A perfect stranger hailed me at 80th and East End Avenue about 3:30 a.m. He carried a stiff briefcase and looked important. Black hair streaked with gray, nice deep blue tie, black suit, white shirt, sturdy build, no glasses. Fit.
“Do you know how to get to Islip, Long Island?”
“Four-ninety-five to the Cross Island and down to the Southern State Parkway?” I asked. This was a new one. I had been there once in my life as a taxi driver.
“That’s the way. When you get on the Southern State, I will direct you the rest of the way.”
He was a distinguished-looking man in his early 40’s I supposed, and soft-spoken, probably old Irish, well-bred, probably Yale, Harvard, or Georgetown.
“This is my first night on the job in 23 years,” I said, glancing at him in the rear view mirror. I headed down Second Avenue and went through the Midtown Tunnel. Traffic was relatively light at that hour of a Thursday. The economy was still taking daily nose-dives, and bouncing back like a crazy ball for a week then plunging again, and people were staying home and learning leaner times. I thought it was a good thing overall.
At the toll booth, where I slowed in the EZ lane, he said, “Do you like driving a taxi?”
The question wasn’t new to me, so I had thought about it a lot.
“Actually, yes. I do like driving a cab, if I have to work at all. If I had my way I wouldn’t do it. But stuff happens and you either like what you do, or you will go nuts.”
He laughed appreciatively. His eyes were amused.
"Why for the first time in 23 years? What have you been doing?"
"That's an embarrassing question. I've been trying to figure that out too."
He laughed and leaned forward.
“But what do you do, really? You’re more than a taxi driver.”
“Thanks for noticing. I’m a struggling young writer.”
He laughed again, because I am 68 years old and my face looks it, though my body is trim.
“You must have had an interesting life.”
“I still have an interesting life.”
We rode in silence for awhile. The full moon was up, and autumn would soon be bare-branches and pre-Thanksgiving weather, cold enough to leave the salad dressing outside.
It really was my first day back on the job of driving a yellow taxi in New York in 23years. I was working for a medium-sized fleet in Brooklyn, horse-hiring the cab every day at outrageous rents, and paying exorbitant gas prices, but being behind the wheel again was a blessing, as I saw it, because, not only was it going to get me out of the eternal poorhouse, I had nearly paid in blood for the hack license, the issuance of which had become the most voracious money-making scheme ever imposed on a vital, working part of the population by an absolutely corrupt tyranny: New York City and Homeland Security.
I’m pretty direct and not at all bashful about starting up a conversation.
“What do you do?”l asked out of the blue.
“I’m in the market."
“Yes. How did you know?”
“The way you dress, your whole manner. Your briefcase. The hours you keep. Where you live. Out by the Brookings Institution, right? You’re a level above the predatory stock brokers.”
He laughed again. “Thanks. I’ll tell them you said that.”
“Please do,” I joked.
“Really. Go ahead. Tell them that. If you have their ear, tell them I said to stop being so greedy, and give some of it back to the poorest people in the country. In the world, too. And stop investing in war, and war materials.”
“I’ll tell them.”
It was my turn to laugh. The joke had gone on long enough. He laughed with me.
“Thank you,” I said, looking at him. He had a nice disposition.
“So how’s business?” I asked.
“Not as good as it was, but getting better.”
“But you haven’t fallen yet? You're not likely to.”
“How do you know?”
“When the bond market flops, everybody will be broke. It will be a full-fledged Depression.”
“You’ve got that right.”
“So, we are still okay, right?”
“What about the war?” I asked innocently.
“What about the war?”
“Terrible war. Who is making the money?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do. You have to know, because I know, and I am merely a taxi driver. Anybody who wants to read about it knows who is making the money. All these big giant industries, corporations, and the construction industry. The war munitions people. Northrop-Grumman, Boeing, Douglas, the oil monopoly, Wall Street, et cetera. All the big corporate entities, the auto industry, the airplane industry, the computer freaks, the integrated weapons people, the submarine and aircraft carrier people, the ones who make the bullets and bombs, the fighter jets and weapons we haven’t even heard of yet. They are the ones making the money out of these wars, and that is why they keep going on and on. Nobody wants to stop making so much money.”
