Ryan F. Love
Jacket no tie, whiff of gin. The guy looked decent enough and shy of thirty. He’d probably want to chat. The rider was watching him, so Luis kept his look in the rearview quick. The guy’s hair had started the night neatly combed back, but some strands were out of place now.
“We should make the ten o’clock, right man?” he asked.
Luis had lived in Brooklyn all his life; Flatbush would lead them out of it in just a few minutes. “Absolutely, sir.”
“Sweet.” The rider drummed on his knees. “Gonna be a good night tonight.”
The drumming stopped after a minute, and Luis glanced back to see the man staring out the window, brow wrinkled. “I deserve a good night,” he said.
Here’s where Luis had to make the call: silence or small talk. “You’re going to the right place,” he said. “Birdland on a Friday’s pretty good for that.” “You been to Birdland?”
Luis smiled. “Yeah. Yeah I have.”
“No shit, man,” said the rider, leaning forward. “John.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“So who’d you see?”
“A few acts,” Luis answered, accelerating to pull the Camry around a double-parked cab. “I used to play jazz in a band with a friend of mine, we used to go every once in a while. Think what it’d be like.”
“No shit. What’d you play?”
“Fuck, man. I love the drums. What stuff your band play? Play anywhere I’d have heard of?”
Luis smiled. “Whatever we felt like playing. Never really went anywhere with it, but it was a good time.”
“Why’d you stop?”
Luis laughed. “Kids, marriage, jobs… hard to find time to play when you drive an Uber seven nights a week. You know how it is, can’t have everything.”
“You guys are fucking heroes, man. Driving my drunk ass around the city. You guys save my life, man.”
“Glad to be of service sir.”
“Come with me tonight.”
“I have two tickets for Birdland at 10:00 tonight and my wife can’t make it. Come with me. You know who’s playing? Fucking Steve Smith is playing.”
“He’s awesome, man,” Luis said. “My friend and me saw him play a while back. The things he can do with a pair of sticks in his hands… it’s crazy.”
“So come with me. Let’s go watch Steve Smith bang on the drums. Here, two tickets in my fucking hand.” His arm reached into the front seat.
“That, sir, is the absolute best thing a rider has ever offered,” Luis began, “and you have no idea how much I appreciate it, but I’ve only been driving for a couple hours tonight, and I gotta make rent next week. My wife is—”
“How much you make in a night?”
“Look… Luis—glad your fucking nametag’s there—Luis, Bill Murray is the coolest guy in the world. Hands down. There’s this night out in LA, Bill Murray is going to a club or a movie or wherever the fuck a Bill Murray goes, and he takes this cab and the driver says he plays the saxophone, but Bill Murray talks to him and learns that he never gets the time to play. So Bill Murray says, drive to your apartment and get your fucking saxophone, and then they drove to a parking lot someplace and Bill Murray pays this guy for a whole night so he can just listen to him fucking play the saxophone on the hood of the cab. Now I’m not as cool as fucking Bill Murray, but I got some cash, man. How much you make in a night?”
“Really, sir, I can’t just—”
“Shut the fuck up Luis and be friendly.” Luis bolted upright reflexively, but John laughed. “Seriously man, how much you make in a night?”
“On a real good night, lotta people out?” Exaggerating toward an unlikely amount might be the best way to ease out of the situation. They were crossing the bridge now. “About six hundred.”
“Alright man, look in the rearview.” Luis obliged. “You come see Steve Smith play jazz with me, I’ll give you $700. Under the table, man.” It was real now – Luis could see the stuffed money clip. “My wife left me, man. My wife can’t use the ticket I fucking bought for her because she’s off fucking my best friend somewhere, so I was gonna go to Birdland and then go to Scores and get some titties in my face. I was gonna blow this fucking money on booze and titties, Luis, but you come with me to Birdland and watch Steve Smith play the drums with me and I’ll hand it to you instead. Now whattaya say?”
Luis inhaled deeply. The East River flowed to the sea below them, and the money clip in the mirror blocked his view of Brooklyn. Manhattan lights loomed ahead. He saw Manhattan seven nights a week through his windshield. He imagined feeling pavement under his shoes on a Friday night and remembered the red curtain at Birdland, remembered the way Steve Smith played drums so fast he could accompany himself. He considered what he could buy his wife with the extra few hundred.
“Alright, sir, I’m in.”
“Hell yeah!” John slapped Luis’s shoulder. “And drop the sir shit. I’m John, man. John.”
The club had not changed. They still served the smoked pork belly appetizer he’d share as a meal to keep the tab lower in his bachelor days. John assured him he should “order whatever the fuck,” but did not protest when Luis played small ball with a sandwich. Beverages were a different story.
“You are not drinking fucking soda. Waitress, he is not drinking fucking soda.” The server smiled, but she checked the neighboring table with her peripheral vision. Luis noted their obliviousness with relief. “Soda is banned, my man.”
