Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meeting Walter Cronkite

As we mourn the loss of the venerable newscaster, Walter Cronkite, ironically just days before the 40th anniversary of one of his most famous broadcasts, the web has been full of remembrances and tributes. Mine is far from unique or noteworthy, but I thought I would share it just the same.

For the last four years I lived in New York City, I had a part time job driving a taxicab. It was the real thing; a licensed medallion cab driven through the five boroughs. And, I lived to tell about it. Well, it wasn’t all that scary, but it was a heady time in the NYC cab industry, just before the fleets disappeared and at a time you could still make a living wage ferrying around New York’s elite.

At that time, many college students drove cabs in NY. We mostly worked on weekends when the regular drivers took some time off. And in the last few years on that job I was making more per hour than I would make in my real first job working for a mental health agency in northern Maine. Go figure.

It was a bright Sunday afternoon in early fall with the sun just setting. I was cruising in the upper East Side looking for a fare to take me out to the airport (the NYC airports could be gold mines on Sundays) or a long fare back downtown. I was on York Ave heading south and I think it was around 84th St when I spotted a young man on the corner. Instincts kicked in and I almost willed the kid to raise his hand to flag me down. As we made eye-contact he signaled me to make the turn east on to 84th. This was a good sign because it meant we were going to pick up someone on the block and they might have luggage, and they might be going to Kennedy, and…anyway, you get the point.

The handsome young man, maybe in his early 20s, jumped in and directed me to the middle of the block of handsome townhouses and brownstones. He explained that I would be picking up their housekeeper and taking her home to her apartment on 96th and East End.

My enthusiasm faded instantaneously as I recognized that this was not a long haul. This was a short hop and one that would take me further way from my desired goal. I groaned to myself and was contemplating my next move when I saw him. He was instantly recognizable and I was immediately drawn to his bright eyes and silver hair attenuated by the piercing late afternoon sun gracing him like a long follow-spot. I want to say he had blue eyes, but I can’t be sure, the golden light washed out any actual color. But the silver hair and the trademark mustache were unmistakable…this was Walter Cronkite.

As directed by the young man in the back, I pulled the cab as far to the left side of the one-way 84th as I could right in front of the man who I had been watching on TV since I was in diapers. The most trusted man in television. The man who had interviewed presidents and kings, who was there on the night men walked on the moon and who told us over and over again on countless replays “…President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2:00 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago…”

This was a lighter moment. Walter reached for the cab’s door handle just as the young man opened the door from the inside. There were others in the small entourage that surrounded a small Asian woman, obviously my fare, who was being escorted into my cab. But I didn’t really see any of them; Walter held my fascination and my attention his eyes squinting in the sun.

The meeting was but an instant. The only words exchanged were between Walter and the woman now in my cab. He closed the door and through the opened window thanked her in that trademark mid-western speech style. She thanked him back and I knew that my brief moment with stardom was over. I pulled the cab back into traffic and picked up my trip sheet, instinctively entering the address, time and destination. The Asian lady in the back explained that that was “Mr. Walter Cronkite” and that she was his housekeeper. And yes, she said this with a thick Asian accent that include a mispronunciation of his last name. “That was, Mr. Chip…” she added. “He’s very nice, he’s Mr. Cronkite’s son, he’s very nice.”

The trip was indeed a short one, nary ten blocks, but during the fare she explained that Mr. Cronkite had been away on vacation and had just returned. She had been staying at this house for the duration, watching over things. It seemed she had been in his household staff for some time and that she really enjoyed her job.

I made an asterisk on my trip sheet with the abbreviation "WC" so I would be able to find the address again if need be. And after dropping off the lady on 96th St, I turned my cab back south into obscurity.

“And that’s the way it was….”



Karen said...

Sweet story. Thanks for sharing.

N0Idea said...

John, what an incredibly cool story, I'm glad you had that opportunity, even if just for an instant. Thanks for sharing. :)