They were a bit tipsy as they slid into the backseat of my cab in front of the St. Regis Hotel. Two women in their forties—a blonde with a blue scarf, who wanted to go to Russian Hill, a brunette in a short gray jacket, who was going someplace further. It was a Friday night, 10 pm. Their topic was how everything was wrong with a woman named Ava.
“She really gets on my nerves,” the gray jacket complained.
“That’s because she just can’t stop talking about herself and how wonderful she is and how young she looks!” the blonde said.
She tried to get her seat belt to snap in place as she held forth.
“I’m just—your neck looks reptilian, honey! You do not look that young and you are not that pretty!”
The gray jacket let out a giggle.
“Maybe you think you’re pretty. You’re a pretty reptile,” the blonde went on. “You have ten miles of crow’s feet to go with your wrinkly old neck!”
Without pausing, she addressed herself to me.
“Sir, I know you think we’re horrible, but she does have this awful face, and fifteen minutes ago she was telling me, No you don’t understand, this twenty-seven-year-old wanted to go home with me! And I said, Where’d you meet him? And she said, At the Balboa.And I said, It’s in the guidebooks honey. He’s looking for cougar and you just cougared up!”
“Maybe I’ll go to the Balboa and check her out for myself,” I said.
“Sorry. You’re too old for her apparently,” the blonde said.
As we drove up Kearny Street, a businessman, leaning on his suitcase handle, tried to hail me with his free hand; and on the next block, four Asian girls, in matching black skirts and stockings, beckoned with slim arms. I was jealous of all the fares I couldn’t have.
We took Pine up the hill and then turned right at Leavenworth. Ava turned out to be only the first of several women to be skewered over the spit of the blonde woman’s invective. When we got to Greenwich Street, I wanted to know where to stop.
“Halfway up the block,” the blonde said. “I’m the striped awning.” She gestured at the brunette. “And this one’s going to go on and be nice and quiet because she’s not mean and catty like me.” But even after the ritual refusal by the one going on of the one getting out’s money, and after it had been properly received with a little pout, the blonde, who was now standing on the sidewalk, went on talking with her head just inside the door.
“And her dress,” she said. “She’s not one second younger than either of us. Isn’t it amazing that she’s trying out for cheerleader!”
“Let me let this nice man take me home, doll,” the woman still inside the cab said.
“You’re right. See what happens when you get me started? Next week, okay? Kiss-kiss!”
And with that, the door closed and we both watched her walk resolutely through the entrance, squeezing the life out of a pale blue purse.
“Oh my god. These people! These women! It’s really too much!” the woman in gray said as we pulled away.
“She’s funny,” I said.
“We do have a good time. We do! But women are just so vicious. They’re more vicious than men, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s hard to say. Where am I taking you?”
“Buena Vista East,” she said. “I’ll show you which building when we get there.”
The drone of the engine put a hold on any further discussion as we climbed the hill on Chestnut Street. At Hyde, we clattered over the cable car tracks.
As we started down hill, she tapped me on the shoulder. “A bunch of us get together every Friday,” she said.
I looked back at her out of the corner of my eye. She looked like somebody’s boss. Everything about her—the invisible makeup, the hard rectangular frames of her glasses—projected a stylish, corporate sense of distance.
“But now I’m moving back to New York and I’m going to miss San Francisco. I’ve been here for over ten years.”
“So, why leave?”
“It’s for a job… and I think maybe it’s time. But people constantly say, How do you compare this to New York? And you can’t. It’s an absolutely different place.”
“I know,” I said. “I had this passenger tonight, this guy, and he was from New York too. He was telling me New York this and New York that.”
“Was he visiting?”
“No. He’s been here a few years. I pick up New Yorkers all the time—and every one of them says— New York’s bigger, faster, better, or far worse, right? Right? Whatever it is, it’s much much more.”
“Well, I guess I’m guilty of that too. What drove him out of New York?”
“Drove him out?”
“The thing that made him leave,” she said.
“He had all sorts of stuff.”
“Like, he says—he sounded really sad—Did you know they’re closing the Rainbow Room?”
“Oh, poor baby.”
“Well, if he was a baby, he was a sixty-year-old baby. Like the Pillsbury Doughboy with a briefcase. Total New Yorker, though—with the accent and everything. He said Bernaad Meltzaa wuz at the Rainbow Room with his wife Phylis. He goes, He wuz jus comin off the air at WOR and was going on at WNBC—”
She laughed. “He does sound dyed in the wool.”
“But he hates it!”
“Did he find a fly in his soup at the Rainbow Room?”
“That must have been it,” I said, laughing. “But actually, it was one really horrific night that made him pack his bags.”
She got quiet after that. We rolled down Gough Street while she just stared out the window. I wanted her to talk to me. I made a point of cresting the hill at Eddy Street a little faster than was advisable. You feel like you’re flying, and I thought she’d say something.
After the cab stopped rattling, I went ahead and asked her, “You want to hear about it?”
“What’s that, doll?” she said absently.
“The New Yorker’s horror story.”
“This story—it happened recently, right?”
“Like a couple of years ago, I think.”
“Okay. I’m listening.”
I resurrected the voice. “I wuz at a consit in Madison Squaa Gaaden,” I said. “It was the Rollin Stones.”
