Writing Prompt: Tell the tale of a life-changing interaction between a captivating driver and unsuspecting passenger. Please excuse any unfinished stories, as I pick back up whenever inspiration strikes.
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I stared in wonder at the yellow taxi that had materialized seemingly out of thin air. Only moments ago, the absence of cabs in the vicinity led me to plop down on the curb, eager to shrug off the heavy duffel bag overpacked with clothing for a one-night trip and anticipating at least a thirty minute wait.
I arrived an hour before. The possibility of finding a ride seemed slim to none, given that my Uber app had flashed a NO DRIVERS AVAILABLE alert for a solid ten minutes — the first time I had seen such a thing. As a New Yorker, getting a hold of a ride-share was a simple task, with cars showing up in minutes, sometimes seconds.
Groaning, I had made my way over to the tiny, nondescript building flanked by an unlit sign that read “Taxi Station.” The building was situated to the right of the train platform I had just departed. Numerous parking spaces outside the entrance, no doubt intended to for idling cabs awaiting passengers, were a foreboding sign.
The inside was even more desolate than the exterior: a sparsely furnished waiting area, with a single threadbare chair in the corner. The space somehow managed to be even hotter than the outside world, where the sun seemed hellbent on burning any person who dared wander outside to a crisp.
It was the first heatwave of the summer, the kind that made you yearn for just one day of the frigid winter that had just passed.
“Can I help you?”
I spun around. Behind me, the back wall that was flanked by what I’d assumed was a dark mirror was speaking. It took a moment to make out the woman sitting on the other side, peering back at me.
“Ah, yes,” I replied bemusedly. I opened my mouth, ready to unleash my frustration over the lack of transportation onto her when the woman raised a finger and immediately turned around to take a phone call.
A teapot couldn’t have emitted more steam than my ears in that moment. I stood scowling for a good ten minutes, all the while checking the apps on my phone in desperation.
“Sorry about that.” The woman had returned.
I swallowed hard, then put on my most winning smile.
“Hi there. I’m trying to call an Uber, but it looks like there are none available. I couldn’t find any public transportation around either. Can I call a cab from here?”
Even before finishing my sentence, I watched the woman slowly shaking her head, smiling sadly.
“No. Honey, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a ride around here. This was before the world went to shit — drivers just weren’t getting enough ridership to make money, so they gave it up.” She tilted her head, watching my expression of dismay.
“So…I can’t order a cab at all?”
She shrugged. “I can dial up one of our drivers on call, but you might have to wait quite a bit.”
I groaned inwardly. “Okay. Thanks anyway.”
I felt the woman’s eyes boring into my back as I slung my duffel bag over my shoulder and departed the ramshackle building.
Dejected, I stood at the edge of the parking lot, mulling over my options as I gazed across the empty lot.
All of a sudden, I spotted a lone vehicle on the opposite end. The car, a bright yellow SUV, looked suspiciously like a taxi.
My heart soared.
I quickly sprinted across the lot towards it, my duffel bag swinging to and fro, desperate to reach it before the driver took off.
The engine began revving when I was a few meters away. I sped up, determined to catch it.
“Hey!” I waved my hand frantically.
The car had started up and began moving, but the person behind the wheel paused as I approached. Glancing at the hood, I saw the familiar medallion badge emblazoned in the center, trademarking the token New York City taxi.
Bending over slightly, I cautiously rapped my knuckles on the window. The driver’s window slowly rolled down, revealing a man in his forties.
“Taxi?” he inquired.
“Hi there!” I chirped. “Are you an Uber by any chance? I’ve been trying to find a ride for awhile.”
The man chuckled. “No, I’m not an Uber. This is my cab though.”
I looked at the man’s face. He was slightly older than middle-aged, with a weathered face adorned in round glasses — think John Lennon-style–with salt and pepper hair and a hint of a paunch hidden beneath a striped button-down shirt.
He had what my mother called “kind eyes”: dark pools of brown, inviting you to take a seat and open your heart up.
