Car 6

Car 6

Friday, January 31, 2014


A few weeks ago there was a snow storm. The snow was heavy and later in the night all the Crown Vics in the fleet were pulled from active driving and only the front wheel drive mini vans were allowed on the roads. Prior to the Crown Vics being pulled, I was in a Crown Vic cab. I had dropped off a fare at a homeless shelter called DayBreak. A shortcut to exit the shelter is through an alley in the back of the lot. Despite the heavy snow I thought I could make it. I was wrong.

When the car got stuck I tried rocking her back and forth. All I accomplished was getting the car deeper in the snow. After a few minutes of making a bad situation worse, I finally swallowed deep and got on the radio to say, "Car 1 to dispatch. I'm stuck in the alley behind Daybreak." There was a pause and dispatch came on. "Did you try rocking it back and forth, Car 1?" "1 to Dispatch, yeah, she ain't moving."

I heard dispatch on the radio say, "Go John." That meant John, our operations manager was on the radio with them likely talking about my situation. Dispatch came on the radio and told me two drivers were on the way to help me out. Then came an announcement on the radio telling other drivers to stay out of alleys and deep driveways. Now I am feeling really smart. I am the example of what not to do.

While waiting for my rescue I hear my radio's private channel go on. "John to car 1." I breathe deep, grab the radio and say,"Go John." "Car 1. What do we do with alleys when it is snowing?" I replied,"Car 1 to John, I apologize. I thought I had it, I was wrong." "Don't do that to yourself, live and learn." He replied. "10-4, John."

Shortly after the exchange comes Martin. A very large driver in good shape. He and I tried to push it and remove some snow from the wheels to no avail. A few minutes later we see Johnny pull up. Johnnny is almost as large as Martin and has been driving cabs since I was a toddler. He looked at it for a few moments and then told me to get two bags of salt out of my trunk. He told me where to place the salt near the tires. We used almost a full bag. I wondered why we took out two. After a few moments Johnny told me the following.

"Get behind the wheel man, back up as far as you can and hit the accelerator for all she's worth. DON'T touch the wheel. She knows what to do and will get out of the alley. She won't hit anything. Do not touch the wheel and don't stop."

I backed it up a few inches until the tires spun and then put in drive and floored it. I started moving down the alley slowly and the car seemed to be veering so I touched the wheel to guide it halfway through. As soon as I did that, the wheels spun in the snow and stopped moving.

Johnny came running to the car with the other bag of salt. "I told you not to touch the wheel." He applied salt in the places he felt needed salt and then looked at me and said,"Now, do it right this time. Hit the gas, don't steer and don't stop. It's like life. When you get stuck, stop trying to control things, don't fight it and don't stop. You'll get through it and you'll get out."

This time, I backed it up a few inches, hit the gas and did not touch the wheel and did not stop. He was right. The car did not hit anything and it got out of the alley and all I had to do was listen to his experience and not try to control things.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Marine Who Couldn't Get Beer

The other night I was getting to the end of my shift. The bars are closed, the radio and dispatch paging system had been quiet. Then I got a page. I was to take someone from their apartment on the West side to the local Wal Mart. Not an unheard of request. Since it is a round trip, I know I am going to be working an extra half an hour.

I get to the apartment complex and a man about my age comes out. On the way to Wal Mart I find out he is a Master Gunnery Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He has been serving for over twenty years and just got orders a few hours ago to return to Afghanistan that day. Over the years he has been there and Iraq for 8 tours combined. He says he is going to Wal mart to get some beer for a few last drinks before he leaves. I tell him at this hour I don't think they will sell it to him. He assures me that he called the manager, explained the situation and the manager himself said he would be able to buy his beer.

I assume everything will go well and we continue talking. He tells me about his need to get his blood tested regularly. I asked him why he had to get tests. He told me that the last time he was in Afghanistan he was in a cab heading to a helicopter that was waiting for him. Some enemy combatants set up a make shift "check point" on the road. The cabbie, someone he knew and had used several times, tried to protect him by attempting to speed through the barricade. The effort saved the Marine's life, but the cab driver got a bullet through the head. When the back of his head essentially exploded from the gun shot, my passenger got blood splatter in his eyes. Hence the precautionary blood tests.

By the time we got to the store, the topic had switched to fishing and our dads. He went inside and I radioed dispatch and advised her that my passenger was inside the Wal Mart to buy beer. She told me that she did not think they could sell beer that late. I told her that he made special arrangements. After a few moments I started to reach in to my backpack to grab a book to pass the time and he came back in the cab exasperated, as well as empty handed. I asked him what happened.

