I used to get really terrified before I went out to dance tango in Buenos Aires. I’d think about all of the strangers I was about to dance with, all of the unfamiliar steps, and all of the ways I could humiliate myself, including doing a face plant on the dance floor (something I actually succeeded in performing once).
What drove me out the door was the idea that no matter what happened, I knew I’d meet people I’d never run into otherwise. I might even dance a tango I’d never forget.
And whatever happened, I knew I’d come back changed somehow. Maybe stronger. Maybe wiser from all of that communion with so many unknowns.
I go through the same psychological push and pull before every taxi driving shift. Every time I go behind the wheel, I battle with my fear of the unknown, of getting lost, of enduring the wrath of passengers who have no patience for my still-evolving knowledge of New York’s streets.
But almost every time I go behind the wheel, I marvel at the people I meet, the food I taste, and the things that New York shows me.
My last shift was no different. After dropping off an alcoholic actor/writer turned Catholic priest near the Hasidic quarter in Brooklyn, I picked up a twentysomething hipster with a pompadour in orange stretchy pants who whispered sweet nothings into his smartphone for most of the ride to his Williamsburg loft.
A Russian lady who hailed my taxi in Chinatown made an even deeper impression. She wanted to go all the way to Brighton Beach for the sixth of ten mud treatments she was having after an operation on her shoulder.
She didn’t say much during our half hour trek, but it was easy to spot the beauty under the babushka, especially when she gave me a golden-toothed smile after I took her suitcase out of the trunk at the Oasis Health Center of Brooklyn (If you speak Russian and believe in the healing powers of mud, you might want to check it out: 1009 Brighton Beach Ave., Tel. 718-332-3200).
Being in Brighton Beach reminded of Oleg, the Russian cabbie who’d brought me there last year and shown me the goodies at Cherry Hill Gourmet Market. After I dropped off my passenger for her mud therapy, I drove around in circles until I found it.
Little had changed since the cabbie delivered me there last time: the superdeli spread was just as bountiful, the ladies behind the counter still barely spoke English, and free samples were a no-no.
One thing was different, though. This time, they had salanka, which Oleg had recommended – and which Cherry Hill was out of when he’d brought me there that first time.
I finally got to try the beef, salami and olive soup the cabbie had raved about. Unfortunately, it was hard to get past all the salt to appreciate the full flavors of broth and salami. Even though the black olives were delicious, it’s not a soup I’ll seek out next time I’m in the neighborhood.
Manti are what I’ll remember most from the return visit to Cherry Hill. (Manti are dumplings that you find throughout countries along what was once the Silk Road. Sometimes, as in Armenia, they’re in a garlic-based broth. Sometimes they’re steamed in butter and sprinkled with caramelized onions, Russian-style, as these were). Even though I found some gristle in the beef filling, the dough was mouth-melting, teetering between chewiness and delicacy. And I’ve never tasted better caramelized onions.
Without those manti, I wouldn’t have been able to think straight when I got ambushed by a motorcycle gang on the way back to the taxi garage at the end of my shift.
They sped off the Long Island Expressway like a swarm of locusts, stopped all the cars on Van Dam Street, and disregarded every traffic signal they saw.
This Yamaha man was one of the more conventional looking riders.
The only woman I saw was wearing a red and white striped mini skirt and two waist-length braids. She was going too fast on her Harley to catch on film.