Don't we wish New York cabbies were all as kind and forgiving as this one is to Don Cragen....
By Raye Duncan
The sky was gray and threatened rain, but it had held back all morning. Donald Cragen strolled along the sidewalk, not really sure of where he was going. He was consumed by restlessness; the kind of nervous energy that seemed to build up in him more and more since the death of his wife. It kept him awake nights, it stretched his days in to long hours trying to focus on work and wishing that the time would pass quickly, though it never did.
Burying himself in his work provided some comfort, but only to an extent. Help yourself by helping others, isn't that how the saying goes? He sighed deeply. It was not enough, would never be enough. Nothing would fill the void left by Marge's absence. He remembered her funeral, and how Marie Greevey had tried to comfort him. Her sentiments were as useless to him as his had been to her at Max's funeral. He knew how she must've felt, with everyone looking so sorry, and mumbling "If there's anything I can do..." But there was nothing anybody could do. Marge was dead; she was just -- dead. At least, he thought, when Max was killed they could arrest the bastard who shot him and throw him in jail. Marge had died in an accident. It was frustratingly random. There was no one to blame, not even the pilot, not the airline, not the mechanics who worked on the plane. It was an unavoidable accident, a random event, an act of God. And God, Don had learned in his years on the force, never stood accountable for anything.
Suddenly Don felt very, very tired. Though he had only traveled a few blocks, he felt as if he couldn't take one more step. He stepped off the curb and hailed a taxi.
He climbed inside the cab, and was almost shocked to find that his driver was not only American, but a very attractive young woman. She turned and smiled at him as he got comfortable.
"Not for nothing, miss," he said as they pulled away from the curb, "But what are you doing driving a taxi? It's not exactly..."
"Glamorous? Safe?" She glanced at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. "A suitable job for a woman?"
"All of the above," he said.
She nodded, an almost sheepish grin spreading across her face. "Yeah, well... it pays the bills. So, where can I take you?"
You can take me anywhere, gorgeous. He thought, and was immediately surprised at himself. But she was very attractive, he reasoned with himself, and it was just that he was still used to thinking like a married man. It was more difficult for him not to. Every little thing that reminded him Marge was gone was a milestone...packing away her things, cooking dinner for one -- which was why he found himself eating fast food more often...
"Hello?" He snapped back into focus to find her staring at him in the rear-view. "Your destination, sir?"
"Oh, sorry," he said, "I was, uh, I'm not sure where I want to go, really."
"Existential crisis," She smiled, becoming beautiful. "I see a lot of that in my field."
He looked at her for a moment before realizing she'd been joking with him. Then her eyes met his, and he heard himself chuckle. He glanced at the license on the dashboard. The photo was of an olive-skinned man in his mid thirties.
"I'm assuming your name isn't Ahmed." Don said.
"Ah, ya got me," she flashed that grin again, "It's not exactly my cab. Ahmed's a friend of mine, and he lets me borrow the cab sometimes to pick up a little extra cash."
"So, you got a day job?"
"Not exactly," she shrugged, "I do a little of this, little of that. Jack of all trades, like they say." She smiled coyly into the rear view. "You're not gonna tell on me, are you?"
He laughed, his dismal mood start to dissipate, "Not if I don't have a reason to."
"Tell you what," she grinned, switching off the meter, "Let's just go for a ride."
She drove for a while, and they chatted about the traffic, the Mets, the headlines... she was very laid back, and he found it was easy to talk to her without feeling pressured to find something interesting to say. Also, he enjoyed her sense of humor and the playful tone in her voice. After about twenty minutes in the back of her cab, he was in lighter spirits than he had been all week. He felt a sinking disappointment when she pulled over to the curb.
"Well," she said, "I do have to make some money today. At least so I can break even on gas." She turned around and patted the seat next to her. "Come on, move up."
This is nuts, he thought as he climbed into the front passenger seat. She smiled broadly at him and he decided, what the hell.
Sitting next to her, he could see that she was not only beautiful from the neck up. Her loose Mets jacket was unzipped, revealing a nicely filled-out Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. She wore faded jeans and a pair of dusty cowboy-style boots. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but a few errant strands framed her face. He had to remind himself not to stare, but if she noticed she didn't say anything about it.
Suddenly he realized he'd never even asked her name, nor had she asked his. He was riding along with a complete stranger. Suddenly he realized he wanted very badly to know her name, and to hear her say his. He could picture the way her mouth would move, her lips forming the word. Suddenly he realized that he was staring again.
"I'm Don," he said.
"Julia." She flashed that irresistible smile again. "Pleased to meet you."
