As we rode from LaGuardia Airport to the Brooklyn pier to board our ship for a recent cruise, I looked at our driver’s impassive face and wondered why there has been no best-seller with the title “Confessions of a New York City Cab Driver.”
His mind must have been a world away as my wife and another passenger, a woman from Ohio, chatted amiably.
“What do you do with all the information you harvest from your passengers day in and day out?” I asked Stuart Reinhardt, an independent contract driver for Cunard Cruise Line.
He roused himself from his reverie and admitted that he tuned much of it out while concentrating on traffic, a daunting challenge in New York City, which is a wall-to-wall traffic jam much of the time.
And, he added, he spends time exploring his own thoughts.
He shared a bit of his own autobiography. He’d been driving a taxi for 23 years, is twice divorced and has two daughters who live in New York. He admitted he likes his work. Apparently it pays well.
“Every eight or 10 weeks, I take off and spend a week or more in the Caribbean,” he said.
“Yes,” I thought, “I would need to do that also if I lived here.”
I have visited the Big Apple numerous times over the years, mostly attending newspaper conventions or enjoying a theater trip now and then. But I have never heard Circe’s siren call to settle there. Young people are especially vulnerable to the city’s lures.
In fact, I teasingly asked our niece, Liza Wade Greene, if the city pays people a stipend to live there. She and her husband, Danny, moved there 12 years ago and have never looked back.
She grew up in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; he in Hillsborough.
She tried to explain the city’s attraction.
“People move here for many reasons,” she said. “They’re seeking the opportunity to find a like-minded community of people. Also, they want to prove they can make it here, etc.
“It is, after all, the mecca of arts, culture and finance. Unfortunately, that last item means it’s far too expensive for most artists to thrive. But, somehow, against the odds, we manage. We work multiple jobs to live in tiny, expensive apartments with crazy landlords.
“We put up with hot, humid summers, harsh winters, overcrowded subways and roads. And did I mention that it’s astronomically expensive?
“But for all of that, this city has an inescapable charm. The neighborhood where we live in Brooklyn is akin to an Italian village.
“In the space of a few blocks, we can walk to a farmers’ market, go out for some of the country’s best pizza and chat with our neighbors or choose to ignore them.
“The city at large is our playground. It offers the finest food, culture, recreation and friendships that I’ve ever known. And (for now anyway) the knowledge that on any given day we can eat about anything we could ever imagine or go experience any kind of artwork ever created, or simply walk to a bar to meet best friends for drinks (babies in tow) makes it all worthwhile.
“That is, until we decide to give it all up and move to a farm somewhere.”
A week or so after leaving New York City, my wife and I were driving along N.C. 24 across Eastern North Carolina on the way to the beach. I marveled at the contrast.
From the car, I gazed out on great swaths of green fields of corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts, yellow-leafed tobacco in need of harvesting, that stretched endlessly toward distant pine forests.
Tucked behind the lush fields were sturdy, two-story farmhouses and now and then a crumbling tenant house or tobacco barn. The faint whisper of a song’s lyrics came to mind, “Wish I was in the land of cotton. … Look away, look away.”
This rural panorama, too, was not lacking in mystique, exuding an aching nostalgia, tinged with an inexplicable touch of sadness, a mood so aptly depicted in the late Reynolds Price’s “A Long and Happy Life.”
Two extremes of Americana: one a smothering togetherness, the other, a soul-stirring isolation.
I emerged from my trance-like musing to ask my wife, “If you had to choose between New York and this, which would you choose?”
“This,” she said without hesitation.