Smokeless farewell

Russell Baker

May 24, 1991|By Russell Baker

NEW YORK — IN NEW YORK we rode in a taxi whose driver was allergic to smoke. It brought back old times when it was almost impossible to find in all New York a cab driver who was not allergic to smoke. An allergy to smoke seemed to be the main requirement for anyone seeking work in the taxi trade.

Ignorance of English didn't seem to matter so long as you could pass the allergy requirement. This produced eerie but smoke-free cab adventures in exotic languages.

Once we hailed a cab in midtown to go to SoHo. The driver spoke only demotic Macedonian, not the classic Macedonian of Alexander the Great. Not that it would have made much difference, since both of us had failed all our Macedonian courses in high school.

Suddenly we realized that unless something was done fast this driver with whom no communication was possible intended to take us through the Holland Tunnel to Rahway, Trenton or some equally romantic spot in mysterious New Jersey.

Screams and curses got him turned around in the nick of time and headed back into lower Manhattan. There, as he wandered the darkness, lost and melancholy, we discovered that he did speak three words of English: "hey," "you" and "peoples."

Hopelessly lost, he wandered through the financial district, seeking a Macedonian who might direct him to SoHo by calling out whenever he saw a lonely pedestrian, "Hey you peoples!"

The sign on the partition between front and back seats forbade us to smoke because, of course, he was "Allergic To Smoke." So was the cabbie I hailed in midtown for a ride to La Guardia Airport.

"Driver Allergic To Smoke" said the sign, and in English too, which was curious since the driver spoke only a Chinese dialect I had never heard before. He had arrived fresh from Shanghai just that morning.

The cab industry, apparently desperate for drivers allergic to smoke, had loosed him upon the streets before he could even learn to say "Hey," much less "you peoples."

By periodically emitting murderous shrieks as I'd heard Asians do in Kung Fu movies, I steered him across the 59th Street Bridge, through the maze of Astoria and into La Guardia without resort to the cigarette I desperately needed.

At the peak of the anti-smoke hysteria of that era, there was hardly a cab driver in town whose vehicle did not bear the grim device, "Driver Allergic To Smoke." Surely there couldn't be that many people allergic to smoke in a population of merely 12 million.

Maybe some sinister Mister Big, the evil genius behind the taxi business, was scouring America to bring New York people who were allergic to smoke. Fantastic, you say? It hardly seemed so in those days. Call it paranoia, but anyone who walked Manhattan's streets knew that no city could possibly have such a vast population of lunatics unless somebody was importing them from all over the country.

This possibility was first suggested to me by a cab driver who was not only "Allergic To Smoke" but also teetering perilously close, I suspected, to a dark abyss. I'd hailed him in the theater district late at night.

At the first traffic light a bearded apparition costumed like Hollywood's idea of Moses pounded on the cab and started raving about Hammurabi, the Battle of Trafalgar, Teapot Dome and other such stuff that makes Manhattan so fascinating to tourists.

As we drove away the driver said, "We've got so many nuts here they must be recruiting them from out of town." Then, "So what do you do?"

I mentioned writing. He said, what a coincidence because he was a writer, too. A novelist, in fact. He was working on a novel at this very moment and had hit a block, so had come out in the cab, hoping he might get an idea on what to write next.

"What's your novel about?" I asked.

"About a cab driver who's a homicidal maniac," he said.

For an instant I was tempted to ask if it was an allergy to smoke that drove his killer to murder and if he confined his mayhem to people who smoked in his cab.

If so, I was going to point out, his killer cabbie would probably be seen as a heroic figure, like Charles Bronson of the "Death Wish" movies, who gave the dirty, rotten, smoky rats exactly what they deserved.

On reflection I kept my lip buttoned and arrived home alive.

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