There is no question about it. Good old mankind, an exotic branch of the animal world of-which I am indubitably a part, is one of the most adaptable organisms known to science. He ranges freely from the fetid jungles at the equator to the very poles perpetually .icebound and forbidding to all but the. Most hardy of species. He even manages to knock out a few golf balls on the Moon. Let hooded cobras or flying squirrels try that one.
He also - and this is one of the major differences that exists between the lesser primates and the notorious Upright Ape That Thinks-creates, often, his own environment, both good and bad. There is some suspicion in certain theological quarters that for centuries we have misinterpreted a key passage in the Scriptures, the one that goes: "And the Meek shall inherit the earth." It is now felt that the Meek referred to were not the Walter Mittys or the Peace advocates, or even Ralph Nader, but instead the lowly cockroaches. Lowly? It all depends on how you interpret 'lowly.' Like man, the cockroach makes it damn near everywhere he goes, and more than that, . Makes it big. He has been found in deserted trappers' cabins at 70░ below zero, living off, apparently, icicles and polar bear dung, and proliferating at that. Anyone who has spent any time in the tropics knows how well he does there .. A lone cockroach was discovered aboard one of the Apollo capsules on a flight to the Moon. He disappeared shortly after discovery, and there is suspicion that now, for the first time, there is life on the Moon.
The chief difference between mankind and the cockroach is that the one continually bitches over his fate while the other stoically plods on, uncomplaining, with never a glance backward nor a sigh for what might have been.
Thoughts like this are the kind that come easily to me. As I struggle, my way uptown through the heavy miasma of hydrocarbons and obscenities that hang thickly like a shifting yellow curtain of doom over Sixth Avenue in Fun City. For those of you who are not familiar with this classic urban thoroughfare - known officially as The Avenue Of The Americas, better known to more literate cabdrivers as the Armpit Of Manhattan - it runs due North, theoretically one-way, from somewhere south of Greenwich Village right up the gut of Manhattan, past such cultural centers as Macy's and Gimbe}'s, encompassing the Porny belt around 42nd street, and then finally ending in an ungodly traffic snarl at the south end of Central Park.
Driving in midtown New York is a specialty as highly difficult and rarified as, say, lion taming or Japanese Sumo wrestling. It requires a high degree of pugnacity, total selfishness and a complete careless disregard for what is called in other quarters and more civilized sections of our country, the Rights Of Others. The true Manhattan driver never concedes that the 'others' deserve any rights whatsoever, and in fact he rarely admits that there are 'others.' He combines incredible, almost inhuman qualities of stoicism with the ferocity usually associated with the male rhinoceros in rutting season.
For you fortunates who live out there in the Great Outside beyond the Hudson, who believe that magnificent driving is what you see under the auspices of NASCAR or at Indy, I can only say that a midday session with a Manhattan hackie through the garment district is well worth the exorbitant price, if for sheer instructionary and thrill content alone. I have studied the breed for years and a considerable portion of my life's fortune has been spent keeping their rapacious meters ticking over merrily, each tick moving me closer and closer to the poor house while often taking me away from my destination.
Manhattan cabs are born old. As you struggle in to the back seat .at,. Say, 8th Street and 6th Avenue, of the yawing, sagging, stinking hulk which has lurched curbward in your direction, its glaring toadlike. Pilot hunched over his greasy steering wheel, a seven-cent cigar clamped in his teeth, you are startled to find that the cab itself often has less than 3000 miles, on the speedometer. Four days out of the showroom and already a grizzled veteran of combat. Crashing from pothole to pothole, knee deep in a rich compost of cigarette butts, candy wrappers and drying urine you hurtle northward toward your lunch date. .round you are thousands of other yellow, barnacle-encrusted wrecks, each driver being a total professional. In all my years of New York cab riding I have yet to find the col9rful, philosophical cabdriver that keeps popping up on the late movies. There are no William Bendixes or Lloyd Nolans or Jimmy Cagneys pushing hacks in theĽ big town. If there are, I sure as hell haven't found them.
