Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel here in the back seat of a Yellow taxi cab speeding through the streets of Manhattan on this rainy hot night, just as his driver “Al” is about to begin reciting a poem titled “The Song of the Lonely Cab Driver; or, a Ballad of the City Streets, in One Thousand and One Stanzas”...
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“Yes, it’s true, Arnold Schnabel’s sprawling chef-d'œuvre is ‘long’, and indeed it grows longer by the week as his neatly handwritten copybooks are transcribed and published, but – and I think I may speak for all of Arnold’s thousands of devoted fans – however long this glorious work is I should not wish it to be shorter – nay, quite the opposite!” – Harold Bloom, from his The World of Arnold Schnabel: An Introduction for Younger Readers.
Special guest illustrations by rhoda penmarq ateliers internationale™ – thanks, rhoda!
“Excuse me,” I said, leaning forward in my seat. “Before you start.”
“Yeah?” said the driver. “What is it?”
“Did you just say ‘one thousand and one stanzas’?”
“Yeah, what’re ya, hard of hearing? Like I told ya, the poem’s called ‘The Song of the Lonely Cab Driver' – that’s me – ’or, a Ballad of the City Streets, in One Thousand and One Stanzas’. And so, without further ado, here goes –”
“Um,” I broke in, making little waving motions with my hands, “excuse me, but if I could just ask one more question.”
Even through the cigar smoke that had by then replaced all of the air inside the cab I could see that the man was staring hard at me in his rear-view mirror, but at least he wasn’t turning all the way around to stare at me, not yet, anyway.
“Okay,” he said. ”Sure. One more question. One.”
“Thanks,” I said, “So, I just wanted to ask you, does your poem really have, like, one thousand and one stanzas?”
I shouldn’t have said that, because he threw his arm over the seat back and turned around to look at me, all the while steering the cab with his left hand through that crashing rain.
“Lemme ask you a question now,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, and probably if I were the author of one of those cheap novels I like to read I would have written, “’Okay,’ I said, nervously.”
“I mean, if that’s okay with you,” he said. “Me kinda answering your question with another question.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You’re positive,” he said.
“I think so,” I said.
“You think so,” he said. “But you’re not sure.”
“I’m not sure of anything,” I said.
“Awright,” he said. He tapped his cigar with his finger, and the ash and some attendant sparks tumbled down into the darkness of the footspace. “Fair enough. But it is okay I ask you a question.”
“Yes,” I said, and I suddenly remembered the revolver I still had in my seersucker jacket’s side pocket. It was probably too early to bring it out, but it was good to know I had that option.
“Okay, then,” said the driver, Al, that was his name, I figured I should try to remember it, “my question to you is why would I call the poem ‘The Song of the Lonely Cab Driver' – me – ’or, a Ballad of the City Streets, in One Thousand and One Stanzas’ if the fucking poem did not have one thousand and one stanzas? Would that not be like false advertising?”
“Oh,” I said; “yeah, you’re absolutely right, but, um –”
“Then why you ask me a question like that? Do I look like a what – a fraud to you? Some kinda con man? I look like a gypsy fortune teller to you, some kind of chiseler? Some kinda literary three-card monte mountebank?”
“No,” I said. “It was a foolish question, but, look, you said you would face front while you’re driving, so, please –”
“All right, I’ll face front,” he said. “Only ‘cause I said I would if you listened to my poem. And I’m a man what stands by his word. You ‘dig’ me, as you hepcats say?”
“Yes,” I said, “I ‘dig’ you, now if you would please –”
“Awright, awright,” he said, and finally he turned around and faced front, just in time to go through a red light again.
“Now,” he said, “if I may begin –”
“Oh, but just one more question,” I said.
He looked at me in what seemed a very cold way in the rear-view mirror. He took a big drag on his cigar, and then slowly exhaled. You wouldn’t have thought any more smoke could have fit into that cab, but it did.
“Okay, pal,” he said. “One last question. One. And I repeat: one – not two or three or three fucking dozen – but one more. Now what the fuck is your question.”
“My question is,” I said – and then I couldn’t remember my question, it was as if I were staring into the abyss of deepest outer space, and every twinkling star in all of those millions of galaxies was a different question; but were there really millions of galaxies, maybe there were only thousands – thousands – and then I remembered my question – “do you propose to recite all one thousand and one stanzas of your poem?”
“Do you mean to recite every one of the one thousand –”
“That’s what I thought you said.”
“And my answer is: yes, of course I’m gonna recite all one thousand and one stanzas.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You can’t get the full meaning of the poem unless you hear the whole thing, Arnold. You’re a poet, and you should know that. Frankly I am a little surprised you would even ask me such a bush-league question.”
He made a turn, a hard left through another red light, bouncing me off the door again, but I barely felt it.
“Lemme ask you another question, Arnie – ‘sit okay I call you Arnie by the way?”
“Sure,” I said, I didn’t care, especially because I had suddenly become aware that I was floating a couple of inches above my seat, and I was wondering if the top of my head would start bobbing against the inner roof of the cab.
“My question, Arnie,” he said, “is: if you are bangin’ one of them good-lookin’ broads that are always hanging all over you just on accounta you’re a poet – bangin’ away, bangin’ away –” he took his right hand off the wheel and made punching motions into the air with it – “I mean really bangin’ away – you wouldn’t pull out and just stop before you blew your load, would you?”
“No,” he said. “I dare say you would not. So, yes, I intend to recite all one thousand and one stanzas of my poem.”
“But, listen,” I said, floating there above the back seat, “you said you would take me to Bob’s Bowery Bar –”
“Oh, my God, you and that Bob’s Bowery Bar!”
“But you said –”
“– I would take you,” he said, finishing my thought. “And I will. I will. After I recite my poem. Which you told me you would listen to, so I hope you are not going to turn out to be a liar.”
