My main feeling when I finished Robert Cooperman's collection of poems about driving a taxicab in 1970's New York? I wished it would go on; I wished the ride weren't over. Just drive, Bob! These poems are full of humor and humanity, brimming with familiar characters and the sort of everyday street adventure you might find in a Malamud or Bellow novel.
Cooperman's work is wide-ranging, from narrative poetry of the Old West to formal verse about ancient Greece, but when he writes about New York, he writes with a sweet nostalgia — though not necessarily a fondness — for temps perdu. Born in Brooklyn, for the past forty years Cooperman has lived all around the country — in Denver for the last twenty — but still has roots in New York. His previous collections, My Shtetl and The Words We Used, dredge up memories and scenes about growing up Jewish in the 1950/60's. This collection, which spans maybe a year in the 1970's, similarly calls upon memories of his youth. Indeed, the Cooperman character in these poems is usually called "kid" by his elders.
Cooperman sets the scene for us, describing "Why We Drove Cabs," "Taking the Hack Test," "The Order of March," in which he describes a typical shift from picking up the cab at the garage on West 57th, then heading south, taking a left below 42nd, left again on Madison, trolling Fifth Avenue, stalking the Theater district, seeking out airport fares, and finally dinner and home. "The Taxi Rules," "Boxing Out," "Here's How It Worked," "End of Shift" likewise get us through a day in the life.
This being the 1970's, he invokes (and evokes) the Martin Scorsese movie, Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro plays a New York City cabdriver — a movie that dismays the old-timers for its depiction of a sleazy occupation. As one venerable hack puts it in "The Belmore Cafeteria":
"Before De Niro ruined it for us,
in that piece of shit flick I couldn't watch.
And if the putz ever shows his face
in here, I'll kick his ass to Times Square."
Like this veteran of the streets, the characters we encounter in these poems are vivid and memorable: from the out-of-town conventioneers come to the Big Apple with visions of sin and sex all around in "My First Fare" ("Where can we get laid, kid?") to the imperious once-famous drunken British actress who stiffs him after a ride uptown ("What can you do, kid?" the doorman shrugs). Or the streetwalkers he sees night after night on every Midtown streetcorner, "in hot pants, earrings that dangle/like wind chimes, and heels Babel–high." So familiar is one, in fact,
...we've gotten to the stage
of intimacy that I nod at her, and she's
stopped asking me if I want a date. ("The Streets at Night: Winter")
Some of the characters are recurring, like the bully cabdriver, Sid, and the insane dispatcher, Stan, who plays favorites and punishes those who don't show him deference, obey his whimsical rules. In "Losing My Brakes on Columbus Avenue" Cooperman tells us
but Stan forgot nothing, held grudges
like the Rockefeller Center statue
of Atlas holding up the globe.
For some reason that the kid has forgotten, Stan punishes him with a cab "with brakes mushier/than mashed potatoes" and though he avoids an accident and knows what Stan has done, he is "not quite dumb/enough to think about revenge."
Though it's hard to choose, I think my favorite poem is "Robert Lowell in the Cab, I":
He was fleeing his third wife,
Caroline Blackwood, for his second,
Elizabeth Hardwick, and clutching
the Lucien Freud portrait
of the young Blackwood,
when the heart attack felled him
like a careless logger flattened
by a toppled redwood.
One can only speculate on why
he was carrying that painting
while returning to the woman
he'd spurned in the first place:
But I always felts lucky
no one died in my backseat.
The closest? The woman
who groaned to lower
her old bones, while she held
an urn: its contents obvious.
She set the urn beside her
and announced her destination;
and since she kept silent about
her companion, so did I.
When we pulled up to the address,
she paid and left without the urn.
"Ma'am," I called, trying to put
as much kindness into my callow voice
as I could. "You forgot something."
She waved me off and kept walking.
The title of this collection echoes throughout these poems, an exhortation, a description, a refuge. In the poem about his first fare, the out-of-town conventioneers who ask him where they can get laid,
"How the hell should I know?"
I wanted to spit, but reminded
myself my job was just to drive
In "My Wife Left Me," a man collapses in his backseat. "Just drive," he commands, "I don't care where." In "Just Drive Where She Tells You," a man shoves a woman into his backseat, thrusts a C–Note at the kid. "Just drive her," he shouted,/"wherever she tells you!/And keep the change."
The kid wants to console the woman — after all, aren't cabdrivers supposed to be confessors and therapists and raconteurs rolled into one? Or so the legend goes. He wants to tell her:
"He's not worth it," and smile
sympathy at her pretty, tear-smudged
face, but didn't; women's tears
the most terrifying force
I'd encountered in my young life.
Thus, by the end of the collection, after the kid recounts "The Last Time I Drove a Cab," before heading west, as if in counterpoint to the De Niro myth, to explode the legend of the wisecracking cabbie, "fonts/of all wisdom, dispensing advice/on everything, having seen it all," we get this observation:
You wanted advice?
Listen to your mother.
We drove, we just drove.