On this rainy hot night in old Greenwich Village our hero Arnold Schnabel, escaping from yet another uncomfortable situation, has just gotten into a cab on Bleecker Street...
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“To read Arnold Schnabel’s towering chef-d'œuvre is to embark upon a great journey – but to who knows where?” – Harold Bloom, from Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven: A Reader’s Guide.
The driver flicked on his meter, put the cab in gear, and pulled out, and as he did I took one last look over my shoulder out the window at Beverly, still standing there under the awning outside that bar. She saw my probably baleful visage through that crashing torrent and the window streaming with rainwater, and, raising her right hand, she gave me the finger.
I sat back in my seat. Through the increasing and simultaneous numbing and heightening of my senses and my consciousness brought on by my inadvertent gorging on those hashish brownies I still managed to feel sorry for Beverly, but it was just asking too much of me to join her in her world. Maybe now she would find someone better. At least maybe she could find someone who wasn’t suspected of murdering this Billingsly fellow, whoever he was…
My thoughts were interrupted by the cab driver, who, throwing his right arm over the seat back and turning almost full around to look at me, suddenly spoke.
“At first I didn’t make you.”
I had no idea on heaven or earth or any other plane of existence what he was talking about.
“Pardon me?” I said, pushing the syllables out of my mouth like golf balls.
“I didn’t quite make you at first on account of you don’t mind my saying so you look like shit," he said. "What, you been gettin’ in fights and rollin’ in gutters all day and night?”
I tried to say something, but produced only something like the sound you make when a doctor asks you to open your mouth wide and say “ah”.
“You don’t remember me, do ya?” said the driver.
He had a sort of bunched-up face, with an unlit cigar stub in it, and he wore a yellow and black Yellow Cab cap.
“You do look a little familiar,” I found myself saying, and it hit me that this driver looked very much like the actor William Bendix. Was I still in a movie?
“I picked you up earlier today,” he said. “At the Plaza?”
“Took you down here to the Village. You’re the poet.”
Suddenly it all came back to me. Had it really been “today”? Because it felt like five-and-a-half years ago.
“Hi,” I said. That was all I could come up with.
“Porter Walker. That’s your name, ain’t it?”
True, it was one of my names, and I suppose my legitimate name in this world.
“Yes,” I said, just to give him the concise version, and then I realized that he had been looking back at me over the seat all the while he was driving quite quickly through that downpour. “Hey,” I said, “I don’t mean to tell you your job, but could you maybe look at the street instead of back at me?”
Suddenly the words were just pouring out of my mouth, set loose by the craven fear of sudden death in a crash, or, if I survived, a long and painful recovery in a hospital followed by living the rest of my life as a wincing and limping cripple.
After a pause of only half a minute the driver obligingly turned his head around, partway anyway, in the direction of the windshield with its swiping wipers and the rain pouring down on it, just like a windshield in a movie about betrayed passions and murder.
“We’re all right,” he said, and he turned and looked back at me again. “I been thinking about our conversation we had.”
“Really?” I said. “Hey, listen, why don’t you just let me out here.”
“What, right here?”
“Sure,” I said. “Anywhere. Here is fine.”
“Do you even know where we are?”
“No,” I said. “But I think I’d like to get out anyway.”
“Does my talking annoy you?”
“No,” I said. “Or rather, yes, but the real reason I want to get out is you’re scaring me because you won’t watch where you’re driving.”
“Hey, pal, I been driving a cab almost twenty years with just a few years off in there when I was serving my country in the army so don’t tell me my job.”
“But I’m scared.”
“Would it make you less scared if I kept my eyes on the road?”
“Yes!” I said, doing my best not to emit a high-pitched keen of abject fear.
“Sheesh,” he said, but he finally turned around and faced the front. “I hope it’s okay if I just like glance at you in the rear-view while we converse,” he said, and he adjusted his mirror above the windshield so he could see my face in it, and I his. “I mean I hope that don’t bother you.”
“No, that’s okay,” I said. “But I really wish you would just glance in the mirror only occasionally, and mostly keep your eyes on the, like, road.”
