During the scramble of a busy Saturday night, I was sneaking a quick breather at a downtown taxi stand when two women signaled me from across the street. As they approached my cab, I saw that one of the women was sobbing uncontrollably, while her friend had an arm around her, trying to provide some comfort.
As the two of them settled into the rear of the vehicle, the crying woman’s sobs tapered to a steady sniffle. I reached into my glove compartment and pulled out a couple of napkins, which I passed to her over my shoulder. “Thanks,” she said, and put them to good use with two or three honking blows.
I took advantage of the pause in the action to get down to business. “Ladies, where to?”
The noncrier said, “Take us to Plattsburgh Avenue. And could you stop at a convenience store? We definitely need to get some beer.”
Turning her attention back to her bereft friend, she said, “Nadine — you’re sure about this, right?” I could feel the emotion in her voice. Something heavy was clearly at stake. “Because you just told all our friends in the bar. One of those girls is probably gonna report him, and there will be an investigation.”
“Sue, I just don’t know,” Nadine replied. “But it’s, like, my worst fear. I mean, he could be. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” Sue spat out the words, her tone changing abruptly. “Are you fucking crazy? How the hell do I know? He’s your fucking boyfriend.”
“Well, I just have a feeling something might be happening. I haven’t seen anything, but I’m just worried sick. Oh, God, Sue, I’m probably making it up.”
“Christ, Nadine — then get on the phone right now and call those girls back at the bar, ’cause you have to stop this before things begin to snowball.”
I eased to a stop in front of Simon’s across from Battery Park. It was five minutes to 11, and I could see the clerk beginning to close the place down. This didn’t register on my customers, who continued their conversation. “Ladies,” I interjected, “do you still want to get anything?”
“Will you just chill, for chrissake?” Sue exploded. “Just run the goddamn meter. I’ll pay you, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I clarified. “They’re closing in there. So, now’s the time, unless you wanna go to, like, Cumby’s on Riverside, ’cause nothing’ll be open down North Avenue.”
“All right, I’m going in, then,” Sue said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right out.”
Like, where am I going to go? I felt like saying to her, but didn’t. For one thing, Nadine was still in the cab. For another, hackie needs to get paid.
Every single fare reveals a human drama of one degree or another. On a scale of one to 100, this one had already reached the low 90s, and had the potential to climb higher. For what it’s worth, I prefer a drama quotient languishing in the single digits. Not that I’m unsympathetic to the plight of my fellow humans, but this job is tough enough when it involves just getting folks safely from Point A to Point B. I have tremendous respect for shrinks and social workers; it’s just not my job.
But I couldn’t help myself. While Sue was busy in the store, I turned to face the woman in the back and said, “Look, if there’s even a chance your child is being molested, you shouldn’t ignore your intuition. You could bring her to a counselor who’s trained to help in these situations.”
“It’s not my child,” Nadine replied. “It’s Sue’s 13-year-old daughter.”
“OK, I got the Budweiser,” Sue announced as she opened the door and resumed her seat next to Nadine. We got rolling again. “Here’s my phone,” she said to her friend. “Now, call Abby or Gretchen — any one of the girls. You need to nip this in the bud.”
“But I’m not sure,” Nadine said, retreating into her anguished ambivalence. “I mean, you’ve known Brandt as long as me. Is this something he’s, like, capable of doing?”
“That’s it,” said Sue, slapping her hands on her thighs. “This is my daughter we’re talking about. You understand that? Once and for all, is Brandt doing anything to her or not?”
“I just don’t know,” Nadine whimpered, and again began to cry.
“Can I have a cigarette in here?” Sue put the question to me, though it sounded more like a demand.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” I replied. “I just can’t take the smoke.”
“Hey!” Sue screamed. “I need to have a cigarette. Do you fucking understand? I’ll give you a 20-buck tip.”
“Just crack your window,” I said, backing down. “Don’t worry about the tip.”
As she lit up, I inserted myself right into the thick of it. “You know, if this child might be in danger, has anybody sat down and talked with her? Ain’t that the first step?”
“This is fucked up,” Sue said, ignoring my comment. “When we get back to your place, we are going to straighten this out one way or the other.”
Arriving at Nadine’s home, I pulled into the driveway beside another car. The moment I came to a stop — before I could even pivot to collect the fare — they both jumped out, Sue saying, “Just wait right here. Don’t move.”
I can hold two divergent thoughts — two entirely unrelated emotions, even — in my head at the same time. As I waited in the taxi, I worried about Sue’s daughter. When it comes to child abuse, where’s there’s smoke there’s usually fire. Concurrently, I thought, This is just great. I’m never going to see my $15.
After about five minutes, a guy came charging out the front door and jumped into the car parked next to me. I called out, “Hey, you have any idea whether they’re coming out?”
He said, “I couldn’t tell you,” and backed out of the driveway.
I waited another couple of minutes before getting out and knocking on the door. Nadine answered. “Oh, jeez — let me get you some money,” she said.
As Nadine went upstairs to look for cash, I noticed Sue in a living room off to the left, speaking intently to someone sitting on the couch across from her. From my angle, I could see only the legs of the person on the couch — the legs of a young girl. For an instant, my heart cracked, releasing this prayer: God willing, may this girl now be safe.
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.