When I got in, the driver didn't ask where I was going. We sat in the car, East of the park on 86th street, and waited for the tourists to cross the street on their way from the event on Museum Mile. After they'd passed, the drivers that had expected to take 5th Avenue turned in front of us to go around the blockade. I saw the meter tick twenty cents more onto my fare before the wheels moved. I had a lot of money in my pocket, but I couldn't really afford to take cabs. I fidgeted in my seat.
There was a little console on the driver's armrest that faced the passengers and played entertainment news in brief. I turned it off as quickly as I could. As we inched along, I kept seeing opportunities for the driver to change lanes or turn onto a street with less traffic. I was in a hurry, so I made a few suggestions to the driver. He didn't get mad, but he said, "I'm just an old man. I can't think so fast." I noticed his accent.
The registration card in the back said his name was Petar, and even though I saw the long Balkan last name I didn't ask where he was from. It was only after 25 minutes of barely-moving traffic that he started talking about the streets in Macedonia. In Skopje, he said, you always have to go around something to get to the city center. The city is shaped like "a tie like this," he said, and he made a motion with his hands like catching a football in front of his neck. His hands were shaking intensely. "Bowtie," I said. "Yes," he said. It's shaped like a bowtie, and once you get into the knot part all the roads go around the center in staggered arcs. I thought about asking if he still dreamt about it.
He didn't talk about growing up in Macedonia, but, if the bowtie comment was any indication, he hadn't been here for too many years. Later, after I'd looked around on Wikipedia, I realized he'd probably been woken up by the earthquake that destroyed Skopje early one morning in 1963.
Despite the roads, he talked fondly about the city, like a country aunt who says "bless his heart" after her husband tracks dirt onto the carpet. He mentioned a big new project the Macedonian government was sponsoring to improve the city. He'd seen pictures of the new statues on the Internet. He said he hoped it would look like the grid in Manhattan, because, here, you don't have to circle most of the way around every block to get where you're going. He was really passionate about how much better it was to live in Manhattan. Cab drivers in Skopje must have nightmares about the roads. I understand; I've always hated retracing my steps.
We were still in traffic, and when I pulled out my phone I realized we'd hardly moved in half an hour. I paid Petar, got out of the cab and started walking. I was going much faster than traffic, and I was at least a block past his car when I looked back and saw him turning East so that he could head back South and pick up someone else. I wonder if it's really better here, or if he'd just convinced himself it is.