THE RIGHT PASSENGERS
On his prowl through Manhattan’s bar-filled Meatpacking District, taxi driver Nadeem Riaz is looking for the right passengers that will make up for the three hours he spent in traffic on the way back from JFK airport, and another half hour he was tailed, needlessly, by a police car. It’s Saturday night, well past midnight, so, actually, it’s Sunday morning, and Nadeem is roaming this neighborhood of New York City because, brimming with drunk people exiting lounges and bars, it holds the promise of short, lucrative trips to local neighborhoods. He must avoid another cross-borough trip into Long Island or Brooklyn—or New Jersey, God forbid—otherwise, he runs the risk of returning to Manhattan passengerless: another hour potentially wasted.
The city’s sweating on this humid July night. Clusters of young people, the women barely clothed, gather in front of bar doors, huddled in packs, spilling over the edges of the sidewalk. On this Ninth Avenue block, the road becomes tighter, cobblestoned. The bright lights from the clubs and restaurants shout but, higher, the buildings in this section of the city are dilapidated, the dull carbon-colored facades are peeling, though one would have to look upward, and then it’s dark anyway, as if someone forgot to turn the lights on upstairs.
Nadeem Riaz cruises on Ninth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets surveying his customer base. He can’t be too picky here. So much time already wasted today. The traffic from JFK he can live with, but those cops that followed him for no reason, probably just trying to make their monthly quota of tickets—following him through three neighborhoods, waiting for him to trip up, maybe take a right on a red light, or double-park to pick up a passenger. Nadeem Riaz was so nervous he stopped picking up fares, switched his taxi light to “off-duty.” Still the cops persisted, for half an hour, until they found someone else, speeding. What could Nadeem do? He’s an immigrant—with a green card, yes—but still a lowly worker, so he went out of his way to follow the rules.
No, he doesn’t have to worry about competition for passengers in the Meatpacking District; the harvest is plentiful here—the body heat of the city doesn’t seem to bother this crowd.
The corners are where people, wobbly, wave at taxis, leaning on one another to stay upright. Nadeem Riaz’s cabdriver friends, those who drink behind their wives’ backs, or really drink when their families leave for Pakistan on vacation, have told him that many of his drunk passengers will not even remember the taxi ride—they’re in some intoxicated purgatory before they finally, what do they call it, black out. Nadeem doesn’t worry about that too much. He will try, if he can, to pick the most sober customers, because one time a young woman vomited all over his seats, cutting his night short—he can’t afford for that to happen. So, he lets another taxi overtake him to pick up two staggering females in very short mini-skirts.
Now, Nadeem Riaz’s taxi is fair game and there are several groups of people in front of him. When he drives up to the corner, a couple enters his taxi. From the rearview mirror he catches a flitting image of brown skin—a fellow South Asian, maybe, and he hears a throaty female laugh, a Caucasian girl—her, he sees. Nadeem Riaz hears legs slide across vinyl, then some more balancing in the back seat. He starts the meter, waits for directions.
“Two stops, uhh,” the boy begins, Nadeem Riaz feeling his voice closer. The young man reads Nadeem's name on the permit behind the driver’s seat. “Riaz Uncle, let’s see.... First, Upper West Side, 105th and West End, and then Upper East Side, 75th and Third.” The boy’s probably had too much to drink and now he’s showing token respect to him, but Nadeem Riaz doesn’t like the brash tone of his voice.
At least the trip will be lucrative enough: two stops, on opposite sides of Central Park. The door still open, the overhead light on, he sees the young woman in his rearview mirror again. Curly blond ringlets and skin so pale that it makes her lipstick that much more red. The boy, he can’t see. Nadeem starts the meter with a tap. He takes the taxi up Eighth Avenue.
“Faisal,” the girl asks the boy. “Why did you call the cabby ‘uncle?’”
Now this, Nadeem Riaz really doesn’t like. Yes, he drives a taxi, but, back home, in Pakistan, he owned a spare-parts shop; he was respected. He’s been in this country long enough to know that, by calling him “cabby,” she’s somehow associating him with the seedy muck of New York City.
“Oh, he’s also from Pakistan,” the boy says to her. “Just being friendly. I’m in a good mood.”
Then Nadeem Riaz hears kissing, the uncomfortable skirmish of cloth. The girl giggles a little and then lets out a slight squeal, perhaps signalling the boy that what they’re doing is inappropriate.
