Sunday 26 January 2020

'I could not stop for death' - He travelled to America to his uncle's funeral, but a scary taxi driver meant Donal Lynch almost didn't make it

Donal Lynch.
Donal Lynch.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It wasn't like I wasn't used to the ways of New York taxi drivers: I'd dealt with my fair share of Travis Bickles. And it wasn't like I wasn't used to being late for stuff. In fact, I'd elevated tardiness to an art form, or an ailment, depending on whichever seemed least preposterous on that particular day.

But this was different. This was my grand-uncle's funeral. We'd travelled over in convoy to it from Ireland, all the men of the family. It was farewell to a legend; a man who had been a kind of Ellis Island for the family's huddled masses. No amount of self-effacing one-liners would work if they'd closed the coffin by the time I shambled in.

Like a lot of dramatically awful days, when I looked back on this one, I realised it wasn't purely shitty luck. Clearly, some sort of curse was in operation. There had been a transport strike in Manhattan that day, which meant that barely any of the trains were running. My phone's internet also wouldn't work in America, because our third-world network providers can't make that happen.

I'd also stayed up late the night before, getting seriously sauced on whiskey sours in an East Village dive bar, because "it's what my uncle would have wanted", so I was dealing with a Day After Tomorrow-incarnation Manhattan, with the rage and remorse of the seriously hung-over.

Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline
Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline

I decided I'd get as near as I could using my MetroCard, so I foolishly got the train to the north part of the island, and then stepped out into the dystopian nightmare of Washington Heights.

This seemed like another country to the tourist playground I'd left behind. Pawn shops rather than fro-yo bars. Hookers rather than hipsters. And, most shockingly of all to me in my frantic hurry, the cabs were green rather than yellow.

I wandered into the road like a zombie and flagged one down. In hindsight, I did detect a certain suicide-bomber-vibe off him; he sort of muttered to himself continually, ranting away at the horizon, and occasionally glared at me in the mirror.

After about 30 minutes, I noticed that we were still on some lonely highway. I called out the address to him again and asked him if he was sure he knew where he was going. He was still talking to himself. It felt like I was inside some claustrophobic Emily Dickinson poem.

The clock continued to tick. I had come thousands of miles specifically to go to this event, and now it was going to pass, while I circled the New York equivalent of the M50 for the rest of my days. We drove on, with the driver's soliloquy sounding ever more exasperated, and me feeling the gates of hell opening below me.

By now, it was dark. We'd been driving for an hour and a half. I told him to stop the car, which he did, before pointing to the meter (concealed under the piles of junk in his front seat). It told me that I owed him $138. I protested that I only had $60 cash on me and, since he hadn't brought me to where I was going, I couldn't even ask anyone for the cash.

I threw the money at him and walked off into the night, as he fulminated over my shoulder and screamed into his phone. I felt a bit like I might actually get into the grave with my uncle.

By the time I arrived at the funeral home it was another hour - and several detours through a dark and seemingly deserted suburb - later. At the door, the usher told me that the police had been there, looking for a white male in business or funeral attire. Before uttering the immortal line: "They searched under the coffin and everything." Travis must have called the cops on me.

I handed the usher my jacket and, over his shoulder, glimpsed my uncle lying in state, his complexion notably healthier than mine. I'd just about made it. He'd somehow helped get me there in time, I figured. And at least this was one place where you were allowed to look like you'd just had the fright of your life.

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