The following is a guest piece by Bob Grand. ‘Grape Juice’ takes a young Bronx boy on a journey with his cousin Arthur, a cab driver, around Manhattan and the city. Hope you enjoy this glimpse into the past as much as we did!
By Bob Grand
Cousin Arthur lived in 1356 Sheridan Avenue, the building next to mine. He was tall, with long, spindly legs and a paunchy stomach. His long nose widened out near the tip, and he had deep, lively brown eyes and a booming voice. He always had a cigar in his mouth or near at hand. Cousin Arthur loved a good joke. Whenever he heard one he’d laugh long and deep and loud.
Cousin Arthur owned a taxicab. He used to say that his taxi was his office and that all his customers came to visit him. The first cab I remember was a bright yellow 1946 Chrysler with white-wall tires. Every Sunday morning he’d come down to the street with a bucket and sponge to wash and wax the cab. During the week he’d always wipe it clean. Even after snowfalls, when other cars had slush caked up in and around the wheel wells and street grime along the doors, Arthur’s taxi was always gleaming when he left for work in the morning.
Almost every Saturday, from when I was six until I was about nine, Cousin Arthur took me to work with him. I sat next to him in the front seat, perched atop two pillows. He drove across the Triboro Bridge and down the East River Drive into midtown Manhattan. The river split the sun’s reflection into a million tiny bright stars. Cars looked like toys darting across the old Queensboro Bridge in the distance. Sunlight flashed off the silver bodies of huge airplanes on their way in and out of LaGuardia Airport across the river in Queens.
“Were you ever on an airplane,” I once asked him.
“Do you think they’re safe?”
“Sure. They can get you places fast.”
“Far away places it would take forever to drive to.”
“Yup, like California.”
Whenever we were near the Empire State Building and Cousin Arthur didn’t have a fare, I’d ask him to stop so I could get out and look up at it. It was so tall that I could never see the top from the taxicab’s window.
“I learned in school that it’s the highest building in the world.”
“Tallest building,” Cousin Arthur said. “Shelves are high. Buildings and people are tall. Would you like to see what used to be the tallest building?”
He drove down to Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue and pointed at a triangular shaped building. It appeared to be about twenty-five stories tall.
“That’s it. It’s called the Flatiron building.”
“It’s so short,” I said.
“Compared to what’s in the city now, it is short. Years ago, when it was built, it was the tallest.”
“In the world?”
“I’m not sure. In America, though, for certain.”
We often drove up Fifth Avenue past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cousin Arthur driving slowly, weaving through the busy lunchtime traffic. Fifth Avenue was crowded with strollers window-shopping on the sidewalks, cars and the old double-decker buses crowding the avenue. Every store had chic window displays.
Fifth Avenue in the 1940’s
I loved going through Central Park. Families and lovers picnicked on the grass under sunny blue skies. It was like an oasis in the middle of the granite city. Bicycle riders were out in numbers on the park drive, and horse-drawn carriages conveyed tourists through the park and the streets around it.
Cousin Arthur always cautioned me not to ask questions when he had a fare. When he picked someone up they often asked him who the cute kid was. He’d tell them that I was his apprentice. He told me that he always got bigger tips on the Saturdays I was with him.
One rainy Saturday morning at about nine o’clock, Cousin Arthur got off the East River Drive at 71st Street. At First Avenue a woman flagged him down.
“First fare of the day a minute off the Drive. That’s a good sign,” he said.
The woman was young, twenty-five or so. Her blond hair was sticking out from under a kerchief. She wasn’t dressed for the heavy rain. She was wearing a lightweight brown suit. She didn’t have a coat on, nor did she have an umbrella. She was carrying a package about the size of a hatbox. It was wrapped in rain-soaked brown paper. When she opened the door to get in, I caught a glimpse of her face. She was crying. Her left eye was half-closed and black and blue, and blood was trickling from the corner of her mouth.
When she sat down, I was still turned halfway toward the back seat. I watched her put the package on the floor and reach into her pocketbook. She took out a handkerchief and began to wipe her face. She was trying to wipe away the tears, but some of the blood from her mouth rubbed off onto her face. Cousin Arthur nudged me with his elbow, and I turned back around to face the front of the cab.
She sat in the back seat crying and sniffling, and didn’t say a word until Cousin Arthur asked her where she wanted to go.
“Anywhere. Just away from here.”