He surprised me by saying, “Of course, you’re right. But on the other hand, we were attacked, and this is the Government doing this. Somebody has to make the arms, if you are going to sustain a war.”
“Well. I hate to sound preachy. But in the first place the war is morally wrong. Nobody can find a moral justification for killing an innocent person, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of innocent persons have been killed in this war and others like it, which never would have occurred, if we had not invaded, bombed, shot, and killed those people; or stirred others up to do it for us.”
“Did you study political science?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a high school dropout.”
“I wish I was.”
He was quiet and so was I. We had gotten this far, and I hadn’t even reached the Cross Island Expressway.
“In the second place,” I said after a mile or so, “This war cannot be won. The only thing it will achieve is spreading a war throughout the whole South Asia region, which inevitably will involve China, India, and Russia, and finally it will end in atomic war.”
“I hope you’re wrong.”
“I have no hope that I am wrong,” I said simply.
“It’s pretty cynical. On the other hand, the extremists will probably fail. The Taliban is very unpopular in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
“Yes, I know. So are we. But,kill enough of them and the threat will drop to an acceptable level of ineffectiveness. It’s the same old formula that human beings worked up before there were cities. Before there were atom bombs, too. It won't work in a world without borders and with non-state actors.”
“It is a very dangerous course,” he agreed. For a minute there, I had been afraid he would disagree.
"The Pashtuns have dominated that region called Pashtunistan for 13,000 years," I said.
“Think about this,” I continued. “Every nation involved in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War has nukes enough to destroy the world. All eight nuclear powers are involved one way or another, either directly, or indirectly.”
He thought about it.
“So the war cannot be won unless it is never fought, “ I continued. The only winners will be the millions of people who survived a possible disaster like the world has never seen. Imagine, millions of people nuked. Clouds of soot from burning cities ascending into the upper atmosphere to blast a hole through the Ozone Layer, get exposed to radiation, and fall back to the earth with the winds and rain. Imagine that.”
He fell silent and imagined it. I liked this guy, he was thoughtful, didn't simply dismiss what I had said, but actually thought about it.
“I don’t like to imagine that.”
“I don’t like to imagine it either,” I said. “But I can, and I do, and I’m afraid it is going to happen unless we get the military the hell out of there. Everybody’s military.”
“No. Not just leave. Pull all military units back from Pakistan and the hinterlands, and begin a massive road-building project employing only Afghans. Bring in millions of tons of armored road-building equipment, gravel, sand, concrete, rebar, wheel barrows, hoes, shovels , picks, everything, and dump tons of the stuff in every village and town in the middle of the main square, and let them fight over who is going to dispense it and how. Just give the people the tools and leave them alone. Build roads all over the country. Good roads. Bridges, sewer systems in the cities. Plant trees. Bring in millions of baby fruit trees native to the country and give them away for free. Re-plant the thousands of orchards. Get the fields planted for free. Dispense free wheat seed, free whatever-will-grow-there-and-help-the-economy-seed.”
“Pretty expensive,” he said. “Who is going to give away all this free stuff?”
“Who else? The United States government and its allies. What do seeds and construction materials cost compared with weapons and fielding soldiers to use them? The United States taxpayers who get taxed now to buy weapons to kill them with will pay for it. How much has that cost so far? A trillion dollars? At least. It costs nearly a million dollars now to field one soldier or marine. In WW II it was $50,000. And look, US firms will be selling this stuff to the government, so business will improve. Peaceful business.”
We were cruising at 60 on the Southern State before he spoke again.
“So we stop fighting al Qaida and the Taliban, and let them get stronger.” I told him they were getting stronger because we are fighting them.
“If you raise the economic standards of the country by building good roads and bridges, the Taliban will go home and start working, and there are fewer than 100 al Qaida in that country now, according to The National Security Advisor to the President of the United States.”
“Who said that?”
“General James Jones .”
“I hadn’t heard that.” I told him I had read it in the Times.
“So what do you do when you aren’t working?” I inquired.
I had to ease up on the politics. I could see that he didn’t talk about it all that much; at least not with taxi drivers. But he was not ignorant of what was going on in South Asia, I could see that too.
