This will inaugurate a new type of blog post titled “Only in New York” that I will share with my readers on occasion. I know that the kinds of incidents I will write about can and do happen elsewhere, but to me New York with its diverse population is a microcosm of the world, so despite the title of this series, I think the events described herein can happen anywhere. Sound like a paradox? Maybe, but life is full of them.
St. Patrick’s Day, 2017
Though I knew from the start that rescheduling an appointment for a day awash in green might not exactly spell luck (after all I’m not Irish) I had to. I decided to use a Via shared taxi service because I knew that given the traffic, a yellow cab ride would break the bank. The driver meandered through the dense traffic with skill, only occasionally glancing backwards toward me and rolling his eyes at the drunken youths sporting green hats and green ties askew this early in the day. It was around noon. The ride, which normally, even in bad midtown Manhattan traffic, should take no more than twenty minutes, took one a half hours. I hated wasting so much time and hoped that on my return trip the parade would have ended and streets a bit more passable. Silly me.
Little did I know that my epic afternoon saga hadn’t even begun.
My meeting ended and I was anxious to get back home. I requested a Via driver on my phone app. As I approached the corner where my driver was to have met me I saw the SUV of the correct description pulling away into the center of the busy avenue. Apparently, though he wasn’t supposed to wait because it took me too long to push through dense pedestrian traffic and slushy puddles, the driver couldn’t pull away from the curb because of the impossibly dense jumble of cars.
I executed a dangerous move stepping over a mountain of snow and running into the street to bang on the vehicle’s door. The driver opened it and I scrambled in breathless. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t expect you to still be here, but I really need to get home as soon as possible.”
“First things, first. Are you OK madam?” he asked.
“I’ll be fine in a moment, let me catch my breath,” I replied.
“Can I offer you some water?”
“No, really, I’m fine.”
I could tell immediately from his diction that he was not the usual Via driver. Usually, the drivers who ferry me around the city can barely speak English. I could tell this guy was different.
I remembered that my Via app provides the driver’s name. I checked it: a truly classic Irish surname. Since it was only the two of us in the car we chatted and because he was Irish, I thought he might like my story of arriving in Dublin, some years ago, exactly on St. Patrick’s. His non-response surprised me. He ignored my story completely so I abandoned it, wondering why an Irishman with a gift of gab would have nothing to say about the sea of green around us, Dublin, the church, or St. Paddy himself.
We continued speaking and I decided that based on his rich vocabulary and elegant turns of phrase he must be either a professor, or a writer. He asked me what I had been doing on 37th Street and when I told him I was arranging my book launch event, he turned back toward me and exclaimed, “You are a writer!” with such excitement I knew he must be one too. I was right.
Inching towards my home which is on the easternmost side of the city (we were on the west) he told me about the sci-fi movie script he’d been working on for a long time. As we passed Trump Tower we discovered that not only “his” area, but all eastbound streets were closed to traffic. Policeman after policeman told us “try going east a few blocks further north.” Impossible! Every street was blocked, but it took hours to inch forward to learn about it. I cannot imagine how many drivers that day were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The poor traffic planning on the part of the NYPD was clearly evident. By then we had spent over two hours together.
In all that time, I learned about two human populations which colonized two habitable planets but whose residents faced insurmountable biological challenges. There were love affairs, homosexuality and bioweapons. Though I’m far from a sci-fi fan, I began to be absorbed in his story, if only to keep myself from busting out of the SUV and attempting the walk home.
The driver told me that was hoping to refashion the movie script into a novel but lacked the time and experience to break into publishing. He asked me numerous questions on how I went about getting two books published. I gave him the best advice I could but noticed that he became increasingly more anxious about the traffic, which at first wasn’t too unusual given the complete lack of movement for four or five traffic lights per block. But when he said,” Soon I’ll turn into a pumpkin,” I began to get a little nervous. I tried to calm him by making suggestions on publishing when he blurted out, “I can’t do any of it. I’m two weeks from becoming homeless! That’s why I have been on the road since 4 AM.” Oh, boy, now I knew that there was much more to the man than met the eye.
He’d told me that he had two masters degrees and several patents to his name. Why should he be so destitute? I could think of some reasons, but none of them to be explored with this mysterious stranger who seemed increasingly to be on the verge of exploding. I was stuck with him. By now we were on 103rd Street and West End; no way for me to walk home. I decided to try calming him down so I made suggestions about his novel’s plot. It helped a little and he seemed to open up a bit more. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he announced suddenly. “I have to get home for Shabbat. No way I can be late.” Shabbat? The last thing I’d have expected! By now it was 5:30 PM. He still had to take me home in midtown and get back to Queens, not likely.
“Are you Jewish?” He asked, turning back toward me. Lucky the traffic was at a standstill.
“Yes, “I replied.
“You see, God has a plan, this is why you are in my vehicle.”
Ugh, I got nervous again. “What kind of a plan?”
“Well, earlier today I had a Jewish man who was a philosophy professor and his wife in my car. We discussed the Torah.”
“So how does a Jew come by such a classic Irish name?” I asked, trying to lighten the conversation.
That was when he unspooled a fascinating tale of his mother, a woman from Galway who had been a practicing Catholic all her life. On her death bed, she told him she was Jewish and told him of his grandparents, Russian and Hungarian Jews who had suffered from persecution. It took him a long time to process this revelation, but ultimately he began to study the Torah, keep kosher and observe the Sabbath.
By now we were on the east side but the traffic was still as bad. He crawled back and forth between York and Second Avenues trying to advance forward, all the while urging the cars in front to get out of the way. He seemed desperate.
Three and a half hours after I had made his acquaintance, this unusual driver dropped me off, his only reward a Shabbat Shalom from me, a traditional Friday greeting.
I have no way of knowing if he was a writer, or an Irish Jew, or just an excellent raconteur, but if I had to be stuck for three and a half hours in a vehicle with a stranger, he was sufficiently interesting to keep me from going bonkers.
There are eight million stories in the naked city…this has been one of them.
(With thanks to Jules Dassin for this line in his 1948 film, “The Naked City.”
Annette Libeskind Berkovits is author of the recently released “Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator” and “In the Unlikeliest of Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags and Soviet Communism.”
Please visit the website: annetteberkovits.com for more information