Melissa Plaut in New York City

The Five-Nine

The 59th Street Bridge was a wreck. I knew because I called a few of my taxi buddies one night while they were driving their cabs. I was on an "extended hiatus" and hadn't driven a taxi in a month. First, I called Gary. We hadn't spoken in six months, ever since he quit our garage to work for a private taxi owner. Gary is an actor and a playwright in his mid-to-late 50s, bald, and sharp and edgy. We got close when we drove out of the same garage, but sometimes when people leave a place and you don't see them regularly, it's hard to keep in touch, no matter how much you like each other.

Since the last time we'd talked, Gary had been traveling around the world and had settled into teaching English at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. He left me a message telling me he was back, and when I got him on the phone that night he was sitting in a backup in Queens on the approach to the 59th Street Bridge and telling me about how he was saving up to go live in Vietnam for four months.

At one point in the conversation, he said, "I can't believe this. Traffic is so bad that cars are starting to drive on the sidewalk."

I said, "You must be going nuts, huh?"

"Actually I'm not," Gary replied. If I learned one thing from the monks in Thailand it was this: 'See clearly and you will always act morally.' It sounds simple, but I've found it works. So, like right now, I figure, I'll get into Manhattan when I get there, and I'll make the money I'll make, and the night will be what it is."

So Gary was doing well -- getting all Zen and enjoying his life.

After talking for half an hour, we hung up as he made it onto the bridge.

After Gary, I called Allen, a strange, funny, childlike guy in his 50s. He's an orthodox Jew from Williamsburg and an old-time cabbie. Allen's a human global positioning system, always knowing how to get anywhere from anywhere in the five boroughs with block-by-block precision. If you were ever lost or had a question concerning a cab in any way, you called Allen. Like the time when my air conditioner was putting out a weird smell, Allen helped me figure it out -- sort of. I had just dropped off some tourists at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street and got Allen on the phone.

Me: "Hey, my A.C. smells weird. It's giving me a headache and making me a little dizzy. Do you know what it could be?"

Allen: "Oh, I know what it is -- does it smell like coffee?"

Me: "Uh, no. It's more chemical-like."

Allen: "Okay. Does it smell like crap?"

Me: "No, it just smells sort of toxic, like I'm losing brain cells."

Allen: "Is it blowing warm air?"

Me: "No."

Allen: "Does it smell like plastic?"

Me: "Yeah, sort of. It's in that family."

Allen: "Oh, okay, yeah. It must've been the day driver ran over a plastic bag and it melted onto the pipe. You're fine. It'll go away in a few hours."

Me: "Okay. Thanks."

Like I said, he was always helpful.

When I called him the night of the 59th Street Bridge, he picked up the phone and we said "Hello?" to each other a few times until he finally realized it was me. Then he said, "Melissa? It's Allen!"

"Hi Allen. I knew it was you -- I called you ... How're you doing?"

He launched into the matter at hand and said, "I'm in Brooklyn. The five-nine is all screwed up. You can't get into Manhattan!"

"Traffic's bad, huh?"


We talked for a few minutes and then Diego beeped in. A giant Puerto Rican guy in his 30s, Diego had somehow become my best friend at the garage.

"What's up Diego?"

"I'm pulling in to LaGuardia. The 59th Street Bridge is fucked."

"Yeah, I heard the bridge was bad. How's the airport?"

"It's all right. About half full." He was referring to the capacity of LaGuardia's taxi hold lot, where all the cabs have to shut off their engines and wait for incoming passengers. He must've parked because I heard him go up to the coffee shop in the taxi lot and buy a pack of cigarettes.

Then he said, "Yo, you coming back to work or what?"

"Yeah, soon. I'm starting to miss it a little."

Diego said, "Well, I miss you , buddy. I wanna see you soon."

When we hung up, Diego was still at the airport and, according to all reports, the 59th Street Bridge was still a mess.


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