Orientation

It goes without saying that New Yorkers work hard. I am not yet a New Yorker – I remember Carrie Bradshaw saying in an early episode of Sex and the City that it takes, on average, ten years to “become” a New Yorker. While I’m enjoying myself right now (saying this warily before the first day of class and before the frigid terrors of east coast winter) I doubt I’ll give the city this much time. To do so means, judging by the harried masses that pass me by in the street on their way to important meetings and such, is to work much harder than I intend to while personal history and unexplored geographic predilections tell me New York is but the first of many stops. But for now, I have stopped here. For now, I am in New York.

Photo by Very Highbrow, edited with VSCOcam App. 

I arrived in earnest at 5AM on Monday morning, sleep deprived, with hairspray still in my ponytail, leftover from the wedding I’d been a part of over the weekend. I had arranged a pickup (Carmel Car Service, for those of you wondering which car service is most reasonably priced and reliable when visiting New York) to fetch me from JFK and was met promptly at the curb by a tall, lanky Chinese man whose skin indicated that he lived in a room with very little natural light and drove the evening to early morning shifts. He spoke passable English, passable because he’d lived in the States for over ten years, having spent the first five years working at his auntie’s Chinese restaurant in Minnesota before moving to the city for a driving job that promised more freedom and more money. But once in the car he confirmed he was from China and I switched to Chinese. This made him relax back into his seat a little, perhaps to hear me better.

“How long has it been since you’ve been back to China?” I asked.

“Haven’t been back since I left ten year ago,” he said.

“Ten years!” partly due to the haze of jetlag and fatigue, I could not fathom the implications of being away from home for so long. Though unsentimentally in his version of things, there wasn’t much to fathom.

He shrugged as though it were nothing, “I didn’t have reason to go back.”

“What about your parents? Did they come to visit you?”

He chuckled, “No, why would they come visit me here? There’s nothing to see here, really.”

“You haven’t seen your parents in ten years?” 

My jaw dropped despite knowing that his was and is a common immigrant story – my grandfather didn’t see his daughters for over forty years after the Nationalists fled to Taiwan – they were grown, married women with children by the time they reconnected with their father in Hong Kong in the eighties. They knew grandpa through the letters he sent, but that was it. By then grandpa had remarried a fourth time and had three sons.

But times are different now, aren’t they? Writing this just a week into my life here, I have spoken with my parents at least once every day and am planning their visit this November. I imagined his parents waving goodbye to a sixteen year old boy and embracing, or in more typical Chinese fashion, patting the back of a twenty-six year old man, some ten years later. I couldn’t do it. I wanted right then to be sitting in the passenger seat so I could turn and search his face. The right side anyway. But instead I looked out the window and wondered if my parents would notice anything different about me the next time I arrived in Orange county.

He had been heading home from Long Island, where he’d just dropped off an “old foreigner” when he received the dispatch for my pick-up. It was technically the end of his shift, but it was an easy job and he took it.

“It was on the way,” he shrugged, “And I don’t mind driving early in the morning because there is no traffic.”

His Chinese name was printed on the back of his seat, alongside his photograph, but he told me his English named was Michael.

A good solid name, I said, and he shrugged again, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

I was tired but didn’t see the point in sleeping. In less than forty minutes (Michael drove very fast) I would have to shake myself awake and summon the energy to haul my suitcases up five flights of stairs. I watched dazedly as outskirts of the city whooshed by, slowly giving way to denser clusters of buildings that couldn’t seem to decide whether to reach for the sky or stay closer to the ground. Michael kept the windows down, to save on gas? I don’t know. Maybe he liked the fresh air. I did too, that morning.

He guessed that I was coming to the city for work, but I shook my head.

“School.”

“What are you studying?”

“Writing.”

“I’m terrible at school,” he said without regret, “And writing.”

“It’s not for everyone,” I said.

His parents had hoped, I’m sure, that Michael would fare better in American schools when they bid him goodbye at the age of sixteen, but he didn’t. He didn’t finish high school, didn’t even contemplate college or technical school, and before he realized, he had turned twenty-one and knew only restaurant English. He had an uncle in Chinatown, New York who knew a cheap place he could live (less than $500 a month for his own room!) and who could get him started as a cab driver. But first he needed to learn a bit more English.

