The hotel calls a cab for me, which arrives promptly. Early, in fact.
My host escorts me from the ballroom where I've just concluded a talk, through the lobby, and out to the curb where the taxi awaits on a gorgeous Friday afternoon.
My escort and I shake hands, ultimately man-hug, and off he goes as I turn my attention to the cab driver who has popped the trunk. Oddly, though, once the trunk is open, he hops back in the cab.
Hmmm. That's sorta rude.
Self-service, I guess.
Undeterred, I heave my rolling bag into the trunk with one hand, close it with the other, gather my squirrelly posters under one arm, toss my shoulder bag across the backseat, and slide in.
And vroom, off we go.
Within seconds, he is singing at the top of his lungs. Wailing, really.
He's a small fella, maybe 5' 5", with obnoxious Bono sunglasses that hide a third of his face. He has wavy black Elvis hair, black button-up shirt, and blue jeans. He's probably 40 with deep dimples that remind me of some soap opera actor.
With his left hand out the window, he is conducting an imaginary orchestra. Thumb and index forming an O, palm out, flick, snap, twist. His right hand is struggling to drive, inconvenienced by doing so, what with the feverish tapping, thumb-drumming, snapping and so forth that is required by this apparent anthem.
The wild, whooshing air is blowing through four open windows, and I'm an afterthought to this possessed, soprano-ing man-banshee en route to hell.
"Oh dear," I think to myself, "this is going to be one long ride."
But then, after a few beats and bars, something miraculous happens: I actually recognize the upbeat riff from 2008's Slumdog Millionaire.
"Jai Ho," I whisper to myself.
He stops mid-scream, bolts upright, whips his head 'round so fast I thought it was gonna snap plumb-off his shoulders and shouts, "You know Jai Ho?" (It's not really a question, though, coming more in the form of a revelation—and delivered accordingly.)
"Jai Ho. Sure, I know it. Slumdog Millionaire."
He is beyond jubilant. Words do not suffice. I simply cannot describe his countenance and behavior. He is now euphoric, rapturous, even happier than when singing.
With a smile so wide it tears at his cheeks, he stares at me and says, "No one knows Jai Ho. How you know Jai Ho?"
"I love movies," I say. The universal language of cinema, I think.
"Latika!" he growls. "You know Latika?"
"Of course," I reply, recalling the female lead in the film. "She was beautiful."
"Latika, Latika, Latika," he announces to the world. Hilarity ensues. He is laughing uproariously, hands waving and dancing about, his head bobbing and bounding as if he's found water after a week's thirst.
"Where are you from?" I ask.
"Mumbai. Then Queens."
"What brought you here?"
"My Latika," he says.
Wow, I think. He found his Latika. That's awesome.
I mine for more, awaiting his love story, but then he says, "Ex-wife."
"Ex-wife? I don't understand. You moved here for your ex-wife?"
"She was not my ex-wife then!" he exclaims, still bobbing and laughing and dancing in his seat.
We are weaving through traffic like a video game, everyone else seemingly in reverse while we pulse along at forty through downtown snarls.
"We are divorced now. I go home soon. No more games."
"How did you meet her?"
And so it goes for several minutes. My curiosity and confusion, his broken English, and our slapping meaning together brick by brick, often through arcane movie references, Bollywood and Hollywood converging as one.
At first, when the unattended, yawning trunk greeted me, I hadn't liked this fellow very much.
And then, the singing.
But then, Jai Ho, and we were off. Laughing and commiserating about one thing or another like two boys do.
Now, we had ebbed again, in light of what I thought was a rather cavalier way to think about marriage. He made it sound so transactional, disposable, like a lottery ticket expired. He'd found her online, moved to America, it hadn't worked out, and off he'd go, soon enough, back to India to fish again.
But he was extraordinarily charming. He had studied Economics, once worked at Compaq, then—to hear him tell it—had ditched working "for the man," as it were, equating full-time employment with "slavery of another kind. Too many games."
