In 1978 I subsidized my meager salary as a secondary educator in a small, private school in Brooklyn

by driving a taxi in New York City.  It was an interesting few years especially since I took advantage of

the fact that yellow cabs were permitted to park in designated ‘taxi’ parking spaces/rest stops dotted

sparsely throughout Manhattan.  I used this ‘opportunity’ to spend way too much valuable ‘should-have-

been-looking-for-customers’ crui$ing time, to instead, visit the galleries, museums and cultural institutions

that I couldn’t get to on my own time.  When you can park right outside of places like The Metropolitan

Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim or

any of the Soho, 57th Street or Madison Avenue galleries like Max Hutchinson, Pace or Bykert, you

begin using your “OFF DUTY” sign way too often. 

As an artist, the dream customer brought me to upper Manhattan or the Bronx as The Cloisters would be

only a 15 minute drive further north and to wander its gardens and arched corridors was a pleasant change

of pace from the bustle of Broadway or 42nd Street.

As a cab driver, rather than hustle customers on short trips to Wall Street, the Port Authority Bus Terminal

or any of the corporate glass and steel buildings along Park Avenue (although you certainly made more

money with this strategy), I’d rather sit at hotel taxi stands with the possibility of getting a fare to one

of the area airports like LaGuardia, Newark or JFK. The ride was much more pleasant, the fare was

larger and afterwards you spent an hour or more waiting at airport taxi holding pens for a return trip to

the city.  There I’d be able to draw, plan new artistic ventures and/or read any number of books or

magazines I carried with me in my surplus army backpack.

Throughout the years I had picked up a few ‘celebrities’ along the way...dancer Merce Cunningham,

architect I.M Pei, ex-President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat, actor Raul Julia, actor

Frank Langella (he was headed to the Martin Beck Theatre to perform in the Broadway play ‘Dracula’),

actor Robert Morse (‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Mad Men’) ...

When you decided to wait on a hotel line you had to be willing to take whatever fare was next as the

hotel doorman raised his gold embroidered overcoat and beckoned you to move forward.  Refusing a fare

to any destination was illegal and would result in both a fine and possible suspension by the Taxi and

Limousine Commission of New York. Sometimes there was no wait whatsoever, other times you could be

on that line for over 45 minutes.  What you looked for when you wanted to head out to the outer borough

airports was LUGGAGE, either hand held or being wheeled out on an elegant brass dolly with a bellboy in

tow.  More often than not the appearance of luggage was followed by a disappointing “Penn Station” or

“Grand Central Terminal” and once that fare was over, you headed back to yet another hotel taxi line.

When I pulled up to the St. Regis Hotel just off of 5th Avenue and 55th Street, I was shocked that only

2 or 3 cabs were in front of me.  Quickly moving men in suits emerged from the hotel as the doorman

ran a few steps ahead of them calling the cars in front of me to move into position. With my cab still

in gear and my right foot sitting tentatively on the brake peddle...I sat...ready to move, looking into the

darkened glass of the hotel lobby for any sign of...luggage.

A minute passed...and then another...and still nothing.  I saw that a few cabs had pulled in behind me

after the hubbub of activity from just moments before and a few seconds later those on the back of the

taxi line changed their minds, diagonal’d off and sped into the whiz of traffic headed westbound

and across 5th Avenue.

As I turned my gaze back to the hotel, I saw the doorman hailing me forward and then quickly look

back toward the entrance.  An elderly woman emerged, walked gingerly in the direction of the doorman

and both of them slid their way to the left side passenger door of my cab. 

Not a stitch of luggage was anywhere in sight.

The doorman helped the elderly woman inside and in a calm, quiet voice she said...

“Please, can you please wait for my husband?” and slowly moved to the right side of the cab. 

When I caught a glimpse of this attractive woman as she spoke to me via my rear view mirror, I thought

she looked somewhat familiar.  I was always on the lookout for wandering ‘celebrities’ and, although I knew

this wasn’t Gloria Swanson or Greta Garbo, she did have that kind of presence and demeanor.

I waited a full minute or two before she broke the silence with “I’m husband is sooo slow...

he should be here soon...”, and before a split second had passed..

...”ahhh, finally, there he is...Salvador...SALVADOR !, over here...”

Salvador?  I started to live the moment in extreme slow motion.  I turned my head to the left

and saw the doorman escort a darkly clothed elderly man toward my cab, and at the same time, a moment

of recognition took place and fuzzy apparitions of the woman in the back seat began to emerge in my

mind’s rolodex of art related imagery....the sepia and umber toned one breast exposed portrait

titled ”Galarina” (1944)...the nude open armed female icon in “Leda Atomica”...

“Is that woman Gala Dali?” I thought...and in the next millisecond she uttered...

“Ah, Salvador, you have finally made it.”

By this time my head was fully turned...and there, right in front of me, was the surrealist maestro

himself, Salvador Dali.  He was still slowly walking to my cab as the doorman waited patiently,

one hand on the open door and one hand extended towards Dali to assist him into the back seat.

Mr. Dali looked much older than any recent photograph I had seen of him, seemed frail yet, at the same

time, carried himself with a sense of inner strength and fierce dignity.  He was dressed in a dark suit, wore

a full length black cape that hung from his shoulders and carried with him (of course) a gold or brass

handled cane.  His hair was combed straight back and looked long and a bit straggly in the back, and

the sight of his infamous handle bar mustache moving into view in my rear view mirror sent shivers

throughout my being.  Damn, that’s really Salvador Dali.  I sat open mouthed and felt drained as Gala

spoke... “We are only going around the you know the restaurant ‘La Grunwea’re’ ?”

