I was working at the fancy law firm in the city at the time, but I lived out in the suburbs and usually trained it to work.
My firm had a policy about working late. It was to encourage late nights or discourage leaving early or necessity or whatever, but if an attorney worked after a certain time, the firm would pick up the tab for a cab ride home. This wasn’t a big deal for the city folks, but the policy included picking up the tab for the suburban commuters as well. That tab could be quite substantial. Still, the policy wasn’t abused, people would rather get out of work early than work late just to cop a free cab ride. It seemed like a caring policy, the firm wanting to make sure its associates got home safely.
Rumor had it, though, that it was really a liability and public relations issue. The story was that there was a female attorney from another firm who was required to work late and as she went home she was brutally attacked while waiting for a train. She suffered head injuries so severe that she was unable to practice law ever again. She brought suit against the firm. After that, so we heard, all the large city firms started the free cab ride “benefit.”
I’d cabbed it a few times, not often. But this evening or should I say night or actually morning — I was working on a project that kept me in the office very late, going on 1:00 am. Since I’d taken the train to the city I needed a cab ride home. I was pregnant at the time, though not very far along. I am also a fair-skinned African-American woman who had recently had her hair permed. To those of you who don’t know, that means a “permanent relaxer” — the opposite of the curly perm. It makes our hair straighter (like with a flat-iron) and easier to manage. Having just had my “hair done” it was very, very straight.
My point is: It was night, I am light-skinned and my hair was long and straight. In poor lighting could be mistaken as white.
My firm always used the same taxi company, so I wasn’t hailing just any cab, merely arranging for pick up. The cab was waiting at the street and I hopped in, preparing to doze for the thirty minute ride. I was so very tired, having worked such a long day and being pregnant and all.
As the cabbie drove out of the city and out onto the highway he started to talk.
And oh boy did he talk! This man hated black people. He went on and on using the N-word, yelling, saying all black people are worthless and didn’t deserve to be alive. At least, I think he said we did not deserve to be alive. If he didn’t, he said something close. It was more than a rant, it was a hate-filled tirade.
Hostile, that’s it. This man was hostile, openly hostile.
Suddenly, I felt very afraid. I think it was the pregnancy making me feel vulnerable and alone (I did not have a cell phone at the time). I just wanted to get me and my unborn child home safely because this guy — seemed —- crazy. And he clearly hadn’t gotten a good look at me, because he was ranting in such a way that he thought I’d be a sympathetic ear.
I wanted out of that cab.
“What if this guy freaks out — on me? Should I just get out now? ” Not an option. I looked out the window I saw that we were on a bridge. Couldn’t very well ask him to pull over. Standing on the side of a bridge pregnant and alone wouldn’t be good either. I was starting to freak myself out a bit. This guy was scaring me and I don’t usually scare easily. “What’s up with this?” I wondered, “Why am I so scared?” I’ve never been afraid to go out alone or ride public transportation. I actually like walking around by myself, and would often scoff at the suburbanites who are fearful of the big city or of the dreaded subway. When male friends or colleagues suggest walking me to my car I would often respond, “Um, Why?” I thought I was Miss Independent, and all that. Now that I think about the risks I used to take, I’m thankful and lucky that I’ve never been a victim of random crime.
But this cab driver — he was scaring me.
So I sat in silence as he ranted . . . and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that . . .
I kept my head down and let my limp, straight hair hang over my face.
I didn’t want him to see me, to discover who/what I really am. I was afraid that this would send him over the edge, having “one” in his cab, knowing I could get him in trouble. I even went so far as covering my hands with my jacket.
I had never tried “to pass” as white before — or since. I was scared of this man, though. And I didn’t like it.
It was a long ride.
When I failed to join him in his rant he eventually quieted down, which scared me more. I saw him glance at me through his mirror and he didn’t say another word, which scared me even more. I hoped he assumed I was asleep.
“Oh,” I thought. “I’m going to be left in a ditch somewhere and no one will know.” (My husband was home in bed.)
Did I say it was a long ride? It was.
We finally got close to home and I had the crazy cabbie drop me off at the train station where my car was. Perhaps I should have had him bring me straight home, except I didn’t want him to know where I lived. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I just wanted out of that cab.
I had him pull up right next to my car; I had my keys ready and I hurried out.
When my hand was on safely on my unlocked car door I turned so he could see me and simply said, “I’m black” jumped in my car and sped off. It was somewhat dramatic yet anti-climatic, hardly confrontational. I lacked bravado alone in a parking lot at 1:30 AM. I left him there and drove the wrong way home to make sure I wasn’t followed. This guy really scared the crap out of me.
I was shaking, and mad — so angry that this man could make me feel so vulnerable when I want to be so strong. I started to question myself, wondering why I reacted so strongly. A lot of people say stupid things, most don’t act on them. Some do, however. Some do. I was a woman, a pregnant woman, alone late at night with a man who had the awful combination of hateful and chatty. Bottom line was that I’d do anything, including “pass” to keep me and my baby safe.
Overreacting? Yeah probably. I mean, what was he really going to do? But it’s a special kind of fear when you think, “If he knew, he’d hate me and he might hurt me.” — That fear of being “outed” in a hostile environment –not pleasant. Gays, Jews, Transgendered . . . I would guess have a similar historically based respect for this kind of fear.
Justified or not, it was a real fear, a discomfort to the bone. And my being pregnant made me the polar opposite of a bad-ass. Instead, I felt vulnerable, in need of protection.
Well, the next day I reported it to the partners. It was easy to track down the cabbie since the cab company was under contract, and he was promptly fired. (Yeah who’s the bad-ass now?“)
The cab company sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with written apologies, and the firm apologized on their behalf as well. Everyone wanted to make sure I was “okay.”
I viewed the world a bit differently. I realized it’s not just about my pride and independence anymore. I was going to be somebody’s mother and — I had to do what I had to do — even if it meant sitting quietly with my head lowered.
Just Me With . . . a cab ride . . . from Hell.
I threw the flowers out. I didn’t want my office decorated with mementos of that crazy ride. For a much more upbeat commuting story see Miracles Happen.