The nature of the car in the big city itself is something that requires a little explanation. Month after month magnificent, gleaming color ads leap out at you from the pages of Car and Driver. To a New Yorker these" fantasy image~ of sparkling sculptured masterpieces are as remote from our daily lives as, say, Oz or Samarkand. It is common for a man to take possession of a new, sleek Firebird on Tuesday and by late Thursday afternoon it has been pounded and battered into a Fiat 850. By the following Wednesday he is driving an ancient Morgan three-wheeler and then, magically, maybe mercifully, the roving mobs of car snatchers have relieved him of what's left and he's back to hailing cabs.
A daily sight along the expressways is the superb team precision of the vultures who can be seen hourly stripping anything that slows down under 10 mph, from a Mark XI heavy tank to a Honda 305. There is some talk in local circles that Car Stripping will eventually become an Olympic team event, at last giving the underprivileged the chance to show their true skills on TV, with Keith Jackson doing the commentary, produced by Roone Arledge for the Wide Wide World Of Sports. It has been said, although perhaps apocryphally, that there are certain operators in Brooklyn who can remove a full set of mag wheels from a Corvette proceeding on the Long Island Expressway at 60 mph, or the legal limit, with the driver totally unaware of his loss until he hits Hempstead where the potholes start to peter out. Naturally, this gives rise to a certain jumpiness among us irrational dreamers who persist in attempting to own a car in New York.
Garage space alone is a can of worms that's beyond the comprehension of anyone who has never really lived in Manhattan. It is not uncommon for a car owner to shell out more for a tiny slot of dirty, greasy, rat-infested space grudgingly allotted him by snarling, rapacious thugs than he does for his apartment housing, his beloved and his two precious goldfish. He must contact his 'garage,' actually a sagging red-brick, 209-year-old firetrap manned by venomous dacoits, fully 10 days or more before he wishes to use his battered vehicle. Contacted at last by telephone. They answer with a surly grunt, that is if the local AT&T mob, which currently seems to be in the hands of Doctor No bent on world destruction for his own mad design, allows him to get through at all, after taking upwards of 10 gratuitous dimes from the .sufferer. The exchange of pleasantries goes roughly like this:
"YEH?" (accompanied by heavy breathing and a brief period of phlegmy hawking and the sound of copious spitting,. Probably on someone"s Aston Martin).
"Uh . . . excuse me, but I'd like to have my car, sir, if . . . "
"Fer Crissake,. We're BUSY! What the hell!" (The sound of muffled crashings drowns out conversation momentarily.)
"I have that blue Fiat, the one . . ."
"Fer Crissake that Fiat's iiina Damn basement! Whaddaya expect me to do, goddammit, it's Tuesday!"
"I khow, I'm sorry, sir, but there's nothing I can do about it. I got a call that my mother had a stroke and I have to . . ." (The beseecher is interrupted at this point by unintelligible shouting in the phone. A fight has broken out at the garage. Apparently another car owner has arrived unexpectedly, demanding his machine. Naturally, immediate disciplinary action is being taken by the 'attendants,' who must maintain the upper hand else mob rule would take over. Amid the hullabaloo he hears the familiar voice of his telephone friend.)
"Hey Heinie, that fat nut wit' da Fiat wants his tin can. When canya give it ta him?" (There is a burst off stage laughter accompanied by a smattering of obscenity too ripe for a family magazine.)
"When d'y wannit?"
"Well, I thought . . . "
"We can't get it outa the basement before Friday .. Crissake, you guys call up an' want yer car widout no notice or nothin'."
"I'm sorry, sir: I'll be over Friday; sir, I hate to bother you. But . . ." (He is drowned out by maniacal squealing of brakes followed by a muffled thud and a tinkling of glass .. The line goes dead.)
Chances are 30-1 that when the victim arrives at the garage the following Friday no one on the premises will remember his call or even his face, since he has only been in the clutches of the mob for three years and can't expect recognition, and will be told to come back next Wednesday at the earliest. For this he antes up $90 a month and is expected never to mention the bashed-in doors, the flattened trunk, the smashed grille or the beer cans he finds in the front seat and the unmistakable evidence that at least three people and a dog have been camping out in his pride and joy while running down the battery listening to the Mets and striking kitchen matches on his knurled walnut instrument panel.
