When Stereotypes Collide

Back in the summer of 1972, between my junior and senior year in college, I worked as a cab driver in New York City and tried on, however imperfectly, the role of hired guide through an extensive urban grid. I wasn’t prepared for the cab industry’s corruption, or the exhausting eight-hour stretches of traffic traffic traffic, or those occasions when a knife, or a gun, was pointed at me while driving through the city’s sometimes confusing vastness.

I especially remember the time I picked up a middle-aged couple at LaGuardia Airport, tourists from Houston who fit the stereotype of Texans so well I wondered if they were actors. The husband actually wore what looked like a ten-gallon hat, which he had to take off in order to enter the cab.

He rested the thing on his lap, while his wife slouched on the seat to prevent her very blonde beehive hairdo from scraping against the ceiling.

The man cast a suspicious look at me, and why not—in need of a shave and long overdue for a haircut, I probably came close to his stereotype of an unkempt New York hippy.

(My not-at-all off-putting taxi cab license photo from 1972)

Silently labeling the husband “Tex,” I asked him where they were going and eased forward from the taxi lane, trying to hide my glum spirits. It was the end of my first week driving a taxi, a disastrous time. Each cab I’d been given had broken down: the first night, a tire blew out; the second, the engine overheated and steam rose from under the hood in the middle of an intersection; the third, the horn wouldn’t stop blaring; and just the night before, my taxi had stopped and started unpredictably—a mysterious mechanical hiccup that chased every passenger away after a few blocks.

Fool that I was, I still hadn’t learned I had to pay off the people who serviced the cabs, if I wanted to be assigned a cab that would make it through the night. So all that evening I’d been anticipating the latest disaster that might strike. And sure enough, halfway back to Manhattan from the airport, a rainstorm hit hard on the expressway and when I turned on the wipers, only one blade moved. Of course it was the blade on the passenger side, so I had to crane my neck to the right in order to see the road at all. Even with the one wiper at full speed, I could barely make out the cars in front of me.

“Aw, fuck,” I moaned, then heard a sharp gasp from the back seat.

“Young man,” Tex began, in about as close to a shout as a whisper could get, “I won’t have you speaking like that in front of my wife.”

“Sorry, I’m really sorry, it’s just that the damn—”

I winced, apologized again and shut up, knowing that any tip was long gone, and did my best to get us into Manhattan without swerving into a traffic island or a truck. Then my real problems began. Tex had given me the address of the fancy hotel where they’d be staying—a number and the name of an avenue, but not the cross street. I still hadn’t perfected my knowledge of New York’s street grid, and though my official taxi street guide sat open on the front seat beside me, with all the distractions of the rain and that broken wiper I couldn’t manage to find what I was looking for.

Soon I circled the midtown block where the hotel should have been, lost. I knew Tex was fitting me into the category of predatory New York cabdriver trying to hike up the cost of the ride, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit my ignorance. And damn him anyway, for thinking I was a cheat.

When I finally located the hotel, Tex prepared to show his wife just what he was made of. He tore the suitcases I’d pulled out of the trunk from my hands and said, “Forget about getting paid for your little scam.”

With his wife in tow he walked off under the hotel canopy, that huge hat back on, his smug cowboy swagger at full strength. I might have let this pass—after all, it was my own fault that I still hadn’t memorized the pattern of New York cross streets—but I’d reached my snapping point.

“Stop, thief!” I shouted, and then, with real melodramatic pleasure, I appealed to the people passing by on the sidewalk, “That man’s trying to cheat me out of the fare!”

The crowd I’d hoped for quickly gathered, and Tex hesitated, his self-righteousness punctured, if only a bit—him, a thief? But the approaching doorman was my best ally—Tex didn’t want to start out badly at this nice hotel, so he pulled out his wallet.

“Here’s your money,” he roared with equal melodrama, throwing a handful of bills and coins that bounced harmlessly off my chest. We were so well matched that I almost laughed, but then he said, “I’m writing down your cab license. Once we’re settled here, I’m going to report you to your superiors.”

Minutes later, counting the money I’d picked off the street, I discovered he’d thrown a substantial tip at me along with the rest of the fare. A mistake? Or maybe an insult, I thought, his way of saying that the money didn’t matter to him. Still, it certainly wouldn’t offset my being fired.

I lost over an hour of work parked on a side street, stewing over that encounter while waiting out the rain. Later that night, when I returned the cab, I handed over my keys to the guy on the graveyard shift, Mitch, and waited to be told not to bother coming back. He set the keys on one of the hooks, and then turned with mild surprise to see me still standing by the glass window. “Yeah?”

He didn’t know. But why wait for the inevitable? “Um, I had this problem with a fare tonight, and he said he was going to report me—”

Mitch looked me over for a second with pity. “He reported you?” He paused, and then said, grinning, “Aaaah, fuck ‘em.”


Now, when I think back to that miserable rainy night, I realize that Tex and I were doomed to misunderstand each other, stereotypes on a collision course. We both wore, at the time of our encounter, cultural uniforms that we foolishly accepted as the other’s true self. I have to admit, I felt that two cartoon characters sat in the backseat of my cab. A ten gallon hat, really? A 1950s-throwback beehive hairdo? (Remember, this incident took place in 1972, seven years before the two lead singers of the B-52s made beehive hairdos ironically cool.)

