Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Saturday night cab ride

I stand by the side of Prospekt Pobedy with my hand out, flagging down a car. A Kazakh man stops, agrees to take me to “Bukhara” where my Saturday night gang awaits. The restaurant is not very far but he decides to take a roundabout way there. In the back seat are his two children; a girl about 7 or 8 yrs old and a baby boy who is two years old. They poke their heads between the two front seats to look at me. I turn around to talk with them, the girl smiles shyly, dad tells her to talk, not to be afraid. He asks where I am from, Yugoslavia? No, a bit further than that, New York. Ooh New York, wow the first time I have an American in my car. He looks at his daughter in the rear view mirror and tells her that I’m from New York. She looks at me with big eyes and smiles. She is holding her little brother on her lap; a pudgy thing all bundled up in a light blue snow suit and hat. The daughter’s name is Diana, she’s in the third grade at school #10. I make small talk with her about school. She shyly replies with a big smile on her face as we make our way over the bridge to the Left Bank.
It’s rather peculiar for a man to be driving around town picking up people to make a few extra bucks with his children in the back seat. He tells me that his wife is at work until 9 pm and he thought he’d go out and make a few extra tenge before she got home. He couldn’t leave the children at home alone, I agree with him on that point. His young son begins to cry for his mom, dad passes a bottle of milk to the back seat, daughter feeds her younger brother who quiets down.
I ask my driver why we are taking this long, out of the way route. He reassures me that it’s better than going through the center, less cars, now it’s rush hour and the center is full of cars. Rush hour? I think, on a Saturday night? I question him. I begin to get a little annoyed, looking at the clock on the dashboard, seeing I’m going to be late. Also I sense this long way is another way to milk the foreigner of extra money. I hate being taken advantage of like this. I let out a sigh of exasperation and look out the window. We ride in silence.
The driver’s cell phone rings. He answers it with a loud Hello, then drops his voice to a quiet, hushed tone. Seems like the conversation is private, considering the almost whispering he is doing. Still I hear everything, being in close proximity of him. He tells the caller that he has sadness in his house, a daughter had an operation and didn’t survive, she is dead. Mom is at home, grief struck, crying. She’s unplugged the phones and lays alone at home in her grief. Given the hushed tone in which he is talking, I sense the two children in the back seat do not know what happened to their sister yet. Is this a diversion for them? Putting off telling the sad news about their sibling? The young boy begins to cry a little bit, asking for mama. I turn around to distract him, smile at him while dad talks on the phone. His face looks stoic and blank but his eyes have grief in them as he looks at the road ahead of him.
He hangs up the phone and we ride in silence again. Should I say something? No it is not my place really, not in front of his children. So tell me about New York he asks, breaking the silence with a smile. I begin to tell him about my life back in Brooklyn. He talks to his daughter through the rear view mirror. Did you hear that Diana? Three cats! A house with a garden! We drive on through the monolithic new apartment buildings of the Left Bank. I’m getting the sense this man doesn’t really know where “Bukhara” is, as we drive round and round. Part of me is a little annoyed at this convoluted but I think of the sad news I heard earlier and don’t say anything.
Passed glitzy restaurants: “Sheherazad” “Ararat” “Tugan” and the Eurasian shopping center. I have heard of some of these places and finally I am seeing them for the first time. I think this is it he says but no it is not. Maybe it’s that one down the road. We drive on and on. I tell him where it is, repeating the directions I was given. My friends call me to ask if I am coming. Yes, yes, I’ll be there in a few minutes I reassure them. I sense the driver has no idea exactly where it is but puts on a confident face that we are going in the right direction. He may not know where “Bukhara” is, but worrying about finding it for this American in the passenger seat is a distraction from the tragedy at home. He must tell his children sometime, but let him put it off for just a little while longer. The search continues as we wind through the streets going from one restaurant to the other. He asks me again the name of the restaurant. “Bukhara”I reply slowly, almost spelling it out. Suddenly he remembers exactly where it is and off we go. His young son begins to cry. I distract him with the smiley face on my cell phone. This quiets him down for a few seconds and then he cries again. Up comes the dancing smiley face with a little song this time. He quiets down and smiles at the little screen that illuminates his chubby face in the dark of the car.
We drive into a courtyard amid 12 story apartment buildings, the icy road rutted and bumpy. There in the middle of these towers is an elaborate one story building with the word “Bukhara” shining on top. Oh there it is, he says as we drive over to it. The boy begins to cry again, this time with a cry that even a cell phone cannot calm. The façade is cracking I think. The tragedy of this man’s life is circling, getting closer. Reality must interrupt this distraction as we drive up to the restaurant. The children need to be told, the wife needs comforting, the family must gather to bury this poor child, there are the rituals and traditions that must be followed. I think of all this as I pull out my money to pay him. 500 tenge is sufficient fare but I think of all that awaits him as soon as I get out of his car. I put 1,000 tenge in his hand and whisper my condolences to him. He thanks me solemnly, eyes lowered for to look at me at this moment may cause him to break down in tears. Not now, not here in front of a restaurant with the children in the car. There is an awkward silence between us. I look in the back seat and with a big smile on my face I say goodbye to the children. They smile back and say goodbye, the façade coming to its close as I step out of the car onto the icy street.

2 comments:

eric welsh said...

wonderful blog entry!!!! more than a little sad, but a story perfectly told nonetheless. fantastic use of imagery with the children. i really love that the driver can't find the damn restaurant....the double meaning was not "lost" on me.

i nominate this entry as the best of 2007!

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