I had taken Latin for three years in high school and somehow managed to get out of my 2 year

language requirement in college after a single course in Spanish by mustering every art professor

I had, speak on my behalf at some big meeting with the school’s President where they all expressed

the idea that completing this language requirement would seriously interfere with finishing a 14 foot

extremely detailed ink drawing that I had been working on for over a year in my parents

freezing-cold-in-the-winter and hotter-than-hell-in-the-summer attic.  I was grateful they allowed me

to skip that language requirement after an actual visit by a few big wigs to that attic...but perhaps

a switch to learning some rudimentary French would have helped in this crucial moment as I was

clueless about what Gala Dali had actually said.

“Excuse me?” was all I could manage.

“We are going to ‘La Grunwea’re’ (?)...52nd and 5th...”

Salvador Dali sat quietly looking directly into my rear view mirror and straight through me.

This was a trip of just 3 blocks down 5th Avenue but, as luck would have it, what I despised most

about driving a cab in Manhattan, the traffic, was now my best friend and comrade in arms.

Not only did I hit the first light at the corner, cars were at a dead standstill completely across 55th street

and a quick look down 5th avenue brought a smile to my face as it was bumper to bumper as far as I could

see.  A trip that should have taken 2 or 3 minutes turned into a nine minute plus surrealist infinity.

I blabbered on incessantly...all the traditional cliches I’m sure...”you’ve been such a huge influence

on my work”...heaps of admiration...”I’ve stood in front of ‘The Persistence of Memory’ over a

hundred times” (I was a member of MOMA and worked at F.A.O. Schwarz Toy Store on 58th and 5th

from high school through college and went to MOMA each and every day during my lunch break.)

”It’s really an honor to meet you”...I ranted on and on about any and everything art related in the

too short time span I had with these two frail giants of the surrealist movement.

Dali kept nodding thankfully sometimes followed by a hand gesture that seemed papal in its gentle

sway...Gala maintained a steady polite smile and turned to Dali occasionally with an approving nod

that seemed to me to say “see, you still have that elusive power and panache.”

As I turned the corner of 52nd street Gala blurted out “Here it is...” and to my immediate left was

what seemed to be a small but elegant entrance with ‘La Grenouille’ etched across its glass doors.

I waved my right hand letting them know I wouldn’t accept any payment, turned completely around

so as to sit face to face with Salvador and Gala Dali and said “It’s my pleasure, again, it’s such an

honor to meet you both.”  They both nodded and as Gala was in the middle of “thank you” I shamelessly interrupted with a nervous “Can I get your signature on something?” 

My heart was beating out of my chest and my voice began to quiver like the first time you had to make a speech in grammar school and every word out of your mouth was in full high pitched vibrato.

Dali responded in a slow but demanding voice...”You say you are an artist.  If this is true, then you would

have something up there with you about what you say you love...something...about art. If you have

anything like that with you...I will sign it.”

I’ve always been mesmerized by the ‘behind the scenes’ inner workings of artists of all

photographs, images of artists working, films like “Lust For Life” with Kirk Douglas, “Moulin Rouge”

with Jose Ferrer, “Rembrandt” with Charles Laughton, Schnabel’s ‘Basquiat’ or Emile De Antonio’s

classic “Painters Painting”, what artist’s palettes looked like, documentaries, biographies, etc.  I was

a frequent visitor to the Rizzoli book store on 5th Avenue at the time and had recently purchased a Penguin paperback version of  Georgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”.  I quickly pulled it out of my surplus army

backpack and handed it gingerly to Dali with a tenuous “How’s this?”

Dali’s eyes widened.  He sat up in his seat and reached out for the book. 

“Ahhhh” he said nodding approvingly...”Ahhh, Vasari !  You must truly be an artist.  Do you have...?” 

I quickly handed Dali a pen and saw him turn to Gala.  She looked at him, half cocked her head and

broke into a beaming smile as Dali said...”It is a sunny day.  I will draw you the sun.”

Dali’s hand moved like he was carving scrimshaw into a walrus tusk...a few twists and turns...and then

fast, quick movements.  He closed the book, handed it to me and said...”for you”.

I took the paperback, dropped it onto my seat and quickly opened my door to help them out of the car.

As I opened the door, almost immediately someone from ‘La Grenouille’ came running out to assist both

Dali and Gala from the cab.  He greeted them both with a familial “Good afternoon Mr. Dali...welcome!”,

assisted Mr. Dali to his feet and then escorted Gala up and out of my cab.  All three made their way to the

front door with a calm grace.  Gala nodded to me as she walked alongside Dali and as I heard my own

voice sing out a final “Thank you again Mr. Dali...”, Dali, without turning around, just raised that papal hand,

gave a slight turn-of-the-head nod and disappeared into the frog’s mouth.

I stood there looking through the door of ‘La Grenouille’ until the last trace of their actual presence had

vanished and then turned back to my treasure laden taxi.

Before I had a chance to even take a glance at what might be inside the cover of that paperback, a

hurried looking businessman hopped into the back seat and barked “Maiden Lane and Water, do you

know where that is?”  I responded with a confident “Yes I do...the FDR Drive okay?”...and, as if in

another universe, I was headed downtown to the Wall Street area.

“Do you know who was just in this cab...I mean right where you just got in ?...One of the biggest

artists in the world, I mean, really famous...I don’t believe it.”

I was stoked, full brim with energy and excitement and needed to yell out to anyone who would listen

the nirvana of what I had just experienced.

“Who?’ he responded with an eagerness that got me even more excited.

With infectious glee I responded ...“SALVADOR DALI...!”

“Who’s Salvador Dali?”

© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí


© len bellinger 2014, All Rights Reserved