One Night in a Newport Taxi

I could always tell when it was Ma calling. The phone let out a nagging brrring, brrring, brrring. The receiver fairly quivered off the base. Once, I let it keep ringing, counting, just out of curiosity. Would she quit at ten? Fifteen? Twenty? In mounting awe, I watched the phone tremble and contort through thirty torturous alarms. Finally, half-crazed with suspense, I snatched up the receiver.

“So, what took you so long?” said Ma. “I suppose you were in the shower. Never mind. Grab a towel and listen.”

This time I surrendered after only six brrrings.

“Hi, Ma.”

“Annette, this is serious. It’s about your brother.”

I sighed, cradled the phone against my ear, and lit a cigarette. This was going to be a long one.

“Annette, are you smoking?”

“Yes, I am.”

“It’s bad for your health. Also, no man will want to kiss you. It’s like licking an ashtray—huh, don’t I know! Your own father, God rest his soul, died from that filthy habit. So how come you, his smart-pants daughter, don’t have the brains to quit?”

“Because I’m addicted. Journalism’s high-pressure work, and smoking helps me relax. Now what about Joey?”

Mention of my brother’s name did the trick. No matter what my handicaps—no husband, a nicotine habit, a nose like George Washington’s on Mt. Rushmore—Ma’s concern for me always vanished the moment my brother cropped up.

She took a deep, dramatic breath. I could almost see the heaving bosom, the weary shoulders braced to accept yet another parental burden, the rouged and fleshy face mobilizing for tragedy.

“Your brother, your baby brother, is driving a taxi,” she announced. We both waited: Ma for me to gasp or shriek or faint, me for her to clue me in.

“For his summer job, right?” I said. “With his college buddy—Glen? In Newport,” I concluded triumphantly.

“Right,” she said glumly, but whether because of Joey’s occupation or because I failed to gasp, shriek or faint, wasn’t clear. “Annette, I want you to go out there and stop him.”

“Stop him? Why?”

“Because he’ll get mugged.”

I chuckled. “Ma, you got your geography all wrong. It’s here in New York people get mugged. In Newport they only get sunburned.”

“So.” She sniffed, and I pictured her dabbing her eyes with a huge, flowered Kleenex. “Your baby brother is two hundred miles from home, driving who knows what kind of people in some smelly taxi, and you, Miss Big Shot Magazine Editor, tell jokes.”

I made my voice firm. “Joey will be fine. Newport is a nice, clean, safe city, with sandy beaches and beautiful boats and breathable ocean air. It’s full of tourists who shop all day in trendy, overpriced boutiques, and the downtown on a summer night is like one big, friendly party.” I rambled on, the memory of past weekends in Newport growing on me. Though I hadn’t told Ma, my job was in jeopardy from a publishing merger, my social life wasn’t exactly stellar, and the self-doubt meter was registering pretty high. A few days in Newport might be just the lift I needed. “Listen, you want me to go to Newport this weekend and check up on Joey? I’ll give you my report as soon as I get back.”

She plastered a kiss on the phone. “You’re a good daughter, Annette, you know that? What’s the matter with these numbskull young men they don’t sweep you up and make you happy is beyond me.”

*****

I arrived in Newport at noon on Saturday. The weather couldn’t have been better—a sparkling June day, hot and bright. Already the streets were clogged with day-trippers. I followed Joey’s directions to the apartment he was renting with his buddy, Glen. Joey met me on the doorstep in his nightshirt, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“God, it’s good to see you, kid,” I said, hugging him. And it was. Joey was like a puppy, sweet, warm and innocent, with dark curly hair and big brown eyes, the kind of boy girls want to take home and make hot cocoa for. When he laughed, his chin dimpled, and his mouth broke into the widest grin you’ve ever seen. Still growing, too—reaching up to tousle his hair, I’d swear he’d added two inches since Christmas. I stepped back and surveyed him with a sigh. Here I had the same basic genetic ingredients, but where Joey was a lovable puppy, I was a street-smart mutt. I didn’t even get a break on my father’s height. The only thing long about me was my nose.

“So Ma’s worried about the taxi, huh?” Joey said.

“Of course.”

“Then I guess you better come with me tonight and give her a firsthand report.”

“In the taxi?”

“Sure. We’ll spend the afternoon on the beach and cruise the streets all night. It’s a blast, Annie. You’ll love it.”

“But isn’t it against regulations to have an unauthorized passenger?”

“Naw. Besides, Skunk’ll be too drunk to care.”

“Skunk?”

“Glen’s uncle, the owner. He spends all night drinking beer and chasing Rita, the dispatcher, around the office, begging her to show him her tattoo.”