He rode with her through the rest of the morning as she picked up fares, feeling relaxed in her company. The fact that she was many years his junior didn't escape him, but he chose not to make an issue of it, if only to himself. It wasn't as if she were a giggling, empty headed bimbo. They would get into varied discussions with the clients in the back seat, and Don was on more than one occasion impressed with Julia's seemingly endless wealth of knowledge. She spoke fluently on a range of subjects, some of which he himself knew very little about. He noticed she had a tendency to relate things to various works of literature. Perhaps she was a student? She certainly looked young enough. Her face was fresh, but her eyes, though always smiling, had an aged quality. They were eyes that had seen a lot. Her hands, too, were small but strong looking. She looked like a girl who was used to working and living hard.
He caught himself looking at her through what Marge had often called his "cop's eye." He couldn't help it; it was second nature. Marge had busted his chops about it once or twice when she'd caught him giving the look to friends she introduced to him, people at parties they'd gone to together.
Don felt a sudden pang of guilt. He had forgotten Marge altogether since he'd climbed in the cab, and somehow it seemed oddly like a betrayal. He stared out the window silently as Julia talked to the man in the back seat about Vietnam -- a war she was probably to young to remember. He blocked out their voices, and turned to thoughts of Marge. It was not out of fondness of memory, or even of grief, but almost as penance for having forgotten her -- forgotten himself -- even for just a little while.
He scarcely noticed when she pulled over to the curb and let the guy out. She merged back into traffic, sneaking glances at him. "You know," she said, breaking the silence, "You meet all kinds of people driving a cab."
"Yeah," he said absently. He wouldn't look at her. He wanted too badly to do so.
"It's funny how random it all seems," her tone of voice changed, became serious as she focused her eyes on the road ahead. "I'm a minute late, twelve seconds early...it can change how my whole day is gonna unfold. I see two guys hailing me. I pick up the first guy, I go home with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. But what if I pick up the second guy instead? I could wind up dead in the alley and some punk goes home with a couple hundred bucks in his pocket."
Don said nothing, continuing to look out his window, but his attention was fully focused on her.
"It seems like it's all random," she said again, "But then you look deeper. Time passes and you get a new perspective. What seemed so random and pointless suddenly has a reason behind it. And then you wonder if these things really happen for that reason, or if you're just using the turn of events to justify what happens to you."
"Take me for example," She paused, taking a breath, "If my mother hadn't died, I might've never come to New York looking for my father. And if I hadn't found him..." she trailed off, sinking into her own thoughts. After a moment she said, "Well, a lot of things have happened between then and now. And if it weren't for a lot of things that seemed pretty random, I wouldn't be here in this cab with you."
She pulled the car to a stop at a red light. Rain began to spatter on the windshield, and she flicked on the wipers. Don was keenly aware of the sound they made swiping back and forth.
"So what?" Don asked quietly, "You think that fate brought you where you are now, or circumstance?"
"Fate," she mused, "What a funny word... I think some things just randomly occur. But the important stuff has a way of working itself out through the chaos. I guess that's what fate is."
He turned to look at her. "Do you think it's fate that we're here now?"
"Well," she replied coyly, "Think about all the things that had to happen to bring you here."
"I'd rather not."
She smiled at him. The playful gleam in her eyes seemed to him as a facade, and behind it was a wellspring of warmth and compassion. No one had looked at him that way in a long time; he hadn't let them. He hadn't realized how much he missed that kind of contact. He leaned in and kissed her softly, on the mouth. She kissed him back, giving and taking, a slow passionate, resonant kiss.
The car behind them flashed its brights, and the sound of several horns blaring pulled them away from each other. "Green light," she laughed, and he laughed with her. He hadn't felt like this since he was a kid. He stole one more quick kiss before she turned her attention back to the road, and drove off into traffic. A man leaned out of his window and screamed obscenities as he passed them. "I love this town," Julia laughed. Her voice did not carry the slightest hint of sarcasm.
They drove in silence for a while, enjoying each other's company. Every once in a while, she would glance his way and catch him staring at her, but she would only blush and laugh a little, and then turn her gaze back to the road. He felt young in her presence, alive and vibrant. Though it poured down rain outside, for Donald Cragen, it was a sunny day in Manhattan. A million and one rationalizations for his feelings rushed to his mind, trying to bring him down, but he floated above them all. He chose not to analyze, not to reason, but to feel.
He stepped out of the cab a few hours later, half a block away from the station. He turned and leaned in the window to say good-bye. Julia reached out and squeezed his hand.
"Take care of yourself," she smiled.
"Same to you," he said, "Listen do you want to..."
"Yes and no," she cut him off, "Manhattan's a small island. Maybe we'll see each other again."
Don nodded, and straightened up out of the window. He watched her drive away until the cab turned a corner and disappeared from sight. He headed back towards work, preoccupied with thoughts of Julia. Beautiful, youthful Julia. He knew next to nothing about her, might never see her again, but all the same was very glad to have met her. He would always grieve for Marge, but he had not died with her, in whole or in part. He was alive, and he could now see an end to the self-imposed isolation that had enveloped him since his wife's death. It was not a great epiphany; there was no spectacle of realization sounding off whistles and bells in his mind. It was merely a quiet moment of lucidity, another small step towards closure.