It was around five o’clock on a Spring or perhaps it was a Summer afternoon in 1976 in New York City and I was driving my yellow Checker Marathon Cab slowly North looking for a fare.
I was on Amsterdam Avenue, at about 120th Street the first time I saw him. It would have been impossible not to see him, in fact, as he stood approximately six feet five inches tall. He was dressed in a blue grey suit with white shirt, a long blue tie looped around his neck. He was hatless, as was the fashion in those days, although if there was anyone left in New York who looked like he should have been wearing a dark grey fedora, here was that person. He was a large man and black and the blue of his suit matched the haze of the cataracts in his eyes.
Seeing my cab was empty, he hailed me with a tired, casual gesture of his right arm and hand. I pulled over, somewhat mechanically as if having been summoned by some sort of magical genie from an oil lamp. Although he said nothing about it, I got the feeling that he had hailed at least one other cab in the ten minutes before I arrived on the scene and they had taken one look at him and kept going. He seemed slightly exhausted as he folded his large frame into the right rear passenger area.
I was immediately struck by the contrast between his age and his size. He must have been at least 90 at the time. I didn’t realize old people came that big. He was by far the largest old person I had ever seen. There was an air about him of faded casual elegance and of better times gone by and he seemed to be on some sort of mission.
He asked me to turn the car around and take him to a photography shop downtown between Lexington Avenue and Park. He didn’t remember the street, but he knew where it was and would show me where to turn. When we stopped for the first traffic light he began speaking in a calm and quiet voice. He carefully explained that he wanted to hire me for the afternoon. To take him places and to wait outside for him.
He told me that he and his wife, who was now an invalid, had been forced to leave their brownstone in Harlem, where he had lived and worked as a photographer for decades and they had moved into a tiny modern apartment. He had many negatives of the inside of their old house as well as the old neighborhood and he was searching for a photo laboratory that could blow his negatives up very large. He wanted to use them as wallpaper to decorate his new apartment, so that his wife, who missed their old home, would feel better about her new one.
I loved the idea.
While I sat in the cab with the meter running he went inside the photo store. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, he came back out satisfied that he had a deal. He seemed more relaxed now that he had found someone who could do what he wanted. He was sure that his wife was going to be happy now and stop missing the old home so much. I was touched by the tender way in which he spoke of her. It was clear to me that he must have loved her very much to go to so much trouble and expense to make her happy. I briefly thought about my father and mother and wondered if my father would have gone to such extravagant lengths to please my mother—or whether he would have thought such an idea was silly and a waste of money.
While I pondered such an unlikely scenario and steered the cab through the traffic, he interrupted my musings to direct me to where he wanted to get out. I pulled over and he paid the fare and even gave me a little tip.
As he slowly got out he told me his name—James Van Der Zee— and invited me to come and visit them in their new apartment. I was touched by how excited he was now at the prospect of seeing his idea realized and being able to surprise his wife and to please her.
I promised that I would visit them– and I knew as I was making that promise, that it would never happen.