Sara Jane Stoner
the driver's hair appears short, dyed black with dusty brown roots, the
appearance both careless and careworn. The black sheen of the still-dyed
hair looks more real than real against the mottled and torn gray of the
ceiling, the dull white of the face.
The driver's cheek glistens wet in the
late afternoon light, though it isn't raining—despite the fact that
it's always raining in story cities, isn't it? But the skin is wet, as
if the driver has been driving with their head hanging out the window,
a joyous hound, heedless of the raindrops, even reveling in their acrid
But the latest sky report assures you: nothing
but blue skies for months.
The meaning of the city is short like sentences today
and noticeably darkened by the lofty pitch of the cloudless sky. The ground
has been hollowed out for trains. The monuments of the city are blackened,
though this has no effect on the buildings' ability to impress or be identified.
Even at a distance, the city's pollution only heightens your satisfaction
at the moment their façades part the curtains of smog to thunderous
However, you strive to ignore the quarter
inch of grass stubble because it makes the city look dingy in its sad
struggle for greenness. You are reminded of your unremarkable plodding
to and fro, your incidental employment, your own history of bad dye jobs.
Your mood is worsened by memories of healthy suburban yards swaddled in
fence that begin to loosen in your head like aching teeth. Even the city's
canines do not assuage this sudden pain; the dogs' panting, anticipatory
joy at the stunted blades results in immediate waste. Somehow, the city
smell of dog shit offers your mouth the added insult of a foul taste.
And if you haven't yet noticed, notice! She is crying,
weeping, sobbing—tears everywhere so that the collar of her shirt
is soaked and the fabric of her pants at her lap is damp. A hollow moan
throbs in her chest, at a pitch something like warning.
She has driven through the streets, her
ears aimed toward the closed doors of theaters, her radio tuned to the
message, the never-ending herald of that perfect blast.
OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL ... BOMBING IN A NORTHERN NEIGHBORHOOD ... IRREPLACEABLE! ... EVERYONE
BUT THE ONE WHO MATTERED ESCAPED ... ALAS, POOR ... ALAS ... THE
SHATTERED GLASS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
And if she wore glasses they would be fogged; and if
she were a cartoon, tears would spurt in geysers and pool at her feet;
and her makeup would be miraculous, perfect; and if this were that kind
of story, she would flood the car with the liquid volume of her pain and
the tinny violins would play, and of course it would be raining—how
else would the landscape express its compassion? If this were that kind
of story. And if the city were prone to such hopeless fits of emotion.
First thing: she drives a taxi, one that you assumed
when you called the service would be yellow but—never more wrong
you are—it is pink. Though once it could have been red.
But you're in a hurry! You have that meeting,
conference, signing, facial, social drinking, dinner, matinee, free day...Your
wallet a proud bulk in your back pocket; your backpack a quiet child slumped
on your lap; your purse a sliver of liberty wedged between your knees.
Perhaps it rubs you a bit how your brown calfskin satchel cries "foul!"
on the cracked burgundy leatherette—which pinches your legs even
through the thick wool of your pants, whose fineness demands your constant
vigilance and a travel iron—but at least she arrived quickly. You
admire the fade of your jeans at the rounded cliffs of your knees. You
spread your skirt across the seat in a romantic fan. You scratch at a
crusty spot on your jogging suit. You are distracted by your own pants.
You are in the back seat of a taxi that is headed, thankfully, in the
So when you lift your head and really take
notice of the fact that you have a woman driving, as you give the address,
careful to say "please," you finally see she is weeping, and
think: she is weeping as women sometimes weep. She is taking care to check
her blind spot and signal her return to traffic; and she is weeping.
And you wonder, despite your careful politesse,
if your tone was rude. You smooth your lap with your palms, resolved that
this display of emotion has nothing to do with you. All of this must have
pre-existed your arrival in the cab. Indeed, something must be wrong with
her, or something must have happened to her.
Imagine from above if you can, at cloud level, the
city thrown like a holey net strung with stones, bits of glass, and cars
that appear like gems. Those pale exhalations you expect to dissipate
are plant life. The people of the city almost go missing from this height;
they look smaller than ants and less persistent. You imagine that the
city dogs who aren't tucked away in studio or townhouse or loft or hole
are dead in the murderous streets, though you wouldn't be able to see
At this distance, anyone can observe that
the colorful human kinesis along the grid is undetermined—clever,
but not confident—and little is different at night; only that the
cars are reduced to the color of sparkling lights and the buildings simple
stumps, freckled with glow. The monuments, of course, are rouged and lit
for the stage.
But you will marvel at the roundedness of
your body, ballooning thighs and toes hovering so large over the diminished
city. This disorientation makes possible the foreshortening of buildings.
