A day in the life of two New York City men.
When I told my father I wanted to go to America, to New York City, he didn’t hesitate. He encouraged me to go. He said it was different there, that the city was different. That was eight years ago, and I didn’t know what he meant then, but I believe I do now - because of Henry. Henry’s gone. I’m told he passed away a few weeks ago. I didn’t know the man well. To be honest, I really didn’t know him at all, except for one day last fall. But on that day I think I came to understand him.
Large glass doors were still swinging behind him when Henry flagged me down and hopped into my taxi. I drove an old, black-and-yellow cab that I weaved around the city. “Take me downtown.” It was all he said to me. If I needed a more particular destination, I guess he figured it could wait. It was morning rush hour and I had just begun my shift, and I was sure there would be slow going. He seemed agitated. Not in the way that’s worrisome to a cabbie when a guy looks a little sketchy - eyes too alert, a bit anxious before he’s about to do something stupid. No, he looked upset, so I kept quiet and headed south.
“It’s been nearly twenty years since I splurged on a cab. ‘Why not take the subway?’ That’s what I always said. Well, not today.” Henry’s voice trailed as he was finishing, and I wasn’t sure if his words were even meant for me. He was looking around the back seat at the advertisements, my Taxi and Limousine Commission sticker, the thick plastic divider with the swivel cup stuck in its middle. He seemed out of place, and I didn’t expect to hear another sound from him.
“Where are you from?” he asked. He watched the people on the sidewalk as he spoke.
“I’m from New Delhi, originally.” I was smiling and wide-eyed in my photo that hung just below the meter. He didn’t say anything, so I continued south, swinging back and forth around buses and the food carts on the city’s West Side. Then I decided to try him again. “I’m here eight years,” I half-shouted into the mirror. Henry ignored me, and he didn’t say another word until 38th Street, when he told me to pull over.
He leaned forward and spoke through the perforation. “Look, I was distracted this morning, and I left without my wallet. I live right around the corner. I’ll be right down with your money or…if you want…I don’t care, come upstairs, and I’ll pay you. I’m on the second floor.”
I didn’t answer. I was at the curb, so I pulled the keys from the ignition and locked it, determined not to leave the car for more than a few minutes. A sign above a corner grocery hung from the red brick building, the bulbs blinking just below Henry’s window. I followed him into the building’s narrow entrance where there was barely room for the two of us. We walked up one flight and each step Henry took seemed deliberate, as if he were rehearsing a greeting. The apartment door squeaked when he swung it open. There was no one waiting. The room was dark and the shades were drawn, and the only light came from a lamp pulled close to a large stuffed chair. Henry lifted the shades and then scanned the room. His wallet lay on a small bookcase filled with dog-eared paperbacks. He pulled out a few bills and quietly asked about the fare. When I told him how much it was, he nodded softly and paid me, placing the bills in my hand as he counted.
“Your name is Ravi?”
I thought of my driver ID. “Well, yes. But I use Ray.”
“Could you just wait a moment, Ray? I’ll pay for your time, of course. Just a few minutes, okay?”
I told him I would, and I waited in the doorway. He pulled a note from his pocket and placed it on the bookcase alongside his key ring. When he walked into the bedroom to make a phone call, I noticed the paper was an oncologist’s prescription. I could hear Henry’s end of a conversation, muffled at first, then louder. It wasn’t an argument, but his voice was pronounced. “Yes, Margaret, I know there’s a time difference. No, no …there’s nothing wrong. I just wanted to speak with you.” His voice grew quiet again, and I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I could see him through the bedroom door, sitting on the side of the bed and facing the window. He was holding his forehead. The apartment wasn’t very large, and I could also see the kitchen from where I was standing. It was tiny, and entirely white, except for a tiled floor of black and white squares. It was spotless. When Henry finished his call and had come out of the bedroom, that’s when I first noticed he wore a thick gray shirt and matching pants, and black work shoes that were clean but not polished. I thought, except for a name embroidered in red thread, it looked like a uniform, right down to the white socks.
“Look… Ray, I’m having an uncomfortable day.” He sounded shaky. “I’d like to ride around the city today. Just to do something, and forget some things. Can you do that?”