Where’s her—? Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

So that night at eight we picked up our cab. Glen was already out cruising for fares. I waited outside while Joey checked in at the office, a tiny cubicle behind a grease-stained garage. One peek through the open window was enough. Black-haired, squat and waddly, the aptly named Skunk lolled bleary-eyed on a couch, beer bottle in hand. Even at a distance his smell did justice to his furry namesake. Rita, the dispatcher, sat at a messy desk, wisecracking into the phone. She looked like she’d just stepped off the back of a Hell’s Angel’s bike, and wherever her tattoo was, she was definitely the kind of lady who could control access. I watched her give Joey an affectionate pat on the arm.

He emerged from the office grinning and indicated a garish yellow cab. “Let’s go.”

I slid in, nose wrinkling. The cab, shabby but tank-tough, emitted a faint, unidentifiable smell. Having dozed off for a couple of hours at the beach, I felt wide awake and prepared for anything. Besides, though Joey didn’t know it, my purse held my trusty can of Mace, standard equipment for the streets of New York.

We hadn’t gone far when the radio crackled to life and Rita called in Joey’s first fare.

“It’s Lloyd and Stevie out at the Navy Base. Pick ‘em up at Gate 4.” A thunk and a groan came over the line. “Back off, Skunk. Over and out, Joey boy.”

Joey wheeled the cab out of town. “This past Tuesday was Navy payday so business between the base and town is always good for a few nights after that. But by next week most of the guys won’t have anything left. They’re just kids, Annie, lonely and far from home. They can’t even manage their own pay. I wish I could think of a way to help.”

I gave Joey a sideways glance. At twenty-one, he wasn’t much more than a kid himself, and being twelve years older, I was inclined to second mother him. But when we got to the Navy base and found Stevie and Lloyd, I saw the difference. Because Joey, despite his youth, had a masculine look that meant he knew his way around a bed. Whereas Stevie and Lloyd were skinny kids with bad haircuts and acne and a myopic stare that made you think they’d trip over their own feet.

“Hi, guys!” Joey called.

“Hi, Joey,” said Lloyd, and sure enough, getting into the taxi, he stumbled over his spit-and-polished shoes. “We’re going downtown to look for girls.”

“Yeah,” Stevie echoed happily. “Maybe tonight we’ll meet some nice ones.”

“Want you guys to meet my sister, Annie,” Joey said. “It’s okay, she’s cool.”

I shook hands, and Lloyd and Stevie beamed hellos. On the way downtown they pumped Joey for tips. “What do you say to a pretty girl, Joey? Should we ask them to dinner or just for drinks?”

“Courtesy, guys,” said Joey. “Always treat a lady with courtesy and respect.” We dropped them at a popular night spot. “Call me if you need a ride home,” Joey reminded them.

“Regular customers?” I asked, as we swung back into traffic.

“Yeah. When Lloyd first arrived here he was trying to hitchhike back to the base one day in a downpour. Skunk picked him up and didn’t charge him. Since then Lloyd’s been known to stand fifteen minutes in the rain, passing up other cabs, just to get one of ours.”

“Do he and Stevie ever get any girls?”

“Naw. But you have to give them credit for trying. Rita says if they haven’t scored by the end of the summer, she’ll take them each home for a night and show them the ropes.”

He adjusted his rearview mirror, and for the next three hours we cruised for fares, up and down the main drag. The streets were alive with a kind of party energy, laughing, teasing, people on parade. We gave rides to Navy guys and pretentious tourists, to free-spending fishermen and cute college girls. Some we picked up off the street, some came via Rita, queen of nighttime radio. When we passed Glen, we honked horns and shouted greetings. And it was fun, more fun, I realized, than I’d had in a long time.

At midnight we met Glen at a pizza place and sat in our cabs gobbling pizza and Cokes. Glen was tall and wore glasses.

“When does Skunk drive?” I asked him.

“Only when Rita certifies he’s sober.”

“How often is that?”

“Two, maybe three mornings a week.”

“Why does he drink?”

“His son got blown away in Vietnam.”

We all fell silent. “I’m sorry,” I said.

Glen’s radio blared to life. “Hey, Glen,” came Rita’s hacksaw voice, “gotcha a fare out at the Sheraton. Sounds like a rich tourist. Should be a good tip.” There was a sound of scuffling and another thunk. “Zip it, Skunk, or you’re dead meat.”

“Back to work,” said Glen, grinning.

“Well, so far this has been pretty tame,” I observed to Joey as we finished our pizza and resumed cruising. “Ma will be disappointed.”

