Cab Confessions: Ethnic Ripostes & Making Assumptions

Memorable conversations with cab drivers are an emblematic New York experience available to both tourists and long time residents. A few days ago, I climbed into a cab whose driver began by telling me how crowded with traffic were New York streets because of all the construction of new residential buildings. I demurred that new building was a sign that New York was prosperous, whatever the state of the Great Recession, and the new residents supplied more business for cab drivers such as himself. He said he would prefer less traffic and fewer customers. He said that the city was filthy and stank, which I readily agreed was particularly true in the summer, but a small price to pay for living in this glorious city. He said he was going back to his native Armenia after his thirty years here so that he could live in comparative quiet and calm. I said no one had to live here.

Then, perhaps in response to my good humored acceptance of his criticism of my city, he got into deeper issues. He said that a lot of the cab drivers here smelled bad, as did their cabs, especially those of drivers who wore schmatas on their heads. So I figured him for a Jewish Armenian as he had figured me for a—what is it?—Jewish American. So I had thought I just had fallen in with one of those prejudiced people, but the conversation continued.

I said, not pompously, but as if it were a clear matter of fact, that diversity was the hallmark of the New York population, and that is what put it on the cutting edge of Western Civilization. He said that he wanted to live in a country with “a Judeo-Christian civilization” (that was his term) but one that was not being taken over by uncivilized people. He said his own neighborhood, which he had lived in for thirty years, was being taken over by people whose women didn’t bathe nor shave their armpits. The man was preoccupied with smell as an indication of a lack of civilization, which might not be an untrue idea, but I thought the outrage was addressed to the usual suspects: people of color, as we say nowadays, whether from Mexico or from Africa, or he might even have been referring to the African Americans and Puerto Ricans who had immigrated from more southern parts of this country in generations past. In that latter case, his remark would have been an archaic reference. It no longer applied to most of the descendants of those who came to New York two or more generations ago, but it is a thought that has passed into the language, and so is like the criticism made about foreign aid by some on the very right even though our aid budget is almost nothing and is mostly in the form of military assistance. Cliches die hard.

But the cabdriver was ahead of me. He said the people invading his neighborhood were Bulgarian Jews rather than Ashkenazi Jews, like himself, his family originally from Poland. I said I too was descended from Ashkenazi Jews from Poland and that the Jews who had immigrated to the Lower East Side from Poland and Russia now more than a hundred years ago had also been castigated as unclean and boorish. (I knew I was exaggerating. Jews and Italians on the Lower East Side may have been known as crooks and shysters, but not as dirty.) He said he wasn’t sure that what I was saying was true because those Jews came from civilized countries and so that wouldn’t be the case. These people, the Bulgarian Jews, really were dirty.

As I was nearing my destination, I tried to find something we could agree upon. I said that my family may have been in Poland for many generations, but they never thought of themselves as Polish. He pulled the taxi up to the front of my apartment building and turned in his seat to address me directly.

“Have you heard of Katyn?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Fifteen percent of those Polish officers were Jews. They were professors and professional soldiers. They were Poles.”

I had been put in my place. The cabdriver was advocating neither Armenian rusticity nor a Jewish distinctiveness. He was an assimilationist. The Bulgarian Jews should assimilate but they probably wouldn’t because they did not come from a Judeo-Christian culture, as he and I did. (They have lived, these many years, in a Muslim culture.) What he hated about New York was not that it was a melting pot but that it wasn’t enough of one. The only difference between the two of us was that I was more confident than he about the ability of New York to absorb any number of different populations: the Mexicans and the South Asians and, so I think, even Muslims, however difficult these matters have proven in Europe. The children who grow up in America under the tutelage of imams unwilling to admit that 9/11 was anything other than a tactical mistake will go to movies, and take on American mores, including American clothes, just as Japanese American teenagers had done in the Thirties, even though that did not prevent them from being placed in internment camps.

The cabdriver had kept me guessing as to what his ideological stance was during the entire course of the cab ride, even though I think of myself as familiar with these issues. He had not been evasive. It was just what I took to be fresh departures in the conversation were not so if you grasped what he was saying early on. It is, of course, the nature of conversation. It takes a number of turns to get clear what the other person had been intending to communicate from the very beginning or what he thought was so obvious that it did not need overt expression. That way he could deal with the substance of what was being talked about: the crowdedness and the dirt of New York City. It was only in the course of the negotiation that is at the heart of every conversation that each participant has to widen the context of what has already been said so that what has been said becomes clear. The largest context is the assumptions or values that one held even at the beginning of the conversation but which there was no need to allude to until the going got tough. In this view, assumptions were there at the beginning of conversations even though speakers are unwilling to yield them up lest they end a conversation by leaving nothing left to add but the reiteration of basic assumptions. I am an assimilationist; so are you; what else is there to say. That is different from plane geometry where you lay out the assumptions first and then think of what you can do with them.

There is another way to approach the matter. Roland Wulbert would read a conversation as proceeding from earlier in time to later in time, each turn an occasion for a new invention. You invent larger contexts as responses to what has been said just before. It is just another technique of conversation rather than a necessity in the construction of conversations that one proceeds from facts to assumptions. Assumptions come last in conversations rather than are presumed to have been there at the beginning of them. We are pressed into making assumptions because we can no longer think of anything new to invoke. Assumptions aren’t trump cards finally played; they are stop orders. The cab driver and I had moved on from the economics of New York to ethnic relations to assimilationism when we could have meandered down some other path, made some other association at any step along the way.

I am not sure there is much of a difference between these two analyses. Any next step can be seen as a generalization or a detour from one, and any stop can be labeled an assumption. Was my invocation of us both being Ashkanazi Jews a way to stop on a point of agreement or an attempt to provide an assumption that all Ashkanazi Jews could agree about? Had he refused my gambit or just moved the conversation on to a higher level? But the two ways of approaching conversations sure do feel different. The discovered assumption approach provides a sense of looking backward, to restoring the idea that every conversation is an attempt to restore an equilibrium in which every side is right because every side has its own assumptions. The Wulbert approach of treating assumptions as events in a conversation, as acts of invention, provides a sense of looking forward. Perhaps the cabdriver was looking back to a pastoral Armenia and I was looking forward to a future filled with the ever greater bustle of the cities. I don’t know. Maybe all of conversation reflects either an ideological or a utopian cast of mind. After I left the cab, though, I felt like calling back to the driver that he should not move out of New York City. Whether his conversational talents were in doubling back or moving forward, he belonged in the New York conversation.