Michael likes driving – when I asked him what he does in his free time, he said, “Driving” – so saying yes was the obvious answer. He didn’t exactly study English diligently, but picked up enough to chat politely and understand where people had to go. Most of the clientele was white, wealthy.

“All the old foreigners have money for this sort of thing,” he said, “Mostly business men whose companies pay for it. They all pay with their company cards.” He made held up his hand as though he were holding an invisible credit card, “You know the company card?”

I nodded. I did know the company card. At the Company I had one which I swiped prodigiously for executives and their transportation expenses.

“I don’t really get too many Chinese customers,” Michael continued, “But if I do, they’re mostly young like you. I would never spend money on a car service like this. I’d get a friend to drive me.”

I chuckled, thinking back to how my parents hadn’t had time to take me to the airport.

“Can’t you ask one of the car services you used to use for the Company?” My mother had suggested.

It occurred to him that perhaps what he said was a little thoughtless and he gave me a brief glance in the mirror. My face remained neutral with fatigue and he said quickly, “But you just moved here, so of course you don’t know anyone.”

“No one with a car,” I said.

He has now lived in Chinatown for the past six years. On the days he doesn’t work or has just one or two pickups, he watches movies, plays basketball, and eats Chinese food because he doesn’t cook. He likes Taiwanese food, he told me, but did not proceed to get specific about which dishes. When working, he prefers the super early or super late shifts because he hates, hates traffic.

“You hate driving in traffic but you drive in New York City?” I asked.

All around, the sky was beginning to lighten and I could see Michael’s face more clearly. He didn’t seem tired at all, and he had been driving for the past six to eight hours. Much longer than my flight.

“It’s not so bad if you know the times to avoid driving. I let the older guys with families have those shifts. I like the quiet.” He waved at the open road ahead, just a few cars – poor slobs who had to get up earlier than the rest of New York – heading to work. Or perhaps heading home from the airport’s night shift.

“So you like this job,” I said, “Driving.”

“I do. I like driving, and it’s pretty flexible, the hours,” he sped ahead of a slow moving truck, leaning forward to do so, and then settled back, “My brother is very jealous of my job.”

“He’s here?” I asked.

Michael nodded, “Just moved here, but lives in Minnesota with my aunt and uncle. Works at the Chinese restaurant. But I tell him about my life here and he sees I have so much freedom. I make more than he does.”

“Why can’t he come to New York and be a driver?”

Michael chuckled, “His English isn’t good enough.”

We crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge onto Ward’s Island and a few moments later the imposingly complex building that was the Manhattan Psychiatric Center came into view. On my last trip back from the airport I had asked the cabbie, also Chinese, if it was a prison.

“No,” he’d said, “It’s for the people with,” and he tapped his brain and made a scrambling motion with his fingers. 

“The crazies,” I said in Chinese.

The cabbie, much older than Michael nodded, “The crazies. Lots of crazies in this city.” 

Then, I had given the barred windows of the center a wary eye, replaying the scene from Batman Begins when all the crazies are released from Arkham Asylum

But now, coming back as a new resident, the pale cream building seemed almost familiar, not unlike the neon Toshiba sign I pass on my way home from the airport in Taipei, or the Boeing building one sees off the 105 freeway in Los Angeles. Things that have nothing to do with my everyday life, but somehow, in their eye catching way, become the first concrete, assuring signs that home is not far ahead.

On FDR drive, Michael turned his face slightly towards me. 

“You have a boyfriend?”

I smiled, how inevitable this question was, to a young woman traveling alone.

“No,” our eyes met briefly in the rear view mirror.

As I am wont to do I imagined myself bringing home a cab driver.

“Mom, dad, this is Michael. He picked me up at JFK and the rest is history.”

I shook my head, smiling. This wasn’t what my mother imagined when she expressed hope that I’d meet a nice Chinese boy.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Now it was his turn to shake his head.

“No girlfriend,” he said, “I don’t have the time.”

Then, reconsidering the verity of his response, “I don’t make time, I guess.”

“Why not? Having too much fun in the city?”

Again, the boyish shrug. The shrug of boys everywhere who are oblivious to the hours, days and years they are shrugging away.