Joey laughed. Then his face changed, a reluctant look as if there was more to tell. “It’s going to start getting different, Annie.”

In the next hour, the tenor of the night took on a subtle shift. Newport was still a party, but it was hard-core now. The elegant guests had all gone home. The loud talkers and veteran drinkers had taken over. It was as if by refusing to relinquish their bar stools they could force the gaiety to go on and on.

We picked up two drunken sailors.

“Gonna get us some women,” the fat one informed Joey, his face fixed in a permanent leer. “Gonna get ourselves laid!” He threw an arm around his companion’s shoulder. “Don’t you worry, Willie. Just cuz we got kicked out of one place don’t mean nuthin’.”

“It wasn’t my fault, Spike!” wailed Willie, green-faced and woebegone. “It wasn’t! They said I grabbed that lady’s tits. I never even came close! They throwed me out for somethin’ I’da liked ta’ done, but I didn’t!”

“That’s okay, Willie. Hell, we offered her ten dollars, didn’t we?”

“Maybe you’ll have better luck another night,” Joey said. He glanced into the rearview mirror, carefully assessing his fares. I scrunched down out of sight. “Why don’t I take you back to the base?”

“Spike?” Willie’s voice rose plaintively. “I’m gonna puke!”

“Lean out the window!” Joey yelled.

From the back seat came the sound of violent retching, followed by Spike’s moan. “Jeez, Willie. You puked all over me!”

“Okay, guys,” said Joey, “back to the base.”

“But we never got laid!” Spike protested. “We never got laid!”

We dumped Spike and Willie at the Navy Club. “What do we do about the car?” I asked, holding my nose against the stench.

“We’ll clean it up at the gas station.”

We drove to a Shell garage, and the attendant offered Joey a bucket of water. He pulled some rags and a bottle of Pine Sol from under the front seat and set to work.

“You carry Pine Sol in the cab?” I asked, rolling up my sleeves to help. I risked a sniff, finally recognizing the unpleasant combination of odors I’d noticed earlier that evening. “How often does this happen?”

Joey pursed his lips. “I’d say, on the average, people puke in any given taxi about three nights a week.”

“Joey, I hate to say this, but maybe Ma’s right. Are you sure this is safe? Has anybody tried to mug you?”

“Naw. They’re usually too drunk.” He paused, noticing my efforts with the rag. “Thanks, Annie. You’d make a good taxi driver.”

We got back in the cab and headed downtown, all the windows open to air out the smell. And I listened to Joey talk—about the fares who were drunk and the fares who were stoned, the ones on welfare and the ones who tossed money around. He told me of two old ladies, crying in the back seat about their dead husbands, after a dismal evening trying to socialize on their own. He told me about the pregnant young woman he rushed to the hospital when she went into early labor with her husband out of town. He told me about the long-legged call girl he delivered to a private yacht.

“Some don’t talk at all, some can’t stop. It’s as if I’m a friendly ear, like a bartender, or even a priest and the cab is some kind of confessional.” He motioned behind him, and I could see how at night, sitting in the enclosed dark with Joey’s back to them at the wheel, a troubled soul might be moved to unburden himself and seek absolution. “It’s just that I never heard so many different stories, Annie. I never knew there were so many different kinds of people.”

By three a.m., Newport was quieter. A disheveled young woman sitting on the curb waved us down.

“Drunk?” I whispered to Joey.

He shook his head. “Drugs. The behavior’s different.”

“I can’t find my car,” the woman moaned. She was pretty but shopworn, and iridescent shadow was smudged in a wide circle around each eye. The smears of yellow, purple and green gave her face a psychedelic glow.

“Where do you live?” Joey asked.

“In the…on the…oh, I can’t remember.”

“Do you have anything with your address on it? Your driver’s license maybe?”

The woman held out her purse, and I fished inside. In the first plastic window of her wallet was a library card with the name Rose Wilson and an address. The unexpected form of ID in this place of honor was oddly touching.

I showed the address to Joey, and he nodded.

“It’s in the projects.”

We drove to a part of Newport I’d never seen. The buildings were large frame structures with tiny front porches, all bearing the dull stamp of subsidized housing. Broken glass and junk cars cluttered the small parking lots. Here and there lights violated the blackness, voices rose from a loud party, and figures shifted in the dark. I felt for my can of Mace. All the way Rose moaned.

“What time is it? Did I miss work again? I’m gonna hafta call my supervisor. Did you guys see my car? I was in a house. I wasn’t in the bars. I was in a house, and I don’t know why I was there.” She blinked as Joey pulled up to the address. “Oh, no, he’s gonna be mad. He’s gonna be mad at me.”

