An "INCIDENT" in New York City

A Yellow Cab, A Desire to Catch a Bus, The New York City Police:An "INCIDENT" in New York City

Marilyn, Tonya (our Director of Photography) and I had just completed filming a nearly 2-hour interview with an exciting gay African American AID's activist, George Bellinger, Jr, when the "INCIDENT" took place. I was seeking to get a yellow cab to take me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC to return to my home in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

The driver of the first cab that stopped asked me where I was going. I told him; he responded that the traffic was too heavy near Port Authority and he drove off. The driver of the second cab that stopped asked me the same question, I answered, and he was preparing to drive off.

BUT, in addition to the marvelous and passionate protests of Marilyn and Tonya directed at the cab driver, a car full of New York's finest happened to drive up. I shared what was taking place, and one of the officers got out, opened the trunk of the cab, we put my suitcase in, and then he told the driver that when he refuses to take a passenger, he is subject to a fine of over $200. I got in the back of the cab and the driver drove me to Port Authority without comment.

I will not claim that the cab drivers were reluctant to take me "BIAB", (because I am black), and Marilyn and Tonya may have a different opinion on that. But, while I and they were openly and inwardly rejoicing that Truth in Progress had in New York City experienced another glorious time of interviewing and picture-taking for our coming film documentary, my taxicab "INCIDENT" made me think of the poem by Countee Cullen who was active in the Harlem Renaissance. He was the son of the minister of Harlem's Salem United Methodist Church. His poem is titled "INCIDENT." As you read the poem, you will understand why it came to mind as I, Marilyn, and Tonya responded to my being twice rejected by cab drivers, only to be rescued by the New York Police.

Once riding in old Baltimore, Heart-filled, head-filled with glee, I saw a Baltimorean Looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small, And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he poked out His tongue, and called me, 'Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore From May until December; Of all the things that happened there, That's all that I remember.

Countee Cullen is no longer with us, but his poem about a little black boy who was eight years old in Baltimore came to mind, as I was in New York City. I will be eighty years old next year.

Truth in Progress is a project exploring the intersections of racism, heterosexism and religion. I, as a co-participant, am amazed at the insights of my colleagues, Marilyn Bennett who is the producer of Truth in Progress and Tonya Easbey who is our brilliant and gifted director of photography. Marilyn, with her vision for our project and her optimism about raising funds, Tonya, and I believe we are producing a film that will break new ground.

As I was being refused and rejected by cab drivers in New York City, I thought of the many, many times persons because of race, and/or because they are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or a same sex couple are rejected in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They and I ask, "What is it about us that compels some people to reject or ignore or pass us by or refuse to treat us as fellow human beings? And, when they are forced to acknowledge us, they let us know that even though laws or fears of being fined have made them accept us momentarily, they still let us know through body language, sullenness, and anger that they believe we are less than worthy; we are for them disposable pieces of “junk."

Kermit the frog said, "It's not easy being green." Marilyn and I share with you that, "It is not always easy doing what we are doing in the Truth in Progress project." But your support in the past, present and in the future keeps us going.

I invite you to consider contributing, and urging your friends and colleagues to contribute to Truth in Progress. And, if you are aware of foundations or philanthropists who would consider Truth in Progress, please let us know. We must load up the taxi with so much financial support, that the driver can’t help but want to drive us to our destination!

Stay strong,

Gil

P.s. In due fashion, read on for Marilyn’s take on the “Incident.”

Would this have happened 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago? Gil, Tonya and I had finished our last interview of our filming in New Jersey and New York City. Invigorated, exhausted, heads full of stories, brains on over-drive of what needed to be done next, we stood on a busy Fifth Avenue at noontime hailing cabs. Surrounded by film equipment and suitcases, we were so ready to get out of the fray and on our way home. First up was to get Gil to Port Authority. A cab pulled up, Gil told the driver where he wanted to go, but the driver shook his head and drove off. Many taxis passed us by with their “off duty” lights on. I saw out of the corner of my eye Gil walking over with the aid of his cane to a police car that had just pulled up. I wondered what Gil was asking the officers in the front seat. Tonya kept her hand up, willing taxis to pull over. I saw Gil start to move back from the police car when the back window slid down. The white officer in the back said, “Next car that pulls up, have him open the trunk. You put your bag in, get in the car, and tell him where you’re going. He has to take you.”

Overhearing this, Tonya stood with Gil’s bag ready to load into the next cab that pulled up. By then the officers had moved their car in front of where we were standing. When the next yellow taxi pulled up and there was confusion about opening the trunk and the driver started shaking his head when Gil told him where he wanted to go, the police officer from the back seat jumped out and stormed over to the cab. “You will take him to Port Authority or you will pay a $200 fine.” Trunk popped open, in went the roller bag, and off Gil went to meet his bus.

I commented to Tonya, “Looks like Gil got a police escort out of the city.” (I was saying it in the parade-type sense, not the get-out-of-our-city type.) Tonya said, “Yeah, but now he has to ride with that guy who’s really not happy about taking him.” To Tonya, “How many years ago would it have been that Gil wouldn’t even be welcome in this neighborhood, let alone have a cop come to his defense?”

Another taxi finally pulled over. I said that we were going to Harlem. The driver shook his head and before I could think better of it I said, “The policeman said that you have to take us or you’ll have to pay a $200 fine.” (Sounding to myself very whiney.) The driver laughed and pointed to the light on top of the car, “Off Duty.” I took it in stride. Taxi drivers, what else? Tonya and I had had the same problem when we were at Penn Station earlier in our trip at yet another shift change though that one was at 5 pm. Noon and 5:00 for shift changes, what’s that about?

As Tonya and I waited on a cab, I was aware of how rich Gil’s taxi-getting experience was, right at the crux of issues we were addressing. Not so much about transportation but about life experience. Gil and I stood there hailing cabs encased in contrasting skin colors of experience. I was humored by Gil’s approaching the police officers, he strikes up interesting conversations with EVERYone. He had been asking around about taking unlicensed cars, if it was legal, etc. I was pondering what exactly he was asking the officers and could see that they were listening to him. Still, I was surprised and impressed by the officer’s strong reaction to the taxi driver turning Gil down, how he so readily jumped out of the car and came to Gil’s defense.

Gil has been harassed and doubted by white police officers because of the color of his skin. I have not. As a black man he has been turned away and denied over many years–whether a taxi, seminary, lunch counter, or honeymoon hotel. I have not. Recounting this incident, I didn’t think about the driver judging the color of Gil’s skin, I wondered what motivated the police officer to jump to Gil’s defense. Was it that Gil was an older gentleman with a cane? Was it that the officer had had it with taxi drivers or was it that he “had had it” with those of the same ethnicity of this taxi driver? Who knows? Our perspectives are all different. No matter what, we did witness a show of humanity, and it got Gil to his bus and home to Grace.

Onward we go!

Marilyn

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