Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Wisdom of the Don

I was a taxi driver, just 18, working the overnights which put me on the street at 11pm. I got a call to pick someone up in an a neighborhood that was wealthy in its day, but now the small mansions were surrounded by the grit of the big city, within walking distance of the finest crack houses and brothels. That part didn’t bother me, I was the guy they called on to cruise the ghetto and housing projects in the wee hours, 22nd and Blaisdell was nothing to be nervous about, except they told me I had to pick the guy up in the alley.

It seemed way too fishy so where normally I wouldn’t have made an issue of a fare I had to ask “what the hell is this all about”. Turns out it was a halfway house for the St. Paul archdiocese, a place where priests leaving the clergy were housed and remolded into ordinary citizens. That didn’t really answer my question, it still wasn’t an area where I should be cruising around in the dark down refuse roads, but I figured if a soon to be ex priest would brave the combat zone, so would I.

He was 15 minutes after I’d arrived. I had radioed in and complained, it was a Friday night after all and there were fares to be had. But they’d called and verified so I stuck it out. Finally this really thin medium height nerdy looking guy gets in my cab, breathless, as if he’d run all the way, which he hadn’t. “Where ya off to” I asked. “Brass rail” he answered; “and don’t worry about the wait, I’ll tip you.”

I swore under my breath. The brass Rail was just downtown, probably a 3 dollar fare which meant I’d make a buck for my half hour of screwing around. But what can you do. I was gonna be a priest once, so I supposed I owed him some brotherly forgiveness or something like that. I looked in the rear view as I pulled out of the drive and into the alley. He was wearing the standard Nehru collar blacks, the “collarino” only without the white square in the center. I thought it odd. It didn’t seem to me that was “regulation”, but I didn’t have time to try and conjure up a memory microfiche of that page of the “manual”, the guy was leaning forward, crossing his arms over the front seat back. He wanted to chat.

“So how are ya.” I was normally a pretty chatty driver, known to be capable of completing a philosophical discussion between downtown and the airport with almost anyone, including Dale Evans and Leo Buscaglia. So I was pleased that at the least my crappy fare wouldn’t be a total bore.

“I’m good” I said. “I’ll be better when this shift’s over.” Never hurts to remind the passenger I’m a workin stiff and could probably use a nice, fat tip.

“Great” he said as he squeezed forward a little more, almost enough to whisper directly into my ear. "Hey, you wanna know something funny?”

Already I was thinking “well no, now that you mention it” as his tone had changed and whatever was driving it I didn’t like it. But hey, there’s that tip potential thing so I sort of had to take a chance. “Yea sure” I said, “I’m always up for a laugh.”

“What would you say” he said in slo motion, like he was trying to draw the words out because he thought I was Albanian and I might not understand unless he talked real slow, “What would you say… if I told you… I was late getting into your car because… I was busy givin a guy a blow job and he just wouldn’t cum?”

I’m reasonably sure I stopped breathing. Luckily I once thought very quickly on my feet.

“Huh” I said, as if he had just explained to me that the moon’s circumference is 35000 miles. What the hell else would I say?

When and where I grew up there was no such thing as “gay”. There were queers and faggots and dykes, and they were different than the rest of us but if you left them alone they’d leave you alone so outside of the real assholes who wanted to prove their manhood by terrorizing someone “in the family”, that’s just what we did. I hadn’t known anyone who identified themselves as homosexual. Any male that seemed effeminate was a fag, and any chick who seemed the part was a dyke and that was that. The only people who were “out” at the time either worked at or frequented a downtown bar called the “Gay 90’s” (go figure) which had a stage and regular female impersonator shows.

But I did know two things that slightly set me apart from my compatriots. One is, I was called fag, more than once, and I didn’t like it. Not because of what it implied as I had no question as to my gender and no curiosity to visit “the other side”. It was used on me because treating women as worthy of respect made me effeminate in my crowd. Not knocking a chick into next week after her insulting me in public would mean I had left my testicles at home in the sock drawer. I didn’t like it because of the contempt with which it was said, the disgust it conveyed. And that was even while it was half in jest. It made me think of “the second thing”.

I spent a lot of time in restaurants at that age. I didn’t cook and was too young to drink. (I didn’t like booze anyway so that part didn’t bother me) So I (we) would take a cribbage board or a book to the Embers on 26th and Hennipen and spend much of any non work day buying as little as possible, drinking a lot of coffee and flirting with the waitresses. (My first two wives were waitresses, so I must have been good at it, or bad, depending on how you see it) That’s where I met Don.

In retrospect I’m pretty sure Don was gay. He reminded me of Tony Randall, physically as well as temperamentally. He ate dinner there every night of his life and he’d always eaten alone until my wife to be introduced us and I joined him. We became friends, at least, in house friends. He was ten years older than I, but still interested in what I thought and what my life entailed and my beliefs… he enjoyed my company and I his. I said in retrospect I’m pretty sure; at the time I was positive. He was single, always alone, quite effeminate, fastidiously dressed, had a self created speech impediment; there was no doubt in my mind. And I didn’t care. It’s no hero thing, had I been trained that way I suppose I could have hated him as some no doubt did, but I just saw him as a nice guy, albeit a little weird.

