You Can Be Whoever You Want

Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train. There was Edwin the banker, putting down his briefcase. Edwin the school teacher was calling to a group of children to line up. Edwin the policeman was walking the platform, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. Edwin wondered if it might occur to the Edwin in law enforcement that so many Edwins, so obviously not belonging on one train platform, let alone in the whole world, was worth looking into. Edwin the conductor helped people find the proper passenger cars but was not in the least startled to look up and see Edwin the passenger departing. Edwin walked past the banker, the school teacher, and even the policeman, without attracting so much as a second look. He was convinced, if he turned his head just slightly to the left, he’d see Edwin the attractive young lady crossing her legs on a bench, and being spoken to by Edwin and Edwin, the two soldiers on leave.

It was only when he was outside the station, and had vomited up his nerves on the curb’s edge, that an Edwin the taxi driver asked, “buddy, are you OK?” When Edwin looked up, the other Edwin said, “I can’t let you in my cab, if you’re going to do that again. Had three fans in the back, after the game last week, and I only just got the residue from one of those bums aired out. Freaking Sox win, and I catch the spew from the stands.”

Edwin stood up, looked around, saw Edwin pushing a baby carriage, Edwin unloading a truck at the concession, Edwin putting a swirl of cherry syrup on a snow cone, and Edwin rattling a cup and begging for change on the corner. He got into the cab out of self-defense, even if it was driven by another Edwin. “Where to, Mack?” asked Edwin the cab driver.

“It’s uh… actually, it’s Edwin.” He half expected the cabbie to exclaim that he had the same name, but instead he heard, “Peter. It’s just an expression. Probably should’ve left it back in the city. New York, originally. Meter’s running – you got a destination?”

“Some place less… populated.”

“You got to be more specific. It’s Chicago. You wanting a ride out to the burbs? If so, there’s a surcharge. I don’t mind, I’m just saying.”

“Just take me to the Burnham. It’s in the Loop.”

“I know where it is. Hold on.” Peter pulled the cab away at a sharp angle, waved off a couple of stern honks by cabbies stopped short, and pulled out onto Jackson Boulevard, turning East without so much as a glance to the right.

“You staying in Chi-Town long, Mack? Uh… Edwin, I mean.” Peter the cab driver flew past Canal Street with abandon, checking the mirror only to talk with Edwin.

“I don’t know. Everywhere I go, it’s the same.” said Edwin. He fumbled for a cigarette, saw the sticker saying “No smoking in Chicago cabs, thank you.” and tucked the pack inside his blazer.

“I know what you mean.” said Peter. “The places I’ve been are always the same hours, the same girls, and – no offense – the same stories. Maybe I’m wrong, though. I’m always willing to be wrong. You got a story for me… Edwin?”

“It’s all right,” said Edwin. He breathed deeply, sank down a little more comfortably in the seat, and let his breathing slow. “You can call me, Mack, if you forget.”

“Mack it is, then, Edwin. You can call me Mack, too, if you forget my name’s Peter. It’s how we handle things like that, back in the City.” The cab stopped at the light on Wacker Drive.

“I don’t think that’d work for me. With two Mack’s, I might get us mixed up.” Edwin managed half a grin, and then chuckled as though whistling in the dark. “Besides, the name’s on your pocket.”

Peter looked at the license clipped to his shirt pocket. It said, “Peter Sommers”. He glanced at the mirror and chuckled. “Very observant. So, it is. “Buddy” is another good one if you forget a name. But Peter’s mine, true enough. So Edwin, what’s your story? I find everybody’s got one. No need to tell me, if you don’t want, but with the construction along LaSalle, we got a few minutes ’til Washington and State Street. Some people just like to get something off their chest. That you?”
Edwin smoothed back his loose, brown hair, wiped the light perspiration from his cheeks with a handkerchief from inside his pressed white shirt, and brushed at a bit of what he preferred to consider flotsam on the lapel of his blazer. “I might have a story for you.”

“I thought so.” Peter said. “I’m usually not wrong about these things and you don’t really look all that sick if it’s about that.”