“Yes,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “I ain’t that thin-skinned. Not after almost a fifth of a fucking century driving a cab in this crazy town." He made a left turn, going through a red light, but we didn't crash into anything, not yet. "So like I say, I was thinking about our conversation all day. And all night. Thinking. Probably you wasn’t, though. Right?”
Frankly I hadn’t thought about it all and I couldn’t even remember what we had talked about, but just to be nice I lied, and said, “Oh, no, I thought about it.”
“You did?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“And what did you think about it?”
Those hashish brownies I had eaten must have really taken over here, because I said:
“I just thought that it’s, um, really important for me as a poet to hear what guys like you have to say. The regular guys. The regular Joes. The working men. The, the backbone of our society.”
“For real,” I said.
“’Cause what I was thinking was, like maybe I could get in your racket.”
“The poetry racket.”
“Ah, yes,” I said.
“I mean, you said you was doing okay, right?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
“Pulling in a good fifty clams a week?”
“Plus, I bet you got dames crawling all over ya.”
“Well, I don’t know –”
“I seen that blonde dame outside Bill’s Bar there. The one that said fuck you to you. Not bad. Not bad at all. I wished I could find dames like that what would say fuck you to me.”
“But dames are like that. They like artistic type guys. But you know what kind of guys dames don’t like?”
“Taxi drivers. That’s what kind of guys dames don’t like. At least good-looking dames like that blondie back there.”
“Well, I’m sure, uh, there are women who, uh –”
“Don’t gimme that crap, pal.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I live my life. I know what kind of dames guys like me attract. Dames what look like Thelma Ritter. Or Jane Darwell maybe. Beulah Bondi at best. Don’t patronize me, pal!”
“Sorry,” I said.
“So that’s why I got to thinking: maybe – just maybe – I could write poems too.”
What else could I say?
“Maybe – just maybe – I could be a professional poet, too,” he said. “Just like you, pal.”
“Well, uh, why not?” I said. “By the way, are we near Bob’s Bowery Bar yet?”
“What?” I said.
“I went past it. I got so innerested in what we was talking about I made the left turn on the Bowery and went on right past the jernt.”
“How far past?”
“Not too far, buddy, it’s just a few blocks back, maybe a little more than a few. Tell ya what I’ll do, I’ll turn the meter off.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
And he actually did shove the handle of the meter down, but then he proceeded to drive right past a cross street, running a red light.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but you are going to turn around, aren’t you? And take me to Bob’s Bowery Bar?”
He turned in his seat again, his right arm over the seat back, and he glared at me.
“I said I was gonna take you there, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, leave the driving to me. I know what the fuck I’m doin’, and I will take the very next turn – I mean if that’s all right with you.”
“Um, okay,” I said. “But, um.”
“Um? Um what”
“Um,” I said, “I hate to keep harping on this subject, but I really would feel more comfortable if you kept your eyes on the road.”
“Okay,” he said, but he kept looking at me. “What happened to you, anyway? You don’t mind my saying so, you look like shit warmed over. Your clothes all wet and dirty, you got a black eye, bruises on your face. Is that what it’s like being a poet? Just going around brawling and drinking all night. And getting beautiful babes mad at you so they say fuck you?”
“Well, I really couldn’t speak for all poets,” I said. I saw through the window that we had just passed another cross street, running another red light. “By the way, what was wrong with that street we just passed?”
“What street?” He turned finally and looked out the windshield, then turned back again and looked past me out the rear window. “Oh. Okay, no problem. I missed that one, but I’ll make the next turn, I promise.” Then he looked at me in a way that seemed to bunch up his face even more than it already was, but maybe that was just the brownies. “You ain’t in some big hurry, are ya?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re in a hurry to get to Bob’s Bowery Bar.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Why in God’s name would anybody be in a hurry to get to that jernt?”
“Please,” I said, “can you just look at the road, please?”
“Wow, I was only asking a question, Porter.”
“I’ll answer all your questions if you’ll only keep your eyes on where you’re driving.”
“All my questions?”
“Yes,” I said. “Oh, wait, look –"
We were coming up to another cross street, and this one even had a green light.
"What?" he said.
We drove past the street.
