AN ODE TO NEW YORK CITY
William S. Stone
CHAPTER I: THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
No, this couldn’t actually be happening! Not to me! Not when my life was moving along so beautifully! Due to a few seconds of inattention in La Guardia Airport, my dream Harvard job was now in jeopardy. And, I had no one to blame but myself.
It had been just a year since I had been named Assistant Director of the Latin American Scholarship Program of American Universities (LASPAU) at Harvard right out of graduate school. Not a bad accomplishment for a mid-westerner who had never set foot in New England before his job interview. How proud I was that the program director, David Henry, displayed so much confidence in me that he asked me to go all the way to Brazil to pick up the first Portuguese language graduate record exams ever taken by Brazilian LASPAU scholarship candidates. The academic and professional future of more than 100 applicants representing several Brazilian universities depended upon these exam results. As Dave explained, I became his anointed courier because the mails were untrustworthy. It was a heady responsibility but, without giving it a second thought, I willingly accepted. I had never been to Brazil and Dave’s assignment gave me the chance to visit a country which had always fascinated me.
After carefully squiring the exams all the way from Pôrto Alegre through Rio de Janiero, Brazil to New York City they literally disappeared right before my eyes. I was 28. It was early October 1969. I had been traveling for a total of three and a half weeks on LASPAU business throughout South America and, after visiting six countries, was exhausted and anxious to get back to my home in Boston. Only one short shuttle flight remained for me to attain that objective: New York /Boston. Just as I was signing up for a seat on the next shuttle flight, the exams vanished.
I had shared a cab from Kennedy International Airport (JFK) with three other passengers who also were headed for La Guardia where they were flying to Raleigh/Durham. As it turned out, the Eastern Shuttle was the cab driver’s first La Guardia stop. Once I was out of the cab, an Eastern Airlines employee with a clipboard in his hand ran up to me and asked me if I wanted a seat on the next shuttle to Boston which was about to leave. When I answered in the affirmative, he excitedly told me that I needed to act fast and requested my credit card to run it through his hand held machine.
Simultaneously, the cab driver opened the trunk of his car and asked me to point out my luggage. I told him, “Those two suitcases and that box.” the latter being, of course, the box containing the all important exams. It was at precisely that moment that the Eastern Airlines employee tapped me on the shoulder so that I could sign a travel voucher on his clipboard. To do that, I turned my back for a total of no more than 30 seconds. As fate would have it, those 30 seconds were all the time that was needed for the cab driver to leave for his next stop. As he drove off, I immediately recognized my two suitcases sitting serenely on the curb…BUT NO BOX! WHERE, OH MY GOD, WHERE WAS THE BOX?
Panic immediately set in! I quickly told the Eastern Airlines employee to watch my bags (which I stopped caring about) and, not even waiting for his response, jumped into the next passing cab. If the situation hadn’t been so traumatic, I probably would have relished shouting the familiar phrase from Hollywood movies, “Follow that cab!” The only problem was that by that time “my” cab had blended in with hundreds of others all of them yellow. Having lost sight of “my” cab, I had the presence of mind to tell the driver to take me immediately to where passengers would be leaving for Raleigh/Durham, the destination of the others in my cab. Tragically, he misunderstood me. Instead of taking me to the departure location, he took me to arrivals. Due to that critical mistake, valuable time was lost. But, I swallowed my anger and frustration and told the driver to swing back and let me off at the Eastern Shuttle…exactly where he had picked me up. My hope was that by that time the original driver had realized his mistake and returned the box to its rightful location.
No such luck! When I asked the same Eastern Airlines employee if the box had been returned, he sadly shook his head “No”. I then inquired if he would mind keeping my luggage a little longer while I made a second attempt to locate the Raleigh/Durham passengers. This time, I made absolutely sure that the new cab driver took me directly to the departure location. Once I was inside the departure terminal, I immediately checked the flight monitor and ran as fast as I could to the appropriate departure gate. In those days, non passengers were permitted to see passengers off at departure gates. As luck would have it, I spotted my co-passengers waiting in the departure lounge. Short of breath, I ran over to them and began to quiz them for any information they might have.
After inquiring about the box, one of the women responded, “I thought that was yours! When the cab driver took that box out of the trunk and set it down on the pavement beside our luggage, I told him that it wasn’t ours and that it undoubtedly belonged to the man at the Eastern Shuttle. He just glared at me and as he put the box back into the car muttered under his breath, “I’ve had a hard day. I’m too tired. I’m going home to go to bed.” ”
Crestfallen, I sat down beside the three of them and asked them to tell me everything they could remember about the driver and his cab because, I confessed, the only thing that I could remember was that the cab was yellow. Little did I know then but our group discussion would later turn out to be of critical importance in my search for the missing box.