“It’s more or less about that,” said Edwin. The cab went through the light. “You see, I travel a lot, too. I haven’t ever driven a cab, but I’ve occupied a lot of different positions while traveling. I never stay in any of them or any one place too long. I always seem to have a little money I’m not otherwise using, and I just go.”

“You meet all kinds of people, I bet.” Peter said.

“Yeah, sort of. But they’re also like me. You remember how you said the people seem the same wherever you go – well, that goes double for me.” said Edwin. “You see, when I look at a lot of people – not everyone, but a lot of people, I feel like I’m looking in a mirror.”

“Kind of like seeing your own ghost.” The cab passed Franklin. Men in suits were milling around the Brooks Building on the right. If Edwin sat up straight, he might have seen another Edwin or two among them, but he kept his body slid down low in the rear seat.

Peter tilted the mirror down a little to see Edwin better, and slid one arm along the length of the front seat, relaxing his hand on the other head rest. Half of the cabs in Chicago had a wall between the driver and passenger, with a little sliding plexiglas window through which you could talk. Peter hadn’t opted for this enhancement – a lot of drivers didn’t, because it also severely restricted room in the cab. This meant Edwin could talk freely. He smiled and laughed a lot as he did.

“It’s almost exactly like that, actually. I look everywhere, and I see my ghosts. Right now, I’m a real estate agent. But I could just as easily be a nurse, or a waiter, or a cab driver like you. I look around, and I see myself in any number of faces.”

The taxi made the light at Wells, and continued down Jackson toward LaSalle. “You wouldn’t want to be a cab driver, pal. That’s another one – “pal” is good if you forget a name, and if they don’t have a license clipped to their pocket. Cab drivers, Edwin,” said Peter, “spend most of their time driving in circles, not going anywhere.”

“I don’t know.” said Edwin. “Didn’t you ever think of taking an unplanned vacation? You know, just park your cab for a while, or else get in it and just go? See more of the world?” Edwin stretched and glanced out of the window briefly as they turned North on LaSalle. There were a lot of brake lights and a few more horns than the trip down Jackson, as the cars tried to take turns where the road was paired down to a single lane.

“When I left New York, I meant to get around more, but I came here first, and got involved with a girl, and then other people – friends, I guess – and I just never left after that.” said Peter. “I think about it, sometimes, but it’s probably a little late for it.”

“Sometimes,” said Edwin, “I help people get away, get out of their usual routine, and see more of the world.”

“What, like a travel agent?” Peter laughed amiably. “I’ve got a sister who’s a travel agent. And here I am, staying around Chi-Town and picking up other travelers at Union Station.”

“Not like a travel agent. But I sometimes see people and know I can help them – the way you know you can help someone change a tire, or you can buy a guy a drink.” Edwin smiled in a droopy, downturned sort of way, like he was embarrassed to take pity on another person.

“But,” said Peter, waving his hand a little. “how can you really know you can help someone with their life? A drink is one thing, but changing who you are… that seems like a lot to know at a glance.”

“I know,” said Edwin, “because I can see my own ghost, as you put it. It’s my own face in the mirror, when I look at some people. And that’s how I know they’re one of them.”

“One of who?” said Peter. Traffic was moving smoothly again, as they made it past the road construction on LaSalle. “The Florentine, back there. I meant to say it’s a good place to eat while you’re in town, in case you’re looking.”

“One of the ones I can help.” said Edwin. As Edwin the passenger looked back at the reflection of Edwin the taxi driver in the mirror, it had started to fade. Little by little, he seemed more like a balding man with a Mediterranean complexion, a wide neck and half of an extra chin. His eyes weren’t even the same color. Edwin felt his stomach twitch and turned toward the light of the window on his right, staring out at the buildings passing the cab – faux marble tiles, steel, even some narrower mid-rises of old brick. “You know, I usually don’t cut a trip short, but I don’t know that I’ll be staying as long as I thought.”

The taxi made excellent time after the pinch on LaSalle. The cab had swallowed up Adams and Monroe and was gaining on Madison, while Peter the cab driver devoured the conversation with his fare. “What and you’ll miss the Burnham? Have you stayed there? The architecture is… well, you know your business. Hope it’s not something I said.”

“No, but the restlessness does come quicker these days, like someone has turned up a fire under you and at the same time spun you around. I think I could help you, though, if you’re interested, Peter.” said Edwin.

