There was nothing particularly remarkable about the couple. A man and a woman in their mid-thirties, they climbed into my cab outside the Hotel Gansevoort on an equally unremarkable Thursday afternoon and uttered the words I thought I’d never hear: “Could you take us to Avenue Z?”
For those unacquainted with New York City geography, there is a series of lettered avenues which commences in the East Village and stretches east until it touches Brooklyn’s nether regions. The East Village’s share of these streets are fairly well-known, having served as the setting for the Broadway show Rent, and before that gaining a great deal of local renown as an ideal place to get shot during a crack deal. There was even a helpful unofficial slogan for the neighborhood, identifying each Avenue in increasing order of danger: “A you’re all right, B you’re brave, C you’re crazy, and D you’re dead.” I myself lived on Avenue C for a year, though it was well after the crime wave had subsided and Rent had brought the area a certain amount of prestige, such that the craziest thing I ever saw there was an $11 Corona.
But Avenue Z! What terrifying fate awaited those who dared venture to the end of the line? Did this seemingly average couple, with their Donna Karan khakis and cashmere-draped shoulders mean to lure me to Avenue Z with the promise of a sizable fare, only to sell me into slavery at the hands of the murderous ghost pirates that undoubtedly haunted the shores of South Brooklyn?
Even if this had been their reasoning, it was good enough for me: I was once again several weeks late on my rent payment. I threw the cab into drive and lurched east towards oblivion.
As we sped along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I glanced into the rear-view at the pair, trying to determine what dark impulse had led them to voluntarily brave the unknown wilds of Avenue Z. I could see that they were clutching one another’s hands tightly, and as the woman dialed and then placed her cell phone against her ear, her husband explained to me that they would like me to wait for them at their destination, and then bring them back to the Gansevoort Hotel. I was relieved to hear this: I would not be left alone to do battle with the ghost pirates and their ilk, it turned out. Also, it meant that this was sure to be the largest fare I’d yet received. I was happy to wait outside, I told the husband, but I would have to keep the meter running while they were inside. That was fine, he assured me — they just wanted to make sure they had a guaranteed means of getting back to the hotel. They were, he said, picking up a very important package.
All at once, my suspicions shifted radically into more cynical terrain: were these well-heeled yuppies just garden-variety cokeheads? I instantly began to loathe them — hamstrung by their pathetic addiction but so fearful of those that enabled them that they could only bring themselves to engage with the reality of their dependence from the safety of a taxi. And what was I supposed to do in the event that the deal went sour? Drive them to safety, leaving the scrappy denizens of Avenue Z deprived of the only income society had made feasible for them? Oh no, I resolved. I would not be a party to this shameful instance of class privilege — except insofar as it enabled me to collect a sizable fare and pay my goddamn rent.
I sneered into the rear-view as the wife began speaking into her phone. Obviously, she was establishing a meeting spot with the dealer on Avenue Z, at the intersection of the Cave of Secrets and the River of Tears.
“Hi mom,” I heard her say, a nervous smile spreading across her face as she squeezed her husband’s hand. “We’re on our way!”
She winked at her husband and continued chatting and giggling brightly into the phone. The husband, for his part, stroked his wife’s arm lovingly and gazed fondly at her as she spoke. I pretended to gaze intently at the road, but was in fact hanging on her every word, trying desperately to figure out how the things she was saying could possibly be related to scoring some sweet South Brooklyn nose candy.
“Well, we haven’t decided yet,” she said, winking at her husband. “We have a list of options.”
No clues there, I thought. I was also having difficulty reconciling the fact that if this couple was indeed hell-bent on acquiring hard drugs, that was apparently something about which this woman felt the need to keep her mother in the loop.
“Nope, no hints!” she cried, feigning exasperation. Her husband chuckled. “You’ll just have to wait, Mom, that’s all there is to it.”
She giggled at her mother’s response to that, assured her that she loved her very much, and hung up.
“So,” said the husband, “What’s it gonna be? I believe the finalists are Gabriela, Monica, Sandra, and Stella.”
“I just can’t get Sandra out of my head,” gushed the wife.
“Well then,” said the husband, planting a kiss on his wife’s forehead. “I think we have a winner.”
Ah-HA!, I thought. These sketchy yuppie perverts. Their plan was now abundantly clear to me: obviously they had arranged some manner of sordid sexual romp with one of les demoiselles de l’Avenue Zed. How illicit! How tawdry! It all made sense now — these buttoned-up suburbanites were taking a weekend in the city to indulge their hedonistic desires before returning to their tony life of Lands’ End catalogues and PTA meetings. How crass! How shamefully predictable! I still didn’t understand why the woman would call her mother — but still! How hopelessly obvious.
These repressed weirdos, I said to myself, shaking my head as I peered into the rear-view at them, nestled comfortably against one another, gazing peacefully out the window of the cab as the afternoon sunlight played across their serene faces.
We were nearing our destination on Avenue Z, and so far the journey had featured a notable absence of dragon attacks or flaming moats to cross. In fact, we found ourselves in a remarkably pleasant neighborhood of tastefully designed apartment buildings and quaint two-story houses with porches occupied by distinctly non-goblinesque old ladies. I eased the cab up to the curb outside the address the couple had given me — a nondescript brown office building at the intersection of Avenue Z and a sunny residential lane.
“Okay!” said the husband, as they scurried out of the cab. “We’ll be right back — don’t go anywhere!”
Watching as they disappeared into the office building, I sat quietly for a moment, enjoying the peacefulness of the neighborhood I had so grossly misjudged. I glanced around at the swaying branches of the trees casting shadows on the rooftops of the houses — I watched the old ladies waving to the passersby. I thought of my grandparents’ house in Great Neck, Long Island, with its ivy walkway and old wicker furniture, and I realized that Avenue Z wasn’t so foreign after all. I smiled at my taximeter, obediently clicking along as my cab idled at the curb, awaiting the return of the couple. Who am I to judge them?, I thought, sighing to myself as my gaze returned to the brown brick building into which they had vanished.
Suddenly my eyes fixated on a sign above the door, which I hadn’t noticed previously. I squinted, peering at the faded blue text:
This time the truth was actually clear: this was no illicit sexual rendez-vous for my passengers; nor was the “package” they were here to claim anything they planned to insert nasally. They were here to procure that which their lovemaking evidently could not yield: a little girl, or at least the beginnings of one, cryogenically frozen in a tube, right here on Avenue Z.
Just then the couple emerged, walking very slowly and very close to one another, cradling a tiny box between them. They climbed silently back into the taxi, and I quietly eased us back into drive and proceeded back towards Manhattan.
I looked back at the couple in the rear-view again. They held the small parcel gingerly between their laps, staring down at it together, their foreheads leaned against one another.
“Hi little Sandra,” they would whisper periodically. “You’re almost here baby girl.”
The meter read $96 when we returned to the Gansevoort Hotel — it was indeed the best fare I’d ever received.