Excerpt from Flate Rate & Other Stories


Flat Rate

 by Kenneth Wishnia


It’s two days before the big taxi strike, and I’m looking for a fare that won’t slit my throat. The two pairs of gloves that I’ve got on have been useless for the past three hours against the icy December wind that is flowing freely through the cab.

I put my hand over the dashboard clock to block out the glare from the streetlights and I still have to strain my eyes to make out what the dim red numbers are flashing: 1:55 A.M. Even in New York, the streets are starting to go dead at this hour.

I turn up Sixth Avenue and a red light stops me at 28th Street. I start rubbing my gloved hands together, trying to slap the numbness out of them when a couple crosses over to my side of the street at the next block. They’re dressed pretty fancy. I peg them as having just left one of those new pink and black bar/restaurants where a beer costs six dollars, and a definite ride up the West Side into the seventies.

Sure enough, when they get to the curb, he turns downtown and looks my way. I’m inspecting the sidestreet to see if anybody is coming, as this medallion pulls up to let two people off on the east side of the street.

The light turns green and I ease towards the couple. His hand is barely on the upswing when the cabby behind me leaves about an inch of rubber on the street as he tears away from the curb and slices across four lanes of traffic to cut me off and pick up my fares.

He can’t hear me, but I shout, “Asshole!” anyway, and pound the steering wheel out of reflex, even though I know it’s going to hurt, which it does. This only serves to swell my anger and I grab the wheel, swing out into the street and pull to a halt in front of the other cab, practically perpendicular to him.

I nearly break off the handle trying to get the door open with two pairs of gloves on, then I jump out into the street ready for anything. Two pairs of gloves are good for something.

“What’s the big idea, you son of b–!” I’m saying, when he jams his cab into reverse and pulls away from me, then throws it into drive so fast that I know whatever the fancy couple just ate or drank goes halfway up their throats, then he takes off uptown.

Maybe it was the pain in my hand, because normally I would have let it go. Not tonight. I jump back in the cab and take off after him. He is already about four blocks ahead of me, but I just had the heap tuned up for the winter, and the space between us is closing fast. I’m only about a half a block behind him when he beats the light at 42nd Street and I’ve got to stop for the crosstown traffic. And I said the streets were starting to go dead. Not the Deuce: the usual crowd is out dispensing late-night clearance sex, drugs, phony drugs, credit cards, “gold” chains made out of something but certainly not gold–how could anything be gold on this block?

The lights finally change and I’m off up Sixth Avenue, but he’s gone. Then I remember the couple and I decide to test my powers of prognostication. I zip past three college boys who are waving frantically at me and turn west on Forty-something Street and head over to Eighth Avenue and swing north. I’ve got the advantage at Columbus Circle and I bear left making a quick bet on Broadway. The lights are with me until 72nd Street, and there he is, letting my fares off in the middle of the next block. I wait for an interminable ten or fifteen seconds, tapping my feet to keep them warm. The light flashes green and I gun out in front of him and park my cab correctly, because this is Broadway and the cops are around even at 2:00 A.M.

I get out and walk over to the cab as if I just want to talk to him. I start in–

“Listen, pal, if the only way you can make your living is by stealing from other people, then rob a f—– bank why don’t you?”

He’s sitting inside counting his change as if nothing is going on. I bang on his window and let out a few more curses,

when he rolls down the window and pulls the scarf down off his nose and I see his face. It’s Sam Baransky. Sam is one of those troublemaking New York Jewish union guys, with curly red hair that’s already starting to thin away from a small bald spot near the back of his head.

“And you hot-blooded Latins should show more solidarity with your fellow cabbies,” he says.

“Pendejo!” I sputter, just to oblige him. “You knew it was me, didn’t you?”

“I was behind you at 14th Street, Filly,” he says. “Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.”

“Yeah, well I owe you one,” I tell him.

“I’m willing to pay up,” he says. “Why don’t you come up for a drink?”

“What, now?” I say.

“Hey, with the new baby in town, there’s no day and night anymore,” he explains.

I tell him okay, and I get back in my cab, where it is every bit as cold as it is outside in the street, and follow him up the West Side Highway to 177th Street, which at this time of night takes about three minutes.

On the sidewalk in front of his building I look up to his apartment, and I can see that somebody is awake. Colored lights emanating from the TV set are flashing on and off the walls like solar prominences. From where I’m standing it looks as if the room is on fire.

We go up four flights and there is Meg nursing a brand new baby girl in front of the TV. When she sees me she gets up and hugs me tightly without letting go of the baby.

“Filomena!” she says, “it’s been weeks.”

“Yeah, I meant to come up here–” I begin, but Sam cuts in–

“And here’s the little shit factory.”

“Sam! Don’t talk like that,” says Meg.

“She’s beautiful,” I say.

“Come on in and have that drink,” says Sam, going into the kitchen and washing out some glasses he takes from a sinkful of dirty dishes.

“How old is she?” I ask.

Meg lets me play with the baby while she tells me that the baby is four months old, has her father’s eyes, already cries specific sounds for different things, does this, does that, when Sam comes back in with two glasses and a bottle.

“And for you?” I ask Meg. She answers me by putting the baby back on her breast, and setting down roots in front of the TV. Sam and I sit down on two rusty metal chairs on adjacent sides of a splintered formica table, and he switches on a light whose glare pierces my nighttime vision and bleaches the room with a stark incandescence. I look up and see that the light has a shade that stopped functioning during the Jurassic Era. Then Sam pulls out a used tobasco bottle containing an ultramarine liquid.

“What’s the blue stuff?” I ask him.

