I never saw myself as someone who’d work in corporate America. I always figured I was far too bohemian for that; that I’d live the adventurous vagabond life of a gypsy artist. Then my school loans came due and into Corporate America I went. Oh I’m not miserable—this isn’t one of those stories of dreams deferred or compromises that robbed me of my passion. Quite the opposite.
I enjoy my job and yes it pays my bills, but what I really love is that it allows me to write. That’s the dream and I’m doing it every day. For that, I am eternally grateful. Still, marketing was never what I set out to do with my life and I dug my heels in the sand for months before I caved and went in for an interview. After my first pay-the-bills job in New York came to an end due to departmental restructuring, I entered the wild terrain of freelance work, something that panned out for a while. I enjoyed the freedom that freelancing provided in terms of being available to go to photoshoots for my magazine and to travel when I wanted, but the minute-to-minute aspect of freelancing—the aggressive floating question marks about where my next paycheck would come from—was not something I was cut out for. Many evenings, I’d see the approaching bills coming due and I’d endure full-on panic attacks in my apartment. I twitched both physically and emotionally, my breathing becoming so sputtered I had to coach myself, “Breathe in. Breathe out.”
In eighth grade, I had to have surgery when I accidentally broke my leg and once I was out of the cast, I had to teach myself how to walk again. The muscles in my leg were clueless after having been torn and sewn back together, so after attempting to walk across my bedroom on autopilot and failing, I had to coach my muscles back to functioning. I counted aloud, slowly taking each step as I commanded myself to do so. “Right foot, left foot, right, left, right, left.” Mid-freelance-panic-attack, I felt like that eighth grade kid trying to reteach himself to function. This phenomenon worsened in the weeks I sat waiting and wondering when I’d finally get paid for work I’d completed months earlier. One thing was very clear—at that phase of my life, freelancing was not a healthy option for me or my hairline.
So, after months of putting it off because of my preconceived fears of Corporate America, I finally accepted the invitation from my freelance agency to interview for what would become my permanent position. Years later, I’m thankful I’m still here, I no longer twitch at the thought of my bills being paid, I have a routine I very much like, and I’m able to do what I really love: write.
One of the perks I didn’t foresee being a part of the Corporate America stronghold is the annual office holiday party, a boozy affair with an endless supply of food and casual conversations that teeter the line between work and personal. It’s a nice few hours of inclusive generic holidaying but after a while, I’m ready to clock out. Parties aren’t as much fun when you’re with people you only relate to on a work level so I tend to eat my fill, have a couple drinks and then excuse myself to go home and party in my own way—by watching TV.
One year, after I’d had my fill of the party, I walked outside to find a crisp, cool evening air had settled upon New York. Winter nights are some of my favorite in this city; the cold air brings a clarity that can’t exist in the heavy humidity that gets trapped in the gridded streets. Walking to 8th Avenue, I hailed a yellow cab and plopped down in the backseat.
Cabs, on the whole, are formulaic. They mostly look the same, are outfitted in the same trappings and are a reasonably comfortable way to get to your destination. They’ve been modernized for credit cards and touchscreens now play news reports far too loudly for the inside of a car, but they’re all relatively the same. This cab, however, was not.
Immediately upon sitting down, I froze. My eyes darted around the cab and though I wasn’t drunk, not even slightly, I felt disoriented. This wasn’t a typical yellow cab at all. The inside was strung up in twinkle lights that glowed in vibrant hues of pink, purple and orange. In front of me, two fish bowls were wedged between the headrests of the front two seats and the Plexiglas partition that separated me from the driver. One bowl was small, containing a single beta fish with her flowy iridescent fins billowing in the water. The other was much larger and held four smaller fish, each with speckles of black, peach and gold in their scales. The bottom of the bowls were illuminated by white lights, allowing the neon green, pink and purple stones at the base to glow like Pandora at night. My eyes struggled to keep up with it all and they spun like pinwheels during a thunderstorm.