Joey helped her to the porch and knocked, knocked again. The door yanked open.

“What the hell—?” A huge man stood silhouetted in yellow porch light. “Shit, Rose, you did it again, didn’t you? You’re gonna screw up your probation but good.” He grabbed her arm to drag her inside.

“Hey, take it easy, friend,” said Joey.

The man’s hand flashed into an automatic fist, Joey’s palms flew up in a request for peace, and for a second they stood, neither giving ground. I sat frozen in the cab, fearing the least move or yelp would tip the balance the wrong way. Rose sagged against the door frame. Then the man’s face twisted, and reaching into his pocket, he shoved money into Joey’s hand. His voice rasped through the dark. “You’re not my friend. Beat it, boy.” He pulled Rose inside and the porch light went out.

“Now I am worried about you,” I said, shaken, as Joey returned to the cab and we drove away.

He gave the wheel an angry spin. “Not exactly Millionaire’s Row, is it? Everyone thinks Newport is all mansions and yachts and society balls. They don’t want to hear about the drugs, the homeless.” He hesitated. “If I tell you something, Annie, promise not to tell Ma?”

“Cross my heart.” I made the childhood sign.

“I’m thinking about changing my major to social work. I know—it would set me back at least a year, and Ma’s got her heart set on my being an engineer. I did, too. But these people need help. They need me, Annie. You can see that.”

I squeezed his hand, thinking how damn much I loved this kid. “Can I tell you something? Come Monday, I’m probably going to lose my job.” I explained about the publishing merger, feeling bleak again.

“Once,” said Joey, “you told me you were writing a novel. Maybe if you lose your job you’ll have time to finish it.”

He pulled up to an intersection, and we sat, both waiting for my reply.

“It’s not time I need, Joey. It’s talent.”

It was nearly four when we stopped back downtown for donuts and coffee. I lit a cigarette, yawning. The streets were practically empty, and it was just a matter of hanging around for a few last fares.

“Got a call for you, Joey boy,” Rita’s voice ground on the radio. “At the Treadway.”

“Okay.”

“Ask her where Skunk is,” I whispered. We hadn’t heard any scuffling in a while. Joey passed the question along.

Rita gave a throaty chuckle. “Skunk passed out on the floor ‘bout an hour ago. But don’t worry. I check his breathing every ten minutes to make sure he’s still alive.”

We found our fare, a paunchy, fiftyish Romeo in a checkered sports jacket, gold watch, and—I couldn’t believe it—blue suede shoes.

“Pussy,” he bleated to Joey, “where can a lovable guy like me get some high-class pussy in this town?”

I turned in my seat. It had been a long night. “Are you married?” I demanded. “Does your wife know where you are?”

He snorted. “Sure she knows where I am. On a business trip. This is what they’re for.” He turned to Joey and thumbed at me. “Who’s the loud-mouthed chick?”

“My sister.”

“Ha, betcha she ain’t married.”

Joey grabbed my fist before it could launch. “Where do you want to go?”

“I told you. Don’t tell me an enterprising young taxi driver can’t accommodate a well-paying fare.” He winked, pausing to let his meaning sink in. “You find old Buzz a chick, I’m gonna give her a hundred dollar bill and a nice fat commission for you.”

I gasped. “Joey, he wants you to pimp for him!”

“Sorry, Buzz,” said Joey. “Not in my job description.”

“Huh,” said Buzz. “Well, you just drive around, and I’ll take care of it.”

So round and round the downtown loop we went while Buzz whooped out the window at the last few available women and got heaped with obscenities in return.

“Whoa, kids,” he said, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye. “Ain’t it great to be young?” He pulled a flask from his pocket and chugged. “Well, now I gotta take a breather from all this hot and heavy stuff, so you just take me for a ride. Anywhere’ll do. Hey, how ‘bout that Ocean Drive? Been here three days and haven’t seen it yet. Yeah, and on the way I’m gonna tell you some stories like you ain’t never heard.”

“Ocean Drive’s a pretty big fare,” said Joey.

Buzz threw a handful of bills into the front seat. “Drive, boy, drive! I got me an expense account.”

So out we headed to Ocean Drive. Mercifully, Buzz slipped into a doze about halfway around, and by the time Joey pulled off the road beside the ocean, all we heard behind us was a deep snore. We sat awhile enjoying the scene. Already the night was thinning, a faint gray line of horizon eking above the sea.

Joey counted his receipts.

“How’d you do?” I asked.