“I’ll take a beer,” Luis offered apologetically. “Uh, Heineken.”
“Have the bartender mix me a gin and tonic. Light on the tonic, heavy on the gin. And keep it flowing, honey. Same with his fucking beer – no empty glasses.”
Luis caught the waitress’s eye, and she nodded back before stepping away.
“You know, John, we’re gonna walk to that parking garage after the show and I’m still gonna have to drive you, so I’d better take it pretty slow on the beer.”
“Fuck it! We’re out on the town, man!” John drummed on the table, causing the candle to rattle a bit.
“Well, thank you. This is really great.”
“I mean it, man,” Luis continued. “This place, it’s been a long damn time. A long damn time…”
“You deserve this, man. You Uber heroes deserve fucking Friday nights.”
“It’s pretty nice,” Luis admitted. When the drinks came, Luis raised his beer. “To Friday night and Steve Smith.”
“To Steve fucking Smith.” Only slightly loud. With a drink in his hand, John seemed to be settling in.
Management does not permit Birdland to become crowded, but the club was full. Luis felt slightly underdressed with his khakis and polo, but a gentleman at the next table had jeans beneath his blazer, so it could have been worse. The instruments were set for Steve Smith’s Groove Blue Organ Trio. He glanced at the whole setup as he sipped his Heineken, but mostly contemplated two holy relics: Steve Smith’s set and the Birdland curtain. Red undulations spanned the space, and outlined in light, block letters from an age gone by: “BIRDLAND.” He was back to the place. In just a few minutes they—
“You need a Peloton?”
“What’s that, John?”
“I own a fucking Peloton.” Luis noticed his empty glass. The waitress approached them with another. “Overpriced exercise bike. You want it?”
Luis laughed. “We don’t have the space for that, man.”
“My wife fucking got it, for her birthday. From me. She always said she’d run cause in high school it’s the only exercise she could afford – one a those families where they live in this house in the development but can’t afford the fucking furniture to fill it, so all her friends had whatever shit they want, go to the fucking country club whatever, and she’d just run, so I think, we got money now, she can have the fucking Peloton. Bitch never touches it. Never touches it…”
They were about to announce the band.
“I’m sorry man,” Luis said.
“That’s when I knew and I still didn’t know, so I got her tickets, you know why I get these tickets Luis? One month anniversary. We date a month, she’s this awesome girl I wanna impress, so I bring her here. She never really listened to jazz, you know? I wanted her to see jazz, cause I love jazz. Guys on the team used to listen to Eminem and shit, and minute they’re outta my car, they always wanted to be in my car cause I had a cool fucking car, minute they’re outta it I’d pull a fucking Miles Davis CD or something outta the glove, I mean high school, people don’t get jazz…”
“—the Steve Smith Groove Blue Organ Trio!” Applause.
“…I took her here for our one month anniversary, so I get her tickets last month, to remind her, and you know what she says? You know what she fucking says?” The applause had quieted, and the jeans and jacket neighbor eyed them with irritation.
“She says, she says to me—”
“John, they’re playing man, look—Steve Smith. Steve Smith, man.”
His head swiveled to the stage. He recognized and nodded with a smile. “Steve Smith.” He raised his glass. Luis clinked, and exhaled. And then John’s glass was empty.
But he watched. It was impossible not to watch and listen. The organist wasn’t the draw, but he wore a Hawaiian shirt and couldn’t stop grinning as he riffed on the keys. There was no other way to put it – it was a groove. And drumming royalty sat just to his left, not twenty feet from their table. The club applauded the first number with the admiration due to master craftsmen, and the music came again.
“I need to see better,” John failed to whisper.
“This table is awesome, John. Thanks, man.”
John shook his head. “Need to see better. See his hands.” His chair scraped the floor, and he plodded to the open space next to the bar, six or so feet off the drummer’s shoulder. A waitress stepped out from the kitchen and around the intruding customer. On the way back through she paused and whispered to John, pointed. He said nothing and did not move. Luis focused on the organist, where his peripheral vision stretched to Steve Smith and no farther.
They slowed things down for the third number, and as it closed the waitress came and leaned on the table. “They’re talking in the kitchen. You should get your friend to sit down.”
John stood in the same spot, arms crossed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can,” Luis whispered.
“Your friend’s gonna be in for it if he don’t sit down.”
“He’s not my friend, I’m sorry, I barely know the guy.” The audience laughed at a joke.
“You paying, or him?” the waitress asked.
“Him. I’m sorry.” The band started to play, and she walked away shaking her head.
It was, at last, the drum solo he’d waited for. Speed, precision, invention, played with the grace of countless hours atop measureless gifts. The sticks flowed over the set, and even Luis could hardly tell where one strike ended and another began, yet he could hear them all, distinct, and then a jerked motion off the left shoulder grabbed his eyes.