“That’s the first time you’ve actually said my name,” said Peter. “No offense meant and none taken, just saying.”

“It takes some getting used to, maybe.” said Edwin. He smiled.

“I don’t know, Mack. Sorry, there you’ve got my name down, and I keep forgetting to call you Edwin.” said Peter. “See, life in one place is just like a New York habit. I’ve grown kind of comfortable in my boredom. You learn the names of the streets, and then they’ve got you. You trade New York for Chicago, but have you really gone anywhere? You know what I’m saying?” The cab sailed through the light at Madison but slowed behind several trucks.

“I do know. I know what it’s like to feel the loss of restlessness, and then it seems like all those faces you see, the ones that are like seeing your own ghost, are closing in on you. Before long, they just start being ordinary.” Edwin straightened up in the back seat. “Pull over up here, Peter.” He gestured to a narrower street to the right. “What’s this street up here?”

“Calhoun. But look, Washington is just the next block, and then the Burnham is straight down at State Street.” said Peter.

“No, I’ll get out up here. The reservation at the Burnham is for Edwin, and I’m feeling less like Edwin all the time. Besides, I want to show you something. Don’t worry about stopping the meter,” said Edwin. “I can afford a few minutes more.”

“I don’t mind. My shift’s over after this run, anyway, Edwin. There, I got it right that time, at least. You seem like an all right sort. I’ll see what you have to say, or what you’ll show me, if you got the meter. I’ve seen everything from Communist Manifestos to a half-eaten pear that looked like Pat Robertson. It really did look like him, too.” Peter laughed, and it sounded like corn popping in a theater. “You going to lay a gospel on me or show me a piece of fruit?”

“Not much chance of that.” said Edwin. “See, I can help people break out of their doldrums, because I have this ability to impart something of myself to them, to pass it to another person. And then they can go on, living as freely as I would, at least until their money runs out, or they get sick of it.”

“You seemed a little sick of it, just before you got in the cab. Just saying.” Edwin smiled and slapped the head rest to show he meant it in fun. “But you do this just by showing them something?” asked Peter.

“Yes. It’s very simple, really. It requires a mirror.” said Edwin.

“Like a magic trick! I have a cousin back in Queens that used to do those.” said Peter.

“Not magic, really. But a bit like seeing those ghosts you mentioned earlier. Most people never really look at themselves, not really. They don’t look deeply, and see what’s behind the lines etched on their faces. They never look at themselves and know that they could be anybody. Anyone they want to, really.”

“So it’s kind of like making them free. You can be anybody you want to – that sort of thing.” Peter clicked on the right turn signal. “Does it always work?”

“Exactly like that. And mostly, yes. At least for a while.” said Edwin.

The cab pulled over just short of Calhoun, but a parcel truck was trying to back up, and Peter turned onto the little street that wasn’t much more than a space between tall buildings, mostly used as rear loading access for the complexes that lined West Washington Street.

“Look into the mirror, Peter.” said Edwin.

That’s where Edwin showed Peter what he had to show him, and then got out of the cab, wearing a license clipped to his pocket that said “Peter Sommers.” He opened the driver’s door, eased into the drivers’ seat, sliding the seat back a little to make room for his longer legs, and started to turn off the light box at the top of the cab. He looked at his passenger, who had slid down in the seat to his right, and left it on instead.

“You can be anybody you want to, Mack.” he said, watching his mouth move in the mirror. He backed the cab out onto Washington, and caught two horns and a set of curse words as he peeled back South. He looked to his right. The meter was still running. He asked his passenger, “Where to, Buddy?” There was no answer. “You got a destination, Pal?” He flew through the changing light at Madison, not even looking up. “You want a ride out to the burbs, maybe? There’s a surcharge. I’m just saying.”

Fourteen minutes later, he was on Congress Parkway, which would become Interstate 290. That would hook in to I-88 and take him to Davenport, Iowa and the Quad Cities, where there were many people who might easily be a Peter. Peter the bridge worker, Peter the truck driver, Peter the construction foreman, Peter the missionary, Peter the airplane pilot… He would spot them the moment he stepped out of the cab.

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