It was three in the morning. The streets were quiet. The radio was off. The only sound was the heater, blowing dry air into the cab.
"What are you doing back there, reading your e-mails?"
I looked up from my phone at the driver. He was wearing a hunting cap, the kind with red and black checked ear-flaps. Some gray hair stuck out over his collar.
"My friend just texted. He wanted to know if he should come to the party," I said. "I was just telling him it was too late, I left."
"Oh, I see."
We drove for awhile.
"Hey, you mind if I ask you something?"
"If I want to change my computer screen, what do I gotta do?"
"You mean to change the backdrop?"
"Yeah, the picture."
I tried to clear my brain, which was fuzzy from wine and second-hand smoke.
"Well, is it a —? It’s probably a PC. So when you see the image you want, you right click it with the mouse. Then you pick 'Set as Desktop Background.'"
"Okay. So say I see a picture of a clown, I just push right and then it says I can put it on the background?"
He nodded and was quiet and I knew this was my chance to seize the silence, which might last the 15-minute ride home. But it was too late. I couldn't help but ask.
"Are you going to put a clown on your screen?"
"Nah. Maybe Lindsay Lohan. I just got this picture of a moon and I'm sick of it. I want to change it."
"Or what's that girl — she was married to that Kurt —?"
"Cobain? Kurt Cobain? Courtney Love."
He smacked his hand on the steering wheel.
"Oh, yeah! Courtney Love."
"You like Courtney Love? Huh. Well, she looks kind of like a clown."
"I always thought she was so sexy."
We were quiet for a long time.
"So how long have you been a cabbie?"
"Fifteen years. Hard to believe. Time just goes by."
"First job I ever got."
"I was a cocaine addict for 20 years."
"Wow. Twenty years. How'd you kick it?"
"Assassination attempt. I was in the hospital for 30 days and after that I kicked it."
"Who tried to kill you?"
"When you're an addict you do all sorts of crimes. I did all sorts of crimes. Me and my associates. They were doing a crime every second of the day."
"So, you got shot?"
"No, they clubbed me."
"With a pipe, actually."
"And then you went into a clinic to kick the habit?"
"No, I was clean 30 days while they had me in the hospital. So I just stayed that way. Clean."
"Where'd you grow up?"
"East New York."
"Oh yeah. And I'd go out there to score on Canarsie at 2 in the morning. I'd go out — you ever hear of the Canarsie Girls? They were junkies. I'd go out with them to score at 2:30, 5 in the morning."
He was quiet, as if he were remembering.
"The city used to be a different place."
"Yeah, so they say."
"The AIDS virus changed everything. It took out all the criminals. There was a higher grade of criminal before."
"Before the AIDS virus you could walk on the corner of St. Marks and 2nd Ave and see 15 people and all 15 of them would all be criminals. It was nice, if you ask my opinion."
"It was Little Beirut down there. In the middle of the night there'd be people selling all kinds of things there on the street."
"Bikes, in the summer. They'd turn around 30, 40 a night. Stuff."
"Did you sell stuff?"
"Now and then."
"Mostly I worked with prostitutes."
"You were a pimp?"
"Yeah. They called me the white pimp."
"Yeah, around 11th street and 2nd Ave. "
"What kind of prostitutes?"
"What do you mean what kind?"
"Yeah, girls. There was one transvestite I had to take care of. She died of AIDS. They all died."
We pulled up to my house.
"What's your name?"
"Mike. I'm Annie."
We were quiet as I paid with my credit card.
"You want your receipt, Annie?"
"No, thanks. It was nice talking to you. I wish I could hear more."
"You have four minutes?"
I hesitated. It was so late.
"Uh, sure. Yeah."
"I told you about the girls? Well. There was a rabbi. He was, you know, what do you call em — a dwarf. He lived on 11th Street. Later the girls said he was the one that gave it to them. There were eight, nine girls out of 17 that got it. The AIDS virus. But they didn't even know what to call it then. First one got it and then a few months later, another, then another. The thing is they got paid more to do it without a rubber."
He paused. At some point he had turned around.
"Gloria. Gloria was my wife. The first one who got it."
"You were married to one of the prostitutes?"
"I didn't think of it as pimp and prostitute. I thought of it as a drug addict couple."
"Beth Israel Hospital had a clinic. They turned it into a ward. Gloria went in there and she had her own room and you had to sign a book and everything, but she kept making money in there, she had more money than she knew what to do with."
He shook his head.
"I'll tell you something. If you're lucky enough to have a prostitute fall in love with you and stay with you, believe me you never go back."
I waited a long time before I said anything.
"How come you didn't die?"
"I didn't get it. Somehow I didn't get AIDS. I felt like I won a beauty pageant when they told me I didn't have it. I got tested 35 times."
He turned the engine on.
"That's quite a life, Mike."
"Oh, yeah. Beautiful."
He didn't sound sarcastic at all.