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Where exactly did I live?
Somewhere downtown, but that wasn’t much help.
On the second or third floor of an old apartment building, down the hall from a family named Morgenstern...
“Just take me downtown,” I said.
“Sure, buddy, just tell me when to stop.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um, but will you tell me when we get there?”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind.”
He turned around to look at me, which I found disconcerting, because the cab was now driving at speed through busy traffic. He had a lit cigar in his mouth, and he took it out with his right hand, leaving just his left hand on the steering wheel.
“You live downtown,” he said, “but you need me to tell you when we get there?”
“I’m – uh – I’m a recent arrival,” I said.
I was sweating now. It was a hot day. And also I was afraid he was going to crash the cab.
He turned back to face through the windscreen, but he was still eyeing me through the rear-view mirror.
“How recent?” he asked.
“How goddam recently have you arrived?”
“Um, like, uh, a few days ago?”
“You don’t seem too sure,” he said.
I slumped back into my seat.
I had nothing more to say.
But the driver did.
“So whatta ya do for a living, pal?”
Why couldn’t he leave me alone? But undoubtedly it was boring driving a cab all day. And it was natural to want to talk to your fellow human beings. Although come to think of it one of the few things I actually liked about being a brakeman for all those years was that I didn’t really have to talk to people very much. I confess I never once had the urge to ask a passenger what his occupation was, how he liked the weather, what he thought of the Phillies’ chances this year, it was all a matter of indifference to me…
“Okay, you don’t gotta answer me. It ain’t none of my business, pal, what the hell ya do. I don’t give a flyin’ f-”
“I’m a poet,” I blurted.
He turned around to look at me again as his car zoomed merrily along down the street.
“Yes,” I said, wishing I had said dentist, or bricklayer, accordionist, anything but what I had said.
“All my years driving a cab I gotta say you’re the first goddam poet I ever picked up.”
He turned to face front again just in time to step on the gas and beat a light the very second it was turning red.
“Not knowingly, anyways,” he said. He eyed me again in the rear-view, scrunching his eyebrows together, and taking a puff on his cigar. “Any money in that racket?”
“No – in goddam pork futures. Christ. Yes, in poetry. Any money in poetry?”
“Well,” I said, “uh, normally I would say no, not really.”
“But you’re doin’ okay, huh?”
“Well, I guess I am,” I said.
“Whaddaya make? Ya don’t mind my askin’.”
“Well, uh, right now I’m getting –” what did Julian say? Oh, right – “I guess I’m making fifty bucks a week –”
“So ya get paid by the week, huh?”
I didn’t want to get into the whole royalties and sliding-scale business, I didn’t understand it myself anyway.
“And this is fifty take-home?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said (although it occurred to me that I would be obligated to report this income for my taxes, one more thing to worry about –)
“Half a yard a week,” he said. He was still looking at me in the rear-view mirror, he seemed to be studying me. “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad. You guys got a union?”
“Yeah, like a poet’s union.”
“Not that I know of.”
“You gotta start a union, pal. Otherwise the bosses’ll screw ya. It’s like any other goddam profession.”
“That’s true, I guess –”
“Of course it’s true. Get together with some of your other poet buddies and start a goddam union.”
I didn’t mention that I had no poet buddies. In fact I’d never met a single other poet in my life. And I didn’t feel particularly bereft by this lack either. It was bad enough knowing myself.
“You got any books out?”
“You got any books out I could buy, or maybe get outa the liberry?”
“Well, I’m supposed to have one out later this year --”
“No kidding? What’s it gonna be called?”
I drew a blank. What was it called? I was drawing a complete blank.
“It’s called, um, Life Is Like a Mangy Dog,” I said, just to say something.
He turned around to look at me again, while simultaneously stopping at a red light.
“Life Is Like a Mangy Dog?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“And for this you get half a C-note a week.”
He was holding his cigar over the back of the seat, and some of the ash fell on my jeans.
“I thought poets wrote about love and shit.”
“Well, we do, sometimes,” I said. I brushed off the ash.
“Except you write about how life is like a mangy dog.”
I thought maybe I should just get out of the cab here, wherever we were, but the light changed and he stepped on the gas.
“So, life is like a mangy dog,” he said.
“Well, uh –”
“A mangy goddam dog.”
“Um, well, uh –”
“You know what, pal?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“You’re goddam right. Life is like a mangy dog.”
“Well, uh, second thought, maybe we’ll change the title of the book –”
“A mangy goddam dog,” he said. “Ya work all your goddam life. Ya get old. Ya get sick. And then ya croak. It’s a mangy dog.”
“Well, uh – it’s not so bad –”
“Maybe for you it ain’t. Sittin’ in your downtown pad writin’ poems all day, bringin’ home fifty clams a week. Prolly got dames crawlin’ all over ya. Maybe for you life ain’t a mangy dog.”
I felt bad now.
“Life can be –"
“Yo, gramps!” he yelled at an old man in a green Hupmobile who had apparently veered too close to the cab. “Learn to fuckin’ drive before I run you off the road!” He glanced back at me over his shoulder. “Excuse my French. What was you sayin’, pal?”
“Oh – just that, you know, life can be, you know, a very beautiful –”
“For who? For goddam who?”
“Well, I don’t know –”
“What about the goddam starvin’ babies in Africa?”
“Oh, well –”
“Don’t they count? Them babies?”
“Um, sure –”
“No,” he said. “You got it right the first time, pal. Life’s like a mangy goddam dog.”
He pulled up at an empty space near a corner.
“Bleecker Street,” he said. “This good enough for ya?”
“Yes,” I said. “Here, how much do I –”
“Your buddy already took care of it, remember?”
“Oh, right,” I said.
“He your boss?”
“Sort of,” I said. “My publisher.”
“Rich guy, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess he’s fairly well-off –”
“Rich guy,” said the driver. “Life ain’t no mangy dog for him.”
“No, I suppose not,” I said.
“What’s your name, pal?”
“Arnold,” I said.
I remembered I wasn’t Arnold any more.
“I mean Porter,” I said. “Porter Walker.”
“Why’dja say Arnold then?”
“Um, my name is Arnold, uh, Porter Walker. Arnold Porter Walker. But I’m just going by Porter Walker for my book.”
“Yeah, Porter Walker is classier. Arnold sounds like, I don’t know, a milkman or somethin'.”
“Well, I’ll see ya around,” I said. I opened the car door.
“Yeah,” said the driver. “I’ll keep an eye out for your book.”
“We might change the title,” I said.
“Yeah, people can’t take the truth,” he said.
I got out of the cab, closed the door.
“A mangy dog!” the driver shouted.
I waved. I didn’t know what else to do.
“A mangy goddam dog,” he said again, and then he pulled out into the stream of traffic again.
I looked up at the nearest street sign.
Bleecker Street and MacDougal.
Well, I was in the right neighborhood, anyway, probably.
That was a start.
(Continued here, and, at this rate, for at least twenty-seven more years.)
(Please look to the right hand column of this page for an up-to-the-minute listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven© “Not just a memoir, but an epic poem, a journey, a way of life, and a source of inspiration for young and old alike.” -- Harold Bloom)