Riding in the Back – NYC

Hailing a cab in rush hour New York is a little like calf wrestling at a rodeo. If you haven’t seen it, imagine this: there’s an animal haphazardly charging in an aimless direction, and you the cowboy, chase after it with an equal amount of determination and clumsiness. With the exaggerated limbs often accompanying extreme effort, you take hold of its horns, in jujitsu-fashion, you twist it to the ground using its own body weight, and quickly tie it down so it has no chance of escape. In most cases you fail, and as all New Yorkers already know, you’re immediately disqualified if you’re heading to Brooklyn.

Jackie-kai-ellis-NYC-3Lafayette 380 – Jackie Kai Ellis

When you do, by some miracle, manage to capture a calf-cab, you best keep your eyes up when climbing in. Like the bedroom of an unkempt adolescent boy, you just don’t want to know what you’re actually sitting on, or stare long enough to wonder how long it’s been there.

But that is New York, like a rodeo, it is competitive, showy, brash, raw, and a whole lot of personality. And inevitably with every cab ride, in the small confined spaces lined with grey, leather-textured vinyl, we fall in love with the cowboy that is New York because of the simple fact, that he just has so much character.

She began a week of candid conversations through scratched, bulletproof Plexiglas dividers, a woman driver from Latin America.
“You’re not from New York are you?” Is how they usually began, I guess it was obvious.

Jackie-kai-ellis-NYC-4 Photo – Jackie Kai Ellis

Through long traffic jams and illegal U-turns, our conversation took shape and I was pained to discover an aching secret she was safekeeping of her husband’s adultery. Still grappling with the shock and trying to dissect, categorize, rhyme and reason the course of the event, she was as lost as if she had been given the task of going through my receipts during tax season, an insurmountable job, essentially. But it wasn’t her own betrayal that so heavily weighed on her; it was the decision of whether or not she should tell her kids? Was it her place to devastate their idyllic family, the image of their dad and hero? Or was it her burden as a mother and martyr to protect them?

The intense pressure of her secret caused it to burst and seep out with the slightest tap on her shell. She had no one. Everyone she knew would be entwined in the complexities of the dilemma, so she shared with me, a stranger, and at first I wondered why but quickly realized it didn’t really matter. So I did my best to hold the space she so desperately needed, I cried for her turmoil and I was reminded that day that the only antidote to confusion is space and compassion, even for our own selves. And so I did and we parted ways.

Jackie-kai-ellis-NYC-6Gasoline Alley – Jackie Kai Ellis

Moments like these were sprinkled throughout each day, on hurried evenings; I would hop into the back of cabs and blurt out my dinner destinations. I had learned that New Yorkers often like information quickly without the pleasantries. On this night it was dark and I could barely make out the face of my driver in the rear view mirror. I observed the outline of his round and solid body, like a retired football player or a man who’s life purpose was as the protector of his family. His hair seemed unmatched. It was wild, curly and grey with the nonchalant flair of a “professional surfer”. We began to chat meaninglessly and before long he admitted how much he detested driving a cab.  It was not just a dislike, it was a resentful hatred and it made me feel a wave of remorse for him. The more I probed, his story fell off his lips in an accidental fashion, as if he hadn’t had a moment to catch his balance, and in realizing the unusual comfort of his fall, he stayed to tell me the rest.

He was a hairdresser from Israel, a good one, one good enough to work steadily for 25 years in a career he loved deeply. One day, an accident rendered him unable to stand for long periods of time. I asked what the accident was, but he glazed over the question as if it was a whisper not intended for him. He was left behind, like a widower whose lifetime lover had passed. I told him I was sorry, and he answered in keeping with those who have lost and come to accept control’s illusion, “that’s life, you move on.” I was left also, but with a simple lesson of gratitude for the present moment.

Jackie-kai-ellis-NYC-5Lafayette 380 – Jackie Kai Ellis

I had been moved by the stories of life and perseverance at so many points during the week, I didn’t quite understand it and only knew I was better for hearing them. It was during one of the most candid 7-hour conversations I had engaged in, I became shocked, touched and confused with the honesty and transparency of the answers to each question I asked. To those who know my insatiable curiosity, I have the tendency to explore and discover as far as there are possibilities. I was gifted the answers to biggest fears, and most vulnerable moments and I was left, baffled, with only one question in my mind, “Why are you answering all these questions?”

“Because you asked.” And that became one of the most haunting lessons I learnt that week, that there’s something in each of us, waiting to be put into words.

Jackie-kai-ellis-NYC-2Flytographer Samantha Margalit

Then I met Carol.

Cars honked as we wove in and out of traffic lanes and she asked me politely in a pleasant, song-like voice, “I’m sorry, are you scared?” I joked and assured her that I was one of the more aggressive Smart car drivers I know, and we began to talk.

Carol was different, young, vibrant, determined, wise, calm, and with a disposition so kind it was the perfect foil wrapper for her intensely centered strength. Through a series of random coincidences, we ended up in the same car multiple times and continued our conversations on life, exactly where we left off each time. And in the way that life does, she began to ask me questions and so, I too, answered the things in my life waiting for words.

Note: These are not the sum of all my conversations in New York, nor were they the most or least important; just the ones I felt were safe to share. I wrote this piece, not for a publication and simply because I was so touched, I needed to share it. I hope you enjoyed it.

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