A year ago at this time, I was a tutor for prep school kids in New York City. In that capacity I took a lot of cabs around the Upper East Side, and one night I found myself conducted down Fifth Avenue by a man named Balwinder Singh. In New York, unusual cab driver names are something of a collector’s item. You can tell the people who just moved to the city, because they will sit down at the bar and excitedly tell you that they were just driven there by Muhammad Ali—not realizing that Muhammad Ali is the Harry Johnson of New York cab driver names: kind of funny, yes, but also too common to remark upon. After you’ve lived there for a few years, Muhammad Ali becomes just another fixture in the background of the city, like the Empire State Building or human suffering. To impress the true connoisseur of foreign cabbie names, you need something genuinely weird—like a Sherpa Sherpa, say, or a 45 year-old man named “Ball-winder,” who has unwittingly immigrated to a country where that is completely hilarious.
It helps that Balwinder Singh was really, really angry. Midway through our trip down Fifth Avenue, an elderly woman in a fur coat* crossed in front of us leading her Pekingese on a leash, then stopped in the middle of the street to check her Blackberry. Balwinder Singh immediately turned around. “Look at this [biscuit],” he said to me. “That [biscuit] is a stupid [biscuit.]” I agreed that she was indeed a stupid biscuit, and added that Balwinder Singh was an unusually perceptive person, in part because I was locked in the back seat of his cab. “You stupid [biscuit]!” he yelled out the window. “A dog [fudges] your [apples]!” That seemed like information Balwinder Singh could not possibly have, and the old woman looked at him in confusion. At that point, he made a noise deep in his throat that I assume is pretty common where he comes from, although I have never been able to successfully replicate it, and drove the cab up onto the sidewalk to get around her. “This is good, right here,” I said, and got the fudge out of there.
Because I am a bad person, I immediately told as many people about Balwinder Singh as I possibly could. No one believed me, which was weird. Normally when I tell made-up stories they’re really convincing and I am the object of universal admiration, so I just assumed that it would be even easier to relate an anecdote that actually happened. Something about the Balwinder Singh story lacked the sterling gloss of absolute truth, though. People had a tendency to wait patiently while I told it, like the way you respond to the guy at the party who has decided to work his stand-up comedy routine into your conversation. Worse, I discovered that there was something about the Balwinder Singh story that reflected poorly on its narrator. To the outside observer, I appeared to have constructed a comic tale about an angry foreigner with an amusing name, who yelled broken English out his cab window while he drove me around the wealthiest neighborhood in America.
It was a story of smug privilege. When I lived in Brooklyn, my landlord was one Manilal Ramnanan, a name we used to say three times fast in order to determine whether we were okay to drive. It was the kind of place where you paid the rent in cash, and when I finally wrote him a check for something my name completely blew his mind. “Dan. Brooks,” he said, punching the air. “You could really do something.” Manilal Ramnanan owned an entire building in Brooklyn, whereas my air mattress had a hole in it, but when he tried to sign up for cable the customer service lady took three cracks at spelling his name and then just hung up. “Dan Brooks,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
I had never considered my name a particular asset, but if I suddenly had to make a living driving strangers around in a cab with my ID posted in the back, only to discover that I had moved to a country where “Dan Brooks” meant “dog vibrator,” my outlook would probably be different. It was that realization that made me feel bad not only that I had been talking about Balwinder Singh at parties, but that I had met him at all. Here I was, a native-born American with a degree from a large public university and an easy-to-spell, non-hilarious name, and I had opted to use this vast opportunity to explain calculus to rich, even more privileged white children, while Balwinder Singh carted me around for twelve bucks an hour. If I had been born Balwinder Brooks, and he had been Dan Singh (okay, bad example,) wouldn’t our situations be different? One has to question the wisdom of a universe that puts a man who wants only to provide a better life for his children at the mercy of a man who wants only to drink Pabst and finger girls with eating disorders. I began to wonder whether such an injustice was even possible, or if Balwinder Singh really was just an invention of my own guilty, monosyllabic conscience.
It was with great relief, then, that I received a picture message of Balwinder Singh’s driver ID from my friend Mike Sebba last night. He seems to have renewed his license, and in the new picture he’s lost the turban and trimmed and colored his beard. The whole package is a more jaunty, American Balwinder Singh—one who still has the name, and probably the rage disorder, but who nonetheless seems like he is doing all right and generally becoming a more believable anecdote. I am glad to finally have proof that Balwinder Singh wasn’t just a beautiful dream. There’s another beautiful dream that nobody ever believes, either: it’s called America, and it doesn’t care what your name is. To her, I say that this is good—you can drop me off here.