I wasn’t sure, but seemed to be a straight shooter, and I figured he’d pay. I was also curious about the guy, so I told him it was okay. Then he opened the glass doors of the bookcase and pulled out one of the few hardcover books. I think it was a collection of photos of old New York. The book seemed to open by itself, a packet of hundred-dollar bills was wedged in its middle pages, and Henry stuffed the cash in his pocket. “Let’s go,” he said, and he held the door open for us to leave. Before he closed the door behind us, he hesitated a moment to take in the room.
When we got back into the cab he said, “just drive.” I wasn’t sure where to go, but I decided on Central Park and I drove to where it’s dissected at 72nd Street. The park can be beautiful in the fall, and it shimmered gold and red in the October sun. “Good. I love the park,” Henry said, as his mood seemed to lighten. “Do you know many people, Ray?”
He caught me off guard. “Well, yes, of course.”
“Yes? That’s nice. I don’t know too many. I guess you only realize that when you start counting them.” Henry’s head was down, but he was sitting up straight, his palms on his knees. “I’m sixty-seven, and I’ve lived here my whole life, but I know hardly anyone.” I saw streaks of sunlight pass along his profile. “Sorry. Got some bad news today and it’s screwing me up. I never told you, my name’s Henry.”
“Hey, Henry. So what’s the bad news?” I had forgotten the slip of paper, and the words were out before I could muffle them. “Do you want to ride it off?”
“I’d love to, but I don’t think I can.” He almost smiled at the thought. “My stomach. They said I should have had it looked at sooner. Now it’s bad.”
“I’m sorry, Henry.”
Again he seemed to retreat, and neither of us spoke as we reached the East Side. He still didn’t offer any direction, so I headed down Fifth Avenue. The Park was on our right, New York’s elite to our left, and we rode quietly, descending into mid-town traffic, when Henry returned to his earlier thought. “I don’t have many friends, Ray. And I have…I guess you heard that call this morning?”
I lied. “No. I didn’t.”
“That was my daughter. She’s in California. I guess I woke her. You know, I just wanted to tell somebody.” He paused. “You have kids?”
“Yes, a boy and a girl.” He avoided looking at me in the mirror, and appeared to drift. “I haven’t seen Margaret in seven years.” He seemed surprised by the telling. “She was here for two days on some business. Probably very important. I saw her for forty-five minutes. You should stay close to your kids.”
We rode in silence afterward, the only interruption the constant hum of mid-day New York. Then Henry made an announcement. “I want to see Carole.” I shot him a look, and he didn’t hesitate. “Eighty-Third and Madison. Café Marin or Martine…something like that. It’s up on the left side. Has a yellow-and-white striped awning, and some tables outside. I’ve been by there a few times. Never went inside, though.”
“Are you stopping for lunch? Because I can grab a few fares and get back in an hour. Save you some money.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to eat. Maybe I will. That way, she has to talk to me. But I don’t know if I’m going to tell her.” Henry didn’t seem to care that he was muttering under his breath, nor that I had no idea who Carole was. I pulled into the No Parking Zone directly in front of the café and turned on my off-duty light. “No. No. Don’t leave. I’m not sure what she’ll do. Wait for me. She’s my ex…uh, girlfriend. Wife’s been gone so long I can hardly remember her.” He said it as if she were an afterthought, and then he climbed out of the back seat and headed into the café, straightening his pant legs to cover his socks as he walked inside.
The day, crisp and blue early on, had warmed, and the sidewalk tables looked inviting edged beneath the restaurant’s windows. I decided to wait there for Henry. I had a clear view of the café and the few occupied tables. Henry leaned in to say something to the host before he was seated. Henry waited with his head down, the only drab spot among the cheerful blues and yellows of the café. The waitress that approached him appeared to be a few years younger. She had a pleasant face, with dark hair pulled in a tight bun, and she smiled when he saw her. He tried to make her laugh, holding his knife and fork in a waiting-for-my-grub pose. They spoke for a few minutes before she walked away. I couldn’t hear them, but Henry sat alone for a while, then stood and threw his napkin down and walked back to the cab.