“But when I said I would listen to your poem I didn’t know it was going to be one thousand and one stanzas long.”
“If you have a point, please get to it, pal.”
“My point is I don’t want to listen to a one thousand and one stanza poem. I want to go to where I originally asked you to take me, and which you drove right past, some time back, five, ten minutes ago, and now we’re driving God knows where –”
“I turned off the meter, didn’t I?”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Tell you what? See the meter? What’s it say?”
I looked over the seat at the meter, and after only a few seconds the numbers displayed on it translated themselves to the appropriate part of my brain.
“Seventy-eight cents?” I said.
“Correct,” he said. “But here’s what I’m gonna do – I’ll make it half price. What’s that? Thirty-nine cent? Awright, you seem like a nice guy, so I’ll give you a further break and round it down, make it thirty-five cent. How’s that.”
“I don’t care what it is,” I said. “I just want to go to –”
“I know, I know!” he said. He took another hard left through another red light, and the basketball that was my head bounced off the passenger window, albeit painlessly. “Bob’s Bowery Bar!” he yelled. “Christ, you act like that jernt is fucking I don’t know what, the El Morocco or somethin’! Well, I got news for ya, buddy, it ain’t! It’s just another stinking hellhole of a Bowery dive, another gathering place of the damned and the lost and the doomed! Now shut the hell up and let me recite my damn poem!”
“But –” I said, the word blurting out of my mouth like a little water balloon.
“No buts,” he said. “And don’t fucking interrupt me. Show some fucking respect to a fellow fucking poet. And now, to begin, at fucking last –”
He cleared his throat with a sound like the death cry of an gorilla, and then at last he began his recitation:
Oh, I am a lonely cab driver,
and this here is my song,
the song of a lonely cab driver,
which he sings as he rides along.
I have met so many strange people
as I drive all night and all day,
mostly middle class, and also rich people,
‘cause the poor people take the subway.
It’s too bad about them poor people
but I guess that’s just their bad luck;
some people God chooses to smile on,
other people he chooses to fuck.
Suddenly I became aware that my consciousness was floating deep inside my cranium somewhere, and that my body had turned into cotton candy, no, not cotton candy, but foam rubber, a great damp blob of warm foam rubber stuffed into the back seat of this cab, and this great blob that was me was floating between the seat and the roof of the cab, with the me that was me floating somewhere within the blob.
And then I remembered, again: the brownies.
The hashish brownies.
Some small part of my brain told me that what I was feeling was the result of eating those brownies, and it also told me that I should above all not panic, because eventually the effect of the brownies would wear off, or at least I hoped it would.
I had missed a stanza or two while thinking these laborious thoughts, but now Al the cab driver’s words once again reverberated deep into the vast dark system of caves that was my brain:
...All these kinds of people I pick up
each one’s got a tale to tell,
each one of them’s got a million stories –
they’re all in their own private hell.
They all think that they’re the center
of the whole fucking universe,
and each one of them little universes
is going from bad to worse,
because every one of them people
and I don’t care how talented
or rich or powerful they are
they’re all going to wind up dead.
That’s right, every one of them people’s
gonna wind up buried six feet in the ground
or incinerated, whatever, point is
someday they ain’t gonna be around.
So what you may ask is the point of it all?
But how the fuck should I know?
I drive a cab for a living.
Who am I? Just another poor schmo.
“Okay,” I said, very suddenly, the words echoing from the hole in the blob that was my mouth. “I hate to interrupt you.”
“You just did,” he said. “And I asked you not to.”
“I know you did,” I said. “But here’s the thing. A little while ago I ate five hashish brownies, and –”
“Yes,” I said.
“What’re you, nuts?”
“I didn’t know they were hashish brownies,” I said.
“Ah, someone tricked ya, huh?”
“Not really,” I heard myself saying. “They actually told me they were hashish brownies, but I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Well, great,” he said, “and now can I continue with my poem?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “Your poem is scaring me.”
“Scaring you? It’s just a goddam poem.”
“I know, but still, it’s scaring me.”
“You really are a coward, aren’t you. First you’re scared because I wasn’t keeping my eyes on the road, and now you’re scared of a little poem.”
“It’s not a little poem. It’s one thousand and one stanzas, and I can’t take it.”
“Is that supposed to be a criticism?”
“No,” I said, “it’s just that, you know, the brownies and all, they’re making me very, uh, sensitive?”
“I’ll give you sensitive.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll show you what I mean. Sensitive.”
Suddenly he wrenched the steering wheel hard to the left again, throwing the blob that was me against the door, and then he pulled the car to a stop, causing me to bump the head of the blob that was me against the seat-back in front of me.
“Ow,” I said, even though I had barely felt a thing.
“Awright,” he said. “Out.”
“Out?” I said.
“You heard me. Out of my fucking cab.”
I couldn’t believe my good luck.
“Yes, really. Criticize my fucking poem that I been writing in my head all day and night. Go on, get out.”
“Well, let me pay you,” I said.
“I don’t want your fucking money. I spit on your fucking money.”
“Maybe just a dollar for a tip?”
“You give me a dollar I’ll shove it up your ass. Now get the fuck out.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
I decided it was best not to press my luck by saying anything else. I fumbled with the door handle on my left, and after a minute or two I got the door open, and got myself out, into the pouring crashing rain. I shut the door, being sure not to slam it, and the car roared off, spraying me with gutter water, which didn’t really matter because the downpour was soaking me to the bone anyway.
I turned around.
Talk about luck.
It was hard to believe, but there in front of me was a neon sign burning through the pouring rain, and the sign said:
BOB’S BOWERY BAR
(Continued here, as a service to Arnold’s growing legion of fans and fans-to-be.)
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