Remember that other people of the city drive past monuments,
thinking, Oh that cathedral, Saint.. Something—perhaps it's a visit
that they've always, for years, been meaning to make. As it is, they are
quite friendly with the landmark, the exterior, though sometimes they
are bored, you are bored, by the dimness of the stained glass windows
from the outside.
People still expect that a bright glow from
within will charm them as they pass, with no need for them to enter or
She knew where you were going before you had to utter
a word. From behind her, your weeping taxi driver, you imagine the full
impact of her face before you: her look soft, or perhaps rather hard,
with narrowed, swollen eyes and a mouth chapped by ragged breath, lips
chewed through for fear or worry.
As it is, peeking over the seat and through
the gap in the plexiglass, you can only make out her profile: a shiny
curve of cheek. In the rearview mirror, so cracked as to be useless, you
catch odd slices of her, blotches of red at her neck, around her nose
and eyes, spoiling the apples of her cheeks.
You figure that she would probably look
better if she weren't crying. And you hope, for her sake, that she didn't
wear mascara today, and where is that travel pack of tissues you had in
your purse? And of all the times to be tissueless; and so much for kindness,
or even simple custom.
But who would actually accept a stranger's
monogrammed kerchief, no matter how starched and bleached?
You think of her nose steadily, how tears
and snot must run around her mouth and into it—but surely, as you
dig through your bag, surely you must have a napkin left over from that
recent indulgence, that quickie hot dog on the city corner. But you cannot
offer her even the silliness of a wet nap. Instead you fish out the gel
sanitizer and massage it into your hands.
Frankly, you are annoyed by all that blubbering
up there in the front seat. Even if you aren't a parent, you feel like
one in your search for tissues. Even if you aren't a therapist, you feel
a sudden pressure to be helpful, to cross your legs at the ankles, to
ask thoughtful, open-ended questions, to dispense benign advice. Even
the daytime talk show dilettantes would catch a whiff of tragedy in the
tight space of the cab, and just beyond this smell is fear.
As everyone knows, and has come to expect, there is
murderous traffic in the city. It froths with maniacal honkers, surgers,
cutters—professionals. Of these city drivers, most swear by the
most offensive of offenses. Off the road, they calmly reason that inspiring
fear among their fellow drivers will make everyone more vigilant behind
the wheel, and therefore safer. Many stud their tires and protect themselves
with bubbles of steel, massive vehicles that do most of the driving for
them. The cars halt midway into intersections, swerve with the force of
a cornering train, and carve S-curves into the putty of the pavement.
Despite all this careful planning and equipage,
a great many "close" calls result in metal-on-metal groans.
All across town, sirens chase the protests of shattered windshields. A
legion of flame-retardant brooms clears the wreckage and its pool of gas.
And the surviving drivers go on to buy new cars, bigger ones with stronger
And there are those, like you, who simply
will not drive, who have the luxury not to. Those who cover their eyes,
who grope for their seatbelts without thinking or needing the warnings
of mayoral placards or earnest movie stars. They know that skill is rare
among the drivers of the city.
People ask less of skyscrapers, a launching upward
of the eyes, a simple dizziness. On blue sky days a certain thrill. The
city people nurse their disbelief until it grows up to be cynical. So
the tall buildings are mostly left to themselves and their insistence
on being so very vertical.
Because the truth is, in fact, the heights
challenge you; sometimes, even the buildings' basic demand of you to look
up! look up! is asking too much. Your neck aches and your eyes throb.
Better to whiz by them in a jewel-toned sedan or a seasoned cab, forced
only to reckon with the stacked floors that fit in the frame of the car's
window, than have to struggle to fit the whole monster in your mind.
You prefer taxis to trains. You avoid the
subterranean, its music, its hellish smells, the dark mouths of its corridors.
No where to go to avoid the blackened city water gushing from a crack
in the arch above the tracks in front of you. Nowhere to hide and so you
cower from that pack of city children, their flashing eyes trap you where
you stand. You cannot achieve enough distance to see them and still love
them. Instead you always end up studying the slack and darkened pores
of the man sitting next to you.
There are other excuses for your abandonment
of the city's trains, but you often cite—on bad days—your
crushing claustrophobia—on good days—your enjoyment of the
city's surface, rendered in other people, glass, light, and commerce.
The urgent messages of billboards.
The woman driving your cab now vibrates with a low,
prehistoric moan, and you begin to think of hormones—their shrewd
manipulation of woman into a crisis of gratuitous empathy. Nature's plot:
a feminine inadequacy.
How many female cab drivers are there in
In that way of women weeping, she reminds
you of an ex-wife, an aging mother, a child, a war bride, a sick sister,
a girlfriend you once abandoned in that museum in Rome.
