The Last Cab Ride
There was a time in my life twenty years ago when I was driving a cab for a living. It was a cowboy's life, a gambler's life, a life for someone who wanted no boss, constant movement and the thrill of a dice roll every time a new passenger got into the cab.
What I didn't count on when I took the job was that it was also a ministry. Because I drove the night shift, the car became a rolling confessional. Passengers would climb in, sit behind me in total darkness and anonymity, and tell me of their lives.
We were like strangers on a train, the passengers and I, hurtling through the night, revealing intimacies we would never have dreamed of sharing during the brighter light of day.
In those hours, I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh, made me weep. And none of those lives touched me more than that of a woman I picked up late on a warm August night.
I was responding to a call from a small brick four-plex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partyers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or someone going off to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town.
When I arrived at the address, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window. Under these circumstances many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a short minute, and then drive away. Too many bad possibilities awaited a driver who went up to a darkened building at two-thirty in the morning.
But I have seen too many people trapped in a life of poverty who depended upon the cab as their only means of transportation. Unless the situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door to try to find the passenger. It might, I reasoned, be someone who needed my assistance. Would I not want a driver to do the same if it was my mother or father who called for a cab?
So I walked to the door and knocked.
"Just a minute," answered a frail and elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman, somewhere in her eighties, stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a small, pillbox hat, with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop, or a Goodwill Store, or a 1940's movie. By her side was a small, nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor.
The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said. "I'd like a few minutes alone. Then if you could come back and help me. I'm not very strong."
I took the suitcase to the cab and then returned to help the woman. She took my arm, and we walked slowly towards the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
"It's nothing," I said, "I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated."
"Oh, you are such a good boy", she said. He praise and appreciation were almost embarrassing.
When we got into the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?"
"It's not the shortest way," I answered.
"Oh, I don't mind," she said, "I'm in no hurry. I am on my way to a hospice."
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
"I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor said I should go there. He says I don't have very long."
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.
"What route would you like me to go?" I asked.
For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She made me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she would have me slow down in front of a particular building or corner and she would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now."
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a tar driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. Without waiting for me, they opened the door and began assisting the woman. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her: perhaps she had phoned them right before we left.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase up to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
"How much do I owe you?" she asked, reaching into her purse.
"Nothing." I said.
"You have to make a living", she answered.
"There are other passengers," I responded.
Almost, without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly. "You gave an old woman a little moment of joy," she said. "Thank you."
There was nothing more to say. I squeezed her hand once, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me I could hear the door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I did not pick up anymore passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly , lost in thought. For the remainder of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman would have gotten a driver who was angry or abusive or IMPATIENT to end his shift? What if I had refused to have taken the run or honked once, then driven away? What if I had been in a foul mood and had not engaged the woman in conversation? How many other moments like that had I missed or had failed to grasp?
We are so conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unawares. When that woman hugged me and said that I had brought her a moment of joy, it was possible to believe that I was placed on earth for the sole purpose of providing her that last ride. I do not think that I have done anything in my life that was anymore important.
The author of this piece is Ken Nerburn. This actually happened to him in the 1980's as he drove cab in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. It first appeared in his 1999 book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.
Now excuse me, while I try to find a bit of patience to provide my dear husband with a few good memories to carry him over into the next journey; the one he will take without me..........