"Um," I said.
“Oh,” he said, taking a glance out at the street. “Sorry. I’ll hang the next one, I promise.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re most welcome.”
“But, please,” I said.
“You said you would watch the road.”
“Now, I never actually said that.”
“But I’m asking you to.”
“And what’s the magic word?”
“Okay, then,” he said. “That’s better.”
And finally he turned around and faced front again. He gave the rear-view mirror another adjustment, just a millimeter or so, and looked at me in it.
“You said you would answer my question.”
“What was the question.”
“Why the fuck are you in such a goddam hurry to get to a dive like Bob’s Bowery Bar.”
“Oh. Uh, well, I have some, uh, friends there, and, uh, you know –”
“So you want to hear the poem I wrote?”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“The poem I wrote. You want to hear it?”
“You wrote a poem?”
“I sure did.” He turned around and looked at me again. He tapped the side of his cap. “I wrote it in here, while I was driving around all day and night. You want to hear it?”
“I really just want to get to –”
“I know, I know, Bob’s Bowery Bar, Bob’s fucking Bowery Bar, and your so-called ‘friends’, and, lookit, I’m taking you there. Okay? I said I would and I will. But would you like to hear the poem I wrote in my head today, while I am driving you to Bob’s fucking Bowery bar.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
“Sure,” I said. “But, look, if you don’t mind –”
“Can you please just keep your eyes on the road, because I’m really getting scared here.”
“Jeeze, you really are a coward, ain’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “So, please, turn around, and I’ll listen to your poem.”
“Okay,” he said. “That’s fair.”
He turned and faced front, just as we were speeding past another cross street and another red light.
“Shit,” he said. “Missed another turn. No matter, I got the meter turned off.” He looked at me in the mirror. “You ready to hear my poem?”
“Yes,” I said. Of course I wasn’t ready to hear his poem. I would never be ready to hear his poem, but I was trapped in this cab with him, and I didn’t want to make him angry.
“Reason I want to recite you the poem, on account of you’re the only poet I ever met, Porter. You don’t mind I call you Porter?”
“No, I don’t care,” I said.
“Or you prefer I call you Arnold. Didn’t you say that was your real first name?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So what you prefer?”
“I don’t care.”
“I’ll bet your ‘friends’ call you Arnold. The people who know you. Your buddies. Don’t they.” We were approaching another cross street, but this time at least the light was only yellow. “Arnold,” he said, and he drove past the street just as the light turned red. “How about I call you Arnold?”
“Sure,” I said. “Call me Arnold, but, look, excuse me, what’s your name?”
“Al. For Albert. But call me Al.”
“Al,” I said, “I think we just missed another turn.”
“Look, Arnold, I know what I’m doing up here, and nobody likes a back-seat driver. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “It just seems like we should be turning, and you keep forgetting to.”
“Oh, okay, you want me to turn?”
“Yes,” I said. “Just so we can get back to Bob’s –”
“– Bowery Bar, I know. And I’ll get you there. Now will you just relax and listen to my goddam poem?”
“Okay,” I said. “But here comes another cross street.”
“If I turn on this street will you just leave the driving to me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
And, amazingly, he did make a left turn at the next corner, ignoring another red light, wheeling sharply but only bouncing me off the door a little bit.
“Happy now?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, lying.
“And now can I please recite you my goddam poem?”
“Okay,” I said.
By way of preamble he cleared his throat for a while, and then he lit his cigar stub with a wooden match and exhaled a great cloud of thick bitter smoke that all but filled the interior of the cab. Then he coughed a few times, and cleared his throat again. As he did all this, I couldn’t help but notice that he kept driving straight ahead, west as far as I could tell, going through red lights past one cross-street and then another one instead of making a left turn to start to take me back to where I wanted to go, to where he said he would take me, but I kept quiet about it. Somehow I knew that he wasn’t going to let me out at Bob’s Bowery Bar or anywhere else until I had heard his poem.
“I call this poem ‘The Song of the Lonely Cab Driver',” he said: “’or, a Ballad of the City Streets, in One Thousand and One Stanzas’.”
(Continued here, and onward, at the same stately pace.)
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