Little by little, crucial details started to emerge. The man said, “I think it was a 69 Plymouth. Yes, I’m almost certain that it was.” One of the woman added, “I remember that he bragged to us that he owned his own cab.” And, all of us almost simultaneously remembered the unusual sign that he had attached to his visor saying “Driver allergic to smoke! Please do not smoke in this cab!” I made an indelible mental note of this scattered information, thanked them and, dejectedly, walked back to the Eastern Shuttle.
I collected my bags and entered the Eastern Shuttle Terminal. Needing to talk with someone, I explained my plight to a woman at the ticket desk. Fortunately, she had no other customers so could give me her undivided attention. As sympathetic as she was to my situation, she also was painfully realistic. “Face it!” she said, “The chances of your finding that box are almost nonexistent. And, the sooner you accept that fact, the better off you will be.” As savvy as that negative assessment may have been, however, I told her that I wanted to exhaust any and all possibilities before definitively throwing in the towel.
As our conversation evolved, she spotted an on-duty policeman friend of hers, called him over and pulled him into our conversation. He fit every stereotype of a New York “cop” that I had imagined from my obsession with Hollywood…tall, burley, over weight with a thick Brooklyn accent. He eagerly and sympathetically joined in our discussion. Two of the ideas that emerged from our three way conversation were: go to the Hack Bureau (the city of New York cab hub center) and put ads in the New York Post and the Daily News (the New York Times was ruled out). It was at that point that I came to the gnawing realization that I had been procrastinating too long. It was time for me to call my boss in Boston to let him know what had happened.
The mere thought of talking with Dave sent me into apoplexy. My hands literally started shaking. My new policeman friend must have pitied me since he asked, “Are you a drinkin man?” When I responded in the affirmative, he boldly said, “Come wit me!” and took me by the arm and steered me toward a small bar in the far corner of the terminal. He invited me for a drink at his expense…anything I wanted. When I said that I wanted a Manhattan, he shouted to the bartender, “A Manhattan for this gentleman. Make that a double!” He told me that he would like to join me but since he was on duty couldn’t. Then, he patiently stood by my side as I slowly downed this elixir. The drink apparently did the trick as my nervousness slowly but surely began to subside.
Once I had finished the last drop, he said, “Sorry to bring up unpleasant tings but the time has come for you to call your boss! Don’t worry! I’ll go wit yah!” Once again, he took me by the arm and led me to the nearest pay phone. He patiently stood at my side as I made the call.
When Dave answered, I opened with, “Hello Dave! This is Bill calling!” His response was “The prodigal son has returned. Tell me how your trip was?” “Eventful” was my immediate answer. I then cut to the chase and blurted out what had happened as clearly as I possibly could under the circumstances. Taking a big gulp, and with trepidation, I awaited his response. For what seemed like forever, an ominous silence reigned at the other end of the line. Finally, in a very calm but stern voice Dave commanded, “All I have to say is that I want you to stay in New York until you find those exams!” followed by an abrupt click!
The die was cast! Dave’s ultimatum couldn’t have been clearer. Regardless of whether I could realistically achieve it, I had no choice but to give it my all. Either that, or resign on the spot! Having listened to my end of the conversation and watched my face turn ashen, my policeman friend didn’t need to know Dave’s exact words to figure out what had been said. He put his hand firmly on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eye and calmly reassured me “Don’t worry! The ballgame’s not over. Whether or not you find those fricking tests isn’t what it’s all about. What you need to do is convince your boss you’ve done everythin you could to find em.” And, he reminded me of the ideas we previously discussed about my visiting the Hack Bureau and placing announcements in two of the major New York papers. Since it was now late Thursday afternoon, he urged me to move into action as early as possible the next morning since most New York City offices close over the weekend. With that, he looked at his watch and apologetically excused himself to return to work but not before wishing me well and giving me a firm solidarity handshake. He also assured me that he was in my corner and urged me to keep him informed of what happened.
CHAPTER II: UNDER NEW YORK CITY’S WING
Once I was alone, practical concerns immediately rushed to the forefront. Since I was at the end of a lengthy trip, I was virtually out of money and needed to find somewhere to stay as inexpensively as possible. Among my leftover Brazilian cruzeiros, I had a grand total of US$17.35. I racked my brain trying to think of anyone I might know in the New York area. Suddenly, I remembered that an old Peace Corps buddy of mine from Costa Rica, John McLaughlin, lived in Manhattan. Fortunately, he was listed in the NYC directory and I anxiously dialed his number.
