“The Princess” by Mathias B. Freese

This piece belongs to a book-in-the-making called Tesserae.


In the summer of ’69 I was driving a cab in Manhattan, from about 6 pm to about 4 in the morning. I averaged about 200 miles in a shift, about the distance from Queens to Woodstock. Often my right knee would ache from the stop-and-go traffic of the city. Few New Yorkers knew that there was continual “warfare” between the city buses and the cabbies, blocking one another, cutting across. The origin of that I did not know until I became enmeshed in the crossfire. It was a “secret,” like bus drivers hitting their air brakes – snort snort – if a big-assed or big-titted woman walked in front of them. It took me some time to realize what that was about. The women, I believe, for the most part, were oblivious to this sly automotive leering.

At night the summer city was infused by glaring neon, the air congested with soot, boiled over, like dry espresso, bitter to the smell. When early dawn hit during the summer and I went back to Queens over the 59th Street Bridge, I felt refreshed in my Humvee, for driving a cab in the city is like driving in Iraq during hostilities. I was dressed simply every night: jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and next to my side up front was a Te-Amo cigar box to hold change and my coin changer as well. I relied on a map book which gave all the avenues and exits on and ramps off the Eastside and Westside highways.  I counted on my little blue Baedecker to get across the transverses in Central Park, west side to east side, vice versa. If you missed a transverse, you headed uptown, and that meant Harlem – and fear to the passengers.

I’ve been informed that a cab driver in London is a lifelong occupation and one must pass rigorous tests to be given a license. In New York, after studying a while, I took a very simple test/quiz mostly about major avenues and streets and stations, such as Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station. Some cabbies went in on a mortgage and bought a medallion which was affixed to the hood. A medallion might guarantee you a lifetime business, although you always ran the risk of being held up, which I was, a gun pointed to the back of my head. I recall in the Fifties it was a relatively safe business to own a cab, but that had changed by the time I began driving.

Once my cab was rear-ended and a woman passenger had her face and chin thrown against the passenger side. I called, quite upset, to relate the details to the dispatcher (a lower form of Danny DeVito in Taxi) and a possible injury to the woman, and the dispatcher’s first words to me were “Is the cab all right?” After that, I knew my place in the pecking order. I was in a post-apocalyptic world.

I drove a pattern like most cabbies. I chose a safe one, the Upper East or West Side. I’d go down five or ten blocks, turn right or left, and go uptown, so that I was doing a rectangular or square grid. At times I’d pick up a fare that wanted to go to LaGuardia or Kennedy, which was a break from the routine. The cabbie is always looking for a return fare back to the city and sometimes I would get that. No one wanted to be pulled into Brooklyn, the streets were a maze. I didn’t mind Queens because it was my hunting ground. If I had to piss that could be handled well, but if a cabbie had to shit, that was another story, as New York had scarce facilities for that – still do! – and if you found one, it was much like the men’s room in a one-pump Texaco station on Route 66. Often I would just scoot over the 59th Street Bridge to my Flushing apartment and relieve myself in familiar and hygienic surroundings.

As a cabbie there is much freedom. If you drove five hours instead of ten, if you took off time to see a movie (some did) or ate out for an hour or two, this was fine with the dispatcher, as long as you brought in what was considered a night’s “take” in the cab. Serendipitously I learned how to master the streets and avenues of New York, such stuff as Broadway being an “S” shaped street, Manhattan’s anaconda. You simply had to master Broadway, often through a vehicular repetition compulsion and the other being, for example, Fifth Avenue. All streets east of Fifth Avenue were counted in one way, and all streets west of Fifth ran another way. Figure out the lodestar purpose of Fifth Avenue and the directions east and west of that longitudinal divide became simple to comprehend, my astrolabe. With that in mind and on foot or in a cab, any address given to you by a fare could be figured out, long before GPS.  To this day when I visit the city I get a kick out of my mastery of the streets: Minetta Lane in the Village being the smallest street in all of Manhattan, in case you like such trivia. As to the subway system, that is much too arcane for me.