“About seventy dollars, thanks to old Buzz. Think I’ll get out and stretch my legs.”

I sat in the cab and lit another cigarette—only two all night—and watched Joey toss stones in the ocean.

“Whoa, hey, we find any pussy yet?” Behind me, Buzz rose groggily. His stubby fingers clomped over the seat and onto my breasts. I whipped the Mace from my purse.

“Back off, Pork Barrel!” I barked à la Rita. “Back off or you’re dead meat!” My thumb hit the spray.

“Mace!” wailed Buzz, and fainted.

Joey dashed back to the cab. “Annie! What happened?”

“Nothing.” I frowned at the Mace. “Nothing came out.” I shook the can and pressed the nozzle, aiming out the window. “Look, nothing. I don’t understand it.”

Joey’s chin dimpled with laughter. “How long have you had that in your purse?”

“About five years.” Then I laughed, too. Five years and I’d never once used that Mace. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t even get attacked. I handed the can to Joey, and he lobbed it into a nearby garbage bin.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

We dropped the wobbly Buzz at his hotel. Just ahead Joey spotted two familiar figures trudging up the street. It was Stevie and Lloyd, scoreless again, without even enough money for cab fare back to the base. Joey turned off the meter and motioned them in.

“So where have you guys been all night?” he asked.

“Down on one of the docks,” Stevie said apologetically. “We watched the stars come out and the sun come up, and we talked about life. I guess that’s not very exciting.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said, shaking hands goodbye. “Listen, you guys are okay, and someday soon you’re going to meet a couple of girls who’ll be crazy about you.”

It was five-thirty when we finally turned in the cab and collapsed at Joey’s place. When I woke at one that afternoon, Joey was waiting to serve me breakfast.

“So tell me,” I said, digging into a stack of pancakes and syrup, “was last night at all typical of a taxi driver’s life?”

“Naw,” said Joey with a satisfied smile. “It was even better.”

*****

When Ma called Monday night, I picked up after only the second brrring.

“Annette! You’re alive. Thank you, God! Thank you!” She kissed the phone. “Twelve times last night I tried to reach you. Twelve times I left a message. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘my only son, my only daughter, mugged together in a Newport taxi.’”

I sighed. “We’re fine, Ma. I got back late, that’s all. And nobody got mugged. I just got sunburned.” I touched my blistered nose, Newport’s revenge for two afternoons on the beach without sunscreen.

“Did you tell Joey to come home?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because the taxi’s good for him.”

“Good for him?”

“Listen, Ma.” I started to light a cigarette, then changed my mind. “Nothing will happen to Joey. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he’s going to be fine.”

“But my son is driving a taxi!”

“It’s only a summer job. Besides, it’s part of a special syndrome all college students go through when facing their senior year.”

“A syndrome?” she echoed suspiciously. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that Joey’s getting locked in—to a job, to a career, to all the years ahead. And before that happens, he wants to be sure. So he’s out tasting the real world, having perfectly normal eleventh-hour doubts. He’ll finish the engineering and get his degree. But he’s hungry for life, Ma. He wants to care. You should be proud of him. The kid’s got heart. I might go back to Newport and become a cabbie myself.”

A shriek at Ma’s end made the receiver vibrate in my hand.

“Just kidding.” I waited patiently for the wails to subside. “Listen, Ma, something happened at work today. There’s been a merger. The magazine owner made a sweet deal with a publishing group, took the money and ran. The new owners are making a lot of changes.”

“Like what? Oh my god, they’re firing people! Those bastards! And after all you’ve done for them!” Ma’s voice went from indignation to wrath. “And after all you’ve done for them! Who got that exclusive interview with the mayor? Who wrote that article on adoption that brought in sacks of mail? Those jerks wouldn’t know talent if it walked up and punched them in the face. Never mind. You’ll get a new job, a better one, and in the meantime you can move in with me.”

I smiled. “Thanks, Ma, but that’s not what happened. They named me editor-in-chief.”

“What? My goodness, why didn’t you say so?”

“Because I’m still in shock, waiting for it to sink in.”

“And why should you be? As if an idiot couldn’t see my daughter is the most dedicated, best qualified—”

I let her run on. Joey would spend the summer driving taxi, by the end of which he’d have had enough dubious encounters to lose his illusions about saving the world and be ready to crack his engineering books. Tomorrow I’d jump into my new position, and spare myself another stab at a novel neither I nor anyone else would miss. Newport had been fun, a one-night walk on the wild side, and should I ever decide to get a tattoo, Rita could probably advise me on the best location. But sometimes the best revelation is that you’ve been traveling the right road all along.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1986)

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