“Where to?” the driver asked, probably for a second or third time. My trance broke and I told him where my apartment was and to not take the highway but to take the avenue instead.
Cabs are a luxury in the city. They may not seem that way, but when I was new to New York, they were a luxury I could mostly not afford. I was making enough to almost pay my bills on time and the twenty dollars I’d spend on cab fare would be better spent on things like eating or electricity. However, another blissful perk of my Corporate America desk job was the financial breathing room which allowed for the occasional cab to squire me to my front door in lieu of the subway.
Usually, when I’m in a cab, I watch the city as it drifts by my windows, allowing myself to take in as much of the life outside as I can. New York is a astonishing place and there’s no shortage of things to see and people to witness. But on this ride, I couldn’t take my attention off of what was happening inside the cab. Next to the large fishbowl sat sparkling orbs that seemed to catch every streetlight and multiply it into webs of shimmers that danced on the cab doors. In the window between the front seats, shoots of live bamboo reached from the console to the ceiling, illuminated in brilliant green by multiple sets of twinkle lights.
On the dashboard sat two glass balls illuminated from the inside by pink electricity, glass figures of stars and birds and suns, and a plastic Apatosaurus who ruled over them all. But the spectacle wasn’t relegated to simple lights and figurines. The driver, Mohammed, had positioned a digital projector face-up on the middle console to project videos of light shows and laser beams onto the roof of the cab. It was a fully sensory experience, equally marvelous and intriguing, and I got lost in it.
Mohammed had been playing disco music when I sat down, specifically a string of hits by Cher. I sang along with “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and double-clapped in the chorus of “Dark Lady” before “Believe” came on. His music selection was as bright and shiny as the accoutrements in his cab and I loved him for that. As “Believe” ended, I waited to hear which Cher song might play next but was surprised when the next song wasn’t Cher at all. Rather, the calm opening vocals of “I Love You, Always Forever,” by Donna Lewis played out through the speakers.
In the span of a moment, a warm feeling overtook my body and it felt as if my entire existence exhaled. I drifted back to eighth grade when I’d lie in bed at night and quietly listen to the radio as I fell asleep. I had a penchant for loud music and since my room and my parents’ room shared a wall, I had to have the radio on as softly as possible. Somehow, this song routinely played as I lay staring at the ceiling fan spin its circles above me. It became part of my soundtrack at that point, a wax stamp to commemorate that moment and that feeling. I was leaving one phase–junior high–and entering a new one–high school.
There was no way for this cab driver to know that this, more than so many others, was a song of deep and lasting meaning to me. There was no way for him to know how that song had been marbled into my life but here it played and I cracked the window to let the cool air in as I sat back in my seat.
Some people find God at the altar, some during meditation and some in a doctor’s office, but I’d argue I was experiencing as much of a god-moment in the backseat of that cab as anyone has ever experienced. The odds were 13,587 to 1 that I’d end up in that cab that evening and the chances that the city’s most lovely driver, Muhammad, would play that specific song are incomputable. Yet all the pieces and chances and happenstances converged in one very real, very meaningful, divine appointment.
Driving up Amsterdam, as the song played on, I was finally able to notice the world outside my technicolor taxi dreamscape. The roads looked like the adorned branches of a Christmas tree, lined with twinkling lights and ornaments in the form of cars and people and disco balls in bars. As the cool air poured over my face and the goldfish swam, as the electric orbs glowed with pink lightning and the lights of life whizzed by—all seemingly marshalled by Mohammed and his dashboard Apatosaurus—I smiled a most Julia Roberts sort of smiles. If there was ever a time when someone was at their most Julia Roberts, this was it, and a tear actually fell down my right cheek. All I wanted that evening was to get home and avoid sitting on a subway but what I got instead was an enchanted ride of pure bliss.
The song ended right as we pulled up to my apartment like a perfectly timed blackout, but before I got out of the car, my curiosity got the best of me and I leaned forward. “Sir, I have to ask. Why do you do this to your cab?”
He smiled and said, “For you! I want you to have the best cab ride of your life.”