Certain smells have the power to elicit powerful, lasting memories. For instance, whenever I smell strawberry chap stick, my mind automatically takes me back to 1984 when I tried to eat an entire stick of it before realizing that not only does chap stick not taste good (despite how great it smells), but once it gets all over your teeth it is impossible to shove back into the dispenser. And anytime I smell an atomic fireball, painful memories flood my mind of the time a wasp landed on the underside of my half-sucked fireball (that’ll learn me never to take the fireball out of my mouth because I’m too much of a wimp to eat it all at once) before stinging my tounge upon reentry.
Last night, I returned to Muzzarella Pizza on Avenue A for the first time since I was attacked by a junkie after eating there two years ago. I’d actually forgotten that Muzzarella was where I had eaten just before the incident, but as soon as the smell inside the tiny pizzeria hit me, it all came rushing back.
My friend Kate and I had been relaxing at Sweet Ups in Williamsburg, eating martini olives off the bar and drinking free fountain cokes that our friend Mo was serving. I was working that night, but it was a particularly slow Monday so my pit stop at Sweet Ups had turned into a full siesta. Kate needed a ride back to Astoria, so I told her that if she kept me company for a slice and one more fare, I’d take her home.
Maybe taking a tiny, pretty, young girl on a ride-along to the lower east side in the middle of the night wasn’t the best idea, but no one ever accused me of having common sense. So we grabbed our slice and cruised around for just a couple of minutes before I found a fare in front of Max Fish on Ludlow Street.
I should never have picked him up. He was carrying a skateboard and looked like an extra in Kids (but all grown up). He was wearing a red Yankee hat cocked to the side, and I hate when people use the Yankees to make a fashion statement. He probably couldn’t even name the first baseman. But I never got a chance to ask him.
As soon as he got in and saw Kate he slurred, “Yo girl, where you goin’ to?” I didn’t wait to see if Kate would be receptive to his grammatically incorect pass and said, “She’s just the copilot, don’t worry about her. Where are you going . . . to?” He ignored me and murmured, “Yo, you should come wit me girl.” I told him, “She is going with you, we’re all in the same cab. Nice try though, Slick. So where are you headed?”
He told me he wanted to go to Long Island City, but didn’t give me an intersection. I tried to strike up a conversation with him to keep things interesting for Kate’s listening pleasure, but he dozed off. So Kate and I talked amongst ourselves about dogs and daughters and baseball. You know, no big whoop.
When we crossed the 59th Street Bridge feeling groovy, he came to and blurted out, “24th Ave and 9th Street.” Now, 24th Avenue and 9th Street never intersect, but I wasn’t completely sure of that at the time, so I asked him to just direct me. Not a good idea.
His first instruction was to turn the wrong the way down a one way street, and when I didn’t, he said, “Yo man, you fuckin’ stoopid.” That was the point at which I should have thrown him out. He started referring to me as “this asshole” and kept muttering, “You goin’ the fuckin’ wrong WAY.” But his directions were insane, and had I followed them, we would have driven into the East River.
Finally, when he demanded that we “Go straight yo, GO STRAIGHT” while we were facing a brick wall, I pulled over to try to figure out what was wrong with this guy. I whipped out my Master Cabbie Taxi Academy map that I had won in a raffle at the academy (it was my pride and joy). As I tried to explain to him that 24th Avenue and 9th Street didn’t intersect, he reached through the divider, grabbed my map out of my hands, and threw it out the window.
My personal space had definitely been violated, and I quickly realized that I had a serious problem on my hands. Thankfully, I’d just passed a police station, so I pulled a u-turn and floored it. Apparently, he wasn’t completely oblivious, because he could tell I wasn’t listening to him even though I was saying, “Don’t worry buddy, 24th Avenue and 9th Street, straight ahead” as I sped the wrong way down a one way street toward the station.
Now he was agitated. With all the strength he could muster in his voice, he said, “Yo, I’ll fuckin’ kill you yo,” and he reached back through the divider and grabbed my wrist. My guess is that he was strung out on heroin, because he had the strength of a drowning infant in his grasp. It was so weak, I wasn’t even startled, and I shook him off of me easily.
By the time we stopped in front of the police station, he was positioning his skateboard in the divider, presumably to hit me in the face with it. I turned to Kate and said, “Get out of the car,” but she didn’t move (she later told me she thought I was talking to the junkie). If this guy hit me in the face with his skateboard, there is no taxi and limousine commission tooth ferry who pays for my broken mouth. So I jumped out before the junkie struck.
I motioned frantically for the cop who was in front of the station cleaning out his cruiser to come over. By the time he meanderd over with his hands on his belt, the junkie had retreated back into his seat quietly. The NYPD isn’t known for being particularly friendly to yellow cabbies, so I thought I might have a dispute on my hands, and I quickly told him everything that had just transpired.
But as much as the NYPD doesn’t like cabbies, they like skateboarders less. The cop shined his flashlight into the junkie’s face and shouted, “GET THE FUCK OUTTA THE CAR.” When he emerged, the cop demanded his wallet. But the kid was fumbling with his skateboard, so the cop grabbed the skateboard, tossed it over his shoulder, and it rolled under a car half way down the block. As the cop rifled through the kid’s wallet, throwing all its contents on the wet, dirty Queens street, he yelled, “LEMME SEE YOUR WHITES” (meaning he wanted the kid to turn his pockets inside out). I think the cop had watched NYPD Blue a few too many times.
“How were you gonna pay this guy, you don’t have any money?” he asked the kid. The junkie was now looking at me sadly, as though it were my fault that he was being abused by the cop. He offered me his hand to shake, but I make it a policy not to shake people’s hands who threaten to kill me (take note Ehud Barak), so I left him hanging. The cop offered me the kid’s phone card as payment. It was a real case of street justice, but I refused it (although I would have taken a metro card if he had one).
The cop asked if I wanted him arrested, but I said I just wanted him out of my cab. “Well, he’s out,” the cop said with attitude toward me in his voice now. “Well then, job well done officer,” I responded. I thanked him genuinely, and took my leave.
So Kate and I started to drive around looking, in vain, for my beloved map on the side of the street. We had no luck, but since I was empty now, my roof light was on. And guess who had walked up the street and needed a ride? He actually HAILED me, and as we drove by, Kate rolled down her window and extended her middle finger to him. We laughed, and as I watched him in my rearview, I saw him stumble and fall hard onto the pavement.
At least we were near Astoria, so I drove up Broadway toward Kate’s house while we shook our heads in disbelieve at what we just experienced. A couple blocks from her apartment, a livery cab ran a stop sign off a sidestreet, and I came as close to a bone breaking accident as I ever have. I didn’t even have the time to hit the breaks or honk. Entirely out of reflex, I swerved and barely missed him. I think Kate must have brought me really bad luck, and I told her as much.
I didn’t hang out with Kate for months, I never pick up skateboarders outside Max Fish anymore, and I only ate at Muzzarella Pizza again yesterday. Their pizza is delicious, and the Mexicans behind the counter are hilarious. But that smell brings back bad memories.
(obviously the memories aren’t too painful, because I was in a good enough mood to joke around with the Mexicans who took this picture of me from their side of the counter)
Muzzarella Pizza, Avenue A and 13th Street, Alphabet City, Manhattan
Visit www.famousfatdave.com for a laugh or to book an eating tour