An unfamiliar male voice answered the phone. When I asked to speak with John, that voice responded, “I’m Michael Barrett, John’s roommate. Sorry to say that John’s away on a business trip and won’t be back until tomorrow. You can try to reach him then” The sigh I let out must have sounded so mournful that it awakened Michael’s humanitarian instincts. He quickly retorted, “Are you all right? You sound like you’re in bad shape.” I responded,
“You better believe it!” I then provided Michael with an abbreviated version of my ongoing saga that ended with an embarrassed confession of my precarious finances. He immediately responded, “Not to worry! With or without John, you can stay here. I can’t remember John mentioning you but I know how much he valued his time in the Peace Corps, so, by all means, come ahead. I have a date tonight so I’ll leave the key with the doorman. I’ll put
some instructions on the refrigerator where you should sleep and where things are. We’ll see each other in the morning. Make yourself at home and please try not to worry.” He then explained how to get from La Guardia to his apartment at 21st and 3rd by public transportation.
As rattled as I was, I somehow managed to arrive at my destination via bus and subway lugging my two suitcases behind. By the time I found the apartment building, it was pitch dark. I introduced myself to the doorman who handed me the key that Michael had left. Once in the apartment, I found Michael’s encouraging note inviting me to make myself at home including raiding the refrigerator. The note also contained a diagram of the apartment so that I would know where everything was.
Before attempting to go to sleep, I made a collect call to Boston to speak with my significant other, Joyce Gamble, to commiserate with her about my ordeal. She was appropriately sympathetic, understanding and reassuring, wished me luck and told me that she would eagerly await news of the “success” of my search the next day.
It was a relief to take a hot shower. Not unexpectedly, however, I found it challenging to fall asleep. My mind was racing with jumbled thoughts about tomorrow’s search, the missing box, the scholarship applicants, my job and Dave’s ultimatum. Even so, I somehow managed to doze off.
Around 6:45 am, sounds of life emanated from the living area. Michael must have gotten up. I decided that the time had come for me to introduce myself to my host. The bathroom door was open where Michael was shaving. When he caught a glimpse of me in the mirror, he stopped shaving long enough to give me a vigorous welcome hand shake… He encouraged me to help myself to breakfast and hot coffee which were waiting for me in the kitchen.
Michael joined me shortly and, we briefly discussed my action plan for the day. Even though he thought that going to the Hack Bureau was a long shot at best, Michael recommended that that visit be my top priority. After all, that bureau served as the hub for all of Manhattan’s thousands of cabs. He also recommended that I place an ad in the New York Daily News, the paper a cab driver would most likely read, on my way to the Bureau. Placing an ad in the New York Post could wait until later. He patiently showed me how to find the Daily News and the Hack Bureau by public transportation. Michael’s hospitality then reached unexpected new heights. “Do you need any money?” he asked. “If so, I can easily spare $25. You’re welcome to it if you think it might help.” Being strapped financially, I gratefully accepted his kind offer.*
*Michael’s thoughtful gestures have stayed with me throughout my life and have served as an inspiration for my own actions toward others who are in crisis.
Michael reminded me that John would be back from his business trip by evening. He said that both of them looked forward to hearing all about my search which undoubtedly would be successful As Michael left for work, he urged me to get moving ASAP. So, with the trusty NYC subway map that he had given me in my hand, my New York City odyssey officially began. Getting to the Daily News office turned out being easier than anticipated. Once I found the appropriate department, I was given two options: putting an ad in the paper’s lost and found section or telling my story in a special human interest column designed for readers with complaints and/or who were in trouble. Since I certainly qualified as someone “in trouble” and was told that that column had a wide readership, I chose the second option. My story was in an interview format. After explaining the urgency of finding the box, I ended my plea with an offer of a generous reward for its safe return.
Since the morning was slipping by rapidly and time was of the essence, I decided to follow Michael’s advice and postpone placing a New York Post ad until later and went directly to the Hack Bureau since it would be closed over the weekend. Fortunately, finding the Hack Bureau also was no problem. After locating that mammoth structure, however, I almost wished that I hadn’t. It was large and imposing very much like the overbearing and heavy 1950’s architecture in the Soviet Union. The halls had high ceilings with voices echoing in the corridors. No wonder I felt intimidated!
