High life

An extraordinary encounter in a New York taxi

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

New York

If I wrote this in one of those newspaper diaries about metropolitan life, no one would believe it. But I trust that The Spectator’s readership has faith in me, so here goes. Last week six inches of snow were suddenly dumped on the Bagel in the space of two hours, bringing the city to a total halt. Trains stopped running, planes stopped flying, cars stopped driving. The traffic cops — very short in stature and Spanish-speaking to a man and woman, and appointed to the job in order to keep them off the welfare rolls — gave up and allowed drivers to go through red lights, which turned an already bad traffic situation into complete gridlock.

Having finished exercising and dressed to the nines because I was going to a première, I had the doorman of my building hail me a taxi. It was about six in the afternoon and dark. I waited for a good half hour in front of 720 Park Avenue until finally one arrived. I got in and gave the driver instructions. His meter didn’t work (he said it was frozen, and although I’ve heard of many things freezing I’ve never known it happen to a taxi meter) so I told him I’d pay him 20 bucks to drive me ten blocks. He almost got into the back seat to kiss my hand. He was from that democratic country run by Imran Khan, the one that sentences Christian women to death for sport.

We weren’t moving an inch when someone banged on the snow-covered window. I ignored it, but they kept on banging. The window wouldn’t open so I partially opened the rear door and a woman, looking like a snowman, asked if she could share the cab with me down Park Avenue. ‘I am freezing and can pay for the ride,’ she muttered through frozen, blue lips. ‘You don’t have to do that,’ I said, ‘especially if you’re going my way. I’m more than happy to help a lady in distress.’

From what I could tell, she was around 40 and not bad-looking, although not a beauty.

‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ were her first words.

‘Not exactly, but I’ve lived there most of my life,’ I replied.

‘My father loved England, but they didn’t like him very much. He started Granta,’ said she.

‘I was at school with your father back in 1949, Thomas House, Lower School at Lawrenceville,’ answered yours truly.

Then came the classic Noo Yawk response: ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe this. You were in school with him…’

Actually, I was. Ben Sonnenberg had the cube next to mine — we had cubes, not rooms, in a long and narrow dormitory.

‘He hated Lawrenceville,’ she said, but I already knew that as I had read his autobiography in Granta, a highbrow literary publication that he financed.

‘I’ll tell you why he hated it. We were both 12 years old. I weighed 105lb and was five feet tall, but I played American football in the Lower House league. Ben weighed 200lb, was almost six feet tall and was excused from playing football. So we picked on him and called him yellow and the usual cruel things 12-year-olds say to a helpless giant.’

In his autobiography, Sonnenberg wrote that it was Wasp anti-Semitism. It was nothing of the kind, just normal childish bullying of someone who called us barbarians because we tackled each other for fun.

Ben Sonnenberg senior was the man who invented public relations, something unheard of back then. Young Ben inherited a lot of money but remained troubled. He married three times, I believe, and was never in good health, although his mind was apparently amazing.

‘Better that than hookers in Las Vegas,’ I told my passenger, who agreed.

Now what would the odds be of this happening, in the middle of a snowstorm, among ten million ice-bound people? And it gets even odder.

Emma Sonnenberg began to hum a tune: ‘I hear singing and there’s no one there…’

I took it up: ‘I smell blossoms and the trees are bare…’

There followed more ‘oh my God, how do you know this song?’. (Call me Madam, Ethel Merman, Jerome Kern.)

Finally, she said: ‘I’ve missed the opening I was going to, so I’ll just go home. It’s on the next block.’

Me: ‘Funny, I haven’t missed my première, although I’m going to be late.’

Her: ‘Are you in the film business?’

Me: ‘Heavens, no. My friend Michael Mailer has invited me to the opening of an anti-Fox News documentary and I’m going because I am very pro-Fox News.’

At this point there were very loud OMGs, then she said: ‘No, no way. I cannot believe this. Who are you? I went out with Steven Mailer [Michael’s full brother], the actor.’

After that rather extraordinary 45-minute encounter, Emma thanked me profusely, got out of the cab, and I continued on my way. When I told a waiting Michael about it all, he looked nonplussed. ‘You’re making this up, aren’t you?’

The documentary turned out to be so one-sided I almost wanted to knee the jerk sitting in front of me laughing uproariously at every anti-Murdoch remark. So I left early, went next door to the 21 Club, had a steak and two bottles of great red wine, got drunk and walked home in the storm.

What do you think the odds are of this happening? Probably the same as those of having a clean Brexit.

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