Salim sells samples in New York City, though the presence of so much diversity in one place scares him. His brother-in-law, who controls the family trinket business, has booked him a room in the Paramount Hotel where he feels small and alone. Food, tipping, and riding the subway all confuse Salim, as he has only been here for a week, and he is further discouraged by a telegraph from his brother-in-law that tells Salim he had better start selling or they will no longer be able to send him any money.
Modern America, though built on immigrants, can often be a hard place for newcomers to integrate into, especially those not used to experiencing all the cultures that mix into American life. The trinket business acts as a commentary on how tempting it is to reduce America to a small model of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State building, using these monuments to stand in for the crazy whirl of unique cultural practices that actually makes up America.
Salim takes his sample case to the next office where he hopes to sell ornamental souvenirs. He gets there at 10:30 for an 11 am appointment, but is forced to sit and wait in the lobby for five hours and doesn’t even get in to see the executive. Salim smiles robotically at the receptionist who tells him to leave, and goes outside to catch a cab. He considers just throwing himself into traffic, knowing that no one but his sister would miss him in his family because he has shamed his family with his romantic preferences. A taxi pulls up and Salim decides to get in instead.
Salim is trying so hard to be the “model immigrant” who assimilates into American culture, is always polite, and takes whatever Americans want to give him, but the harsh reality is that he is not accepted here. Like the Old Gods, Salim can’t seem to get a foothold into modern American life. As he considers suicide, Salim represents another character that sees little difference between the misery of his life and the relief of death.
The taxi driver swears in Arabic when he gets cut off by a truck, and Salim happily speaks to the taxi driver in his native language. When the taxi driver falls asleep at a red light, Salim touches his shoulder to wake him. The taxi driver laments the long hours and poor pay he must put up with and Salim commiserates about his own job. At the next traffic jam the driver falls asleep again, and when Salim wakes him up he catches a glimpse of fire where the taxi driver’s eyes should be. Salim then knows that the taxi driver is an ifrit jinn.
The taxi driver is another god who has had to debase himself with a poorly compensated job as a taxi driver in terrible labor conditions. In a way, the taxi reframes the old myths about jinn, as the taxi could be seen as the jinn’s lamp, and the master is anyone who opens the door, since the taxi driver must go where they say. An ifrit is a kind of Arabic fire demon.
The taxi driver assures Salim that he will not kill him, and explaining that jinn in America do not grant wishes. The driver drops Salim at his hotel and picks up his next fare. Salim goes to get dinner and is then surprised to find the driver in the lobby when he returns. Salim invites the driver up to his room, where the driver showers, then makes love with Salim. Salim falls asleep with the ifrit in his bed, then wakes to find that the ifrit has stolen all his sample cases, wallet, and ticket back to Oman, leaving his own clothes and wallet with a license bearing the name Ibrahim in exchange. Salim puts on the ifrit’s glasses, hiding his own, newly fiery eyes, and goes out to drive the taxi.
Gaiman rejects popular myths about “genies” and goes back to the roots of the mythology about ifrit jinn. They are not wish granting machines, but spirits of fire who have the power to create magical change in the world when they wish. The love scene between Salim and the jinn is one of the few mutually beneficial exchanges between gods and men. Salim may have had to give up his life, but he truly did not want the life he was living anyway. In a way, the jinn did grant Salim’s earlier wish to die. This acceptance of death allows Salim to more fully enjoy his moments of pleasure with the jinn. However, the jinn still takes more from Salim than he gives, as the jinn is now free and Salim is chained to the taxi in its place.