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November 28, 2022

52nd Street Pickup

By Timothy B. Barner

Manhattan on a Friday night can be a cold and lonely place, even with the mercury over ninety. The bustle of Times Square, with its lights and glitz, was in full swing this August night. Spider Man and Optimus Prime greeted tourists alongside Papa Smurf and Batman, all posing for pictures together. A group of young girls, dressed in nothing but bikini bottoms and painted breasts, ran past the Tickets stand where most of the night’s plays had been sold out. I glanced at the glitz from the safety of my Monte Carlo, unable to drive through the Great White Way in the pedestrian-friendly modern age, seeking my next paying customer.

My name is Bennett Foster. I am an Uber driver.

I drove past the M&Ms and Hershey stores and crawled for another block before turning onto Sixth Avenue. For a busy Friday, customers were scarce. It seems everyone was either walking or content to stay where they were. Perhaps there were just too many drivers and too few passengers. My Monte Carlo continued its crawl without a customer, passing 47th Street, 48th, 49th.

This was not the best way to make a living, but it was all I knew. For thirty years I had driven a yellow cab, first for a cab company, then buying my own. I earned my shield in my twentieth year. I say earned, when really I paid for it. I say paid, when really I took out a loan. At that time a shield costed more than a house, and I was left driving to pay for that shield alone, earning money I would never see, barely surviving as the loan company took more from my passengers than I could.

I ran sweaty fingers through my thinning brown hair, further back behind my forehead than it used to be, sprouting more and more grey. The famous entrance to Radio City Music Hall loomed down on me. Perhaps the leggy Rockettes were kicking up a frenzy within. Perhaps it was already too late in the evening. The Marquis announced Bette Midler. My wandering mind traveled away from the image of her, and to the sidewalk, where the teeming multitudes walked between shops now closed; shops I would never frequent even as I drove past them every night.

When the loan company had taken as much of my earnings as they saw possible, they then claimed my cab, then took me to court because the cab was not enough. I still owed them the cost of a small house in Jersey, and they hounded me every day for it. I held them off long enough to buy my Chevy, just new enough to be allowed by the Uber company. Uber would allow me to drive at my own pace, but they paid squat, so I drove all the time, still paying for that shield I never used.

The sign for 52nd Street appeared to my right. I rounded the bend in the direction of 5th Avenue, hoping for a fare somewhere among the jazz bars and high-end restaurants; perhaps a violinist exiting the back door of Carnegie Hall. Instead all I saw were more uninterested walkers and a smelly bearded bum, lying beneath a box.

My wife had taken the kid and left. I didn’t even remember where to, if I ever knew. The divorce had been finalized last year. I was left to live in my car, parking wherever I could, whenever I could for short stretches of sleep between the endless sessions of driving. Yes, life had chewed me up, spit me out, and left me living in a dented brown Monte Carlo.

I stopped at the corner of 52nd and 5th, waiting for the light. There she was, a statuesque beauty with long, blonde hair and perfect figure, hidden beneath a London Fog raincoat worn more for style than purpose, hanging open. She wore a black dress beneath and she carried a long-strapped, light brown leather purse, and looked out at the world with eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses that must have costed more than the bum on the last block had ever seen in his entire miserable life. She lifted her glasses, reached into her purse, pulled out a phone, and poked at the screen with her manicured nails. My own phone began alarming. She was hailing an Uber. She was hailing me.

I opened the passenger door and called out. She looked up, surprised, smiled with ivory teeth, ran over on clickety clack heels, and climbed in.

The biggest source of a cabbie’s conversation had been lost to me when I began driving Uber. The question, “Where to?” The Uber app allows the customer to tell her driver where to go without ever opening her mouth. Money is passed electronically from account to account. The customer and driver need never share a word, like two strangers, deaf and mute, uncaring for the lives of the other. One claims their fare as the other gains their distance to a destination.

I would never admit it, but I miss the interaction between cabbie and customer. I miss the turning of the meter and searching for a raised hand. I still look for it, even as I listen for the alarm on my phone. The Uber world is so much different from the one of a cabbie, yet the same in many ways, It’s like the life has been sapped out of it. Livery service for the 21st century, detached and convenient. I could make conversation, I know, but I won’t force it. Instead I will stare out at the sights I see every day. As the tourists gawk and stare, I look straight at them without seeing them.