He flipped the flag down to start the meter and began driving west on 72nd Street.
“I can see you’re upset, Miss, but unless you get somewhere and take care of yourself you’re gonna get sick.”
“What are you, my father or something,” she barked. “I’ve got plenty of money, so just keep driving.”
“Sorry. You’re the boss.” He made a sour face and looked over at me and shrugged his shoulders a little. We drove around for more than half an hour, down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, then back uptown into the fifties. Cousin Arthur was starting to drive back downtown again. The only sounds in the cab were those coming from the windshield wipers sweeping across the front window and the lady sniffling in the backseat.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you before,” she said. “I just had a really tough time. I’d tell you about it if the kid wasn’t here, ‘cause I could sure use someone to talk to, but the only person I know in New York is my boy friend, and he just beat me up. I walked out on him.”
“No apology necessary. I’m sorry for your troubles, but you can’t just keep driving around all day. There must be someplace you can go.”
“Not really. I don’t know anyone here except that louse. I’m from Toronto.”
“How about a church,” Cousin Arthur suggested. “There’s a neighborhood church in the Twenties. Nice parish for tourists. They’re used to dealing with problems.”
“I’m not religious.”
“You don’t have to be religious. It’ll give you someone to talk to.”
“I can’t talk to a priest after the mess I’ve made out of my life. I’m not a nice person, really. My boyfriend is a married man. I caught him cheating on me.”
“Please, Miss, the kid…” Cousin Arthur said.
“Sorry, I forgot. I told you I’m not a nice person. Okay, take me to the church. I don’t want to see a priest, but maybe I can sit there and sort things out. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. My whole life is a mess.” She started crying again. Cousin Arthur drove to the church on 29th Street right off 5th Avenue and parked outside. “We’re here, Miss.”
She looked out the window and read aloud from the sign that hung outside the church: “The Little Church Around The Corner.”
“Oh, God,” she said, “ I really don’t want to go in there. Just drop me at the Astor Hotel.”
“Are you sure? You gonna be all right?”
“I’m not sure of anything right now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be all right. Take me up to the Astor, please.”
It was a little after ten by now. The rain had let up. Cousin Arthur drove up to the Hotel Astor on Broadway between 44th and 45th streets and pulled over to the curb.
“You’re not gonna do anything foolish now, are ya miss?”
“No, don’t worry. Thanks for your help. How much do I owe you?”
She reached into her pocketbook. “I only have four dollars and forty cents in cash. But I can write you a check.”
“Listen, Miss, go home. Use the money to get another cab to take you to LaGuardia, and use your check to get the first plane to Toronto. You must have some family or friends there, right?”
“Right. Thanks.” She got out of the cab and disappeared into the crowd.
Cousin Arthur turned to me and smiled. “I had a feeling something like this was going to happen. Maybe she was in trouble, or maybe she played me for a sucker, Bobby. What do you think?”
“I don’t know, Cousin Arthur. Aren’t you mad?”
“Nah. If she was in trouble, I did a good deed. If she played me for a sucker, I lost an hour and a couple of bucks. It won’t make us poor. Besides, the day can only get better, right?”
He answered his own question. “Right,” he said.
On the Saturdays we were together, Cousin Arthur always took me to lunch at the Belmore Cafeteria on Park Avenue South around 28th Street. He told me it was the “unofficial official” New York cab drivers’ restaurant. There were a lot of taxicabs parked and double-parked on the street.
The air inside the cafeteria was heavy with tobacco smoke. There was an ongoing din of conversation and the constant clattering of dishes and clinking of glasses and silverware in the background. It seemed as though someone was coming in or leaving through the revolving doors at the entrance every second.
Arthur’s cab driver friends were there. Among them were his best friend, Duke, and Mousy and Chink. They called him “Archie.” We always sat with them. They chattered loudly and amiably about their experiences with fares during the week. They talked about their longest and shortest trips, where they had gone, their tips, and some of the oddball characters they’d had as fares. Every Saturday they had fresh stories to tell about their newest experiences.
Duke told about the guy he drove all the way out to Coney Island one cold February morning.
“I picked him up on 42nd and 3rd, right outside the Automat. The guy is wearing this real heavy overcoat, and it’s really bulky, like he’s probably got two sweaters under it. He’s got a wool scarf wrapped around his face, and one of them wool ski hats pulled down to his nose. With all that stuff on, he’s still shivering.
