He picked me up at 2nd Avenue and 49th St. at 6 am, after my second night in New York City, waving me over almost hesitantly from across four lanes of traffic.
I ran over and got in. He was excited and asked where I needed to go. I fumbled the address because I am from Los Angeles, and this was my first time in New York since a 12th grade Model United Nations field trip. I mumble some excuses and pulled up Google Maps on my phone..
"Do not worry sir, just tell me the intersection and ill get you where you need to go. Actually, sir, you are my first taxi fare.”
I told him it was an honor and said “Midtown Hilton, 53rd, and 6th.”
He tried to start the meter but it beeped, showing an incorrect fare. He pushed some buttons, made a call, exhaled air through his nose, frustrated.
I told him not to worry and that I wasn’t in a hurry. He fixed it and we headed down 2nd Avenue.
Branna moved here from Alabama four months ago. He was working in a gas station and his boss got shot. He didn’t feel safe and fled, of all places, to New York, four months ago, settling in Jamaica, Queens.
I told him I was from Tennessee and often drove to Alabama for swim meets as a kid.
"Alabama, it’s not such a good place," Branna said, shaking his head.
I thought about how our impressions are so often the products of happenstance and timing and random chance, and rotten luck, at least for Alabama. But Branna likes New York, he says, how loud and fast it is.
I asked him if he had any family.
"Actually, sir, I’m alone out here."
His family was in Bangladesh, his wife and a daughter, 11, a boy, 6. He’s working here to save money to bring them over. He wants to get his tractor trailer license - the pay is much better. As for the taxi, he rents it from a garage, sets his own hours, pays for his own gas and keeps whatever’s left.
"Taxi driving is actually a very stressful job," Branna said.
I asked him if he knew any other taxi drivers that could help him learn the ropes. He said had several friends driving taxis.
"Actually sir, The two things that help me find my way out here are my friends and my GPS," showing me the glowing screen he holds in his lap."I call my friends if I get lost or if there’s complicated intersections."
He was an excellent cab driver, though I am no authority, so polite and fresh. I am sad to think of him losing those “sirs,” and his excitement, and that a corner of slight smile which I can see from the rear view mirror, sad to think of Branna pickling in the bitterness that seems to infect every other cab driver I’ve ridden with.
The lights of the city smeared themselves across my window, a pleasant, pearlescent haze.
"Your Hilton is up there, sir. Don’t worry, I will pull over somewhere safe."
I told him I wasn’t worried. The fare was 10 dollars. I tipped him 30 percent and gave him all my cash.
“Best of luck, man.”
“Thank you sir.”
I got out and an Asian guy in shorts and a visor gestures furiously in my direction.
Branna’s second fare.