"Whatever!" It came out like a shotgun blast, right at the back of the cab driver's head.
"I don't like to go to Queens!" he blasted back. It was a standoff in the yellow cab.
"Well, you have to take me. So just go." I said, flopping back in the seat. "And you better reset the meter!"
The stench of incense and an unidentified seasoning filled my nostrils. The jangled chords of a music to which I was not accustomed assaulted me from the speakers.
A few minutes before, he had asked me (fairly politely) if I might transfer to another cab right next to us who happened to be heading back to Queens to park his cab for the evening. I did not feel, however, that the on ramp to the Queensboro Bridge was an appropriate place for this discussion.
Earlier that year, I would have enjoyed the ride across the bridge into Queens, rolling the window half-way down and letting the clean spring air wash my cares away. It was one of my favorite parts of my new life in the city.
But New York City had grown very hot with the summer. It was that summer almost a decade ago, an intense three-day heat wave. I cracked the window, only to release some of the stench. Hot, thick air poured in. It didn't seem to release the smell as much as simmer it.
The cab stopped beneath the bridge on the Queens-side off ramp, a stop I rarely needed to make. The light was almost always green. It figured, on a night like this. A night when every muscle in my body held a light, barely detectable, but maddening ache; a night when my armpits itched with the mire I had secreted during 10 hours at my heartbreaking survival job; a night when the crotch of my underwear had turned to sandpaper and had then caught on fire.
This is not what I had anticipated. When I had imaged the scenarios I would enjoy after moving to New York City, this was not one of them. I had never imagined landing in a tiny apartment in Queens. Nor had I ever imagined having been left there alone by my boyfriend of four years. And I had not dreamed of finding myself suddenly carrying the rent alone, sacrificing auditions for lunch shifts. Not much of a sacrifice considering the way my acting career seemed to be going.
I rolled my eyes and settled back into my seat, tears beginning to sting my lower lids. I prayed for the light to change. I prayed for my life to change.
I glanced up at the stoplight, wondering how long it had been, too exhausted to pull my flip-phone from my backpack. I looked up towards the stoplight against the filthy underbelly of the bridge, the orange construction netting stretched across it like a filthy pair of fishnet stockings. But something on the street below caught my eye.
At first it seemed like one animal, rolling in the gutter a few feet from the cab in which I sat. Something splashed in the filthy water, in the reflection of the underside of the Queensboro Bridge. My mind struggled with the image, trying to make some sense of the shapes in front of me, to pull a form from the blur of fur and feathers. A strange stir of recognition came over me, through the soreness of my being, the strangest combination of relief and repulsion.
The pigeon flapped wildly as the rat scrambled beneath it. At first glance, the pigeon seemed to be attacking the rat, as if making a brave attempt to carry it away. Then the rat seemed to lash back, scratching and biting at the pigeon's claws. Were it not for the neon lights of the construction, I may never have seen the scrap of food, maybe a bone or a stale crust of bread, holding them in a death struggle.
I felt the light change to green in the side of my vision. But the cab did not move. I glanced at the driver. He leaned slightly toward the passenger side, staring down into the gutter. I looked back at this blatant metaphor put before me by the universe.
Rat race was my first thought. Very clever. But the pigeon was throwing me for a loop. Clearly this symbolized my recent struggle with the cabbie, two city dwellers struggling over a scrap. But I was too new to this city to be reduced to one of its classic inhabitants. Sure, I could see the cabbie as a rat, and I'd certainly rather be a pigeon...
And it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was neither: maybe I was the scrap. I was perhaps this little meaningless thing, being devoured by the city itself.
The light changed to green again. The cabbie and I must have simultaneously snapped from our trance. As we rolled from beneath the bridge, I glanced back. But the struggle was already out of my view. Or had perhaps ended. I'd never know the outcome.
The cabbie shut the meter off a few blocks before my house.
"Hey. Could be worse," he chuckled.
"Thanks," I said as I climbed out of the cab. I tipped him a few extra bucks.