But there is the strange fact of her driving.
As the sobs shake her rounded back, you are awed by her smooth negotiation
of the most violently clogged expressways. You are breathless at the assertive
leap and dodge of the cab, masterfully gliding across three packed lanes,
dropping down some previously undiscovered alley to emerge on an avenue
mysteriously clear of cars. On asphalt given to sharp-edged, hippo-sized
gaps, her steerage makes you believe you could sip that coffee so hot
it deserves its own warning.
Her tears, rather than interfere with her
vision, seem to make it more acute. You grip the door handle as she makes
a microscopic correction, sparing the lives of straggling schoolchildren
without sacrificing an ounce of speed. Such is her fearless negotiation
of the walker-bound elderly, drunken stumblers, and horse-borne members
of the police force. In fact, you see a cop actually canter along side
her, perfectly parallel, and give an appreciative nod.
You have a prescription for this brand of sadness.
You finger the bottle in your purse, briefcase, backpack, pocket; imagine
the tangy rattle of that life-saving orange.
Now imagine sharing.
Be reasonable with yourself. Tell her: I AM SORRY FOR
For what else but someone or something's
death brings this depth of sorrow? The kidnapping of a beloved pet? Besides,
you can imagine yourself mourning someone in your life. Certainly.
At the intersection, a hardened city driver
in his chariot of glossy steel swivels toward your lady cab driver with
a vigor suggesting a challenge, a race, a derby. You're struck suddenly
by the urge to serve and protect. But you watch as her sodden, distorted
face catches at his eyes behind his sunglasses. The driver raises them
off his face and begins to interpret her tears: a lost love, perhaps,
a mugging, even a speeding ticket or a short fare—something he could
imagine himself weeping over—something real. You see him looking
at her and then he sees you, his eyes sharp and accusatory and wordlessly
he decides that YOU ARE THE ASSHOLE WHO IS MAKING HER CRY.
You duck down then, pressing your knees
into the driver's seat in front of you, until the city begins moving in
the windows and once again you sense its profound ignorance of you.
And after the sympathy that you have imagined yourself
into dries up, what is it that you believe she cries for? You can only
nod and agree with her emotion like a bit of weather. Those in the high
buildings of the city reach across the sky to shake hands on her sadness,
as though it were an investment in the city they might be willing to take
a risk on.
When she turns to look at you, to give you change,
her wet face is clear, empty, transparent—through her the rain-covered
city: the people with their umbrellas, splashing along the sidewalks and
gutters behind her forehead. The street lights swollen into softer circles
past her eyes and the damp fog at dusk, heavy and mauve. The buildings
fade the higher they rise through the sheets of rain in her hair.
If she could talk, she might tell you a
story about a woman who became an appendage of her taxi, an installation
that was an upgrade perhaps, but still, a component. The wheel gripped
her hands and began to direct her arms through an endless circular dance.
Once upon a time, the woman woke to find herself in her taxi. Then night
fell on her in her taxi. No matter where she went she ended up in the
same place, and after a while she couldn't remember how she used to hold
her children. The numbness in her lower lumbar region, the woman reasoned,
was both due to the seat and the seat itself. And no pill or bottle could
revive the good feeling like sunlight that she used to feel following
her closely, warming her neck. Eventually, the woman didn't need mirrors
anymore. She knew in her body when the taxi was clear or when she could
back up no further.
And when she thought of those buildings—the
"out of service" light just flickered on—how skyscrapers
must tire of the sky. How they must wish to meet her and her pink cab
down on the water by the pier, where she kept up her crying with the windows
rolled down, waiting.
When she delivers you safely and her door slams home,
the rushing of the air around you will remind you, suddenly, of falling.
From the sidewalk you'll stand and watch her crest that bit of hill, funnel
into the narrow bridge, pick up speed and pour into downtown. You imagine
she will run uphill in rivulets, soaking the ground, and all the streets
uptown will rise with a silent flood.
As you climb up your stairs or stand in
your swift brass elevator, you'll find somewhere to file this vision away.
Some dusty bin for the unusual. But when the rain returns, her story will
slip out of your head. She will splash past you as you stand waiting on
the street corner, a newspaper wilting above your head, and you will forget
how to stiffen your arm to hail yourself a taxi.
I have a profound interest in discomfort
as a means rather than an end, and hope someday to officially join the
ranks of those known for such perversions. In this piece, I found the
voyeuristic and beneficently sadistic pleasure of witnessing someone else's
discomfort, even within the forced proximity of a cab, downright inescapable.
Despite the fact that both sad and happy people frighten me, my stock
in emotion rises daily.