No one seemed to know quite what to do with me! I made the appropriate inquiries and ended up being passed from one bureaucrat to another. To make matters worse, none of them was at all encouraging. Quite the contrary! I was repeatedly told that it was a “lost cause”. All cab drivers know that they are expected to turn in anything of value that they find in their cabs. Not doing so is justification for dismissal. As I moved from one employee to another, two of them checked and double checked throughout the building but no box with a Harvard University address stamped all over it could be located. Even so, I refused to take “No” for an answer and kept insisting on meeting with the top Hack Bureau administrator. I must have worn these underlings down since I finally was ushered into the head man’s office.
The chief’s office was uninviting and drab. It was large, cavernous and sparsely furnished. The one piece of furniture that stood out was a long well worn wooden table. Like in the corridors, the ceilings were unusually high. The head man was sitting behind his desk with a male assistant standing obediently at his side. As I approached, I detected an edge of irritation in his manner and voice. In a thick Brooklyn accent he began, “So, Mr. Stone, I heah from my staff that you are a very determined young man. Well, that’s a good quality to have and I salute you.” He went on to say that even though perseverance usually pays off, this wasn’t one of those times. “Look, Mr. Stone, little old ladies come in heah daily lookin for umbrellas that they leave in one of our cabs. Do you think that they ever find em? Of course not! It just doesn’t happen.”
Irritated by the “little old lady” analogy, I forcefully interjected, “But this is an entirely different situation.” As calmly as possible, I told him how critical it was that every effort be taken to find this box and the reasons why. He listened attentively. Slowly, I could see a softening in his demeanor. “Yeah, I see your point!” he responded. He reiterated the same Hack Bureau policy I had already heard several times; i.e., that cab drivers are required to turn in anything of value left in their cabs. If they don’t, they can be fired. “Let’s just say for the sake of argument that your cab driver took the box home with em. He knows full well that he needs to turn it in within 24 hours. If he doesn’t, he will be out of a job. More than 24 hours have gone by since you were in his cab and the box has not been brought to this building. I can assure you of that. So, the only conclusion I can reach is that he’s dishonest, lazy or both. May I be brutally honest with you, Mr. Stone? Sorry to say, but he has probably dumped that box somewhere. End of story!”
Wounded but far from defeated, I gave it one last try. I pleaded that losing my job wasn’t the key consideration but rather the future of the Brazilian scholarship applicants most definitely was. I owed it to them to do everything humanly possible to locate the box. With obvious exasperation, he responded, “All right! All right! You win! We’ll give it a try! But, you better face facts. At best, it’s a long shot. I’m doing this against my better judgment only because I think that it’s important for you to show your boss how hard you tried to find that damn box. Capiche? So, what do we have to go on?”
After thanking him profusely, I shared the information I had gleaned from the Raleigh/Durham passengers; i.e., that the cab was a 1969 Plymouth and that the driver owned his own cab. A sly smile crossed his face, “Well, that’s at least somethin! It narrows down our search from several thousand to about 250. I’ll tell you what I’m goin tah do. I’ll let you see pictures of the faces of all the cab drivers who own their own cabs and drive 69 Plymouths and we’ll see what happens. It will take us some time to pull this together. Wait heah and we’ll be right back.” With that, the two of them speedily left the room.
I anxiously awaited their return pacing nervously back and forth. At least a half hour went by before the two of them reentered loaded down with two piles of large manila envelopes in their arms. They lined up the envelopes in three rows on the long table. There must have been at least 80. The envelopes’ top flaps were opened. The first page was pulled out far enough so that I could see the cab drivers’ faces but nothing more. For confidential reasons, I was told that I couldn’t touch the envelopes. All I was allowed to do was peruse their faces.
With their arms folded, the two men watched as I carefully studied the faces of each of those drivers. I slowly went through the first row, then the second, and finally the third. But, I didn’t recognize anyone. “Don’t worry!” was the response. “We’ll bring out another batch!” With that, off they went.
Another 45 minutes went by before the two men returned loaded down with a similar number of manila envelopes. Once again, they were arranged in three rows on the long table in the same format as the first. As before, I carefully studied the faces of each and every one of them. Also as before, I came up empty. Not a one of these drivers looked familiar.
The chief then put his hand on my shoulder sympathetically and said, “OK, Mr. Stone. I have one final batch that I can show you. But, that, I’m afraid, is that! If your cabbie isn’t in this last batch, there’s nothin more that I can do.” With that, the two of them departed to retrieve the last group of envelopes.