We passed Trump Tower and moved on to Central Park without a word. My customer stared at the road ahead, then checked her purse again, whether searching for something or merely finding something to keep her occupied, I will never know. She held a natural beauty, hidden behind raincoat and sunglasses, yet it still revealed itself. A woman like that would be trouble for a cabbie like me. We walked in different worlds. I could never afford her. But oh to have her for just one night.

I shouldn’t think such thoughts.

The GPS ordered me to take a right onto 58th Street, by the Plaza Hotel. I wondered if this lady ever stayed there, high up in an expensive suite, wearing furs, sipping Dom Perignon and nibbling on caviar. No, life is never that simple. We don’t live in a world of movie stars and glamour. Most of us sleep in our cars. I was a few lost fares away from shoving aside that bum and stealing his box.

But now this ride was keeping me off the street, if that makes any sense. I believe I was losing my mind, or at least my train of thought, as I drove down 58th Street, heading East, between fancy hotels, expensive restaurants, and more shopping centers devoted to the passing of great gobs of money from rich person to rich person. Am I bitter? Perhaps. Where was I even going? Where was I taking this blonde beauty who wore a raincoat on a dry August night? I was just blindly following the GPS. I even forgot what I had entered into it, running on autopilot, unthinking. I turned onto FDR Drive.

“It’s going to rain, you know.” Her husky voice broke the silence like a thunderclap.

“How do you know that?” I asked, with no actual interest.

“I do the weather report on Channel 22.”

As she started to say this, I immediately recognized her voice. I no longer had a television, but the radio station I listened to aired the weather report from Channel 22. Her name was Sonny Wethers, appropriate for a weather woman. I gave her a long, lingering look, which is a dangerous thing to do on FDR Drive. I had always pictured Sonny Wethers as being a brunette with short hair, wearing a smart pantsuit, not the long-haired blonde in a revealing black dress who sat beside me. Yet the voice was unmistakable.

“Are you going to check the road?” She chided, mischievously. “I don’t look much different than I do on TV.” She took off her sunglasses and put them in her purse. It didn’t make much sense for her to wear both a raincoat and shades. I wondered if she had ever worn a bikini with a parka, then I shook the thought out of my mind.

The sky suddenly opened up into a downpour. The water couldn’t be cleared quickly enough by my wipers and I strained to see through the river that ran down the windshield. Sonny had been right. I slammed on the brakes, hydroplaning a little sideways, but safe. The red taillights in front of me had suddenly stopped.

Sonny didn’t flinch. “Do you know where you’re going?” She asked, and I expected her to add a comment about the weather.

“To tell the truth, no. I just follow the GPS.”

Sonny leaned forward and focused on the GPS. “Doesn’t tell you much, does it? Is that how Uber works? They tell you where to go and you blindly follow?”

“No, I enter the destination into the GPS.” The cars inched forward again, drivers ahead gained confidence about driving in pouring rain.

“… And yet you don’t know where you’re going.” She pulled off her raincoat, revealing her bare shoulders and the pearls she wore over her dress.

“Nope.”

“How is that even possible. Oh well. you may want to look, now that we’re stopped.”

“Could you just tell me?”

Silence. The downpour slowed into a steady rain. Traffic moved steady. One didn’t dare to stop on the FDR, with fast-moving cars corralled into a narrow strip of road that ribboned along the East River like blood cells racing through a vessel.

My GPS led me across the Triborough bridge into The Bronx. Yes, I know that bridge now holds a different name, but I refuse to call it that, as I refused to check my destination. Sonny would have to tell me. Still, I really wanted to know, and as The Bronx passed into my rearview and Westchester County surrounded me, I realized that this was a very good fare.

Sonny sat beside me, staring out the window at nothing of note. I wondered what thoughts traveled through that mind. Was she thinking of the weather? Was she thinking of me? Was she thinking of a long, lost weekend? She reached up and pulled off her hair, a wig of long blonde strands, revealing the short brown ones I always expected to see. She looked my way and smiled.

“We have a long way to go,” she said. “I may as well lose the disguise.”

“Why the disguise?” I asked.

“Everywhere I go in the city, people recognize me. They’re either mad at me for raining on their parade or joking about the weather. People don’t seem to realize that I’m a human being who wants time off from work and doesn’t control the weather. This way I can be someone else, if only for the night.”

“Who were you tonight?”

