Sangam House




I am standing in back of Penn Station in Manhattan, looking for a taxi with outstretched arm. A minute ago, a homeless man asked me if I needed a cab, and now he is standing three meters to the left of me, trying to hail one before me, and I am trying to pull a one-dollar-bill from the rolled-up wad of money in my pants pocket, hoping to grab the right one at first attempt, since I don’t really want to unpack the fat bundle of bills in front of him. The homeless man goes around the corner to the left when a taxi stops, I let go of the wad of bills in my pocket and get in. Only when I’m inside do I realize that there is an old man sitting in the seat behind the driver, and my first reflex is to apologize and get out again, but the cab driver has already started to accelerate and I am forced to shut the door quickly so it doesn’t crash into the car next to us.

Where you wanna go? I hear the driver ask.

I take a look at the old man next to me, but he pays no attention to me and looks out the window, so I think – because I have no other explanation – that maybe this is the last ride of the day, that the driver is on his way home, is only making an exception for me and that the old man there is his father or his uncle, perhaps, whom he is taking home. Something like that runs through my head, and without further thought – after all, the guy behind the wheel must have some inkling that he has two people in the car, and he must know what he’s doing – I say: 2nd Avenue and 112th Street, please, and the driver switches on the meter, I roll down my window and ask whether I may smoke, I figure there’s no harm in asking, and the driver, a pudgy guy with a Mexican accent, says he doesn’t mind, I should just watch out that the police doesn’t see me, and out of politeness, I turn to the old man who is still looking out the window with his face turned away from me, and say: Excuse me. Do you mind if I smoke? And when he turns to me and says “No”, I suddenly see that this old man is Henry Kissinger, I recognize him, the furrowed face with the distinctive nose, the wart above the right eyebrow, the horn-rimmed glasses, and I am too surprised to say anything more than “Fine”, he turns his face back to the events outside, and I finally light my cigarette.

While I smoke, I slyly glance at my fellow passenger a couple of times, convincing myself that it is really him, there can be no doubt, otherwise he would have to be a perfect look-alike, but how is this possible: what is Henry Kissinger doing in a cab going uptown, why doesn’t he have a limousine and driver? I am briefly tempted to tell myself that I am not quite sane, but a look to the left is enough to be certain: I am sitting next to Henry Kissinger. His hands are folded on his legs, he is wearing grey linen suit, a shirt made of light wool, and the subtle fragrance of a gentleman’s perfume, perhaps something like Acqua di Parma or Halston, emanates from him, mixed with that typical old-men smell, and his nose is a little shiny from sweat, for the day is not exactly cool.

So I’m sitting in the same car as Henry Kissinger, I think. Shouldn’t I rise to this occasion, which will probably never come again, and ask him something? Try to start a conversation with him? I wonder what I could ask him. Draw him out of his reserve with a very specific question? Is it true, Mr. Kissinger, that the CIA …? Or: Do you know, Mr. Kissinger, whether it’s true that the collapse of the World Trade Center …? Or: Mr. Kissinger, is there truth to the rumor that …

But maybe it would be more interesting, I then think, to ask him for a simple favor or pose a general question. Mr. Kissinger, could you please explain the world to me? What exactly is going on, who does what with whom and how and why this way and not the other way around, and is there a trick to it? However, I think that the answer to such a universal question would take longer than this cab ride, for despite traffic we have got as far as 81st Street, where the driver turns into Central Park, and I have no idea when Henry Kissinger is going to get out.

But maybe a very personal question would be the ticket, something like: Mr. Kissinger, pardon my curiosity, what is that perfume you’re wearing? That, and his answer, would make an original anecdote which I could nonchalantly tell on appropriate occasions in the right company for the rest of my life, guaranteeing incredulous looks from my audiences.

I toss my cigarette, which has burnt down to the filter, out the window, and – I swear it is true – at the same moment something falls into my lap through the open roof which scares me at first because it is a dragonfly almost as big as the palm of my hand, but at second glance I see that it is dead, so I calm down, touch it slightly with my finger, it really is dead, and I am just about to proclaim: Look, a dragonfly came through the window, but then it seems somehow ridiculous to say something like that, somehow I feel that no one would believe that I was riding a cab through Central Park in New York and suddenly a dead dragonfly landed in my lap, so I remain silent and leave it where it is.

In the meantime, we have left Central Park behind and the driver turns onto 3rd Avenue, we are just a few minutes from my destination. If I want to ask Henry Kissinger something, I should probably hurry up, I think. I look at him, he still has his head turned to the left, towards the window, and I simply cannot come up with anything to say. Instead, I am spellbound by the sight of him.

Henry Kissinger just sits there, in this cab, behind the driver, looking out the window, and I think that maybe this man has himself driven around New York all day while the world thinks he is at the White House or elsewhere, and somehow that thought touches me, and when I see at one of the next traffic lights that we are only one block from where I have to get out, I decide not to ask him anything, but to let him look out the window in peace, but then I suddenly have an idea, and I take the dead dragonfly and place it on his leg, very carefully and making sure that he doesn’t notice, between the sleeves of his jacket made from that beautiful material. And I actually manage it so that he doesn’t notice anything and just keeps looking out the window, and then the taxicab turns into 112th Street and stops at the corner of 2nd Avenue, and the driver pushes the button on the meter, turns to me and tells me the fare, and when I have given him a twenty-dollar bill, I take one last look at Henry Kissinger, and suddenly he is looking at me too, and I think about how to say goodbye to him when I remember that he speaks German, so I say: Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Kissinger, and he nods and says: Goodbye, and already I’ve got out and slammed the door behind me, and already the driver has accelerated again, and already the car is only another one among many yellow cabs in Manhattan, driving down 2nd Avenue on this late afternoon

(Translated from the original German by Alexa Nieschlag.)

Xaver Bayer was a resident at Sangam House in December 2009. This story has appeared in Other People: The Sangam House Reader vol. 1.

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