Awaiting the third and final batch filled me with intense anxiety. The head man was right. If my driver didn’t emerge from that final batch, any hope of finding the box via the Hack Bureau was over. There was no getting around it. HE HAD TO BE in this last batch! Maybe if I willed it hard enough, it would actually happen!
The two men finally reemerged carrying the third pile of envelopes which, as with its predecessors, they arranged in three long rows. Since it was my last chance, I decided to take more time to study each and every face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the two men glancing at their watches. My slowness was clearly frustrating them. After carefully reviewing the first line of envelopes, I cautiously moved on to the second and finally to the third.
The faces of the hundreds of cab drivers I had studied started blurring together. I began to question whether I could recognize my driver’s picture even if it were right in front of me. Slowly but surely, I neared the end of the third line of envelopes. Five more faces to go; then four; then three; then two and then…. Wait a minute! Was I imagining this? It couldn’t be! As clear as crystal, I saw my cab driver’s face staring up at me…the second from the end.
I shouted, “I found him! I’d know that face anywhere!” The look of disbelief that crossed their faces was all too apparent. I could sense what must have been going through their minds. “It’s his last chance! He’s grasping for straws!” So, I had my work cut out for me to try to convince them!
“Are you sure that your mind isn’t playing tricks on you?” the chief inquired. “Absolutely!”, I responded. “After looking at so many faces, I wasn’t sure that I could pick him out either. But, that was before I saw that face looking up at me. That face will stay with me for a lifetime!”
They tried to wear me down but I refused to budge. I had found my man and that was that! Finally, the Hack Bureau chief said, “Well, I still have my doubts. But, the least thing I can do is call and ask him about the box. I’ll do that much for yah.” He then took out the contents of the envelope and paged through it. “Wouldn’t you know it? He doesn’t have a phone!” At that moment, that news seemed ominous. Little did I know then that his not owning a phone would prove to be my lucky break.
“Sorry to say, it looks like we’re stuck! No phone! And Hack Bureau regulations prevent me from giving you any information about him. No can do! ” A quizzical frown crossed his face. He appeared to be in deep thought. Suddenly he turned to his colleague and said, “Say, Joe, I could stand a cup of coffee right about now, how about you?” Joe responded, “Thanks, boss, but I don’t really want….” when he was rudely interrupted with an energetic “Yes you do!” And the two of them headed for the door.
On their way out, the chief looked me directly in the eye and said, “Now, Mr. Stone, I’m going to leave you alone in this room for a few minutes. You look like a man who can be trusted, right? I want you to promise me before we go that you will not look at that envelope and write down that cab driver’s name and address while we are gone. Are you willing to make that promise?” I immediately retorted, “Of course!” With that “assurance”, they left.
Once they were out of sight, I rushed over to the table, carefully retrieved the envelope’s contents and wrote down the relevant particulars. I then returned everything to its rightful place. In about 10 minutes, they returned. I thanked them both and told them that my next stop beckoned. Putting their “trust” in me to its ultimate test, I had the chutzpah to say, “Even though nothing would please me more than to take one of your cabs, I am so short of funds that I need to take public transportation. Do you know how I can get to Queens by subway?” With a wry smile, the chief took out a paper and pencil and drew me a map. “Listen, Mr. Stone, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. Don’t get despondent if this turns out to be a wild goose chase. Whatever happens, I will be happy to talk with your boss. Give him my name and number and tell him to call me.” With that, I heartily shook their hands and with renewed energy went on my way.
CHAPTER III: THE CONFRONTATION
Although I tried to stay calm, my mind was racing. Had I really recognized my cabbie or was my mind playing tricks on me? And, even if he turned out to be the right cab driver, what would prevent him from claiming that he didn’t know what I was talking about? That I hadn’t been a passenger of his! That he never had the box? It would be his word against mine. What if he had already dumped the box as the Hack Bureau chief had speculated? One thing was certain: from here on in, there could be no mistakes.
As my subway car pulled into the Queens above ground station, my mind was filled with these and other thoughts. I got out, reviewed the sketch, surveyed the map on the wall and concluded that the cab driver’s home was only about three blocks away. Virtually all the streets were filled with oversized duplexes built sometime in the 30’s or 40’s. It looked very much like Archie Bunker’s neighborhood from the popular US sitcom “All in the Family”.
As I approached my destination, my heart started pounding. There it was, the very duplex I was seeking. But, no cab was anywhere in sight. I took a deep breath and slowly climbed the stairs of the front porch and rang the bell No answer! I rang again. Still no answer! After the third ring, I reluctantly concluded that my man wasn’t home. At that very moment, the front door from the other apartment swung open, and a gruff woman’s voice shouted, “What d yah want?” In the twilight, I could make out a short stout woman in her 60’s with her hair in curlers. Over a stained white slip, she was wearing a red plaid bathrobe held together by a large safety pin. She had a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth.