Everywhere else' in the country, cars have distinct differences; some are Jaguars, others are Pintos. There are Gremlins and Corvettes. They even have distinctive colors. There are blues, greens, Cardinal reds, and even eggshell whites: To a New Yorker this seems .almost something. Out of the halcyon past, the days of simple pleasures like home-made bread and 4th of July fireworks. By the third day of its life in New York City all these characteristics of the automobile have all but disappeared. The Jersey crud which drifts down inexorably from what used to be the heavens, bearing its deadly load of rare and subtle acids, its exotic poisons and mysterious gases, has obliterated all signs of distinctive coloration. The car becomes a curious mouldy dun color, which is distinctively Manhattan in character as it resembles. The mole-like inhabitants' complexions.
Repeated bashings, side-swipings, dinging and general hammerings have formed the machine into its basic non-identifiable lumpish form. The job is completed by the locust swarm of humanoid car levelers who systematically denude every vehicle of its hubcaps, nameplates, badges, antennas and whatever else might have made it vaguely distinctive from its fellows . . . It is now an urban car; tough, tenacious, and totally anonymous, a fitting companion for the New Yorker himself.
Only the cabdriver, like the ancient seafaring man, commands the rolling seas of New York traffic. He has his own battle code and like most soldiers has a vast disdain for the civilian. Mayors come and mayors go; traffic engineers rise and fall. The New York hackie hates them all. It is a matter of record that no licensed New York cabdriver has uttered so much as a mildly civil remark about an incumbent mayor since the late unlamented James Walker, better known as Jimmy The Slick to his bootlegger friends, passed out in a Checker on 49th Street and upon awakening tipped the driver with a $20 bill. Legend has it that the hackie, in a clear voice, stated "Now dere's a good Mayor," although this is in dispute.
The cabdrivers' attitude toward civilian drivers goes like this: You've. Been seated in a cab with meter ticking away steadily for 19 minutes at the corner of-33rd Street and 6th Avenue in a gigantic tangle of unmoving machines.
Cabbie (red neck glowing): "Y'know what they could do to clean up this whole mess? I'll tell ya what they could do if Lindsay wasn't such a crummy crook. I'll tell ya what they could do."
Passenger (rising to the bait): "What could they do?" (Clouds of carbon monoxide swirling around his head and gradually dissolving his new wash-and-wear suit.)
Cabbie: "You know what they could do? I'll tell ya what they could do if that Lindsay wasn't such a crummy crook. Boy, them stupes what voted for him got what they deserved,' 'an' now the crummy crook wants ta be President!"
Passenger: "What could they do?"
Cabbie: "What could they. Do about what?" (He glances suspiciously into the rear view mirror.)
Passenger (His eyes beginning to pop slightly due to the fact that the temperature in the sagging Plymouth has risen to the near-200░ mark): "You were telling me what they could do about the traffic."
(Ahead, the driver of a giant tractor trailer rig plastered with ancient VOTE FOR GOLDWATER stickers has commenced a listless fistfight with an unidentified male Caucasian, medium build,).
Cabbie: "Oh yeah, well ' if they wasn't so stupid they would ban all civilian cars from d'roads. Kick 'em off. That's, what's causin' alla traffic jams. If that. Pansy Lindsay wasn't such a stupid crook!"
(The Passenger, glancing around at the vast tangled traffic jam, noticing that there is not a single civilian car in sight, nothing but a sea of yellow cabs and red-necked drivers, all demanding the immediate banishment of non-cabs. From the road, settles into moody silence, attempting to while away the ticking-off metered hours by scrounging amid the rubble heap on the ' cab floor, looking for something to read. Noticing a furtive movement under an encrusted pile of cigar butts and bottle caps he suspects there might be some sort of lizard or maybe a rat sharing his ride. He gives up scrounging and sits patiently awaiting the time when the traffic moves again. He has been here before. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock his life is not measured out in coffee spoons but flag drops and meter ticks. The .little white numbers in the grimy glass window mount higher and higher as he squats amid the rubble, sharing with the cockroach the rare ability' to adapt to totally.-alien environments, his lungs operating rhythmically in shallow gasps, extracting what tiny nourishment there is from the. Putrid. Atmosphere of his adopted environment. He awakens from his torpor momentarily to continue his listless conversation with the pilot ahead.)
Passenger: "How come you got two plastic Christs on the dashboard?"
Cabbie (relighting the stub of his cigarette due to lack of oxygen): "The one on the left belongs to the night man."
It's no wonder that the beautiful ads in, Car and Driver read like fantasy fiction to the average New Yorker.