My maternal grandparents didn’t drive. After arriving in Durham nearly 50 years ago, fresh off the boat from Italy to work as caretakers at the Eden Rock Motel, they had the use of a car. But when they moved on to jobs at Duke Univeristy and a rented duplex on Watts Street, they could walk or ride the bus most anywhere they needed to goto the A&P on Broad Street or lunch at the Ivy Room on Main. They never bothered with vehicles. But when they bought a house north of downtown in the 1970s, they couldn’t really walk anyplace from there. And so began their long association with ABC Cab’s taxi dispatchers.
After my grandmother died, ABC’s kind dispatchers on the other end of the phone became a literal lifeline, helping my grandfather maintain independence long after macular degeneration had all but robbed him of his sight. He used their services exclusively. On holidays, he would ask me to drive him to the ABC Cab office, on Alston Avenue. Before we left, we’d load my car with paper grocery bags of treatsthe Stella D’oro biscotti he loved, Hershey’s bars, sleeves of Tuc crackersand set out to deliver them to the voices that called his cab.
The dispatchers always seemed thrilled, making a big fuss over “Mr. T.” His last name, Tavernise, was difficult to pronounce, so he encouraged folks to shorten it. My tiny grandfather, impeccably dressed to present his offerings, was quite a sight. He always wore a cap, and he’d make a big show of removing it with a flourish and bowing slightly as he approached the office.
“Isn’t he the sweetest man?” the dispatchers would say, hugging Mr. T forcefully. Yes, it was sweet; it was also borrowed wholesale from his Neapolitan roots. Nearly blind and in his 80s, he had come to Durham four decades earlier knowing almost nobody. In southern Italy, he’d learned to avoid la brutta figure, or the ugly faceessentially, a lack of social grace.
These seasonal deliveries exemplified una bella figura. They were not only gracious, but also part of doing business.
There’s a family story about when the Tavernises arrived at the Port of New York. As they prepared to clear customs, my grandfather folded a $20 bill. My mother and her brothers were appalled, saying that this was America, not Italy. But he expertly slid the bill into the customs officer’s palm, and my family was whisked through. Those taxi dispatchers equaled a measure of freedom that had all but disappeared over the years, a harsh reality for a man of epic determination, who had started life over in a new country at the age of 47.
I still see “Dispatched by ABC Cab” stenciled on the side of taxis around Durham. I remember those women who connected my grandfather to the new world, a world he turned his family’s life upside down to join and one he gave everything to hold on to with both hands.