John had pulled his arm away from a stocky man in a suit, who now held his palms up but walked implacably toward the drunken man. When the palms reached John, he jerked away again but stepped back, a pace at a time. Luis looked back to the flying drumsticks, strained to focus on a few more bars. He held his lock on the moment as long as he could before watching John turn away from the front counter toward the street. A few green bills still wafted to the ground where they had been thrown.
The club cheered the legend’s work, and Luis walked slowly to the door.
“Took you fucking long enough,” John spat.
“John, man, I got up as soon as I saw you going.”
“Fuck you, got up soon you saw me, don’t fucking ‘John’ me—”
“I’m sorry, I’m trying to—”
“You’re sorry, you’re sorry, she’s sorry, everybody’s fucking sorry. Why you fucking sorry, driver man? Answer that. Why you fucking sorry?” Pedestrians walked past without eye contact, stepping beyond the awning to find space.
“I’m sorry for the difficult time you’re having.”
“Don’t fucking pity me.”
“I just know that—”
“Fucking Uber driver pitying me. You know what I fucking make, man? You know what I fucking do? Smug little prick, gonna take me for a ride, see how much cash you can fuck me outta, goddamn thief.”
“You don’t have to give me that seven hundred. Just enough to—”
“Thief!” John shouted. “You fucking thief!”
Passers by no longer averted their eyes. A couple watchers stopped and stared. One talking on his phone was white like John and unlike Luis, whose stomach clenched. He raised his palms to show that he held nothing. He took a small step toward John.
“John. Sir. I’m sorry, very sorry about how tonight went. You deserved to have a better time than this.” John’s jaw had locked. “I know how much you wanted a good night, and it didn’t work out, and I’m sorry. You don’t need to give me all that money. Okay sir? You already paid your fare. I just need the money for the parking.” Foot traffic had resumed around them. Luis no longer saw the white man with the phone. John was looking up and over Luis’s shoulder now; the driver glanced back anxiously but saw nothing. “Can you give me the money for the parking? And then I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Why’d she leave?” John still stared into the distant city. It was difficult to hear his slurred speech above the traffic. “Why’d she leave me, Luis?”
Luis put his hands down and took a cautious step. “I don’t know, John.”
“Gave her everything. I gave her everything she’d fucking want, Luis. I just wanna give. I wanna be a giver who gives.” He pulled the money clip out of his pocket and held it out gingerly. Luis walked in slowly. “I said seven hundred, Luis. I wanna give you seven hundred.”
“It’s too much, sir.” He could see the wetness of John’s eyes.
“Please,” John said. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand why it’s all fucking hard. Count it.” Luis did as he was told. Even after what John had thrown to the floor in Birdland, there was still more than two grand in the clip. “Just take it Luis. Whatever’s there.”
Luis returned all but the $700 to the clip. He felt a qualm but had only a moment to calculate its weight; he put back another $200. “I can’t take it all, but I took what you said. Thank you, sir.”
John cried openly now. “Will you come with me, Luis?”
“I got my family. I need to get home.”
John’s unsteady hands pulled the remaining bills from the clip. “Luis, lemme give. I want you to have this. I won’t need it,” he wept. “Take the money, I won’t need it, I won’t need it.”
“I can’t take it, John. I can’t.” Luis hesitated while John cried to him on the street. “You’ve just done a lot for my family. I want you to know that, John. They’re everything to me.” He put his hand on John’s shoulder. The face kept sobbing. “I’ve got to go. I have to. But you take care of yourself. You hear me, John? Take care of yourself.”
“I just wanted to give,” John said.
Luis walked toward the garage. Turning, he thought he saw John shambling in the opposite direction. Closer, two young guys stood from where they had knelt, clutching wads of cash.
“It’s our night! You believe this shit?” one of them laughed. “Only in New York, bro.”
Home, Luis touched his lips to his sleeping son, then his sleeping wife, then a glass of rum and Coke. Stiff. He settled in his secondhand loveseat but left the television off.
There could have been other nights than this one. They swirled and played concurrently in his mind. There was a night where he said no and picked up another rider. There was a night where he saw the jazz trio’s whole set. There was a night where John drank less, and one where he took a swing at the man bouncing him. There was a night where Luis played the drums in a club himself instead of driving for Uber, but there was a night where Luis was in handcuffs, and there was a night where he said the right thing at Birdland and everything was alright, and a night where he said the right thing on the sidewalk after, and one where John went home and one where John never did. There was a night where the $500 in Luis’s pocket didn’t feel like blood money.
He blinked his eyes awake when his wife asked, “Baby?” Sunlight streamed onto a discolored carpet spot. He felt the empty glass in his hand and the wad in his pocket. “You OK?” she asked.
Luis stood and kissed her. Her arms encircled his neck. “I am now, baby.”