There was a time in my life around twenty-odd years ago when I was driving a cab for a living. It was a good life for someone who didn’t want a boss, but liked constant movement and the thrill of a dice roll every time a new passenger got into the back of the cab. One night something amazing happened.
I was responding to a call from a small brick apartment in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some party goers, 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 or something. As per usual.
When I pitched up at the address, the building was dark, except for a single light that was on in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute or so and then drive away. I was certainly tempted. I’d done it before. But something stopped me. So I walked to the door and knocked.
‘Just a minute‘, answered a frail and noticeably elderly voice. I could hear something heavy being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door finally opened. A small woman, somewhere in her late eighties or early nineties, stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned to it, like the kind you might see in a costume shop or a thrift store or in a 1940’s movie. By her side was a small little nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor. She looked sad but calm.
The apartment looked as if no one really lived there. All the furniture was covered with sheets and fabric. There were no clocks on the walls, no knick-knacks or utensils on the counters or anything.
‘Would you carry my bag out to the car please? I’d like a few moments alone. Then, if you could come back and help me? I’m not very strong’, she said.
I took the suitcase out to my cab, then returned to help the woman. She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me.
‘It’s nothing’, I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”
When we got in 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’m on my way to a hospice anyway.’
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. It looked as though she was about to cry.
‘I don’t have any family now,’ she carried on. ‘The doctor said I should go there. He says I don’t have very long left.’
I reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to go?‘ I asked.
For the next two hours we just drove around the city. She pointed out to me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We then drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She asked me to pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl with her sisters. We even stopped at a building she didn’t explain. She just stared out into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was appearing from beyond the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go to the hospice now.’
We drove in silence to the address she had given me at the beginning of our journey. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a tar driveway. It was plain and rather depressing looking. 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. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase up to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. She looked up at me, fumbling for her purse.
‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked me.
‘Oh, nothing…‘ I said.
‘But you simply must take something. You have to make a living!‘ she answered.
‘There are other passengers…’ I responded and smiled. She smiled back.
Almost without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. There was nothing more to say. I squeezed her hand and walked into the dim morning light towards my taxi. Behind me I could hear the door slam shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I felt a lump in my throat as I turned the key. I drove straight home and reflected. What if that woman had gotten a driver who had been short-tempered, abusive or impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run or had honked my horn and then just driven away? What if I had been in a bad mood and just refused to engage the woman in conversation? I thought about it… How many other moments in my life like that had I missed or failed to grasp?
I don’t think that I’ve done anything in my life that was any more important. And I don’t think I ever will.
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