“’Take me to Brooklyn,’ he says.
“’Brooklyn’s a big place,’ I says.
“’Where in Coney,’ I asks him.
“’Just go over to the beach. I’ll show you when we get there.’
“So I start driving. I look at the guy in the rear view mirror. The guy’s teeth are chattering. I’ve got the heat up full blast, and it’s so hot in the cab that I’m sitting there in shirtsleeves. But this guy’s shivering, and his arms are wrapped around his chest. I though he was gonna croak on me.
“Anyways, we finally get to Coney, near the beach, and the guy asks me to pull over a few blocks past Nathan’s Famous. He gets out of the cab and starts to walk towards the beach.
“’Hey,’ I yell at him, ‘where the heck are you going?’
“He looks back over his shoulder at me and yells out, ‘Just wait for me. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Keep the meter running.’
“I mean, it was freezing out there. Must have been twelve or thirteen degrees, probably worse down by the water. The guy looks like an okay Joe, so I figured he’d be back. But I keep my eyes on him, just in case. I mean, he seems okay, but he sure as hell seems nuts, too. And the guy really turns out to be a nut case. Remember how I told you he was still freezing in the cab with the heat way up? Well, he walks up to the water’s edge, where there’s about twenty guys standing around in bathing suits freezing their nuts off. Christ, I could hear their teeth chattering all the way from my cab.
“Anyway,” Duke continued, “my guy gets out on the beach with them and starts to take off his clothes. Everything- the ski hat, the overcoat, the sweaters, the scarf. Damned if he doesn’t strip down to a bathing suit like the rest of them. Right after he strips off his clothes, the whole bunch of weirdoes goes running into the ocean. They stay in the water for about three minutes, and then they come out screaming at the top of their lungs, but screaming like a football team that just won, you know what I mean? They towel off, get dressed, and everyone goes off in different directions. My guy comes back to the cab. His hair is like frozen rope, he’s bug-eyed, and he’s shaking all over.
“’How much is on the meter,’ he asks me.
“’Get in,’ I says. ‘I got the heater on. Come on and warm up before ya freeze to death.’
“So what do ya think the guy says to me? ‘Nah,’ he says, ‘it’s a nice day out, so I think I’m gonna walk for a while.’”
Duke mimicked the guy. “’I think I’m gonna walk for a while,’ the guy tells me. Can you imagine that? So he pays me the three-fifty fare, plus lays a fiver on me for a tip, and takes off walking down the beach. So, what do you guys make of that? Some fare, huh?”
Chink cracks up. “That’s them Polar Bear Club guys,” Chink says. “They do this every winter. They’re a real bunch of loonies. That’s a doozie, Duke. What a story,” and Chink started to laugh again. He laughed so hard he couldn’t stop for about a minute.
Cousin Arthur looked over at Duke. “Yeah, the guy was a nut case. But you’re even loonier, Duke.”
“I’m loonier?” Duke says. “Whaddya mean, Archie?”
“Duke,” Cousin Arthur said, with a perfectly straight face, “you should of collected the tab before the guy got into the water. He could have had a heart attack, or froze to death, and you woulda been out three-fifty. So whaddya make of that, Duke, huh?”
Everyone at the table howled.
One Saturday, after we’d dropped a fare off on Wall Street, Cousin Arthur said, “Let’s spend this tip on a treat.” He took me to a little hole-in-the-wall deli that had a window counter facing the street.
“Two Welch’s grape juices,” he told the guy behind the counter. The guy brought out two small bottles with pictures of purple bunches of grapes on the labels and a dark purple liquid inside.
“Robbie, this stuff is strong and sour. It’ll make your lips pucker up. But it’s good for you.”
I followed his lead, twisting off the little white cap and raising the bottle to my lips to drink from it. He was right. It made my lips pucker. But I liked it, and told him so.
“Good for you, Robbie. Now you’re a man.”
In the years that followed, my Saturdays were more and more spent hanging out with my crowd. Cousin Arthur and I never got to spend any more of them going downtown together.
About Bob Grand:
Bob Grand was born in the Bronx in 1938. He lived at 1348 Sheridan Avenue until 1959. For the outlandish rental of $ 65 per month they had a three bedroom one bath apartment in which, for the first ten years of his life, Bob lived with six other people – his Mom’s two sisters, his mom and dad, his older brother, and his widowed grandfather.
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