“I had a great time tonight,” the boy says.
“Me too,” she says to him in a heavy voice. “Tonight was wonderful.”
Then the sound of lips smacking. This time Nadeem hears a natural rhythm to the swish of their bodies, and a more agreeable friction of clothes.
Such sounds, commotion, in the back seat are familiar to Nadeem Riaz. If it’s not drunk couples on weekends, it’s amorous sweethearts he’s taking to or bringing from the airport. Two males sometimes; once, even, just females—they made the same yelping sounds in the rear seat. Strangely, not once in his eight years of driving people has he had such a couple—Pakistani and Caucasian—do such things in his taxi. He has transported several mixed couples like this boy and girl, heard their conversations; some he could tell had been together for a long time, the boy always the Pakistani, usually making conversation with him, the girl sometimes asking polite questions about his background—but never a “hello Riaz Uncle” followed by this display.
Nadeem begins to take the taxi up the West Side Highway, the quickest route to the Upper West Side, but the action in the back grates on him. He decides to lengthen the journey—pad the meter by taking unnecessary cross streets, even going in circles near busy Times Square—as he often does when there’s activity in the rear. He would never cheat sober, well-behaved customers; never take advantage of wide-eyed tourists who wouldn’t know Midtown from Harlem. But he feels these two passengers are the right ones for such treatment.
The high buildings of the city are asleep, the upscale stores have their night lights on, but there's an array of yellow scavengers around him on the streets. He jockeys for position with his taxi-driving compatriots—accelerates and brakes suddenly at traffic lights, drives over potholes—if just to disrupt the rhythm in the back.
The boy and girl wrestle behind him; he hears yipping, panting, desperate gasps. He half-swings his head, but doesn’t see anything, nor distract them.
He can’t tell the age of the boy—the girl looked like she was in her twenties, and, from the sound of the boy’s voice, he was probably also in that range. Why haven’t his parents married him off yet? Nadeem Riaz wonders if they’re in Pakistan, maybe receiving handouts from their son earning dollars! The boy’s carefree tone did suggest he’s made it in this country. The meter reads $19.50, not bad. No, someone as impudent as this young man, calling him “Riaz Uncle,” then brazenly disregarding tribal civility by such shameful behavior, is probably from a rich family; his parents, fat, sated, yet unsuspecting—but Nadeem admits to himself that he doesn’t really know, can’t be sure.
On his third wide circle of Midtown, he takes a very sharp turn back onto Ninth Avenue, making the girl and boy tumble behind him. He thinks maybe he heard the girl retch a little. On top of everything else he’s had to endure this day, he can’t afford vomit in his taxi! “Why aren’t you taking the West Side Highway,” the boy suddenly murmurs, coming up for air.
“Accident on Henry Hudson, gentleman,” Nadeem Riaz lies, in a very dutiful tone. The boy goes back under.
The taxi’s windows are perspiring, Nadeem doesn’t know whether from the humidity or the antics behind him. He opens both rear windows to try to faze these passengers; it doesn’t work. He could cut the air conditioner, but then he’d have to suffer as well. He can’t even talk to anyone on his phone, because he’s too distracted with what’s happening in his taxi. Sometimes, to discourage conversation, driving chirpy tourists mostly, he’ll switch on the recitation of the Holy Quran on his radio—that usually shuts them up. It wouldn’t be appropriate here, though maybe this Pakistani in the back seat might be embarrassed enough to stop defiling his taxi. But Nadeem Riaz can’t bear to have God’s word recited under these conditions—just like God Himself, who's probably cringing up there right now.
“Are you married, gentleman?” Nadeem Riaz finally asks the boy.
“Are you married, gentleman?” Nadeem screams.
“What’s wrong with him,” the girl whines.
“I don’t know,” the boy tells her.
Nadeem Riaz hears the boy adjust himself in the back seat.
“We’re still not there, Uncle?” the boy asks, a little loudly.
“I told you, gentleman, traffic on Henry Hudson.” Nadeem Riaz can’t help but pursue his question. “You didn’t answer, gentleman?”
“What’s his problem?” the girl asks the boy, in a small voice.
“We just met tonight, Riaz Uncle,” the boy says happily, even blissfully.
“He isn’t going to go crazy, is he?” the girl asks.