I had a knack for identifying people’s cultural backgrounds. An extrovert by nature, I’d collected enough surface-level knowledge about various countries and came to rely on my internal database as a conversation starter once I confidently determined out where an individual was from.
However, the man looking back at me was ambiguous at best. At first glance he looked white, perhaps Eastern European. But the longer I gazed, the more uncertain I became. He could have been North African, Latino, Pakistani.
His big, bushy mustache twitched, hiding a smile, and that’s when I realized I had been staring at him for a full minute in silence.
I jumped. “Sorry! Are you taking passengers by any chance? I really need a ride to my hotel.”
I wondered if I had given too much information: this stranger now knew that I was traveling alone, in desperate need of transportation, and potentially staying by myself, too.
But the sliding door in the back was already sliding open, welcoming me.
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
The man stepped out of the taxi, motioning to help me with my bag. He wasn’t very tall, maybe had a couple of inches on me. Beyond the slight pudge of his belly, he was quite thin. However, he easily lifted the luggage and carefully arranged it in the empty trunk.
I hopped in the car, gave him the address, and we drove off.
“So how long have you been driving a cab?”
Subtlety wasn’t my finest trait, but I was curious about this man. He possessed a warm aura. There are some people in the world that invite instant comfort, and somehow I felt that my nameless driver was easy to open up to.
I glanced around my new environment. The inside of the van was spotless, pristine event; not a hint dust below my feet, and the black leather seats smelled freshly cleaned.
The dashboard was another story. It was the only area of the vehicle that could be called cluttered, messy even.
I observed the ornaments that took up the space.
A box of Kleenex.
A smattering of glitter mingled with the dust – from where?
A pewter figurine in the shape of a bull, with two ruby-red gems where the eyes should be.
A tiny, black-and-white photograph, showing two smiling people with their arms around each other. I squinted, trying to make out the silhouettes, and that’s when the man cleared his throat.
I jumped. “Huh?”
He looked at me through the rearview mirror with sparkling eyes. “Twenty years, friend. Two decades. That’s how long I’ve been driving cab.”
Two decades. I had barely been a part of this world for that long.
“You must have seen some pretty intense things over the years,” I pressed on, eager to listen to him regale stories about out-of-line customers while trying to make it clear that I was normal. Nothing to worry about with little old me.
He didn’t speak, and I instantly began worrying that I had said the wrong thing.
“Once.” He spoke finally.
“Oh?” I replied. “Twenty years of driving strangers, and just the one stands out? Must have been quite the passenger.”
He nodded his head slowly, the action mimicking the gentle pause of his cab as we halted for two people jaywalking across the street: a woman holding a toddler by the hand, waving her hand at him apologetically.
He inclined his head at her with a smile as I watched.
A few minutes went by without a reply, so I gave up and stared out the window. We hit some traffic and had been idling for some time, so I began to people-watch.
A man wearing an orange beanie that must have shrunk in the wash. It was much too small for his head: red curls peeked out beneath it, matted to his forehead.
A young woman with another girl, probably teenagers, fiercely making out on a bench. An older woman who looked to be in her sixties, watching from a few yards away with a disapproving look on her face.
A storefront, with a big yellow sign decorating the display windows. SALE. The announcement was so large, I couldn’t see through the glass behind it, unsure of what the product was.
A guy strolling down the street, speaker in hand raised high above his head and blaring loud music. He must have been well-known in the neighborhood, because no one paid him any mind and a few people nodded at him.
“She was about your age.”
The cab driver spoke so abruptly that I was startled once again, this time banging my head against the window.
He repeated himself without waiting for a response. “She was about your age. Tall. Nice girl. This was about seven years back, but I never forgot her.” I noticed his eyes lingering on the bull-shaped figure hanging from the mirror as he spoke.
“What was so special about her?” I inquired.
He looked sad. “She was running away from someone, something. I picked her up at the train station, just like a few minutes ago. She never told me her name, so I couldn’t help. I couldn’t help.”
He said the last sentence through gritted teeth, and over his shoulder I could see his hands gripping the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles turned white.
That was when I noticed the large, silver ring on wrapped around his middle finger.
My heart sank. I recognized the snake symbol.