Her aggressive manner put me on the defensive. I stammered, “I…I…I’m looking for the guy who lives in this apartment. He’s a cab driver, right?” “What’s it to yah?”, was her endearing response. I quickly explained that I had left something in his cab and wanted to pick it up. As she gave me the once over, her brusque demeanor slowly dissipated “Yeah! He lives here. I’m his landlady. But, I sure as hell don’t know when he’ll be back. Could be as late as 11! Say, mister, you look terrible! You need tah sit down. Wanna come in for a beer while yur waitin? I’m cleanin the oven and we can talk while I finish it. OK?”
Caught off guard by this unexpected invitation, I managed a hesitant “Yes, thanks! She added, “But, dere’s one condition. My husband’s a jealous man. If he finds you heah, they’ll be hell to pay. So, you’ve got tah agree to amscray on the double if he shows up. Any problem with that? Don’t worry! We’ll hear his car coming up the alley and you’ll have plenty of time to beat it.” After agreeing to those terms, I was led through her dark apartment to the kitchen in the back facing the alley.
A strong odor of oven cleaner mixed with cigarette smoke permeated the room. Thank God that the kitchen window was open! Otherwise, we may well have suffocated. The landlady handed me a beer, offered me a chair and squatted down on the floor continuing her oven cleaning chores. For several minutes, we chatted on a variety of unrelated topics. Finally, I brought up her taxi driver tenant. I asked her to tell me everything she knew about him
which turned out to be almost nothing. “I don’t mix with my tenants”, she claimed. “Have you ever been in his cab? “, I inquired. “Once or twice”, was her answer. “Did you notice anything unusual about it?” I asked, “Naw! It’s like any other cept he has this crazy sign that says “Driver allergic to smoke! Please don’t smoke in this cab!” “
Upon that revelation, I yelped, “I found him! I really found him!” With a quick downward swoop, I pulled the landlady up from her crouching position and gave her a big hug. To say that she was startled by my unexpected ardor was an understatement. She was even more startled, however, when, at precisely that moment, the sound of car wheels on gravel emanated from the alley. “Jesus! Joseph! and Mary! It’s my husband! Yah gotta go! NOW!” I immediately made a beeline for the front door. On my way out, I hurriedly thanked her for her hospitality and asked her permission to camp out on the front porch (shared by the two apartments) until the cab driver came home. “No problem! But, whatever yah do, don’t let on to my hubby that we knows each othah. OK?”
Since it looked like I might have a long wait, I located a nearby pharmacy where I stocked up on some essential supplies: the New York Times, a copy of Playboy and two Hershey bars with almonds. I was expecting a long siege. But, as I returned to the duplex, I noticed a Yellow Cab parked outside. The infamous cab driver had returned! I poked my head in its open window and, sure enough, there was the telltale sign. There was no doubt now! I had successfully tracked him down!
“Whatever you do, Bill, don’t blow it!” I warned myself as I re-climbed the front porch steps. Hesitating for a few seconds, I took another deep breath and rang the bell. I waited for about 30 seconds and rang again. I then heard a shout from the duplex second story, “Keep yur shirt on! I’m comin!” The door opened and there was my cabdriver, shirtless and hostile. “What da yah want? Can’t you see that I’m eatin dinnah?” Good God! It seemed like I had fallen into a replay of a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and I was facing Stanley Kowalski in the flesh.
For a flicker of a moment, I saw a hint of recognition cross his face. Before he could say anything, I calmly interjected, “Say, I was riding in your cab yesterday and left a box in the trunk. I stopped by to pick it up.” “Yeah! I remember you. How did ya find me anyways?” Thinking on my feet, I responded “I’m one of those crazy people who memorize the driver’s number every time he gets into a cab. So, when I realized that I didn’t have the box, I called the Hack Bureau with your number. Since you don’t have a phone they were kind enough to give me your address.” Eyeing me suspiciously, he nervously responded, “I was gonna turn that box in. I knows what’s right! “I’m sure that you do and you’re probably going to get a reward”, I soothingly interjected. “So, could I please have the box now?”
