New York City Cabbies and my Purple Grandmother
By Nate Thayer
July 13, 2017
In 1972, when I was 12, I lived in New York City on Manhattan’s upper east side. My great-grandmother, who always dressed in flowing all purple dresses, purple shoes, and a purple hat, came for a visit from her house on the north shore of Massachusetts, which she also painted all in purple. She lived in a mansion by the ocean and had an indoor pool and a regulation size bowling alley in the basement of the pool house. She also had a big black Cadillac limousine and a chauffeur who lived in the guest house on the property.
She told me she had supernatural powers and ESP and could predict the future and do other very cool stuff and I believed her because she could and she did.
One time we were playing the board game Parcheesi on the couch, me snuggled up to her grandmotherly bosom, and when it was my turn to roll the dice she made me wait while she closed her eyes, furrowed her brows, murmured some mumbo jumbo, threw her hands in the air, and shouted out “double sixes!!!” so loud the neighbors could hear.
And I rolled double sixes–5 times in a row.
I loved Granny Carpenter with all my heart.
But Granny Carpenter didn’t know much about how the rest of the people on earth lived. She marched to her own drummer before someone made up that phrase.
During her visit to New York City when I was 12 and she was in her eighties, I would tag along with her because she was fun. She would make me wear a jacket and tie but I didn’t mind. We would go outside to Park avenue and 72cd street, her dressed in a long flowing purple dress and a wide-brimmed purple hat and she would glide out into the middle of traffic on Park avenue and hail a cab. During these cab rides she would insist on making all sorts of eccentric pit stops.
Once we were going to visit an elderly friend of hers in uptown Manhattan and she, loudly and suddenly, shouted “Stop!” and the cab driver screeched to a halt. Then she insisted the taxi driver come inside a flower shop on Madison avenue and help her pick a bouquet of a selection of flowers to give to her friend.
Together my grandmother and the New York City cabbie chose purple ones.
The cabbie was quite confused, but seemed happy to oblige and, besides, it is difficult to say no to an old lady dressed in purple.
Sometimes it takes an elderly woman dressed in all purple to find the soft spot to charm a New York City cabbie.
When we got to the apartment building of her friend, the fare was $12.90. I remember this exactly. She, wearing purple gloves, pulled out her purse, which was also purple, and fished out and counted 13 single crumpled one dollar bills and said cheerfully and cluelessly to the taxi driver “Keep the change!” She meant the extra ten-cent tip.
She didn’t know about tipping. She really didn’t know about money but she knew a lot of other very important, neat stuff.
I felt terrible for the poor cabbie. After all, he had just endured being hijacked and taken for a joy ride by an eccentric octogenarian dressed in purple and then tipped 10 cents. So I quietly pulled out a five dollar bill, making sure my great-grandmother didn’t see because I didn’t want her to feel bad, and slipped it to the cabbie. He gave me a very nice smile and said “Thanks, kid!” and everyone was happy.
I had made that five dollars because I walked other people’s dogs before and after school in nearby apartment buildings because I loved dogs. I made $120 a week which was good 1972 money when you are 12 and you live with your parents and your mom cooks all your food and buys all your clothes and you don’t pay rent.
The next year, my parents finally let me get my very own dog for my 13th birthday and my father took me to a huge 5 story horrible looking building on East Side Drive by the river around East 86 street. It was the NYC ASPCA where stray or neglected or unwanted dogs go to look for, hopefully, someone to give them a home, but most of them are executed. I don’t know how it works today, but in 1972 dogs at the NYC ASPCA had 7 days to live waiting for adoption, then they were killed. The city euthanized 100,000 dogs a year, then.
My dad and I walked all through the cavernous canine penitentiary where cages were stacked floor to ceiling five high lining all the walls for five stories. There were tags of paper on each cage which showed how many more days they had before they would be killed. It was very, very sad. I saw one cage on the bottom tier but no dog, until I got down on my hands and knees. Huddled back in a corner was a dog with long grey hair that covered his eyes and looked very defeated. The paper on his cage said it was his day number 6. I called to him and he looked at me, cowering, and reluctantly and finally, slowly, came toward my fingers which poked through the bars and he licked them.
“I want him, Dad. Can we adopt him?” I asked my father. He agreed, and when we opened that cage door he transformed into the happiest dog in the world, leaping up and down and running in circles and licking my face. We fell in love instantly and we put on the leash and two very happy boys walked an hour the 30 plus city blocks home.
He looked exactly like the character Oscar the Grouch on the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street so I named him Oscar.
But within months Oscar got very sick. He wouldn’t eat, he was lethargic, and he didn’t wag his tail at all. I knew he was very sick when he didn’t feel up to licking my face or sleeping in my bed. I took Oscar to a veterinarian late one night all the way across Manhattan to the lower west side. The vet examined Oscar and said there was nothing he could do, gave me some pills, and told me to take him home.
I am not sure who felt worse that night–Oscar or me.
We left the veterinarian’s office. It was dark and it was raining hard and I had exactly $4 in my pocket, only a fraction of what a cab fare would cost to get me back to my apartment on East 72cd street. But Oscar was too weak to walk and I was too little to carry him the 50 plus blocks home, so I hailed a cab, in the rain, at night, on the often mean streets of New York City, with my sick dog, Oscar. New York City had 30,000 yellow medallion taxis in the early 1970’s. One pulled over and I got in with Oscar. Crime was severe in NYC then and all the taxis had thick bullet proof plexiglass separating the passengers from the driver. “I only have four dollars, so however close you can get me to Park avenue and East 72cd street would be great,” I said.
The driver, who was looking at me through the rear view mirror, turned around, and opened the small sliding window. “I remember you, kid. You’re the one with the purple grandmother who gave me a five dollar tip last year,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
Of course I did.
“Don’t worry, kid. I’ll get you home, no charge,” he said.
And he did.
And Oscar survived, too. He had distemper, which is usually fatal. And he did lose all his hair and after he got better the hair on the top of his head never grew back.
He looked like a bald, older Oscar the Grouch, but he was very happy.
And so was I.
And so was the cabbie.
And so was my purple grandmother.
All lessons that kindness is its own reward and sometimes, when paid forward, comes back around to you in life when you least expect it and most need it.