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New York Dispatch: Christmas Rage & Roti w/a side of Limo

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New York is pissed off about Christmas. I don’t care how spectacular the giant snowflake hanging over 57th St. is, how ornate the 5th Avenue window displays are, how grand the tree at Rockefeller Center or how many lights bejewel every street from Park Avenue to Queens Blvd. – my passengers are angrier than I’ve ever seen them.

One of the privileges of being a taxi driver is being able to tap into the collective mood of the city. Sure, everyone who gets into my cab has his/her own story, but every shift seems to take on a particular tone, depending on what’s happening in New York at the moment.

Sometimes it’s weather – people smile when it’s sunny, of course, and get beaten down in rain and snow. Sometimes it’s a parade or a marathon or a visit from a celebrity that turns the city upside down. Everyone reacts somehow, even if they’re not conscious of how they’re absorbing the Big Apple’s rhythm. New York throws itself at you. For good or for ill.

Since Black Friday I’ve noticed how surly my fares have become, and on Saturday, the rage in my back seat hit its peak, when I got stuck behind a garbage truck on W. 88th St. en route to Amsterdam and W. 77th. As the trash guys tossed bag after bag into their truck, I could feel my passenger getting more and more agitated. His sighs got louder. Then the ($&%*($^&)(@^! started.

“I’m stuck,” I said. I didn’t want to look in the rear view mirror, “I can’t go anywhere. I’m sorry.”

Three more minutes passed. The garbage truck moved 15 feet forward, stopped and kept blocking the road.

“You have got to be f***ing kidding me!” my passenger said.

I wondered how long he was going to fume before he exercised his free will. I was past the point of being uncomfortable, and the garbage guys glanced at the growing line of cars behind us with twisted smiles of glee. I closed my eyes and turned around when felt my passenger’s hand through the partition. He thrust a $5 bill at me.

“Turn off the meter! I’m getting OUT!”

I turned around and looked at him: the lines on his forehead and around his mouth were white – the rest of his skin was Macy’s red. I shook my head and heard myself say, “I’m not going to take your money.”

The white lines disappeared as his expression relaxed into shock. He got out of the cab without a word. He didn’t slam the door. I watched him walk in the wrong direction (maybe he wanted to get away from the garbage truck) and wondered if I should’ve taken the money. I could have used that $5.

But the more I thought about it, the more I was glad I hadn’t. I said I wasn’t going to take his money. I meant I wasn’t going to take his anger.

Later that morning, leaving JFK empty (i.e. without a passenger), I couldn’t face the traffic I knew I’d find on the Van Wyck Expressway, so I cruised Rockaway Parkway in Queens. I was hungry – and close to seriously great lunch possibilities: fried chicken and turkey wings and sweet potato pie from RCL Enterprises (a spot-on suggestion from Troy the cabbie) and goat curry and oxtail stew at The Door (I’ll always be grateful to Constance Marie Barnes for steering me to this one):

But even though the memory of those oxtails was tugging me toward Baisley Blvd., I had to stop when I drove past this place:

For one thing, I’d never tried halal food from Guyana, which fuses African, East Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and Amerindian ingredients from the north coast of South America. For another, the same people who own the Rockaway West Indian Roti Shop also own the Rockaway Car & Limo Service next door.

The lady behind the steam table looked me up and down when I walked in and asked about the $5 lunch special. I was too early, she said, “It doesn’t start until 11.” She clearly wondered what I was doing there, but at least she wasn’t in the middle of a Christmas tantrum.

She discouraged me from lamb stomach stew and encouraged me to try curried snapper (top left), fried okra and house-made roti (yeast-free flat bread). She gave me enough for two meals and charged me $8.71 including tax.

A few limo drivers watched as I gobbled up my lunch in their parking lot. I didn’t mind the bones in the snapper, but I did mind that some pieces tasted fresher than others. The steam table had destroyed whatever crispiness the breading had had, but the red curry sauce was full of garlic and scallions and mixed with chili powder that gave it a barely there heat. Solid snapper, but not something that would keep me from oxtails or fried chicken.

The fried okra was another story. Combined with tomatoes and leeks and seasoned with an ensemble of spices I couldn’t pin down (maybe cloves? maybe cardamom?), the okra stayed firm and dragged me into unfamiliar sweet-savory territory. Scooping up the vegetable with still-hot roti, I lapsed into fantasies about progressive lunches in the shadow of JFK, a borough away from the holiday fury in Manhattan.

Rockaway West Indian Roti ShopMap it
122-21 Rockaway Blvd.
South Ozone Park – Queens
Tel. 718-659-8844
Free parking
Open: 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner;
Prices: $8.71 for meat, vegetable and roti; $5 lunch special from 11-3 (your choice of curry fried rice, chicken chow mein, chicken curry or chicken cookup)

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