We each sat on the driver’s side of my taxi with a door swung open. Carole could see us through the open windows, and she watched us out of the corner of her eye as she took lunch orders. “I’m old, but I still get surprised,” Henry said. He was shaking his head. “She smiled when she saw me. Did you see that? She was glad I came to see her. You know, I never did before.” He paused. “It was never a serious thing, but we had some fun. Then she drifted away, little by little, until she wasn’t there anymore. She said she wasn’t enjoying herself. I don’t know…I thought we were having nice times.”
“So what happened in there?”
“Well, I figured she would cheer me up for an hour. You know, kid around while I ate lunch. Maybe go out after. But I told her right out. I shouldn’t have said anything before we were alone, but today is tough. Anyway, she just clammed up. Looked pretty angry, too. I guess I was ruining her day. So I left.”
“That’s pretty shitty, Henry. You can do better.”
Henry suddenly doubled in pain. He folded his arms and grimaced as his head dipped between his knees. His body was in a twist, and I moved around to the rear door and tried to steady him. It took a while before he sat upright again. I held his shoulders, and asked him if he wanted a doctor.
“No. That’s the stomach thing. They can’t do much, except for painkillers.” He looked frightened. “Please. I’ll pay you. I’ll pay the fare. You saw the money. Just keep driving me.”
“Henry, you need a doctor.”
He was breathing easier now. “No. They’ll own pretty much the rest of my life. Today is mine. He swung his legs inside the taxi and closed the back door. I sat behind the wheel again, and I looked into the café and saw Carole holding her order pad. She was watching us from the middle of the restaurant, expressionless. When we pulled away, Henry looked much paler than he appeared earlier, slumping a little in the back seat, his thin hair messed. But he grew less guarded as we again rode around the East Side, and then down to the twisting side streets of the West Village and along the broad avenues running north and south, the length of the town. We rode for hours.
“I was a postal worker. Thirty-six years in the big house. The post office on Eighth, that’s what we called it. I never actually delivered mail, though. Retired five years ago, but I’m picking up some extra money, fixing lawn mowers, and other stuff. A repair shop in Jersey. The bus fare’s not bad. I don’t mind.” He gestured at his clothing. “They even give me work clothes.”
“So why did you come here, Ray? Not to drive a cab, I’ll bet.” Again, he caught me off guard.
“No, my dream was to be a writer. No better place than New York, right?”
He looked around the cab. “So?”
I decided then that I liked Henry. It was awkward conversing with him, he was ill at ease with me, but it seemed that was his way. About three degrees off, I figured, except when it came to the city. As the hours passed, the city seemed to draw him out. While we worked our way up and down the Manhattan grid, Henry would run with bursts of New York tidbits about famous buildings and infamous New Yorkers, about bridges, piers, churches, and roadways – anything that shaped the city’s character. Locations I once saw as dull and painted-over, I now pictured in bold relief, just as Henry sketched them, the way they once were. But his mood remained somber, and we were nearing evening when he brightened for the first time all day. “If I had more nerve, I could have made the change with Mike.”
“Yeah, Mike.” He hesitated. “What time is it?”
“It’s around five o’clock, Henry.” I was hoping this was going to be it for the day.
“Head over to 33rd, near Eighth.”
“Okay. Where are you headed to?”
“We’re headed to a bar,” he said.
“Really. Do you think you should?” I wanted to go home. My shift was ending.
“Yes. Find a garage. You’ll never find a parking spot.” I didn’t argue, and twenty minutes later we surprised an energetic middle-eastern man working in an open-air lot on 34th Street. “We’ll be an hour. Maybe two,” Henry told him.
We were weaving between the people moving quickly at the end of the work day, when Henry pulled at his left side. He dropped to one knee and began to breathe rapidly, trying to stem the pain. I bent to help him, but he blocked me with his arm as he rose. He stood for a moment and steadied himself. “I’m alright, it’s easing.” Soon he was off again, leading us toward the Garden Tavern & Grill. “It’s right over here.”
When we walked in, Mike was sitting on the first stool, closest to the window. The tavern was large and dark, an older place with swaths of mahogany and wooden blinds that let in the daylight in white strips that ran across the whiskey bottles. A man’s bar from a different time.