“What’s the rush? I’m so young.”

He turned right on 96th street.

“Only twenty-six,” I sighed, looking back at my own twenty-sixth year as though it had blurred past like the dawn-lit buildings alongside us.

He seemed to think he was reading my mind. Maybe he was.

“It’s different for women, I know. I know you women all want to get married at this age.”

I laughed, feeling like a jaded aunt or older sister. “I do want to get married,” I said, “But not right now. I just got here for school. But yeah, it would be nice to meet someone.”

On Fifth Avenue, he glanced at me again then focused on the road, shifting a bit in his seat. 

“But you’re probably looking to date someone… more suitable.”

I looked at him, knowing exactly what he meant but surprised he said it.

“Suitable…” I echoed.

“Yeah,” Michael shrugged again, “Suitable as in some of those old foreigners I drive around, or the other young Chinese men who wear suits and ties and work in an office. The ones with a corporate card. Not a cab driver like me.”

I didn’t know what else to do but laugh, “Not necessarily, but…yeah, probably not a cab driver.”

He laughed too.

“But you’re easy to talk to, and you’re young. You want to drive cabs forever?”

We stopped at a red light and he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as though he were playing a set of drums. He was thinking.

“I don’t know,” he said, “I like it. I don’t think too far ahead. I’m going back to China at the beginning of next year to see my parents and see what it’s like there. I know it’s changed a lot.”

“It has.”

“But I like it here too. And I do like driving.”

The light turned green, and soon, we were coasting through the cool, leafy darkness of Central Park. It seemed like night again, and for a few seconds I forgot that we were in a city until we emerged again on 86th. Broadway. Then my street. Home-ish.

“You live in a nice place,” he said, parking the car and leaning forward to look at the building, “It must be expensive.”

Now it was my turn to shrug. I dug around my backpack for cash as he fiddled with the meter, “It’s not cheap. But that’s New York.”

“You could get a room in Chinatown for less than a quarter of what you’re paying here.”

“It’s too far from school.”

He waved his hand, knowing that was not the only reason, “Ah what do you care about the price of rent. You have rich parents who are paying for everything.”

He said it good-naturedly, honestly, and I laughed.

“Well, I don’t have a corporate card,” I said.

I handed him the cash and he nodded as it touched his hand, then got out swiftly to retrieve my bags. He hauled them to the curb and strode back to the car.

“Thanks,” I said, “It was nice talking to you.”

“Good luck in school,” he said, and smiling, “I hope you find someone ‘suitable.'”

I dragged my bags up the front steps and searched for the keys to the front door. It was 6:30AM. I didn’t hear the car start behind me and when I finally opened the front door and looked back, he was still double parked in the street. His head was bent down towards his phone.

It wasn’t until I’d gotten into my studio, huffing and puffing from making two trips up the stairs that I saw his text:

hi I am MICHAEL, who just picked you up. In Chinese, he typed this.

I texted back, Hi.

I am waiting for an old foreigner now.

You went to pick someone else up! I thought you were going home.

One more done, he wrote in English.

Well, I hope he doesn’t want to go to Connecticut!

Yeah, if you need some thing call me.

Thanks Michael, that is really nice of you 🙂 

HAHA, he wrote, try to make Real friend. His capitalization.

I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to or referring to himself, but I wrote back that it was nice to meet him and that I’d tell him if I came across good Taiwanese food in the city.

That is cool, he wrote, then a few moments later, still waiting stupid American.

I smiled to myself in my dim apartment. A stupid but “suitable” American, most likely. Always anxious to unpack immediately, I put the phone down and went to unzip my suitcases, then thought better of it. Orientation for school was in a few hours, at 1:30PM. I had six hours to sleep away the dark circles and shower off the last of the hairspray, to make myself presentable to potential Real friends. Somewhere in the city, Michael waited for both my response and a stupid American – and when the latter arrived and was delivered to his destination, Michael too, went home to his Chinatown apartment and slept.

New York is always somewhere else, across the river or on the back of the front seat, some place else, while the wind of the city just beyond our reach rushes in the windows. We keep coming home to New York to try and look for it again.            – Adam Gopnik 

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