Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004


Omelets, taxis and W.M.D.’s — it’s a messy world

By Alphie McCourt

When an earthquake is personal, war can be an omelet.

It’s politics, always politics, politicians on parade and hearings underway. “What did you not know and when did you not know it? What did you not do and when did you not do it?” All part of a healthy political process, we tell ourselves. Or is it? Depends on which side you’re on.

During the last campaign for the presidency “Prescription Drug Benefit” was the mantra for both candidates. After the election a new mantra was born: Weapons of Mass Destruction. There’s symmetry in that for we are as close to providing a decent “Prescription Drug Benefit” for senior citizens as we are to finding W.M.D. in Iraq. A porter, they say, while cleaning Saddam Hussein’s bathtub, used a mixture of Clorox and Ajax. There was a puff of smoke. The porter suffered a dizzy spell. Word leaked out and the world went to war.

In 1985 Hurricane Gloria gave New York City the back of her hand, to be followed, shortly, by a minor earthquake. On the morning of the earthquake I took a taxi. The driver, one of the last of a dying breed, though I didn’t know it then, was a native New Yorker who actually drove a taxi for a living. He would know who was ahead in the fight, the score in the game and the score in everything else as well.

Neither obsequious nor adversarial, a first- or second-generation American with one or more kids in college, he is confident, even a bit brash. No one will tread on him. He owns the taxi. He probably has a house and a mortgage. His God is in His heaven, in His heaven, that is, when He isn’t riding beside the driver in the passenger seat, debating the separation of Church and State.

We talk. This driver is disgruntled. Soon he tells me why. “Once a week, I take my car in for service; oil change, check the tires, check the brake fluid. You know what I mean. The place is in Queens. Today, as usual, I pull in to the station. ‘Closed,’ the sign says, ‘because of the earthquake.’ So I can’t get my taxi serviced. I need this! I need this!” He is frustrated. His weekly routine has taken a hit. I’m sympathetic but I almost laugh. All politics may be local but this earthquake is personal. “Earthquakes,” he goes on. “If I wanted earthquakes I’da moved to San Francisco.”

I rarely take taxis these days but recently I rode in one. I gave my destination. The driver studied me in the rearview mirror. “Can I ask you a question?” he said. (Believe it or not, a taxi driver once asked me if I was Rusty Staub). This time would be different. “Here we go,” I thought. “It will be the family resemblance, the family name and a discussion of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ all over again.”

Judging by his accent, the driver is from the Islands. He has neither the jollity of the Jamaican nor the earnestness of the native of Trinidad. I’m curious but I don’t want to ask him where he’s from. “O.K.,” I tell him, “what’s your question?”

“I want to ask your advice.”

“Don’t know if I can help you,” I say, “but go ahead.”

“Thank you,” he says. “It’s my wife. She has taken up with a man 10 years younger than she is.”

The driver was approaching 50, I would guess.

“She’s living with him. We have two children. My son is 15 and my daughter is 13. My wife is demanding money for their support. She’s taking me to court. What can I do? What should I do?”

I don’t know what to tell him. This is a private matter. How can I divine the rights or wrongs of the situation? What should I say? The smartest thing would be to suggest professional help; counseling, arbitration, something equally distant, far away and, above all, impersonal. But I’ve had my own frustrating experience with the business of referrals. This man has asked me, a total stranger, for advice. So he must be desperate. Recommendations and referrals are not what he’s looking for. And had he wanted fuzzy therapy he could have moved to Los Angeles long ago.

I did once have a taxi driver pull a gun on me, at 10 o’clock on a Friday morning, in early August. He was not a real taxi driver.  He had stolen the taxi. But that’s a long story…. I was nervous but he was even more nervous than I was. A $12 ransom it cost me but I was glad to get away, in case, in his agitation, he would shoot me by mistake.

So I am careful with this driver. He wants an answer. And he wants it now. Maybe he has a gun. Maybe he’ll shoot me if he doesn’t like my answer. I don’t want to provoke him. What will I say? I’ll have to appeal to his better nature. Then it comes to me. “Take care of your children,” I tell him “and you can’t be wrong.”

“Your wife can muddle through. So can you. I’m not sure how your children will do but you have to take care of them.”

He isn’t happy with my answer. He wants something more, a way to punish his wife and her lover, maybe, a way to wage his own private war, or a way to win back his wife and become a hero to his children. I can only repeat my advice that he take care of his children, then I pay the fare and make my getaway.

We live in edgy times, but, apparently, not edgy enough for many of us. The threat from abroad is not enough. We want more. Edgy entertainers and writers, artists with edge, politicians with acid tongues; we seek them out. Without friction there is no creativity, I know, I know. But should we mistake mere abrasion for inspiration?

I am reminded of one of my old roommates. Twice, around noontime, each time on a rainy Sunday, he decided to make an omelet. There was a three-month interval between the first and second perpetration. “Well, it was time to move out anyway,” I tell Jim, the other roommate, as Lewis, the omelet-maker, gears up for the second round. “Let’s just leave the cleanup for the landlord. Let him keep our month’s security. He will have earned it.”

With great bustle our Sunday cook begins the operation. Turning the small kitchen upside down, he tosses eggshells everywhere but into the garbage can, spills milk and soft butter on the floor and slams slices of bread into the toaster. Egg whites run down the outside surface of the frying pan onto the gas ring, congeal and are cooked right in. “Great chefs are temperamental,” Lewis proclaims as he slams the frying pan on the kitchen counter. “I am temperamental. Therefore I am a great chef.” We laugh, eat the omelet, drink our coffee and leave the apartment.

Later, in the pub the three of us talk at length about the cleanup. Lewis, the cook, maintains that he did the cooking and should not have to do any of the cleaning. Jim and I argue that since we didn’t ask him to make the omelet and since he made the mess, we shouldn’t have to clean up after him. “Yes,” says Lewis, “but the two of you did eat the omelet.”

“We did indeed but we did pay our share of the ingredients. Besides, you ate your share, just as we did.”

Ned, the bar man, has been listening. Fiftyish, with spiky black hair, he’s a serious man. He always wears a jacket and shirt and tie while he works and it is said that he has nine children. It’s no wonder that he always has a fierce look about him. Now he bursts out. “The three of ye are nattering away like a bunch of oul’ women. Why don’t ye just go home and do whatever ye have to do. I have a pain in me head listenin’ to the three of ye.”

“No, Ned,” I say. “There’s principle involved here.”

“Principle?” says Ned. “That’s what they all say. ‘Principle,’ they cry, when they have to do a little work or spend a little money.”

“Well, then, Ned,” says Jim, “we’ll be guided by you. Whatever you decide, we’ll do.”

“I’m no Solomon,” Ned replies, “but here’s how I see it. The omelet maker, in this case, is like a leader rushing into war without consulting his people and without making preparation. He accomplishes his objective, does something his friends and allies never asked him to do and then expects them to help him clean up the mess. You two fellas are lucky. At least you got to share the omelet. But you’re stuck with the mess. Best thing to do now is to share the cleanup, as friends and allies. Do a real good job of it. Be fair in your dealings with each other. Think about the children you will have one day. And make damn sure it never happens again.”


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