Sonny rolled down her window and ran fingers through her true hair, feeling the wind. “I was Sharon Taylor, a rich housewife from the Hamptons, out for a night on the town. Nobody asked me for the weather. They all asked if they could take me home, men and women. It didn’t seem to matter that I was married. They saw money and beauty, a lethal combination.”

“Are you married?” I ran my fingers again through my lack of hair.

Sonny batted her eyelashes at me. “Why … What is your name?”

“Bennett. Bennett Foster.”

“You say that like you’re James Bond. How do you like your cocktails, Mr. Foster?”

“Stirred, not shaken.”

She laughed, but it was a thin, fake laugh. “Alright, Bennett Foster. No, I am not married, but it bothered me that they didn’t seem to care whether I was married or not. It was all so empty out there. I had to leave.”

“Where are we going?” I asked again.

“To my mother’s, in Massachusetts. I Just have to get away, back to the world I knew.”

Massachusetts? This was a good fare indeed. “You must be on vacation,” I said stupidly.

“Yes, Benny. I’m on vacation. Do you mind if I call you Benny?”

I shrugged my shoulders. Benny, Bunny, Meathead … It didn’t matter what she called me. She was a fare, nothing more, and her money would pull me through another week.

Soon we were passing the “Connecticut Welcomes You” sign on I-95 at just around midnight. Sonny made small talk about news stories, pop culture, and exotic locations where she had been. I asked if she had ever been married, but she avoided the question. “What about you?” she asked, but I avoided the question as well.

The rain kept falling. The Connecticut Turnpike shined like a lizard’s coat, causing my eyes to grow weary. “Will this rain ever stop?” I complained.

“Of course it will,” she said. “It should be stopping just about now.”

The rain immediately stopped, as if on cue.

“Are you some kind of weather god?” I shouted.

Sonny laughed, for real this time. “No silly, I’m a weather girl.” As if that statement would explain everything.

I had no answer for that. How could I answer that? On into Connecticut I drove, in a deep darkness devoid of moonlight. Sonny’s head nodded and leaned against the window. Her breathing grew deeper with the thrum of the pavement and the hum of the engine, and I soon found my own eyes shutting and the car drifting. A truck’s horn forced me to consciousness. I spun the wheel as an eighteen wheeler sped past, throwing up water onto my windshield.

“What the..?” Sonny shrieked. “Get off this road!”

“And go where?”

“Just get off this road and find one through the country, without trucks!”

I took the next exit, and followed the route signs north, but there was no country here. I drove between McDonalds and Burger King, BP and Motel 6, with lights on but nobody inside. For miles I drove north, through a seaside town, then an inland town, with no country in between, only endless business plazas and subdivisions. My eyes drooped again. Sonny remained alert, jabbing me in the arm. “Pull in here,” she ordered.

I pulled into the entrance to a city park where someone had forgotten to shut the gate. A shelter loomed ahead and the silhouettes of swings and slides to the right. Sonny pointed to the silhouettes.

“That’s a playground,” I moaned.

“No crap,” she answered. “Maybe I want to slide.”

“It’ll be wet,” I argued.

“No it won’t. The rain never made it this far.”

I shut my mouth and parked the car. There was no arguing with the weather girl.

Sonny was far ahead, almost to the swings by the time I shut my door. She seemed determined. I shuffled onto the playground, but stopped on the strange, spongy surface of the ground, some modern way to keep kids from skinning their knees. There was scant light back there, with only one dim streetlight casting shadows on the teeter totter. A small plastic playset included climbing ladders, steps, a crawlway, and two slides: one twisting, the other straight. Sonny climbed onto the swing and kicked her legs for a minute, going nowhere.

“Push me!” she ordered. I didn’t think this was part of my job but didn’t much care. Her little trip to Mass would cover my bills for another week. I stood behind, admiring the way her black dress hung loose on her shoulders, grasped her waist in the feminine curve just above her hips, pulled back, and let go.

“Whee!” She called in a little-girl voice. She looked the part, even as her black dress billowed out and her pearls flew up from her bosom as she descended, then rested against her as she swung back into the air. I found a safe spot in the small of her back to push against and send her flying upward. She kicked off her shoes into the night and let the wind flow through her stockings.

For a good ten minutes I shoved her on that swing silently. She seemed deep in thought. At one moment, when she had some good air, I stepped away and admired her from the side. Her graceful legs bent and straightened with the flow of the swing. Her short, dark hair blew with the wind. Sonny seemed deep in thought, with eyes closed and a strange peace showing through her expression. I returned behind and gave her another push.

