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Befriending Black Eagle


Published January 27, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 27, 2016 at 2:28 p.m.

"So, you call yourself an atheist," I said, picking up the conversation.

For us cabbies, the first two weeks of January are typically the slowest of the year, and this year held true to form. The holiday season takes a toll on our customer base, both emotionally and financially. After New Year's Eve, folks remain cabin-bound, in recovery. The college students — normally dependable cab takers — are away on break, and tourists are as rare as rhinoceros. It all adds up to what I call the postholiday doldrums.

But Hackie gotta eat, so I ground it out through the adagio, slim pickings be damned. Any cabbie can make money when it's busy; I take it as a personal challenge to generate income when things are slow.

It was deep in this January trough that I rustled up a fare on Pearl Street. The man was tall and lean, with a broad, flat face and straight, jet-black hair tied back with a leather strand. Settling into the rear seat, he requested, "Cottage Grove."

"Burlington or South Burlington?" I asked. Certain street names are held in common by various towns, and I've learned to secure disambiguation (thank you, Wikipedia) before setting off half-cocked.

"That would be Burlington," he replied. "I didn't even know there was a Cottage Grove in South Burlington."

"Yup, it's off Williston Road, just past Gracey's corner."

"So it sounds like I don't have to tell you where my street is."

"Nope, you sure don't," I replied with a chuckle. "Down North Avenue, just before Merola's. Or what used to be Merola's before they relocated."

Swinging around Battery Park, I asked, "So, did you have a nice Christmas? Myself, I prefer Thanksgiving. I do enjoy a good feast."

"Well, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. I'm half Native American, Mohawk Nation."

"I can appreciate that," I said. "Why celebrate the early stages of the European invasion?"

My customer smiled. "Exactly," he said. "Not many Americans understand that perspective."

"Oh, I think it's beginning to seep through in recent years. It's like a favorite writer of mine, George Saunders, once wrote, 'Mostly we're asleep, but we can wake up.'"

"It's been a long sleep, though. Maybe 500 years."

I laughed and said, "That's why we're all still groggy."

"Anyway," he said, "to answer your first question, I did have a good Christmas. I asked Aaron, my 9-year-old son, what he wanted for a present, and he asked for some money to buy gift boxes for the homeless. They're, like, 10 bucks apiece at the food shelf."

"That's kind of amazing for a young kid," I said.

"That's the way Aaron's been since he could talk. Last week, he asked his mother for money to give to this disabled beggar guy on Church Street. My ex-wife doesn't get it, though. She was railing at me recently because the kid said 'fuck.' I mean, he's such a sweet person, who cares about an occasional curse word? But she's a big churchgoer, a real holy roller. Me and Aaron are both atheists, but she forces him to go to church with her."

"Well, I guess that's why there's two parents — a child gets different perspectives on the big questions of life."

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. It's tough to resolve this stuff when you're divorced, though."

"Hey, it's tough when you're not."

We rolled by the North Avenue Alliance Church, a "mega-church" by Vermont standards. I've never felt connected to organized religion, but I appreciate the value, the feeling of community and connection, it can bring to a person's life. If it offers peace of mind, I say go for it. I'm with John Lennon, who sang, "Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right, it's all right."

"So, you call yourself an atheist," I said, picking up the conversation. "What about Native American spirituality? You know — the Great Spirit, Mother Earth, that kind of thing. Do you feel a connection to that?"

"Honestly, not really," he replied.

"Stop me if I'm getting too personal here, but how then do you experience the link with your native roots?"

"That's easy," he replied. "It's with the people, with the land. I don't have to bring in anything supernatural to feel that bond."

When I was in elementary school, in Brooklyn, New York, my school had a single Native American student. He was known in those less awakened times as "the Indian." The boy's name was Black Eagle, and, looking back, I'm struck that he never adopted an Americanized name. He was one proud kid.

It was the '60s, and Manhattan was experiencing a building boom. Skyscrapers were rising seemingly on every corner. Black Eagle's dad, he told us, was a steelworker — "walking the high steel" is how he put it. Native Americans were said to possess exceptional balance, and whether this was myth or reality — probably myth — it helped them land good, high-paying jobs on the skyscraper crews.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Mohawk men took up the trade, making their way down from the upstate reservation to live and work in the city. The vast majority, I've only recently discovered, came without their wives or children. Black Eagle, a Mohawk child in New York City, was an anomaly.

Driving this customer to Cottage Grove made me think of Black Eagle for the first time in decades. I wish I could return — to the '60s, to P.S. 99 in Flatbush — and make friends with the kid. This was my desire at the time, but I didn't know how to go about it. Now I do. And while I'm at it, maybe I'd drop by Hudde Middle School and ask Monica if I could walk her home. And, next, I'd revisit Midwood High School and...

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.