“And the show ran late, because Mick waanted to do Sympathy for the Devil. Then he waanted to do Satisfaction, and then he waanted to do anotha song, so the show ran very very late.”
I could hear her wriggle against the vinyl. Was I just annoying her?
“He was living on West Twelfth Street,” I said. “He didn’t want to take a taxi so he took the subway. He’s halfway home when the train stops and the doors open—”
“It was probably Twenty-third Street,” she said.
“And a bunch of rats swarmed onto the train!”
She laughed. “That’s not a reason to leave New York!”
“He said people were screaming. He said they were putting their feet up on the seats—”
“They’re only looking for trash,” she said.
“I looked back at her in the mirror. “Big gray dirty rats!” She was gazing out the window blankly. If she’d been so friendly with me before, it was because of the cocktails. That’s all it was. Now she was sobering up.
“One of the rats was wearing a little kid’s T-shirt,” I said.
Her laugh felt like a reprieve.
“It had a picture of Mickey Mouse on it.”
“Yeah, right,” she said.
“But I asked him about these rats, What if the doors close? And he said, They just get off at the next stop.” I turned back halfway around in my seat. “Can you imagine?”
“They probably commute in from Long Island like everybody else,” she said.
That made me laugh.
She said, “It’s called the rat race.”
The story had begun to feel like a collaboration. “It gets even worse after this thing with the rats,” I said. “He gets to his actual stop.”
“Seventh Avenue, right?”
“I guess so,” I said. “He’s the only one who gets off and there’s nobody there. The place is empty. He goes up the stairs and there’s just one guy coming down—a dude wearing a suit. He looks like a professional guy.”
“Lower Manhattan used to be full of businessmen,” she said.
“So this guy suddenly spits in his face and pushes him down the stairs!”
“The professional guy?”
“The guy in a suit.”
“That’s somewhat unexpected.”
“And the bald guy’s on the floor. He’s in a fetal position and the suit’s kicking him.”
“I admit that’s horrible,” she said.
It’s too dark to see her face in the mirror. She’s just a black blob. “It’s dark around here,” I said.
“Not as dark as New York,” she said with a little laugh.
Fell Street leads to Baker Street leads to the foot of Buena Vista East. We waited for a bus to go by—its interior glowing with yellow light, just a couple of black hoodies slumped in the very back.
“What happened to the guy?” she said.
“He’s lying on the floor, getting kicked in the testicles,” I said.
“Yeah. That really hurts, but he manages to roll over on his belly—”
“Just go straight up the hill. I’ll tell you where to stop.”
“I bet I know the place,” I said.
“Finish your story.”
“He’s getting the bejeesus kicked out of him, down in the cigarette butts and trash. But then he gets his hand on an empty malt liquor bottle in a bag.”
“Like a beer bottle, right?”
“Yeah. Like that.” I’d pulled up in front of her building—very posh, very grand. The arched Romanesque entrance—a frieze showed a bearded saint holding a child. The Park Hill is my favorite big condo in the city and it’s not hard to imagine living there. “This used to be a hospital, you know,” I said, gesturing at the facade.
“Once upon a time,” she said.
“My uncle was born here,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I found an umbilical cord in my wastebasket.”
She could be pretty funny. “I’ll let him know.”
“So what about the guy?”
I hit the button on the meter. “Fifteen-seventy,” I said.
“Are you going to tell me the story, or do I have to stiff you?”
I put the car in park and turned around. “Okay,” I said. “He grabs the bottle by the neck. He smashes it against the floor and stands up.”
“Good for him,” she said as she handed me a twenty.
“He’s a little, lumpy, middle-aged guy, with this broken bottle in his hand. He can barely see with the blood in his eyes, but he feels this animal rage come up from somewhere inside that he didn’t even know he had—he’s screaming like a beast. Not words—just sounds.”
“He really is a true New Yorker,” she said.
“So the dude in the suit takes a big step back. But still, he’s got this smile on his face—a total psycho. He’s looking straight at the bald guy and he whispers something.”
I paused. “Do you want your change?”
“Come on,” she said. “You’re killing me!”
“He whispered, I think you’re very attractive.”
I didn’t know I was going to say it even when I said it. I had my eyes on her when it escaped my mouth. She started laughing for real. She had a lovely laugh—a long ascending scale that went up and up. It was pure pleasure. I can hear it even now.
“Nicely done,” she said when she’d finally caught her breath.
I kept looking at her, but her smile was unhappy.
“I didn’t really leave New York because of a job,” she said. “It was because my husband died.”
“He worked in Manhattan,” she said. “I didn’t even have a job in those days. He was everything to me.”
“So that’s what drove you away,” I said.
“Coming here was a matter of survival. I work in advertising now and I like it very much.”
“Well, it’s good that worked out for you.”
“The building he worked in was just the second-tallest building in the country,” she said. “It was tied with another one.”
I laughed even if it didn’t feel right. “I guess not even New Yorkers can be first in everything,” I said.
Robin Bullard is a short story writer, a taxi driver, and an advertising art director. His stories are set in San Francisco where many strange and wayward individuals have inspired him. I Came by Cab (available at Amazon) is his first story collection.