"I go in there and get a six pack and the lady says I can't buy this because it is too late. I tell her I got it cleared with the manager. She went and checked and came back and said she couldn't sell it to me. I asked to speak with the manager who told me it would be okay. She disappears for a minute, comes back, and tells me that he is unavailable. Unavailable? May as well take me home."

The rest of the trip he is venting. He tells me how he just got this apartment two months ago and now he is going to have to pay for a place he is not even living in. He tells me about all the calls he has to make and errands he has to run before noon to have his affairs in order before he leaves. He is frustrated. He was looking forward to a little time to himself before he had to take care of all these things.

When we got to his building, I am fully prepared to eat the fare as a thank you for his service. Before I can he hands me almost double what the fare was and thanks me for listening to him. I reached out, shook his hand and said,"I know you didn't get your beer. I'm glad I met you. I appreciate you. When you get back, I'd love to buy you a beer. So get your ass back home in one piece, Devildog."

"Yeah. Thanks."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Soviet Spy Who Had Fun

In cities like ours, there are a lot of immigrants. I've spoken with many that have come from various places. Malaysia, Haiti, various parts of Africa, Russia, all points of the Middle East and on and on. The conversations are almost never boring and it is a great way to learn not only about the world, but a different perspective on our country.

One night I got a call to take someone from his apartment to a trucking yard. Truck drivers often call us to take them to or from a truck terminal so they can leave their personal vehicle at home. I pulled up to the apartment building and a man who looked to be in his late fifties entered my cab.

He was about six foot tall, lean, shaved head and a beaming smile. As we did the general pleasantries and confirmed his destination, it was hard to miss his thick accent. While making small talk I asked him if he was Russian. He told me he was Georgian. He started to explain where Georgia was on an atlas and I told I was familiar with home country. I asked him how long he has lived in the United States. He told me a little over 20 years.

He went on to tell me that he drove a cab for the first 8 years he lived here. He said how hard it was to learn english when he never had time to go to classes. He then took a job driving a small bus for a senior center for 10 years after that. He had time to take english classes and the conversations he had with the residents made great practice. He said they all talked at the same time so it was hard to keep up. He then got his CDL license and has been driving a truck ever since.

I asked him what he did when he was in Georgia. He paused or a moment and said. "I was KGB." I said no way, really? He said,"Yes, I was KGB for a long time." I asked what he did for the KGB. All he said was that he had a good position, but had seen many things. Too many things. He then spoke of how when he left, his original plan was to one day bring his wife and son to the US. He said it happened for his son, now 24, last year. He was never able to get his wife over and now it is too late. She has passed. He said how he would have given anything to be with her. To say goodbye. To hold her and let her know how sorry he was that he broke his promise. That he could not bring her to America. The American Consulate did not honor their deal. I asked him if he ever missed home now. He said he missed his family and some friends, but he could never return, even now. He said in some ways it was better when the Soviet Union had control and the freedoms there now are still not the freedoms here.

I asked him if the separation and loss is hard for him.

"It used to be. Now I have fun."

I asked him what he meant by that.

"I had been driving cab for three years when it happened. I was in the North Suburbs, so it was mostly airport runs. Midway, O'hare, General Mitchell. My English was poor and it was hard to understand customers. Sometimes they would get mad or I would get frustrated. One day I was driving a man to the airport. He looked like an important businessman and I was trying to make a good impression for a tip. He was trying to talk to me and I couldn't understand him. He was talking too fast and I was getting frustrated with myself. He could tell. He put his hand on my shoulder. I know you know how uncomfortable that is in a cab when someone does that. But he did it just right. It felt like comfort. He put his hand on my shoulder and said slowly. 'Hey, it's ok. You are in America now. Have fun. If you don't have fun, you'll die inside.'" He paused.

"So what did you do?"

"I took his advice. I stopped having fun when I came to America. He was right. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free. I should have fun. So I had fun. I try new things. I eat foods. I travel to different parts of this country all the time. It's big and the people are different, but they are the same. It's wonderful to see how they are different in different places and the same. I've been to more places here than most Americans. I don't have much money. I don't need money for fun. Every town here has a library and something interesting to see. Small museums, bowling alleys, local sports teams, festivals and parks. People love to tell you why their town is interesting. Maybe a movie was made there once or someone invented something or some famous person grew up there.  I meet people. I eat foods from everywhere. I buy ice cream. Oh, I love ice cream."