One muggy night in August, all windows opened, I don’t think I had air-conditioning at that time, I was cruising my grid, which at that time began at Central Park South with the famed Plaza Hotel at the corner. On 59th Street the famed Reubens restaurant, now gone, was situated.  It was the creator of the Reuben sandwich, which is to die for. Uptown avenues had several Greek restaurants of note.  (More of that later.) It was here that I picked up the “Princess.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been drinking and was somewhat tipsy. I opened the door for her, given her condition, and she literally fell into the back seat, and the back seat in the old Checker cabs was really big, often with two additional seats that had to be pulled down to occupy. Like all cabbies, we wanted to get the fare in and the fare out as soon as possible since time was crucial to make a night’s living.

When I asked her to tell me where she wanted to be dropped off, she replied, “Milch. I vant milch.” I knew then it was not going to be an easy fare – or night. And what was more disturbing was that the “Princess” wanted “milch” from a Greek restaurant, a Catch 22. And so I began to cruise for Greek restaurants.  I would double-park and go in, and often they didn’t have milk for sale. Whatever I recall from this adventure was that three restaurants in a row were out of cow juice. And when I reported this to her each time she became slightly surly and expressed her European annoyance at my failure to find her milk. I was dealing with resistance, she just wouldn’t get out of the cab.

So with my Greek princess in the back I just drove around until she made up her mind as to what she wanted to do next. I was fit to be tied. Clearly she didn’t want to get out of the cab, and she reminded me of a Gatsby-esque floozy on a tear. At last, probably out of some sense and sensibility, she asked me to drive over to Reubens, a few blocks off.  As I came to the restaurant and parked, she leaned over to talk to me. “I am sorry for all this. Let me treat you to a meal.” For some reason, which was later justified, I felt her to be a sad woman.

“You don’t have to do that, just pay the fare.”

“But I insist. I took you away from your job.”

I relented. I double-parked the car and was wearing by now a sweat-ridden T-shirt and jeans that felt like humid clouds about my legs. When she stepped out of the cab, I had my first real look at her, and it was striking. She was blond and bore an uncanny resemblance to Melina Mercouri, that’s it, Mercouri in Never on Sunday. Even standing still, she was flamboyant, an Art Nouveau sinuosity.  Dressed in a lovely silken dress, a kind of European sari, if you will, in the early light of city’s dawn it glistened, and I thought of Gustav Klimt’s women.

So slob with coin changer on his belt and a Greek Princess went into Reubens. Two waiters with cloths draped over their arms stood there, and I quickly observed how they thought they had sized us up, cab-driver gigolo with naïve European woman. When we were seated they asked me what I wanted, and since I was not eating well because of a lack of funds, I ordered a steak with a side. And it is here that the princess made a dramatic faux pas. Raising her hand and then the other she clapped both her hands as if a flamenco dancer and said very loudly, “Vaiter, I vant milch.”

I knew that was a majestic error in a Jewish restaurant and with these two Jewish waiters. Before my steak arrived, her milk came. It took everything not to break out laughing. Her milk was delivered in a small carton with a straw on a saucer. She did not know what was going on, a sublimely delivered “fuck you” by my kinsman, milk for the craven shiksa.

Recalling our conversation it was mostly about her life with her husband who was some kind of aristocrat in Greece, that she was here on a trip by herself, that not everything was honky dory in their relationship, and, above all, I could feel she was pained by being so alone and that I had served as her reluctant comrade for a crazy hour or so, about the amount of time it would take to get to the Tappan Bridge on the way to Woodstock. I do recall she wore on her finger a very large gemstone, opalescent, perhaps a moonstone set in rose gold. It bespoke of money, and I have not seen its kind since. (What memory decides to remember!) So I felt I was in the presence of considerable wealth. Returning to the cab I brought her back to the Plaza as the sun was coming up. She paid the fare, smiled at me and left the cab and walked through the brass doors of the side entrance to the Plaza.

Then she turned about, her dress in a swirl and walked back out again. I was watching all this and looked in the back seat in case she had left her purse. She put her head to the window and softly said to me, “756.7856.”And she walked back toward the Plaza.

When I have told this story to others, a follow up question is always asked: “Did you call her, the princess?”

I have no reply to give.

Matt is a writer who lives in Nevada.  He’s the author of The i TetralogyDown to a Sunless Sea, This Mobius Strip of Ifs and I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust Visit his blogHis major works are now available in Kindle format.