“We won’t make it to Salisbury.” Sonny broke the silence.

“Is that where we’re heading?” I asked, and gave her another push, this time between her defined shoulder blades.

“Yes, right on the border of New Hampshire, but not anymore.”

I stepped back from the swing and stopped pushing. “Then where are we going? Don’t we have to change the fare on the app?”

Sonny laughed. “You’ll get your full fare, silly. I won’t bilk you out of your money. But we have to find somewhere else to go. Could you get back there and push? I’m losing air.”

Dollar signs danced before my eyes as I assumed the position and pushed anew. “Why can’t we go to Salisbury?” I asked.

“Because it’s going to be hit by a tornado.”

I stopped pushing again. “A tornado?”

Sonny was in full swinging height. “Yes! Tomorrow, about the time we would arrive. Would you push?”

“Heck no! Shouldn’t you call the Salisbury police, maybe alert Channel 22 News?” “Push! It wouldn’t do any good. Channel 22 doesn’t air in Massachusetts. Besides, nobody would believe me. They never do. I left my phone in the car. I’ll call Ma when we leave. She’ll have plenty of time to load up what she needs and drive down to Aunt Gracie’s in Ipswich.”

I pushed. Like I said before, there was no arguing with the weathergirl, so I closed my eyes and listened to her voice, moving towards me, then away, and judged correctly when to push again. I was moving in a rhythm, like an automaton.

“What if we just drove, with no destination in mind, just drove, far off to wherever. What if we left the world behind and drove North, as far as we can reach. Forget your Uber responsibilities. Forget my weather reporting. Forget banks and bills, family and friends, searching for a fare on a Friday night, pointing at a green screen representing Long Island … I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of Saturday night dancing and dressing up, posing and preening, paying and braving the traffic, wearing a disguise to avoid recognition. Nobody would recognize me in Quebec City. Nobody would care how much money I have in Yellowknife.”

“Actually, I think they would.” I gave her some harder pushes, sending her sailing almost equal to the swing set’s upper bar. “Do you intend to brave a Yukon winter? What about south? Most people want to go south, live on the beach.”

“No,” She was out of breath from swinging so high. “No. The Carolinas will be hit by a hurricane in two days. Unless you plan on driving fast through there, we’ll be hit by a really bad one, and end up in a Florida drought. Whooo! I’m up high. I haven’t been up this high since … high school.” She giggled at her very bad joke.

“Why would you want to go lose yourself with a loser like me anyway? All I know how to do is drive, and I’m in arrears for a taxicab I don’t even own anymore. I’m fifty years old with a beer gut and receding hairline. Wouldn’t you want to go … North with a movie star or a bodybuilder?”

“You’re available. You see any bodybuilders?”

I pushed even harder, and the chains of the swing curved then went taught as she passed their highest point then returned down. She offered a sweet temptation, to cross the Canadian border and lose myself with her in the wilderness. Why not? She was young and beautiful, and what was I to lose? Could I escape the calls from bill collectors? Could I gain a new life, chopping wood for our cabin, shooting an elk for dinner? I had never even hunted. How would we earn money? At least we would always know when a storm was coming. How long before Sonny would get sick of whiny, balding me? On what day would I wake up and find that she had taken the snowmobile and headed south, forever, leaving me with the bears and tundra? She would beat the blizzard, of course, leaving me snowed in for the remaining winter.

“I’m available for now, until you find the bodybuilders.”

“Just stop the swing. I’m done.”

I stepped away and watched the swing slow. First she stopped pumping her legs, then she dragged them on the ground until she stopped and jumped off, then stood, retrieved her shoes, and walked to the car. She opened the door and grabbed her purse and raincoat, leaving the blonde wig behind. “I’m leaving.” She began walking toward the road.

“What? You can’t just leave.”

“Why not? It’s clear skies for a hundred miles in every direction now.” Her feet shuffled on the pavement. Those shoes of hers were not made for a hike.

“Where are you walking to? Are you gonna walk all the way to Yellowknife?”

“Don’t be silly.” She swung her purse in a big arc as she walked. “I can call another Uber driver, or maybe Lyft. They can take me to Yellowknife.”

I stopped. “What happens when your money runs out?” I called to her fleeing back.

“Who says my money will run out?” Her voice grew farther away.

“Nothing lasts forever.” I ran up to catch up to her.

