softening hard experience

I am in a Medallion cab, being ranted at by a millionaire

America really is the land of opportunity for immigrants. I reflect on this as my cab driver – who, in true fairy tale style, has three houses, three daughters, and three Medallion cabs – tells me that he is a millionaire. Of Pakistani origin, he tells me he lived in London for several years, and then moved to New York in the year that I was born. “It was easy to get in back then,” he says, “not like nowadays, after you know what.”

It’s Memorial Day, I’ve just got off a plane, and I am rather tired. But he knows he has a captive audience.

“You can see it in the documentaries, and in the books. The media too. Don’t believe anything they tell you – they’re just working to protect the government. You need to know the truth. I’ll tell you, how can a building collapse when it’s hit halfway up?”

I attempt to offer a plausible explanation, but he’s only just hitting his stride.

“And when that plane hit the Pentagon, how come the hole was so much bigger than the pieces of aircraft they found nearby? They would have found something, right? But not a screw, not a nail, nothing…”

DON’T feed the fire.

“Why do they try to blame the Muslims for everything like that? It’s getting to be like the bad times in Germany. You know, when the Jews were being persecuted in Europe, no one wanted them, they were shunted around from here to there, and eventually they got a homeland where everyone could say to them, Go Here. The English didn’t want them, the Americans didn’t want them, so they went to Israel. Right?”

“They nearly ended up in Uganda,” I footnote.

“The Indians went there instead.” He rolls his eyes significantly in the rear-view mirror. “Look, when I arrived in this country, in 1975, at that time there were almost no Jews in New York. They basically all arrived since then.”

Not so much fairy-tale, more like Lear.  I begin to wish that I had not stood aside in the queue at JFK and allowed two young women to take the cab before this one. There’s no arguing with that kind of empirical evidence, so I change the subject to prosperity.

I remember a recent NYT article that compared (on the strength of a handful of interviews) the relative prosperity and patriotism of the Pakistani-American community with the educational underachievement and economic marginalisation of many British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. He swats this away for six over midwicket.

“You’re wrong. My friends tell me that actually Bangladeshis in London have huge amounts of money, and are great property speculators – that’s the way you get ahead here, equity. They bought houses nobody else would buy in Brick Lane, and then sold them for big money, half a million pounds!”

“You don’t think that some of them just couldn’t afford to buy anywhere else all those years ago, and in a way they just got lucky because the area became cool?”

He doesn’t even pause to think. Pow! Cover drive…


Change of subject again. “So, where are we?”

“Is this where your friend lives?”

“I think so…”

“Your friend lives in a really shitty neighbourhood.”

Now that I look at it, yes, we are indeed in a shitty (does he mean black?) neighbourhood, but not the one where my friend lives.

I call my friend, and the cab driver receives instructions. “He says to come to Greenpoint. Now that’s somewhere where people work hard. Full of Polish. Nice area. Text your friend to put the kettle on. Tell him it’s tea for two.”

We turn around, and head towards Manhattan Avenue, and he points out all the stages of the route where I sent him in the wrong direction, and made poor decisions.

Arriving on my friend’s street, he lets out a sigh of approval. I realise he turned off the meter some time ago, and is not going to charge me for the lengthy detour. I wonder whether he wants to be invited in to continue the conversation, but press thirty-five dollars through the hatch, grab my bags out of the boot, and pat the roof of the cab.

Inside the apartment, my friend is watching a film by Nicholas Roeg called Bad Timing. It’s almost like he knew I was coming.


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