“I don’t got it! It’s at my mudders” he retorted. Thinking I wasn’t hearing correctly, I clarified, “It’s where?” “At my mudders!”, he repeated. I then asked him if he would be kind enough to give me his mother’s address. “No, but I’ll take you theah myself. Just let me finish eatin, OK?” I thanked him for his offer but told him that I would pick it up on my own. He was insistent. With that, “Stella” appeared at the top of the stairs behind him yelling down, “What’s da maddah, you dumb lummox? Yur dinah’s gettin cold.” With a shrug of his shoulders, he turned on his heel and forcefully demanded, “Wait heah!”
So near and yet so far! The box was almost within my grasp but an unexpected hurdle now kept me from reclaiming it: the cabdriver’s mother. Her role in this unfolding the box was firmly in my hands, decided to “go with the flow” without asking too many questions. After approximately 20 minutes, my fully dressed cabbie emerged saying, “Let’s go!”
Off we went. My cabbie immediately started talking about his mother. “Say, listen! Ya gottah promise me somethin. When we gets to my mudder’s place, you gottah go in wit me. See, she and me, we don’t hit it off. She’s an alcoholic and always wants me to buy her booze. If I go there now empty handed, she’s gonna bitch and moan. Maybe she’ll go easy on me if you goes in wit me. OK?” Under the circumstances, I had no choice but to agree to his bizarre request. The ball was definitely in his court.
It took us about a half hour to reach his mother’s small house in a working class neighborhood. We went up the walk together and he rang the bell. True to his prediction, his mother started yelling at him the moment she opened the door. The wild harridan facing us across the threshold with fire in her eyes demanded, “Where’s my gin you no good ungrateful son! What did I do to deserve the likes of you?” As they argued, I stepped into the entry hall. From that vantage point, I was able to survey most of the layout of the downstairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the box sitting in the middle of the living room. It had been opened with three or four exams lying alongside it.
With the two of them wrangling and shouting at one another, it seemed like I was watching actors performing in a “B” movie in which I unwillingly had become a secondary character. There definitely was a surrealistic feel to the proceedings. Catching my bearings, I slowly but surely edged around them, moved over to the box, retrieved the stray tests and returned them to their rightful place. I then bound the box with the twine lying next to it and as inconspicuously as I could inched my way toward the door. Before I could make my getaway, however, the cabbie grabbed my arm and said, “Where da yah think yur goin?” I calmly responded that I intended to find the closest subway station. He firmly responded, “I’ll take yah.” When I politely declined, he insisted. Since he clearly was not someone to be trifled with, I reluctantly agreed. Against my better judgment, I once again found myself inside his cab, hopefully for the last time.
As we drove along, he kept repeating the same litany; i.e., that he knew what was “right” and that he fully intended on turning in the box. I reassured him that I believed him and that he probably would get a big reward. Suddenly, without warning, he unsnapped a holster he wore hidden under his clothes, pulled out a gun and laid it between the two of us on the front seat. Terrified, I instinctively grabbed for my door handle. “I used to be a police officer, yah know. I always obey the law. I want yah to know that!” Shaking internally but trying to keep my cool, I somehow managed to respond, “Of course! The important thing is that, thanks to you, I now have the box. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
Was I going to live through this? Or was I about to become another NYC homicide statistic? These thoughts, and many others, were racing through my head as the cab pulled up to an elevated subway station. Mercifully, he put his gun back in his holster. Hard as it was to believe, he was actually going to let me go. Thanking him perfunctorily and with the box firmly in hand, I hurried up the stairs to the subway entrance. Dare I look back? What if he decided to follow me? With some trepidation, I slowly turned around. No cab! Against all odds, it looked like the box and I were finally safe!
I immediately headed for the first pay phone I could find and called Dave in Boston. When he answered, I proudly proclaimed, “Sherlock Holmes reporting from New York!” “You found the box! I knew you would! Well done!” was his response. I told him that I would fill him in on the details later. I then made another collect call to my girlfriend Joyce and told her my good news. With a smile on my face and new energy in my step, I headed back to John and Michael’s apartment at 21st and 3rd.
CHAPTER IV: THE DENOUEMENT
As I fiddled with the key in the lock, John swung open the door. There he was. Bigger than life! A six foot two inch Irishman! As he eyed me up and down, he did a double take when he saw the box. With his strong Kennedyesk accent, he shouted, “Good Gawd! You found it! That’s great!” He gave me a big bear hug and then added, “You look like hell! Better take a shawah and change because I’ve got you a date with the most beautiful girl in New Yoak…my sistah, Kathleen. But, you damn well can’t go out dressed like that! You and I are about the same size. While you’re in the shawah, I’ll pick out something for you to wear. Get Moving!”