“Hey, Mike. Long time.” I was pleased when Henry introduced me as his friend.
Mike nodded, and then held up three fingers. He got a quick glance from the bartender who pulled three beers from an ice chest, placing a bottle in front of each of us. Henry waved off his glass. “So, Henry, how have you been? I haven’t seen you the last few months.” Mike smirked. “Did you find a better spot?” Mike looked about the same age as Henry, but his hair was thick and silvery, and long in the back where it curled on his shirt collar.
“No, no, just taking it easy.” Henry turned the bottle, and he squinted as the light hit his eyes through the slatted window. “Mike”, Henry said, placing his palm flat on the bar, “these are on me.”
“So, what’s up Henry?” Mike tapped his stomach, and then sucked it in. He gestured to Henry. “How much you lose? Your diet. You’re on a diet, right?”
“Oh, yeah, about ten, fifteen pounds,” Henry said.
“I should try it. On second thought, I’d never stick with it. I’d go crazy counting calories, or whatever the hell you’re supposed to do.” He took off his suit jacket and draped it over the back of his chair. He seemed bored with us already. He rocked his weight from the balls of his feet to his heels, and then back again, all while rimming the belt line of his trousers.
“So what’s up, Henry?”
“Not too much. Just wanted to stop by and say hello. So how’s business, Mike?” Henry turned to me. “Mike and I worked together at the post office years ago. But he’s been in real estate for a while. Does really well, too. Right, Mike?”
“I do okay. New Mercedes every other year.” He directed the words away from us, and toward the two women seated at the far end of the bar.
Henry hesitated before he changed the subject. “Hey, Mike, remember when we saw that last Yankee game in ninety-eight, the time DiMaggio was there?”
“Yeah, I remember. So?” Mike tilted his head toward Henry to spill the words, and not disturb his gaze.
“Do you remember how he stood on the dugout steps and waved to the crowd? He was dressed in a dark suit. He looked classy, like he knew it would be his last time at the Stadium. And it was, you know.”
“I was wondering if he knew it would be his last time there. He was sick and…and he passed away a few months later.”
“Who knows what he was thinking?”
Henry persisted. “What I mean is, I wonder how it felt?”
“Geez, Henry, what is this with DiMaggio? We’re trying to relax here.”
Henry eased his grip on the edge of the bar. Our beers were still full when Mike adjusted his tie, and made his apologies. He walked away. He suddenly remembered that one of the two women sitting behind an apple martini was a prospective buyer.
“Okay, Mike,” Henry said.
Before Henry’s friend reached the end of the bar, Henry had paid for the beers and we were out into the light. The entire exchange took all of ten minutes and I hadn’t said a word. We had taken only a few steps toward the parking lot when Henry stopped and asked me to drive him to Brooklyn.
We fetched the cab, and with the meter still clicking and groaning, I headed into lower Manhattan, crawled past City Hall, and eventually made it to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. I didn’t miss a beat when the light turned green. We climbed over the East River and Henry pressed against his door looking for the sliver of walkway running along the left riverbank. The iron web of the bridge encaged the roadway – pedestrians own the boardwalk above – yet it did little to interfere with our view. The granite squares of the bridge sped by as we entered Brooklyn, slowing when Henry motioned to the first exit. He seemed pleased he remembered the turn, and we eased down a spiral into downtown. Henry pointed to the west. “Head to the water. Just go straight.” When we reached the edge of a steep embankment that ran down to a cobblestone walkway, Henry asked me to pull over and park. “Come on,” he said.
We scrambled down the hill. We breezed past the stone tables and the old men hovered over soapstone knights, and we swung out onto the promenade. I rushed to the railing with him and I was stunned by the grand sweep of it, from the squat, cut-stone icon we had just traveled, to the huddled glass spires on the far shore elbowing for prominence, to the sunset reach of New York Harbor stretching southward far beyond the fingertip of Manhattan, past the Brooklyn tug boats scurrying in the channel between Governor’s Island, and on past the Liberty torch and out to sea.
I turned to Henry. He was smiling.