“Relax, he’s just having a bad day, I’m sure,” the boy says to her.
Stupid, stupid—Nadeem Riaz, if he were a better man, would kick them out of his taxi, onto the sidewalk. Too drunk, they wouldn’t have the good sense to note his driver number and complain. He has already cheated them a little. But no, he still has a job to do—to transport his customers, as requested, from point A to point B. He turns onto 105th Street. He doesn’t know who he hopes will get off first. The girl tells him to stop curbside next to a green-awninged building.
“So, next Thursday?” the boy says to her.
“Definitely,” she says.
One final smack of the lips and she gets out of his taxi. Nadeem Riaz waits, watches her walk towards the building, adjusting her blouse, tugging her miniskirt down.
“75th and Third,” the boy says.
Nadeem shrugs and races the engine. He looks at the meter. $23.50 already, and the trip’s still not over.
“Having a bad day, Riaz Uncle?” the boy asks him, with that carefree attitude again.
“Not every person can have good days like you, gentleman,” Nadeem Riaz replies.
The boy is musically rapping the vinyl seats, still happy. From the West Side to the East Side Nadeem Riaz now drives, starting to think he really shouldn’t bother further with this kid. But $26.50 on the meter—he’s doing fine.
“This isn’t Pakistan, you know,” the boy says, his voice not near; Nadeem still can’t see him through the rearview, he’s probably resting back on the seat right behind him.
“For how much time will you use her, gentleman?”
The boy laughs. “Not as long as you use this country!”
“What?” he asks, turning over the boy’s answer in his mind again to make sure he heard him right. Nadeem Riaz expected him to say something like, his parents were going to get him married off soon enough, so he was just having a little fun. Or, at least, Nadeem had expected to embarrass the boy into silence.
“You drive the taxi for the time being, I’ll go out with the girls for the time being, but we both have our thoughts on where home is, right?” the boy says.
He’s just drunk, talking nonsensically, Nadeem thinks, but he will put him in his place yet. “This is hard work, gentleman—I support my family by driving this taxi all night.”
“Not the point. You hate being here, yes? You complain to your friends and family about being stuck in this Godforsaken country, yes? You worry what will become of your kids when they grow up in this culture, and that you better save enough to move back? Yes?”
“Gentleman. I am scared one of my children will turn into you when he grows up,” Nadeem Riaz answers. “The other points you make are correct. I am stuck here and will only be staying for a short time, God willing.”
“So you agree, you are using this place?”
“It is a small thing, gentleman, for what I have to tolerate, like activities in the back seat of my taxi,” Nadeem answers as they cruise through Central Park.
“What if I am not using this place, like you?” the boy asks, the jaunty tone gone, but his voice getting a little heavy with sleep.
“You were sinful in the back seat,” Nadeem Riaz says.
“But I may have honest intentions with her,” the boy says, his voice closer. “Maybe this is a start with her with no end? Then what? Who’s making out with who now? And even if I’m trifling with her, she’s only one American—you’re messing with the whole country!”
“You are alcoholic and talking nonsense, gentleman!”
“You know what, forget it, you’re right,” the boy says and drops back on the seat.
“You will remain with the girl?” Nadeem Riaz asks, softening his voice.
“Sorry, Riaz Uncle. Look, I just want to get home,” the boy replies sleepily. “Please don’t think too hard about what I said.”
“Son?” Nadeem Riaz calls to him. The boy is still seated right behind him, and Nadeem still hasn’t seen his face. He turns off the air conditioner, to reduce the hum in the air, to give their conversation another chance. But when he hears the boy snoring, he turns the air conditioner on again.
Funny, Nadeem thinks, being in this country—he’s expected to act a certain way, how, exactly, he doesn’t know. He gets scraps, hints, here and there, and, just as he’s about to put the puzzle together, the instructions, the conversation, ends abruptly. So, then, he’ll just continue to do his job.
He stops his taxi on the corner of 75th and Third. The boy is still snoring. With his knuckle, Nadeem Riaz knocks on the plastic partition behind him. “Son, 75th Street,” he says. “What is the exact location?”
“Huh?” the boy, in a stupor, replies. He stumbles out of the taxi and shambles away, disappearing into the dark street, while owing $42.80. The taxi meter hiccups a receipt which Nadeem Riaz crushes with both hands. He tosses it to the floor of the cab and starts to look for other passengers.
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