She stopped, reached into her purse and placed her sunglasses back over her eyes, then gave me a sly smile. “Why are you still here?” she asked.

“I can’t just let you walk off in the middle of nowhere.”

She laughed. “This isn’t the middle of nowhere. Do you think whoever’s sleeping in that house thinks it’s the middle of nowhere?” She pointed to the closest house, dark, without even a nightlight that could be seen. “You’re my Uber driver, not my chaperone. Your responsibility ends when I get out of your car. Guess what. I’m out of your car, so leave me alone. Go back to the world of carting customers from one end of the city to the other. Go back to the bills and your apartment, or wherever you live. Go back to your wife and kids.”

This burned deep. “I no longer have a wife and kids.”

“How can you no longer have kids? Did they die or something?”

I placed a hand on her delicate shoulder. She did not flinch or move away. “No, I have a son, sixteen. The wife divorced me when it was obvious I could not support them. She took him and moved.”

“Moved where?” Sonny asked, without a trace of irony.

“I don’t know.” I lied. “She just moved. She can’t get any money out of me, so …” “No!” she shouted, and a distant dog began barking. My hand slipped off her shoulder. “You’ve got to see your boy! Who cares about the money? How could you just let her run off and take your boy? You’ve got to find her and see your boy!”

“He won’t want to see me anyway.”

“Why do you say that? Did he tell you that?”

“No, I just …” and then suddenly it hit me like a prize fighter’s slug to the gut. “I let them get away,” I muttered.

“What?” Sonny dug.

“I was so wrapped up in paying the debt collectors. I was so focused on driving, driving, endless driving to pay the bills, to keep the shield, to lose the shield and drive Uber, losing the wife, losing the house … living out of the car. My vision was clouded. I became so wrapped up in my misery that I barely noticed the world that mattered slipping away. No wonder she left! Who would stay?”

Sonny grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “Where are they Benny? Where are they?”

“I don’t know!”

“Any way we can find them?” She said, softer this time. “Any clues to their whereabouts? Where is she from?”

I thought for a moment. The world of my wife and child seemed so distant. “I believe her mom lived upstate. It was a strange sounding name. I remember it only because I thought of it like hot Japanese alcohol. Cook Saki. Coxsackie.”

“Set in a new destination on your GPS, Benny. You’re going to Coxsackie.” Sonny grabbed my hand and pulled me in the direction of the car, but she stopped stock still, her hand tightened around mine, and she gasped.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

She held up a hand for me to stop, and seemed to smell at the air, then she pulled hard so I could not let go and raced towards the car, nearly yanking me down. “I hate when I’m wrong!” She yelled. “How could I be wrong?”

The sky opened up and released an ocean of rain. Sonny let go of my hand and ran ahead, whooping and hollering as I sputtered and gasped as water poured down my face into my eyes and nose. I tried to keep it away with my hands, slid and fell to the pavement. Sonny’s shrieks accompanied the sound of thunder. I opened my eyes just enough to see the drenched earth light up with lightning flashes. The shrieking stopped, and the downpour eased. I lay on my back on the wet pavement, a river of water rushing past me to a nearby storm drain. I raised up as the rain ceased and looked around. The single dim streetlight shined against the road’s surface, and my Monte Carlo waited patiently in its space, but there was no sign of the weather girl.

I stood up and called. “Sonny! Sonny Wethers! Sonny!” but there was no answer. I wandered around that roadway, the parking lot, the park, for a good half hour, searching in vain. The woman with short black hair in the London Fog raincoat and sunglasses would not be found, whether by choice, or if the weathergirl had been spirited away by the unexpected storm, I will never know.

Bereft, I slid into the driver’s seat of the Monte Carlo, turned the heater’s fan on to full speed, removed my soaked socks and shoes, and backed out of the parking space. My next stop would be Coxsackie, New York. I would begin a better chapter of my life.

The following day, as I sat beside my one-time wife and son in a Coxsackie living room, I managed to tune in a New York City station, Channel 22. The news was showing. To be specific, the weather. Sonny Wethers was on there pointing at her green screen. Down in the Carolinas a hurricane was brewing. Up in Northeastern Massachusetts, a tornado had struck. She didn’t mention the Connecticut storm that swept her away from me.

It didn’t matter. I was where I needed to be.








Article © Timothy B. Barner. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-10-17
Image(s) are public domain.
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