After an e-mail or two with the ever helpful Charlotte at his UK (and US) publisher - Severn House Publishers, Stephen was kind enough to agree to a Q+A session regarding his writing. I pinged him my usual bag of questions and received this fantastic response.........
I’m going to start by wrapping several questions into one (hopefully not overlong) response. You’ve asked me if driving a cab influenced my writing, and to recount my scariest moment behind the wheel. You also note that, “New York almost seems as much a character in your books as the police or the gangsters that live and operate there.” Finally, you’ve asked me how, since I’m not an ex-cop, I acquired my knowledge of police procedure.
If you want to familiarize yourself with the geography and ethnicity of the any locale, there’s nothing like driving through it for twelve hours a day, going wherever your fares ask to be taken. Are the storefront signs, for example, in Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish or Korean? New York is likely the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with new immigrants impacting, and sometimes overwhelming, whole neighborhoods in less than a decade. In The Striver, I describe the ongoing impact of one such migration, this one by hipsters and young professionals, on the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
I passed the better part of six years behind the wheel of a taxicab. I wrote my first book during those years and I used everything I learned on the streets to pull it off. Even today, twenty-three books later, I commonly visit the setting of any important scene in order to pick up the odd detail. Like Devito’s Paints being located next to Polski Pyza in Greenpoint.
Nothing turns me off faster than New York books that get everything wrong.
I don’t mean to imply that driving a cab is a pleasant experience, or even, in the long run, bearable. My six years driving a cab were pretty much six years of continual road rage. There were a number of frightening moments along the way, but the one I’m going to describe occurred many years before I drove in New York. I have to reach back into the 1960’s when, still young and naive, I briefly drove for the Yellow Cab Company in Los Angeles. My aim at the time was simple enough. I wanted to accumulate enough money to buy an airline ticket to New York, the place of my birth. Los Angeles was so big, and so car-dependent, it seemed almost empty. I missed the crowded sidewalks, the silent interactions, the implicit understandings, the background hum of a dozen foreign languages, none of which I spoke or understood.
I drove at night, stupidly as it turned out. Too many drunks, too many criminals. But I was, as I said, young and naïve. I was also preoccupied with finding my way around Los Angeles, a city as large as it was unfamiliar. Yellow Cabs didn’t cruise in Los Angeles the way they did in New York. They were expected, after dropping a fare, to pull into the nearest cab stand and wait for a call.
On this particular weekday night, Central dispatched me from one of those stands to a single-family home in a quiet, residential neighborhood whose name I’ve long forgotten. I remember pulling up before a well-kept house and tapping my horn. As a general rule, if a fare didn’t show, we were supposed to notify the dispatcher. But after tapping the horn a second time, I decided to accelerate the process by knocking on the door. The man who answered was in his forties and friendly enough, but I never got a good look at his face. That was because the women lounging on overstuffed chairs and couches in a large parlor commanded my full attention. I’d stumbled on a brothel, which was interesting, but….
The man didn’t ask me what I wanted. He glanced at my Yellow Cab Company hat, then called out someone’s name. A young woman appeared a moment later. She gave me an address in Watts and off we went. I don’t remember the name of the street, only that I had no idea where it was. Thus our arrival any time before dawn depended entirely on the directions she supplied. She took me south on Compton Avenue, then to a side street, then to another, then instructed me to pull to the curb before a smaller and meaner home then the one she just left.
The gun came out a moment later, surprising me almost as much as it scared me. The cops were certain to ask me where I picked her up, as I was certain to supply the answer, as the pimp was certain to identify her. She had to know that, right?
I didn’t hesitate when it came to the money. I held the bills out and she took then, but continued to stare at me for a moment. Then she said, “You’re probably gonna identify me, aren’t you?”
Scary? It’s a wonder my brain didn’t melt. But I did what I do best, which was start talking. This was a matter of pure reflex. When in doubt, move your mouth. The funny part was that everything I told her was true. My stay in Los Angeles would soon be over and once I got my butt home to the east coast, I wasn’t coming back. Did I convince her? Or did she decide that shooting me was just too risky, given the circumstance? I only know that she left a moment later, taking the keys with her.
I’m proud to say that my trousers remained dry, though I did begin to shake after she slammed the door. Once started, of course, I couldn’t stop.
I was still vibrating when two cops showed up ten minutes later. Both were young, white and male. As they were in no hurry, I laid out my story in detail, including where I picked her up and the nature of the business conducted there. The younger of the two wrote everything down. The detectives, he told me before they left, would be in touch.
They weren’t, not for months, not until a few weeks before I finally left town. Then I received a call from a detective at Parker Center, police headquarters in Los Angeles. He had, he believed, the woman who robbed me, had her in custody. Would I be so good as to come down and take a look?
I met him the next day. I don’t remember his face, or exactly where we met – this was almost fifty years ago - but I do recall the first question he asked me. Could the woman who robbed me, he wanted to know, really be a man? Because, he went on to explain, they had this transvestite in custody. He was being held open, but they’d have to let him go unless they charged him with the actual commission of an actual crime.
I kept my tone apologetic as I told him that the woman who robbed me was definitely a woman. Sorry, but…
But look here, detective. If you really want to get the woman who robbed me, and who came close to pulling the trigger of a gun aimed at my face, you won’t have to break a sweat. There’s this pimp see, at the address where I picked up the perpetrator of this crime. If you confront him, he’s sure to give her up.
The Detective listened to my story, and even took a few notes. I’ll give him that much. But I never heard from him, which surprised me not at all. By then, I’d come to assume that the brothel was paying to stay open. The City of Los Angeles was fabulously corrupt at that time. Pay to play was the name of the game. As for the transvestite? The prevailing system in Los Angeles simply assumed that he should be caged.
My first five books featured a protagonist named Stanley Moodrow. Later, in 1996, I added a sixth volume, Damaged Goods. You asked if there’s any chance I’d bring him back. Cole, Stanley Moodrow’s milieu, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has changed so much that he wouldn’t recognize it. Then a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood, the Lower East Side, including the area gentrifiers call Alphabet City, is now dominated by students and young professionals come to New York from all over the country. The crime rate is low and the greatest danger is from drunken twenty-somethings wending their way home on a Saturday night.
One last note. You were kind enough to praise The Striver, the second book in a series I expect to be ongoing for some time. I strongly suggest that readers drawn to the series begin with the first book, Dancer in the Flames. My two main characters, Detectives Irwin `Boots’ Littlewood and Crazy Jill Kelly are both quirky, their nicknames bestowed on them by their cop peers. Why and how are best described in Dancer. I should add that I’ve written a short story that dramatizes the particular incident that gave rise of Crazy Jill’s nicknamed. It’s available, free of charge, one my website: stephensolomita.com.
OK, that’s it. Thanks for the opportunity to communicate with mystery fans, Cole, and thanks again for the good review. Feel free to stay in touch.
My thanks to Stephen Solomita for his time.