“You have a big sailboat?”
“A sixty-foot ketch.”
“It’s the life,” he said, settling back. He had been leaning forward to talk to me through the window of the bulletproof partition that I never closed.
“How far do you sail?”
“I’ve sailed to the Caribbean and to Iceland.”
“It was summer.”
“Still. It must have been rough.”
“It was. But I had a good crew.”
“Iceland was nice.”
I liked the way he said it. He sounded like me. I’ve been to a lot of places, and that is the same way I describe them, if I liked them. They were nice.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland,” I said.
“Go,” he replied. “Air fares are cheap now.”
“That’s an idea, but I’m thinking of going to Chile instead. I should have gone to Iceland when I was younger. I’ve been in the North Atlantic already. I’m going south where the better weather is.”
“That’s a good plan.”
We rode the rest of the way mostly in silence. I didn’t talk any more politics or war. Everybody including me is an expert these days. He told me some more about sailing, and said that he had gotten his first skiff when he was 12, and had sailed all over the Sound and north to Maine since then.
He directed me to a small mansion on a tree-shaded street in East Islip. The brick home was old. It had a slate roof and copper gutters, and was shrouded in large shrubs and surrounded by old trees. A light shone through white curtains in the living room window. I stopped at the driveway and asked if I should ascend it.
“No, this is good. I need the exercise,” he joked. The house was a hundred feet away uphill.
He paid the fare with a credit card and left me a sizable tip in cash. I thanked him and was getting ready to say goodnight and deadhead back to Kennedy for maybe one last fare, and he paused without opening the door.
“That’s an interesting line of thought about the major road-building,” he said. “But how would it work? Wouldn’t the Taliban be blowing it up as soon as we finished it?”
“It would only make them more unpopular," I said. "More likely it would bring some prosperity into their lives and give them some hope. As long as we quit shooting people I think they would tolerate it. The majority doesn't want the Taliban back. And look, Russia and America should pool a couple of trillion dollars to re-build Afghanistan, because after all it was our Cold War rivalry that wrecked the place. We owe it to them to give them the materials and tools they need to re-build the way they want, not the way we want. We should only build the roads so they can get around, put up some hospitals, leave a truck load of good money, and get out and try to be friends. And we should give them about a thousand small buses and hundreds and hundreds of trucks. Man, we leave that stuff lying around.”
Seeing he was interested, I continued.
“The military guards the convoys and road-builders. You build a road and then you get off it and go build more roads. Everybody working on the roads gets paid a decent wage, a living wage. We do not build schools. I cannot say that enough. The school problem will be worked out in Afghanistan when the people feel secure enough that they don’t want to stone any woman who shows her face. The women will straighten that out eventually, along the lines of their cultural customs and their own legislature. You are not going to turn a bunch of Islamic Afghans into Europeanized Christians and tell them how to treat each other. These people have been living together and working it out since before the Irish fought the Romans. You make sure that every village and town has enough cement, rebar, sand and gravel and lumber and the tools to mix it all up and build something, and leave them to do it however they want to do it.It will stimulate the construction materials industries and strengthen the minerals markets. You create an electrical grid and supply appliances to make their lives more comfortable. It is hard there.“
“Seeds and farm implements are especially important. Tractors for godsakes. John Deere can sell the government a million of them. If a farmer doesn’t have to buy his seeds and has good tools for a few years, he can make a decent profit and lift his family out of poverty. This is a liberalizing process. They will let up on the women, and the women will win back rights that they had for years before the Taliban was a notion."
“Tell the President,” I said.
“I will mention it. Anything else?”
“Yes,” I said quietly. “Tell him to first freeze prices, then give every adult man and woman in this country a million dollars. It will stimulate business. If he doesn't freeze prices first, bread will shoot up to twenty dollars a loaf overnight.”
That did make him laugh.
"What will you do with your million?"
"Move to Chile. What will you do with yours?"
"Sail around the world. It is an intriguing idea.” He stuck out his hand and we shook.
I thanked him again and we said our good nights. I watched him walk to the door and open it. It's my habit to wait, but it wasn't necessary in that neighborhood. When he was inside I drove away.
Maybe he would tell the President. You never know who is riding in your cab.