It was probably a couple years I’d broken bread with Don. During that same time I’d used all the words in conversation, talking about nebulous creatures who had no faces, those “fags” we could roll those “fags” or taunt those “dykes” as if we had people picked out and knew where they lived. It was teenage biker braggadocio, pissing on trees, marking our territory. But the longer I knew Don the less I enjoyed the banter, and those times I was called a “fag”, made me think of people doing the same to him. I thought of the fear, the shame, the anxiety, the scar. It almost made me physically sick.

Still, I wasn’t so comfortable with the idea that graphic depictions of homosexual sex didn’t throw me, and my taxi passenger du jour was unrelenting. On he went. There was this guy, he was another ex priest to be ya know, and there was the mailman, what an amazing coincidence he said, the mailman at his last residence was queer too, and all I could do was grunt to show that I was listening lest he grab my hair and shake my head, or maybe bare his incisors and try to sink them into my neck.

I was confused. I’d always though the Brass Rail was a hetro strip club, and what the hell would this guy be goin to a…

I was a pretty good hack. I was there in a flash, my ears burning all the way. I couldn’t wait to pull away from the curb, leaving him in the dust, washing the visual out of my brain with that of a hooker and pimp combination. But no such luck.

“Geez, I’m afraid I don’t have any money on me. Sorry. I can get it inside though. C’mon in and meet my fiancĂ©.”

Jesus

Of course I went. I could have just driven off and taken the loss, but I was already working for a dollar an hour, I didn’t want to make it zero. Now I was becoming annoyed. It was bad enough I had to listen to boy porn all the way there, but now I’d have to wade through the clientele at a local gay bar to shake hands or whatever they did with a female impersonator or cross dresser or whatever the hell it’d be just to get my 3 buck fare and then most assuredly be stiffed on the tip, no pun intended. I was seeing more red than people so I stayed at the bar and waved him on, keeping an eye on his whereabouts so as not to lose him to an open window and a dash down the street.

There was a big round table full of priest aficionados. One of them was wearing a white fluffy dress with a veil. I could only guess. Fiance. I returned the wave and smiled at their laughter, knowing that I was the joke, and patiently waited for his return. Meanwhile I noted the man next to me peering at my leg, then my ass, my waist, my…

“I’m just a cab driver, not a patron” I said, hoping he’d get the point without my having to spell it out. “Too bad” he said, both relieving me and bugging the hell out of me at the same time. I felt like I had to pee, not that my bladder was aching, but that I wanted to run into a small dark room and surround myself on three sides with structural impediments.

Finally Father Faithful came back and handed me a fiver. “Keep the change” he said as if he were a Carnegie. “Thanks” I said, as if two bucks in any way compensated me for my troubles. “Pleasure to meet you” he said, “sure you won’t join us?”

All that fag queer stuff blew through my brain at a thousand miles per hour. Every stereotype, every nasty catcall, every cruelty, and then it all vanished. This guy didn’t make me angry because he was a homo, he pissed me off because he was rude, presumptuous and a crappy tipper. “No thanks man, I have to make enough to pay for dinner before the night’s over.” I had this tiny flash that my clever retort might catch him unawares and he’d be so moved that he’d give me another couple bucks just because I was worthy. But he’d turned and wandered back to his clown car before “pay for dinner” had crossed my lips. And so it goes.

I didn’t dwell on the experience. I did tell the story a few times. Let’s face it, some dude telling a stranger he’d given some other dude a blow job was fairly unusual in my circles, and good for a laugh. God knows, as that was the type of adventure I had nearly every night driving a taxi, I needed all the laughs I could get.

I might have forgotten about it altogether except for the incident that happened a few weeks later. I was pulling an afternoon shift and I had to move this guy from Nordeast to the “Men’s Club” downtown, a weight lifting steam bath sort of joint even I knew was homosexual territory. He was chatty, we talked about current events. But then he began to compliment me; first for my obviously superior brain power, and then for my he man physique. At first, and I mean for the first two sentences, I was flattered. But quickly it became annoying, then obnoxious and then outrageous. He asked me if I’d like to join him, that it was a great club, that he could introduce me around. He said I’d do well there, that I could be a body builder what with my shoulders and….

I said no thanks at first, no after that, repeatedly. He wasn’t buying it. Apparently he thought I was being coy or something. He pressed on and finally I reached our destination, pulled in, topping the curb because I was in such a hurry I’d quit paying attention, and reached back to flip the door handle open. He got out and stepped to my window. which because of the one way street we were on was curbside. Then, he grabbed me, insisting that I really wanted to take a steam bath, that I’d really like it.

The event didn’t last long, I was able to extricate myself firmly and without harming more than a few of his fingers, but I have to admit I wanted to waste him. I waved his fare and sent him on his way.

Later that night I had dinner with Don. (Don and Ron… isn’t that cute?) I told him both stories, being as careful as I could to not imply I thought there was any sort of connection between him and them, yet hoping that he might have something to say that would make the experiences make sense on some plane, because… he knew something I didn’t. I was right. He did.

“What assholes” he said. “Man, you must have bad luck, I’ve never met anyone like that in all my days.” We laughed. He was right. I have bad luck, and he was right about them being assholes, and assholes are everywhere, in every color and flavor imaginable. I thanked him for the reminder, silently. I’m sure he heard me.

1 comment:

  1. Dear dog! I doubt I would have come off so well!

    ReplyDelete