Life, apparently, seemed to have many games, marriage and employment among them.
Oy vey, what to do, what to do.
But then, another surprise.
As we were visiting, his cell phone rang.
He was exceedingly polite, kind, tender-hearted with his caller.
"Yes. Yes. Yes. Twenty minutes. I will be there, do not worry. We will make it." His voice so chirpy and sing-songy I could listen to it all day long.
As he hung up, I inquired. I just had to. Normally I wouldn't. But he seemed game. "Is everything okay? Do you have a fare you're late for?"
"No, no," he says. "No one else will drive him, so I do."
"He is in a wheelchair. Other side of city. He has no money. Appointments. I drive him for free 3 to 4 days a week."
"Wow," I say, "that's a really nice thing to do."
"Sure. Well. I would hope someone would do it for me, no? I take care of him; help him. Maybe someone will pray for me some day."
At which point I am stopped in my tracks.
"Pray for you?"
"Sure. He cannot pay me, so maybe he will pray for me."
"How much is his fare?"
"$38," he says.
He knows it by heart.
He does it all the time.
His mind appears to wander for a moment, drifting to another place. Praying perhaps. Or wondering.
And with this proclamation, he is back: "Karma," he says.
"What about karma?"
"I do good, maybe good things happen to me."
If only it worked that way, I think to myself. And also glad it doesn't.
"Well, it's a really nice thing you're doing. I think it's just great."
"Thirty-eight dollars is not so much. If I do it for him, I'm not poor. If he paid me, I'm not rich. I'm same."
"I'm same," I repeat, as if I'm hearing a philosophical mantra for the first time. A chant I can visualize cross-legged monks repeating over and over again in some faraway hilltop monastery. Transcendence by way of perspective. Material neutrality by way of selflessness. The tributaries flow for several seconds....
And like him before, I find that we are now both deep in thought.
The sing-songy way he said, "I'm same" is a lilt in my mind.
He continues, his left hand riding a wave that appears to permeate the windshield. "Flow like water. God will sort it out."
Huh. A surprisingly seamless juxtaposition and combination of east and west, yin and yang, this and that to create his sweet marmalade.
Just then, his horrifically annoying squawk box squealed to life as the dispatcher made some sort of terse announcement.
The cabbie snorts and guffaws.
"See? Karma!" he howls.
"Karma?" I ask. "What happened?"
His sedan is floating on a cushion of air as we coast into the airport and approach the entrance for my departure gate.
"I have co-worker," he says. He raises both hands in the air and balls them into fists and shakes them. "Bully. A bully. He takes good fares. He had a $200 fare. Would have been mine, but I lost it."
"Wheelchair. Will be getting man in wheelchair."
"But dispatch says $200 fare has cancelled. Got a ride with someone else."
As it turns out, the bully had apparently usurped my driver (poaching his fare while he prepared to perform his Samaritan act of altruism), only to arrive at the pick-up location and depart empty-handed because the impatient customer caught a ride with someone else. Out the two-hundred bucks as a result.
It had apparently become a rather good afternoon after all, and my driver wore the beautiful expression of vindication like the Joker wears lipstick.
The tires squealed us to a stop, he threw it into neutral, bounded to the trunk like Tigger...Gollum's happy twin...Disney's Quasimoto...or Frankenstein's Igor (as played by Marty Feldman)...enthusiastically grabbing my bag and walking me all the way to the door.
In fifteen minutes we'd covered nearly five miles in heavy traffic. I paid him my fare, a generous tip, and handed him two twenties and said, "For driving the other man."
He stood before me, a few paper bills in his hand, fanned-out like cards.
With tears in his eyes, he looked up and hugged me.
"It's okay," I whispered.
"I will pray for you," he says. "What is your name, so I can pray for you?"
"Blake," I said, and he told me his.
"Poor, rich, same," I chuckled.
"Karma," he said, and the maestro turned to walk back to his cab, a surprising carriage filled with hope and overflowing with music, one destined for a very important passenger waiting on the other side.