“Well, it don’t cure dyptheria, but it sure goes great with vodka and a twist. It’s my own mixture,” he says. “Trust me.”

“My fate is in your hands,” I tell him, holding my glass out. He sloshes in the blue stuff, then adds a generous amount of vodka and squeezes some lime into it.

“So what did they give at the talks?” I ask him.

“More than nothing, and less than enough,” he says, mixing the drinks. “It looks like the strike’ll go ahead, and that’ll really hurt them if it runs into Christmas week. More power to us,” says Sam, holding up his glass for a toast. I hold up mine, which is still swirling around from mixing, we clink glasses and I take a drink. I can’t help shuddering a little as the taste of grape-and-peppermint-flavored bathroom spackle with vodka and lime juice penetrates my delicate insides. A queasy trembling deep in my duodenum threatens to erupt violently, then wriggles away.

“When we went in there,” Sam goes on, as if nothing has been happening, “all we wanted was a fair contract. But the damn leadership is so weak we spend more time arguing with them than fighting for our damn wage increase. I tell you, it’s crazy.”

“I bet you stirred things up a bit,” I say.

“Filly, sometimes you just gotta have the chutzpah to stomp on a few toes. The managers are nothing but pimps for the owners, for Chrissake,” Sam says.

“Yeah, and what does that make us?” I say.

Sam can’t help laughing at this, which is good, because union talk always tends to tighten his nerves into piano wire.

“You’re right about that,” he says. “Actually, too much equality can be bad. There is something to be said for having an executive bathroom separate from the employees’ bathroom. I mean, it’s pretty damn weird to go into the john to piss and the boss comes in to wash his hands right next to me. I just feel like, ‘Here, too?’ Who needs this?”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I say.

“Yeah, well, you’re lucky,” he says.

I”m about to answer that one when the news flashes on the TV about U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Operation Polevault or something down in Bolivia. A DEA man is regurgitating some bilge about how all cocaine traffic from the Beni province has stopped because of the “awe-inspiring presence of U.S. helicopters.” He doesn’t explain how six Hueys are supposed to strangle a business that’s worth over a half a billion dollars a year and is spread out over a jungle larger than Texas.

“They’ve been running this thing all week,” says Sam. “This is the first lab they’ve seized in five days and he acts like they’ve shut down the industry. I can just see the Prez ordering the fleet, ‘go down there and look busy.’ How much do those frigging choppers cost, six thousand dollars a minute? And we’re up here fighting for an extra buck-and-a-quarter an hour.”

I tell him, “What do you expect from a country whose highest honor is putting your face on its money?”

“And what’s so bad about coke, anyway?” he says. “Sigmund Freud did coke his whole life.”

“Yeah, but he’s dead,” I say.

A commercial comes on the TV telling us that we can order some books “completely without risk.”

“That’s right,” says Sam. “You can be assured of being ripped off.”

He takes another swig from his awful mixture and gets up to go to the bathroom. Meg turns away from the TV to talk to me. I know whole families that grow up talking to each other during commercials only, if then.

“You have a minute for some girl talk?” she asks.

I nearly throw up when she says “girl talk,” but the woman has just had a baby and is allowed a certain amount of this sort of cuteness. It turns out not to be girl talk at all.

“Can you possibly lend us some money?” she asks. “We’re a little behind in the rent.”

“How much do you owe?” I ask.

“About thirty-five years,” Sam chimes in from the bathroom.

Meg tosses a dirty look in the direction of the bathroom.

I tell her, “I don’t know. If this strike goes on, we may all be watching our pennies. I’ll let you know in a few days, OK? A new kid must cost a lot.”

“Yeah,” she says rather obtusely, turning her head away from me in order to get a better look at the commercials.

“I’m reading this book on the history of the European working class,” Sam begins telling me from the bathroom. “This French socialist says that cannibalism brought about the need for slavery. What do you think of that?”

“Well, at least under slavery the food’s better,” I answer back, getting up out of the chair with a scrape. I walk over to the bathroom in time to see Sam twist the top off some eyewash, test it on the soft underside of his wrist as if it were baby formula, and put a couple of drops in each eye.

“I gotta be going,” I tell him.

“OK, thanks for stopping in,” he says, blinking, as some of the eyewash trickles down the side of his face.

“And give ’em hell tomorrow,” I say.

“I tell you, if I were a foreigner like you, Filly, the U.S. wouldn’t let me past the airport,” says Sam. He knows that I have been a citizen for nearly ten years, but he likes to bug me about it.

“I’ll call you in a couple of days,” I tell Meg. She nods and mumbles something without looking up at me.

I let myself out, shut the door behind me, and walk down the four flights to the icy street below.

Two days later I’m sitting in my room watching the news about the strike on TV. A cabbie I don’t know but have seen before is shouting into the Channel 2 mike, saying there’s no business as usual today, that the city owes its cabbies the raise, which we haven’t had in two years, and the strike will go on as long as necessary.

Then they switch to a film report with a voiceover describing the violence that occured mostly between strikers and scabs, who are being pulled from their cabs and beaten up while the cops are standing by watching for UFOs. Then I see a cab being hauled up out of the East River with a winch. Huge slabs of ice are sliding off the cab and splashing into the murky waters. I don’t recognize the cab. There’s a body behind the wheel.

The frozen breeze blasting outside rattles my sixty-year-old window frame. Then my phone rings. It’s Meg. I can tell by the way that she says my name. There’s always that same quavering disbelief. She asks if I can go down to identify Sam’s body, that she can’t do it. I say yes, of course, I’ll head out right away.

I used to do a lot of this.

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