September 5-6, 2003
Return: Lima-HobokenFlying back into JFK from Peru at 8:30 a.m. I had arranged to have a car service pick me up at the airport. Normally the drivers hold up a sign displaying the logo of the company and the person they are picking up, but I didn't seen him. I wandered around, parked my stuff, pulled off the down jacket I had needed in winter in Peru a few hours before and packed it in a bag. And I still hadn't seen him, so I dragged my stuff to a payphone and called the dispatcher. I went through a voicemail logic tree to get a human on the phone. When I got one he said, "My driver is there standing under the Rolex sign."
Thanks, I said, and an image of the alleged Rolex sign flashed through my mind like a Holy Grail. Scanning back from where I came, I saw a big clock with free-standing metal letters about a foot tall in a ritzy Deco style. I walked toward it and then I saw the sign, held up half-heartedly by a balding man with a bushy moustache, maybe in his late 50s, or 60s.
He looked perturbed and disgusted. He grabbed the handle of my rolling suitcase out of my hand as if he were obligated to help me, but none to happy about it. I reluctantly let him take it, though I would have preferred to pull it myself. I cringed as he marched defiantly over curbs with it, and hoped it would not come flying apart.
When he turned on the radio he had some kind of talk radio show on. Great. Just what I need after flying all night from South America, to hear some feral right wing mouthpiece hissing on the radio. But he was pissed and I felt sorry for him, so I didn't say anything.
Gradually he cooled down as we worked our way out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. I asked him if he minded me having the window down because his was up. "No," he said sullenly, but with some softening. "I hate to run the air conditioning. So it's fine with me."
He spoke with a strong accent. At first I thought maybe Italian, but he may have been eastern European. He seemed like he could have been one of those people who were refugees from the Yugoslavian war who had gotten stuck in menial jobs in the US even though they had been trained professionals in their homeland. Some bear it better than others.
As he manuevered deftly through the traffic, a Cadillac pulled in front in a blatantly rude move and forced him to break to avoid colliding. As my driver had been steadily overtaking it in the passing zone, the flashy new car had impulsively darted in front' It was one of those moves where the guy has to actually go to extra trouble to screw you up. We were going 10 m.p.h. faster than him and suddenly he was in front of us with inches to spare. My driver's anger level shot up again.
I muttered something of my amazement at the degree of arrogance of this road hog. My driver lurched the car into the other lane and a few moments later was overtaking the other driver again in another lane. As we drove by, I could vaguely make out a man in his 70s driving, and his wife, apparently, glaring out the passenger's side, a gaunt, jeweled silver blonde head. The man was obscure in the shadow and the glare, but he seemed to be projecting a lurid grin.
A few moments later the old speedway king jerked his car in front of us again. Though a shadowy image of his hunched shoulders was all I could see of the driver, the car itself gestured in defiance and triumph.
"He did it again!" I blurted out. "Unbelievable!" It was a serious sport to the Cadillac-wielding old man.
"It's usually the Blacks," the driver said, rancorously, impertinently. "They don't want to be behind a white man. They can do whatever they want, and they are always right because they suffered. They can say, 'You called me a nigger.'"
He launched into a tirade about the Blacks, in his halting accent. He had been enflamed by the rude Cadillac, but he was channeling his anger on "the Blacks." I braced myself.
"Well, that time it was a rich guy," I said. "With me it's usually the most expensive cars that are the rudest. Some of these people display their arrogance and contempt for other people in every gesture."
He didn't want to hear that. He flickered a little annoyance that I had diverted him from his target, and then returned to his tirade against the Blacks, still confusing the image with the man in the Cadillac. "He's lucky you were in the car," he said. "If I were alone I wouldn't let him do that. But with a passenger I won't get into it. Let them to God. Let God punish them."
Several possible responses flashed through my head as I thought of the punishment of the Blacks in America, how it is institutionalized. And punishment for what, after all? For being slaves? For being black? But I let it drop. He let his tirade wind down and putter to a stop. It wasn't possible for him to stop short, but my comment robbed the narrative of its drive, and he began looking for an exit. Gradually he cooled off and we talked about the weather, which was perfect. He said it had been cloudy and rainy all week. But today was a perfect day: sunny, cool, clear. One of those rare, perfect mornings, very much like September 11.