Poetry by Robert Cooperman from Just Drive
Why We Drove Cabs
For some guys—
and back in the Seventies
it was mostly guys—
driving was a way station
between acting gigs,
rock band tours,
before writing careers
took off like Daedalus,
before grad school in a state
so far away I’d fantasize
the fare to drive there.
A way to pay the bills
for guys laid off,
or whose small businesses
were caught by bankruptcy
like mice in hawks’ talons:
temporary nests until
we could decide
about the rest of our lives.
But for lifers hacking paid
for their kids’ education;
they retired to Florida
at the end of a shift
lasting thirty, forty years:
to play pinochle and brag
about epic fares;
to feel the thrum of engines,
the jolt of shock absorbers
shaky as medical skeletons
with every pothole;
to smell gas fumes
even while slicing
or shoveling in delectable
bacon and eggs.
New York’s gasoline streets
forever ground into their sinuses,
forever part of their souls.
The Names We Went By
“Cab driver,” “Cabbie,”
“Taxi driver,” or just “Taxi!”
arm raised, fingers snapping
to be taken somewhere important,
because they were,
which brings me back to
“Taxi Driver,” as in the movie
that gave us all a bad name.
Also “Hack,” short for “Hackney,”
the horse-drawn cab
of London’s Victorian-sinister streets,
Sherlock Holmes shouting to hacks,
“Don’t spare the horses!”
to avert a crime
or chase down a criminal.
And my favorite,
the one I confess to coining,
but so did every other hack
driven cynical by New York’s
“Yellow Cab Cowboy,”
cabbies slapping leather
to round up fares, to head off
cattle stampedes in our rush
to drop off fares
and rope other doggies,
then bragging ’round
the Belmore Cafeteria’s campfire
or the sparse warmth of the bench
at our garage while we waited for cabs:
Taxi Driver, or just, “Hey you!”
Taking the Hack Test
It wasn’t like the test
for London cabbies
in their gondola-black cabs
on episodes of Masterpiece Theatre
or in films about World War II;
nothing close to as rigorous
as studying and driving
London’s labyrinthine streets
for six months.
If you could read,
the garage sponsoring you
gave you the ten answers:
landmarks so famous
even visitors from Utah
knew how to find them:
Madison Square Garden,
Radio City, Carnegie Hall,
and six more everyone
in the world wanted to see.
I took the test
then was unleashed
onto New York’s streets.
Poor New York.
My First Fare
Four Cleveland conventioneers,
their combined girths groaning
the cab’s shocks like rhinos,
their wedding bands digging
into the folds of fat on their fingers,
nudging each other that,H “Hey,
we’re really in New York:
sex everywhere for the grabbing.”
“Where to?” I asked, trying to sound
enthusiastic as a flight attendant.
“Where can we get laid, kid?”
one of them demanded: not
a trace of irony in his voice.
“How the hell should I know?”
I wanted to spit, but reminded
myself my job was just to drive,
so I answered, polite as apple sauce,
“How about Times Square?”
That block infamous, back then,
for hookers, pimps, pushers, and junkies:
all hungry as vampires, zombies,
and werewolves and twice as ferocious.
The four Musketeers happily agreed,
and I felt like a veteran hack
after five minutes behind the wheel;
felt too, the smallest twinge of pity
for them, but figured they were old
enough to know what they were getting into,
not to mention how to explain themselves
to their wives when their escapade
leaked out, and it was sure to.
Like a lot of guys my age,
I was between careers: namely,
between being fired and grad school
in the fall, in the real America
far to the west of New York.
And all that was required
was a driver’s license, a garage
to sponsor me, and enough English
to read the exam, the answers supplied.
My brother put in a word at his garage,
I had a driver’s license, and since
I’d be studying Literature, I assured
the dispatcher I could read well enough
to pass the test and decipher street signs.
I further assured him I wasn’t violent
or using drugs, though the last
a tiny white lie: for the reefer
I smoked when I could get some.
I won’t say the money rolled in,
like in the old, bawdy song,
but I paid rent, utilities, and food,
got to a few movies, and even
saved a bit for autumn,
when I could escape New York,
in my own season of sweet mists.
The Order of March
I picked up my cab at the garage
on West 57th and Eleventh,
between three and three-thirty,
and dove east. Unless a fare
raised an arm, I’d take the right
onto Fifth, drive south in the far
left lane, until I got hailed.
Still empty, I’d make a left
just below 42nd, and another
onto Madison, and head north again,
and if still no luck, turn left
above 57th, left again onto Fifth,
and repeat the march, until a fare
gave me a destination, and a new route:
like joining the design-dots
on a HoJo’s place-mat for kids.
Some cabbies lived and died
by airport fares, but before six,
easier, especially in rain or snow,
to trawl Midtown: drifting west
or farther east when the fashionable
Fifth-Madison trade dried up,
dropping off fares fast as a Vegas dealer.
Around eight, dinner break;
with my brother or alone with a burger
and fries, digesting the sports section.
Then I’d stalk the Theatre District,
or the big hotels, to catch an airport fare,
and a fare (you never, ever wanted
to ride empty from the airports)
back to Manhattan, and clock out,
then trudge to the subway and home:
the line of march automatic, unthinking
as draftees calling out,
“Here, sergeant!” at roll call.
Marilyn Monroe in a Cab
An older friend smiles
sly as a burlesque barker,
to tell of the time he tried
hailing a cab on Fifth Avenue:
women stalking, panther sleek;
men debonair as foxes.
And every cab in Manhattan full.
So, when a taxi finally screeched
to a stop, not five feet from Ted’s
raised and pleading arm, and a woman
strangely familiar paid off the hack,
Ted gasped, dawning on him
with the force of Homer’s sunrises,
that the passenger was Marilyn Monroe
without her makeup, looking
like she’d had a rough night,
and that Joltin’ Joe might really
have belted her around a bit,
but still those legs, those breasts,
the jeans she was poured into.
Ted held his breath
as if his head was shoved underwater.
Walking past him, Marilyn smiled,
in role as an incognito Cleopatra
condescending to a commoner.
And while Ted was mesmerized
by her undulating wake, another
guy darted into the cab,