Earlier this month it was the far west dealing with unrelenting heat that fueled devastating wild fires up and down the coast. This week it’s the east coast that’s broiling. Pity the poor players having to deal with the conditions at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens.
And while it may seem we are experiencing yet another indicator of that oft mentioned bugaboo Climate Change, these spells do come around every now and again on their own. I found the following recollection in one of my old journals that brought back a particularly wild ride one hot summer’s night in the city.
Reeking tendrils of humidity stewed street stench wafted through the city like a hangover from the 1968 sanitation worker’s walkout. The city sucked. So off I headed to Boston to ride it out. Not that Boston was any bargain, but at least the beaches were proximate and, at the moment, free of medical waste.
The train, I figured – five hours from Penn Central to Boston’s Back Bay – a tranquil change from the jet whine life I was leading at the time. Plus, traveling by train felt like riding through New England’s backyard.
There was no real hurry, though no understanding, either, of how often the trains ran. This was still pre-internet, pre-smartphone, but if the airline shuttles worked every half-hour, then the trains would probably go on a similar schedule, right?
I arrived at Penn Station at 6:40 p.m. as the last of the day’s commuters battled for already fouled air space. Fixed-wing floor fans attempted to do what only an advancing ice age had a prayer to accomplish, cool the joint. Instead, the fans fueled the street reek and knocked the walking weak off balance as they neared the piles of uncollected trash. But I was already in a weekend state, oblivious to all the ill winds and foul moods, as well as one step ahead of the medical waste that was reportedly still bobbing off the Rhode Island coast.
When I got to the ticket counter, the Amtrak attendant informed me that the last train – the 6:50 p.m. – had just departed, making tomorrow morning the next best opportunity. So much for flying by the seat of my pants, or moving by rail.
Hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing could well have won me over, but instead I wandered back out onto 34th street looking for a taxi to take me to the Marine Air Terminal, maybe even in time to catch the preferred 7:30 Pan Am shuttle.
The Wednesday night rush was just about over, but Midtown to the Marine Air Terminal in 20 minutes or so? Odds were I’d have to make the less attractive 8 o’clock Eastern flight out of Laguardia instead.
The first cab in line along the curb was taking on a passenger with the listless spirit that such heat and humdity reduces most people to over time. But as I approached cab number two, the muted sound of steel-drum music leaked out before the driver leaned over the seat and flung open the back door, releasing the full sound of the steel band tape.
“Hi, need to go to the Marine Air Terminal,” I said in something just shy of a shout to be heard over the music. “The Pan Am shuttle takes off at 7:30. Any chance?”
Turning like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, the rasta mon driver informed me with a smile as wide as the car grill that “dere ah nuh problem, mon. I be da champ.”
Pulling out with a squeal of soft rubber on the hard roadway began a journey into the cauldron of New York City Streets. From behind, a chorus of honks flared as the driver hung one arm out the window and began using it as both a traffic signaler and speech punctuator.
“Hey, yuh nuffi be gettin’ yuhself in a jahm, mon,” he lilted in his Carribean patois as another cab honked angrily at his brusque entry into the flow.
“You actually think we can make it?” I asked. “I can always take the eight o’clock out of Laguardia.”
“Dat’s so, mon. But weh yuh a do? No betta ride dere is. But mi tell yuh da troot. Hope him ah nah too pissed off.”
And with that, he cranked the steel band tape even louder and lurched into the next lane with enough g-forces to pin his passenger against the far door. Settling for a second, he turned from the wheel, and over the seat offered a joint he had pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “And dis for yuh,” he said, holding his own inhalation deep in his lungs.
Like a sump pump dredging old bowels, the streets of New York City had become a global warming performance lab. Not that it slowed my driver one iota.
“Woooooo, momma,” he crowed as he hung half way out the window, banging on the door, and honking wildly at a passing lovely. “Just yuh pon dat bit a fine stuff. Mi be bock, sweedeart, so yuh can ride wid mi.”
Like mi told yuh, me am da champ, mi ago get yuh to dat plane, what yuh tink?”
In our curb-to-curb wake, even the most seasoned New Yorkers leapt clear, mouths agape. On we rushed in a blur of yellow, aimed as much as driven by the rasta man in an open-neck cranberry polo shirt. Traffic lines and red lights seemed more like suggestions as we took turns on what seemed nearly two wheels. The rasta man was loosening the lug nuts on his ride, and that of his passenger, too.
“Be careful up there,” I requested meakly.
“Ah, mon, please nuh worries. Wi gat it so. Yuh be wit da champ.”
And with that he leaned over and covered the first syllable of his name on his taxi license to the right of the meter, revealing only the letters C-H-A-M-P, as is last name was Longchamp.
“He may well have been “Da Champ” alright,” I thought, “but let’s hope I live long enough for him to collect his belt.”
The Caribbean beat poured out onto 8th Avenue through the fully opened windows and swept into the 90+ degree heat. Fatality seemed but moments away. But, then again, so did the Marine Air Terminal.
As we continued at pace, Mr. Longchamp produced some of the finest upper body car dancing seen in years. I squeezed my arm rests a little tighter even as his hands left the steering wheel to dance and wave at the frightened citizenry outside.
“I know dis town like I know da lines of mi hands,” he declared taking a turn onto FDR Drive at 62nd Street.
It had become obvious that flowing along with Monsieur Longchamp was the only road to deliverance. Negative vibing would’ve proven counterproductive at this point. So I began to shoulder-roll in the backseat as the beat suggested.
By this time, I felt like I was reliving the chase scene from The French Connection with Gene Hackman at the wheel as the Triborough Bridge toll booth blew past on the left, while to the right a light haze clung steamily to the Manhattan skyline.
Honk and laugh and dance and roll, Mr. Longchamp’s party wagon rocked on, a mini-Martinique carnival of two. It seemed getting to the Marine Air Terminal in under half an hour had been picked up as a challenge by Mr. Longchamp back on 34th Street.
Who cared if the traffic never made the Pan Am shuttle at 7:30 a viable target as we roared by the Marine terminal exit, hopping lanes like drivers didn’t get shot for doing one-tenth of this in Los Angeles.
Needless to say, three long tokes of his island pot had the daring driver in a blissful state and me in one more tolerant. Which made his missing of the exit to the Eastern Shuttle Terminal not wholly unexpected or the least upsetting. A few retraced turns, though, and “nous arrivee”, and with more than enough time to crawl aboard the 8 p.m. flight north.
I thanked my host almost as much as he thanked me. Then, only after graciously declining his offer to drive me all the way to Boston, did we complete what had been a 21:35 ride.
A big tip to go with the $17.80 fare, an exchange of addresses – cause Monsieur Longchamp was going to send me a copy of his steel band mix tape – and I was once again on foot, a tad awash in an adrenalin rush and marijuana haze, but still with my New York Times and a lasting memory firmly in hand.