A reprint from the groundbreaking Psrhea Magazine literary website.
This article saw first published in December 1996.
They Just Don’t
Know I’m There
Makes Me Wanna Hollar
by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
I am a taxicab driver in Sacramento. Individuals in customer service-oriented occupations deal with an eclectic array of people from all walks of life. It seems we cab drivers deal with the public’s more colorful personalities who, probably because they have nobody else, feel a need to express their frustrations to us as if we are their analyst – or worse, their bartender. Because I am a “virtually” invisible man, I get to hear what some customers wouldn’t divulge if they knew I was there. Here are a few examples…
I was called to a four-star hotel in midtown Sacramento to pick up a gentleman going to a private airport in the south. He was a middle-aged, white pilot from Kansas City in town to pick up an airplane and fly it back to Missouri. With a country twang we struck up a conversation about our respective cities and how much alike they were (If you’ve never been to Sacramento, understand that even though it is in California, it is less like its more flamboyant counterparts in the Bay Area and Southern California and more like middle America. In relation to Kansas City, it pretty much has the same population, same demographics, same social/political/economic attributes and attitudes). This customer seemed to be a very outgoing and eloquent man, and considering that he was only in town for a little over eight hours and really had no opportunity to see the town or speak in length with anybody else, I thought we had had a very enjoyable conversation (at least for two strangers whom had just met and only had about 12 minutes with each other).
Anyway, upon pulling into the small airport and being paid, I noticed that he was wearing a blue and white Kansas City Royals’ baseball cap. I commented to him that I have a Kansas City baseball cap, but not the Royals. In honor of my heritage and history, the cap I possess represents the red and white of the Kansas City Monarchs. You know, the old Negro League team that gave the world James “Cool Papa” Bell, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, and Buck O’Neil.
Upon hearing this, the customer coolly and without hesitation responded, “Oh, Yeah, that’s that old Nigger League team!” (emphasis mine). And, without missing a beat, he seamlessly continued his thought without ever realizing the enormity of his statement. “They have Old-Timers day twice a year at Kaufman Field, and the Royals wear the old Monarchs uniforms. They are the most popular home dates on the schedule.”
I didn’t know whether this guy didn’t know he had said something baldly offensive or, me being very light-skinned, bald, and wearing a baseball cap, he simply didn’t know I was a member of the race he had just baldly offended. Either way, he just kept on talking about baseball. That is when I realized: Oh, that’s right, I’m INVISIBLE! To him I don’t exist, I’m just the entity that drives the car. So there’s nobody here to insult. With that epiphany, I stopped talking and listening. Not that he noticed; he just kept on glibly and lightheartedly chattering. Upon departing the cab, he cheerfully said, “Take care there, buddy. It was nice talking to you.”
About 5:00 AM on a dark winter morning, I was called to pick up at another four-star hotel just north of downtown Sacramento. The customer, another white male, was a resident of Sacramento having an overnight “tryst” at this particular hotel. Upon entering the cab and telling me of his destination, I asked him why he was calling a cab to take him home when he had driven himself here to the hotel – he was obviously not drunk, quite wide awake, but also quite sullen and upset.
“Oh, man, I was just robbed and had my tires slashed by these four niggers!” exclaimed my customer. I’d like to claim that it was because it was dark and that he couldn’t see that I was black, but that would be making excuses; whether he knew or not, he kept on talking. “That just ruined my fucking night, man. These spearchuckers just walked up to me as I was going to my car and asked me for a ride. Then they rolled me right there at my car in the parking lot, and then one took out his switchblade and slashed all of my tires. It’s bad enough that they robbed me, but why the fuck did they have to slash my tires?”
He continued like this for the entire ride – twenty minutes of having to listen to him rant and rave about his robbery and tires. I can understand why someone would be upset and frustrated at having gone through this, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for a “victim” when he blames his plight on the fact that the “perpetrators” are black, thereby blaming a race rather than the individuals who did this – and by extension, blaming me. But like I said, he probably didn’t know I was black – remember, I’m “INVISIBLE!” I said nothing the entire trip.
At the end, he wanted to tip me a couple of bucks, but I just took what was on the meter and gave him back his entire change. “You don’t want a tip, man?” he asked.
“Not from you…and I’ll let you figure out why.” I replied, as I jumped in my cab to leave. I’ve come to realize that you can really anger a customer if you give him/her back his/her tip.
Late one evening I was called to Oak Park, the predominantly ethnic section of Sacramento, to pick up a family at their residence. I pulled up to the front and went to the front door to let them know I was there (that’s right, I’m not afraid to get out of my car at night in the ‘hood, and it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m black). This very big, overweight black man answered the door and told me that he and his family would be out in a minute. I went back to my cab and sat there for over five minutes waiting for them. Now, our policy is that if we drivers are left waiting by a customer for a significant amount of time after they have been made aware of our presence, we can then turn on the meter.
So I did. A few minutes later the overweight black man came out to the car and got in the back seat. “Whassup, homes,” he said. “Yo, why the fuck is the meter on ?”
I told him that there is a wait charge and that I had not turned it on until only a few minutes ago.
“Aww, fuck this shit,” he screamed. “You gonna play a brotha’ like that, man? Whassup wit dat?”
I then told him that I have calls holding and that any wait time causes calls to wait. I then asked him if he was ready to go.
“Naww, man, we still gotta wait on my lady and child. You gonna cut us a deal, bro? You gonna give a brotha a break?”
Now I am not adverse to giving a customer a rate, but this customer had left me waiting with calls holding (and I was still waiting), and he still had not told me his destination, so a flat rate was not in the offing. I explained this to him.
“Man, fuck you, punk-bitch,” he yelled at me. “This is bullshit! Fuck you, niggah! You can’t even give a homey a break, bitch! ” At this time his “lady” and child got in the car, but he kept on screaming invectives at me. “You gonna play me like a punk? I’d beat da shit outta you. No, wait, I wouldn’t even beat da shit outta you, I’d bitch-slap you, punk! ”
It was like this the entire trip (only about five minutes, but having to put up with all his ranting made it seem longer), with his wife having never said anything. At the end of the trip he paid me and said, “Fuck you, punk! I want all of my fucking change, niggah-bitch! ” When I gave him his change, he noticed the Malcolm “X” hat I was wearing. “Get the fuck outta here, bitch! You shouldn’t even be wearing dat hat. You don’t even know what Malcolm was about. You a fucking embarrassment to the race, sellout!”
Never mind that Malcolm X believed in “cooperative economics” among blacks, not giving services away to the black community for free like this “customer” incorrectly thought. Well, at least he noticed that I was black. That I am a human being, well, that didn’t occur to him, so I just took his abuse like I just wasn’t there. Remember, I’m INVISIBLE!
What I just don’t understand is why I’m invisible in situations like those outlined above, but when I walk into a swanky four-star restaurant or an exclusive haberdashery I’m the most visible individual there? As if I’m going to rob them or “start some shit”, I’m being followed from the moment I walk in. I just can’t seem to control when I’m seen….
The Invisible Man is neither a movie creation nor Claude Rains. He was first publicly revealed through Ralph Ellison’s now-famous novel. He most recently was among the 600,000+ other obviously-invisible men that the Washington, DC Park Services failed to count during the Million-Man March.
Copyright 1996 Accurate Letters Enterprises/Psrhea Magazine