And how did Tex and his wife regard me? Before traveling to LaGuardia airport, they had probably heard numerous tales of dishonest New York cab drivers (even I was familiar with such stories) and they braced themselves accordingly for anything suspicious. Immediately after deplaning, they must have realized they were out of place and felt that their Southern fashion style exposed them to muggers, pickpockets, and any other example of the Northerner criminal class, including dishonest cabbies. As they sat in the backseat of the cab, my scruffy looks and potty mouth must have confirmed their worst fears, and made it easy for them to ignore my dilemma of trying to navigate in heavy rain with only one working windshield wiper.

Sometimes, perhaps often, a uniform is indeed part of the self. But it’s not the only part. We wear what we wish to be, and perhaps too often we embrace beliefs that we think we are expected to accept. But our secret selves are not so conformist, and how we appear to others is not who we know ourselves to be. Our memories, our life’s experiences are invisible to those who pass us on the street.

One of the reasons I so admire the Italian writer Elsa Morante (author of History: A Novel, which I believe is one of the great books of the 20th century) is her ability to see the invisible realities of her characters.

Morante lived in Rome during World War II. She joined the partisans who fought Italian Fascists and German Nazis. Her life was probably in danger every day. She must have seen horrors that I’m guessing few of us would like to think about too closely. If there’s a writer who could perhaps be excused for being too, let’s say, partisan in her writing about the second world war in History: a Novel, Morante would be a good candidate. But Morante is a much, much better writer than that; in fact it’s one key to her greatness. Here’s a short passage from her novel’s account of an Italian partisan attack on a German convoy:

Suddenly flames rose from the truck, illuminating the lifeless bodies of the Germans on the asphalt: though disfigured, they could be recognized as young boys, of the most recent draft. The truck’s carcass danced for a while on its side then stopped . . . some raving voices were still heard from inside, murmurs of Mutter Mutter among other incomprehensible words. At the same time the fire raged; and finally that mass of metal, in its death agony, jerked and fell silent.

How easy it would be for Morante to incite the blood lust of the reader, because Nazis are dying here, which should be a call for celebration, shouldn’t it? But Morante almost always describes, here and elsewhere in the novel, German soldiers as young men or boys, often disoriented in a foreign country and fearful, even when their brutality is depicted. And when German soldiers die, she insists that we hear them call out in their pain for their mothers. Never does Morante objectify the Germans, any German, in her novel. That doesn’t mean she can’t judge, and judge harshly, but when she does so she does with a clear eye. And yet how hard it must have been, to achieve that vision.

Here’s another example of Morante seeing through appearances. Giovannino is a young Italian soldier, part of an Italian battalion that joined the German army’s invasion of the Soviet Union, an invasion that is now retreating in defeat and marching through punishing winter weather. Exhausted, Giovannino has fallen in the snow, and, unable to rise, imagines himself home and in bed:

Giovannino doesn’t know what’s coming over him. Now he doesn’t feel like doing anything but sleep. The open sunny light lasts another instant and immediately afterwards . . . it has become dark. There is a cool, restful, little evening breeze, which comes and goes, with a fan’s light movement. And before sleeping, Giovannino would like to curl up, as he always has enjoyed doing; except that his body, because of all the cold, has become so stiff he can’t bend any more. But at the same time Giovannino realizes, as if it were a natural thing, that he also has a second body which, unlike the first, is supple, clean, and naked. And, content, he crouches into his favorite position for lying in bed: with his knees almost touching his brow, huddled until a comfortable hole is hollowed out in his mattress beneath him; and as he nestles there, the dry leaves inside the mattress make a rustle, as if the wind were blowing them, summer and winter. This is the position he has always assumed to sleep, as a baby, as a little boy, and as a grown man; however, every night, at the moment he curls up in this way, he feels he has become tiny again. And indeed, little, big, grown up, young, elderly, old, in the dark we are all the same.

Here Morante sees through multiple uniforms: not only a soldier’s uniform, but the uniform of one’s particular age at any given time. Who doesn’t have a memory of being condescended to as a child, when in your heart you knew you understood more than the adults were willing to allow you? Or what of those who have been treated as someone old, or elderly, when in our hearts we felt young?

Seeing people in a single dimension is easy, all we have to do is turn off (or never turn on) our curiosity and empathy. How much harder in our lives, to insist on more than surface. And it’s just as difficult to create characters in fiction that reveal their additional dimensions. But imaginary beings also thrive when the balm of curiosity and empathy is applied to their possibilities.

Yet stereotyping lives on and probably always will, as it allows us to drive through our busy lives on automatic pilot. We type-cast others without reflecting on the cost. We barely notice how a little stereotype-mongering can help fuel a funny story told over a dinner table among friends or family. “Tex” and his wife are probably long gone by now, but I imagine that, somewhere in Texas, I live on in sinister, one-dimensional glory, as part of a famous tale that has been repeated over many years at various family gatherings: “Hey, remember when Grandpa and Grandma went on that crazy trip to New York, and how Grandpa showed that sleazy cab driver just who was boss?”


If you’d like to read how I finally discovered the secret behind why all those cabs broke down that first week of my cab driving career (and read a terrific excerpt from James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country), follow this link to this craft post, “You Got To Take Care of Your People.”


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