I've been away from New York for ten days, vacationing in warmer, calmer Caribbean climes. But it didn't take long for me to be reminded of how much I love the city.
Somehow my wife and I navigated our way through the maze of customs faster than most of our other fellow passengers, and magically our baggage arrived on the beaten carousel early and in tact. I hauled it all onto my broad shoulders and my wife and I scampered to the taxi line.
The JFK taxi line is usually something out of Hieronymus Bosch--writhing bodies wrestling duffle bags and rollers, usually with screaming kids in tow. But tonight my wife was like Botticelli's Venus. Somehow she ascended--magically--to the front of the line.
Quickly, before our luck had time to change, I wrestled our bags into a Toyota Prius hybrid. I was helped by my driver--all 5'3" of him. He handled the bags with the strength of a long-shoreman.
I got in the cab, gave the driver our address, and then, as I always do, I checked out his name, Boris Andreyev, and his hack number, which was under 500,000.
If you study cab drivers as I do, you can judge how long they've been driving by their number. Newer drivers log in at around 560,000. A forty-year-man is in the 300,000's. My driver, I estimated had been driving 30 years. I was off by five. He'd been driving since 1977.
I've been talking to cab drivers since about that time. I love their stories, their successes, their frustrations. Talking to them is just one of the million things I love about New York.
"Where are you from," I began.
"I am from Siberia. I drove a tractor-truck there in the oil fields. But came here with my parents and my sister and my wife in 1977. I started driving a cab the first day I arrive. I am 64 now. In three years, I retire."
Boris didn't need a lot of interstitial coaxing to talk. But I tried anyway to hold up my end of the conversation.
"I've always wanted to go to Russia," I said. "St. Petersburg in particular--to see the Hermitage."
"A lifetime in the Hermitage you could spend and not see an inch. The city St. Petersburg is so beautiful. Once I drove my truck 8,000 kilometers from Yekaterinburg to Kiev. They gave me 30 days to make the trip. I did it in 15 and so spent 15 days on 'wacation' in St. Petersburg.
"By train you can go 600 kilometers in two hours and be in Moscow. In Moscow every subway station is like a museum."
"I've heard that," I said, trying to keep the conversation from being too one sided.
"America a small country," he said. "Russia big. 12,000 kilometers from East to West. 8,000 from North to South."
He jumped now to Samarkand, the Uzbeki city situated on the Silk Road.
"Samarkand. You know who founded it? Do you know? Guess."
"Ghenghis Khan," I offered.
"Alexander the Great. The greatest of them all. 10,000 pounds of gold he made the city with. Samarkand."
We were now approaching my apartment on 83rd Street. My wife went to pay the fare with a credit card.
"Ach" he said. "You are killing me. Cash please."
We paid him cash and I lugged our baggage into our lobby.
"Thank you," I told him and he thanked me back.
It was good to be home.