatched involving the building’s owners and this super apparently blew the case open with the Feds. When the Feds came in they admitted to the tenants involved that this guy was actually a former agent of the Brazilian government and he was in the U.S. as a dignitary.
The driver was incredulous. “Woah! Haha..Marshall? Come on now. Get this; he says he won the money in Atlantic City! It was his only time there. Went down there on a bus trip with his mother, you know, the ones where they give you ten bucks in chips when you get there?”
The passenger nodded. He knew them well. On his way to the gym on Sunday mornings he saw the lines of retirees and pensioners waiting to go grind away their life savings.
“So the guy says he put his ten bucks in the slots and hit the jackpot for a quarter million in the first twenty minutes. This was twenty years ago, that was big money then. Says he never gambled before or after that. Went out to the boardwalk and had a burger and chocolate malt with his mom to celebrate then went home.”
The passenger started thinking about what he would do if he hit that big. He would take his father and brother on safari in Africa. Have them close up shop for two weeks and buy them some touristy safari gear. “The city of Buffalo could do without their heating and air conditioning specialists for a few weeks!” he thought. He could picture the three of them, in the center of the Serengeti, wearing their matching beige hats and vests, watching the wildebeest migration from the back of an old British military vehicle. Maybe they would see the eyes of a submerged crocodile approaching the herd as it slogged across the river pass.
“Wow, I hope I get some of that luck tonight!” He was surprised how loud he blurted that out. It was the pre-gambling excitement kicking in.
His father went only to Israel or Canada the few times he left the country. He rarely left Buffalo other than to see the Giants play the Bills at The Meadowlands or to catch a baseball game in Toronto. It would be the trip of a lifetime for them.
The driver put an abrupt end to his daydream.
“Yeah, well, the Marshall lives with his mom on the bottom floor and they rent out the top to some Orientals. Imagine? Fifty-somethin’, never married, no kids, no steady girl, how freakin’ sorry is that? He probably sits home watching Wheel of Fortune with his mom every night. Don’t wish that kinda luck on you my friend. Freakin’ pathetic!”
As they pulled up Eighth Avenue behind Penn Station he looked at his blackberry and tried to brush away the fact that the driver was growing increasingly irate. Eight minutes remained. He had to interrupt the drivers rant, “Its twenty-nine dollars, right?”
The passenger looked in his wallet. He had several hundred dollar bills and a few singles.
“Shoot, can you break a hundred?”
He had made a special trip to the bank while it was open so he wouldn’t have a thick wallet full of twenties.
“I only have a about fifty on me my friend, shift just started”
That was too steep a tip even for this character. He knew in a few hours he would blow a twenty on a hand of blackjack, but he couldn’t bring himself to drop a twenty dollar tip.
The passenger popped his door open. “Let me grab some change from the street cart…give me a minute.” He jumped out and hustled over to the nearby kabab cart.
The driver reached under the dash and turned on the radio again. A bolt of static spewed from the speaker and almost simultaneously a voice emerged.
“Twenty-eight…you drop off yet?”
The kabob maker couldn’t make change so the passenger dashed to the news stand.
As the driver reached for the transmitter there was a knock on the window. He lowered the passenger window and leaned across the center console to the opposite window. The passenger handed him thirty dollars and said, “One second” as he dug out his wallet to get the few singles.
He held the tip out in his hand and said, “Thanks …I know you’re not going to wish me…” but he was interrupted by the harsh voice of the dispatcher, “Twenty-eight, you at Penn or what?” The query was immediately followed by a different but inexplicably louder voice, “Hey Federal Maa’shmallow…you make it to Penn yet?”
The passenger looked at the two white numerals stuck on the passenger window, a two and an eight. The swollen face and pink nose of the driver went pale. He sat up and pulled the shifter down into drive as he sat up and checked his side mirror for oncoming traffic. Then he pulled away.
The passenger just stood by the curb and watched. As he put the tip money back in his wallet he saw the picture of his wife standing in her wedding dress surrounded by autumn colors. On the opposing fold his daughter stared at him making a stern sour puss out of her porcelain cheeks.
Paul lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter. His ‘day job’ has given him the opportunity to travel extensively throughout India. He hopes to publish the stories he has documented as part of his journeys.