I eagerly got into the shower wondering what bizarre wardrobe John was selecting. Knowing him, it would be anything but conservative. Sure enough! On the bed, I found a double breasted navy blue sports coat with gold plated buttons and a cream colored pair of bell bottom trousers. ”What the hell! You only live once!” I thought as I slipped into my “dressed to kill” outfit. Once I had passed John’s inspection, we were off for an unforgettable night on the town.
And, what a night it was! We picked up Kathleen, who was every bit as good looking as John had claimed, and John’s date and headed for an Irish pub called the Glocca Morra where we spent an evening of eating and drinking until the wee hours of the morning. John never tired of telling whoever would listen about my New York exploits. So, I ended up being quite the celebrity! I can’t recall ever participating in a more joyous occasion. It was definitely a night to remember!
When I awoke from my hangover the next day, it was already mid-morning. I slowly but surely pulled my things together to leave. John and Michael were showing signs of life so I said my goodbyes. After thanking them both profusely, and with the box safely in tow, I headed back to La Guardia airport.
Once at the Eastern Airlines ticket desk, the same woman who had commiserated with me about my plight two days earlier was at the ticket desk. She was deeply engrossed in her work and didn’t see me coming. Without her noticing, I put the box on the floor out of her line of vision and moved it along with my foot until it was directly underneath her counter. I loudly cleared my throat. “Well, hello there! Good to see you! You didn’t find the box, did you?” she asked consolingly. At that point, I reached down, pulled up the box and set it on the counter right in front of her. “I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. I then briefly filled her in on my exploits as I purchased a ticket for Boston on the next Eastern Shuttle flight. I then called Joyce to ask her to meet my plane in Boston.
“So, you’ll be checking in two bags and one box, right?” she inquired. “Wrong!” I responded. “I will be checking in two bags but I’m not letting this box out of my sight!” “I’m sorry, sir, but that box is too big to be a carry on!” she insisted. “Every rule has an exception!” was my rejoinder. She looked pensively at me! Then she looked pensively at the box, shrugged her shoulders and finally said, “Oh, OK! Just this once! You can take the box on with you!” and gave me a special permit that would get the box past the inspectors. Much to the chagrin of the stewardess in my flight section, I refused to put the box in the overhead bin. Instead, it stayed on my lap for the duration of the 50 minute flight between New York and Boston.
Joyce was waiting at the arrival gate when my plane landed at Logan Airport. As she eyed the box I was carrying, she gave me a congratulatory hug. Once my bags were collected, I asked her if she would do me a very special favor. Even though it was a Saturday, I told her that I wanted to take the box directly to the LASPAU office in Cambridge before going home. She readily agreed. It wasn’t until I had officially placed the box in the office’s storage room safely under lock and key that I finally could breathe normally saying to myself “Mission Accomplished!”
Anticipating what I might face in the LASPAU office the following Monday morning, I was reluctant to go back to work. I wasn’t looking forward to being chided by my colleagues for my transgressions. However, much to my surprise, the reception I received turned out quite differently. No razzing! No criticisms! No recriminations! I was asked nothing whatever about the missing exams!
As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that Dave had told no one about my New York City ordeal. To this day, I remain grateful for his discretion. The events that transpired during those three days in October were so traumatic that I literally was unable to discuss them with anyone for more than two years.
The first item on my schedule that Monday morning was calling the Hack Bureau chief to inform him of my good fortune. His immediate assumption was that I was calling to tell him that I hadn’t found the box. But, once I informed him that I had, he insisted upon my giving him a full account of what had happened. “So that son of a bitch had the box after all! Well, I’m gonnah fire his ass!” was his response.
“Please don’t do that on my account! After everything that happened, I think he will think twice before keeping anything that is left in his cab again,” I interjected. I told the chief that I wasn’t sure what retaliatory measures the cabbie was capable of taking against LASPAU if he ended up losing his job. He could easily have written down LASPAU’s address and telephone number which were stamped all over the box and take revenge against LASPAU in some demonstrable way. He was also likely to direct his anger at me personally. After pondering what I had said, the chief replied, “I will give your suggestion serious thought. I can assure you that whatever I do will not only be in the Hack Bureau’s best interests but also will not jeopardize you or your organization.” I never learned what he ultimately decided to do. Whatever it was, I never heard from him or the cab driver again.
The most positive result of this New York City adventure was that 16 of the 100 Brazilian applicants who had taken those Portuguese GRE examinations ended up enrolling in master’s programs in colleges and universities in the United States.