The first passenger he picks up is a fifty-something woman with a terrible dye job. She takes a look at his worn out nametag reading Ahmed and insecurity flashes in her crow’s feet eyes. He deduces that she has probably lost someone on 9/11, and schools his face into a modicum of civility. The journey buzzes with silence and unspoken blame. He drops her off in front of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and says “thank you” at the same time she says “keep the change”. A brief, thoughtful glance, and then she disappears into the New York smog. Ahmed gives the spare money to a homeless teenager on the way back to his damp apartment and buys a pack of cigarettes- 3 cents each- at the local corner store and looks up at the cement gray sky. It begins to rain.
The second passenger he picks up smells like alcohol and trouble and the dirt roads of his village. He slurs his words as he directs Ahmed to the nearest hookah bar and scratches his arm incessantly throughout. Ahmed makes it a point to avoid conversation until they pull up to the flashing neon pink sign. Then he asks “Karachi or Lahore?” The stranger smiles a yellow-toothed smile and says “Delhi.” On his way back to his roach-infested flat, Ahmed helps an old man cross the street and receives a “God bless you” in response. He cannot help but think that anonymity is bliss.
The third passenger he picks up is a Muslim like himself. His eyes are tired as he tells Ahmed to drive anywhere, just anywhere. Brooklyn passes by from beyond raindrop specked windows as they quote Rumi and Whitman and listen to Coltrane on the radio. Before he leaves, the man buys him dinner at his favorite Mediterranean restaurant. Ahmed says salaam and the reply that comes reminds him of home.
The next three passengers are a family, or at least they are trying hard to become one. “Dead” could be used to describe the silence between them, and Ahmed thinks of his brother. The landlady demands the rent that night, and he brushes her off with promises of “tomorrow”. She clicks her tongue and mutters under her breath, “tomorrow never comes.” He shuts the door in her face and looks at the photo in his wallet and cries.
The seventh passenger he picks up is a green-haired teenager who is clearly a runaway. Ahmed shares a smoke with her and thinks briefly about turning her over to Social Services. He decides not to, and they talk in the language of music in the black of the night as Springsteen blares from her cheap imitation Beats headphones. He says nothing when she departs without paying her fare, and tries not to think about the iPod she leaves on the backseat.
Ahmed takes to reciting poetry in his mind while driving. The suspicious glares of commuters are dulled as Byron conquers his imagination. On good days when no one winces after looking at his nametag, he makes up some original verses and puts them to the tunes of old songs. On bad ones, he blasts Metallica on his sound system and scares away any potential customers.
The eighth passenger is a Texan who laughs at Ahmed’s attempt to pronounce “y’all” correctly. The ninth is a Harvard professor of politics who talks to him about Machiavelli. The tenth is a peppy tourist wearing an “I love NY” t-shirt. Ahmed muses that she’s almost as annoying as his baby sister. The eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth commuters are middle aged women with too much time on their hands and Sex and the City on their minds. The fourteenth passenger tells him to get the h--- out of America and slashes his seat covers with a Swiss Army knife.
The fifteenth passenger he picks up is Sylvia Plath. He stares for a moment before realizing that the traveler is not, in fact, Sylvia Plath, but a woman dressed up as her. She piles into the taxi, glamorous hairstyle, make up and all, and tells Ahmed to take the main route to Hotel Bossert. When they get there, she thanks him, pronouncing his name as “Aah-med” and he laughs at the insanity of it all. She has one foot out the door before her eyes meet his in the rearview mirror and she whispers, “I am, I am, I am.”
The next day, Ahmed returns his taxi driver’s license to the company and applies for a part-time job at a small publishing business known for printing lesser known and nonconformist authors. The bespectacled man at the counter smiles as he introduces himself and softly says namaste. Ahmed says salaam, and a tentative friendship is formed. He takes a taxi on his way back to his new apartment and thinks that the irony is so thick he could cut it with a Swiss Army knife.
In the blue hours before dawn, Ahmed watches the world wake up and the traffic crawl slowly through the streets and murmurs into the air snatches of Iqbal and Wordsworth. He stares at the yellow dots moving at a snail’s pace below his rusty windowsill and thinks of crow’s feet eyes, Delhi hookah bars and Sylvia Plath. I am, I am, I am. Turning away, he picks up a guitar (bought for twenty bucks from the shady Bangladeshi just around the corner) and begins to sing. Outside, Brooklyn comes to life.