We got to his semi. Before he got out he said one more thing.

"You should have more fun. When you have fun, the things you lost are no longer missing. The things you did no longer happened. You don't worry about next week. You have now. Now is good if you want now to be."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Public Aid Payday

We drive a lot of people in our city who are on public aid in one form or another. Some are seniors, some are on disability and others are poor. There are a few apartment complexes that specifically house people on public aid. Most of the people who live in these places are just poor and trying to do their best to get by. Rent is based on a sliding scale and ability to pay. As uncomfortable a truth as this is, there are some who meet every negative stereotype you hear about on the news.

The beginning of a month is a busy time for us. People who get their public aid checks cash them, buy groceries, go to liquor stores, go to currency exchanges to pay bills, hit the casino and so forth. We do a lot of trips to these places.

One night I got a call to one of the public housing apartments. A woman came out, got in back and told me everyone else would be in shortly. While waiting we talked a bit. She is married, has a seven year old, likes the White Sox. She was nice and seemed very pleasant. Her spouse and another couple came out of the building and into the cab. She was quiet and polite. The other three were loud, obnoxious and vulgar.

The first stop was Wal Mart. They all got out to go cash their checks. The woman I spoke with was the first one out and near tears. I asked her what was wrong. She said she wanted to get some food and they said there wasn't time. In a few minutes the rest of them came out with candy and beef jerky.

The next stop was the liquor store. She stayed in the cab. The rest went inside. They bought a lot of alcohol.

The next stop was the gas station. Again, she stayed in the cab. The rest went in and bought cigarettes, slushies, more candy and more beef jerky.

Her patience was wearing thin with each stop. She told me how they would be loud all night and she had no idea how her and her son were going to get enough sleep for work and school the next day. She kept reflecting how she wished she got some food.

On the way back to the apartment, she asked her spouse how much was left for groceries.

"You got a link card for that shit."

"It's not enough." Her voice quivered.

"God, your bitch is a cryer." Teased one of the other passengers.

"Your embarrassing me in front of our friends. You have the link. Get the food with the link."

Back at the apartment building, they grabbed their liquor, cigarettes, shushies and junk food and went in while she settled the bill with me.

The Deal

One night I picked up a young man outside a local bar and took him the next town over. On the way to his house he spoke with a friend on his cell phone. He asked if it would be all right if we grabbed his friend and took them to the liquor store and then to his home. I let dispatch know that there would be multiple stops and was told that would be all right.

We got to his friend's house and they laughed, talked about girlfriends and sports and rap music. They were happy. I took them to the liquor store. They both went inside and came out five minutes later with a case of beer, a bottle in a bag and a carton of cigarettes.

I asked if they were ready to go home. They spoke to each other briefly in hushed whispers. They asked me if they could make one last stop on the way home before calling it a night. It would be to a house and only one would go inside. It would be a brief stop. I asked only the address.

The street we pulled on is in a neighborhood that has a reputation for drugs and crime. Their mood was tense. The friend we picked up went into a house and we waited on the street. Two minutes go by. My fare is looking nervous. Three minutes go by. I put the car in drive but have the brake applied.

"You can't leave my home boy behind, man!" He exclaimed.

"I'm not leaving yet. But I don't like this."

"I'm scared too, but you can't leave him."

"Son, it sounds like you need a wheelman or another home boy. I'm a cab driver. I have a daughter. I'm going home this morning. I go home every morning. Anyone comes out of that house that is not him, we leave and I radio for police."

"Okay. My girl's pregnant. I'm gonna be a dad."

"Act like a father."

His friend came out, got in the car and we drove off. His friend was back to happy.  He got what he wanted. My fare was quiet. His friend asked him what was wrong.

"I was scared. Every time we hang I'm always scared. It was fun when we were in school, but we're not kids anymore. I'm a man."

"You're sounding like a pussy" his friend almost screamed.

"No. I sound like a father. Driver, take him home then take my stupid ass home."

There was no more discussion the rest of the ride until we got to his driveway.

"What's it like?" he asked me.

"What is what like?"

"Being a father, man. Is it hard?"

"It is. But it's worth it."

"I never met my dad. I want my kid to know me. I wanna tell my kid she's worth it."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Broken Mom

In our city, we drive a lot of homeless people. Most of the homeless passengers we have are going to or from some of the shelters in the area. Most are going to or from work (yes, many homeless people have jobs), visiting friends and relatives or medical centers and hospitals. They are normal people just like you and I and they have a story as to how they ended up homeless.

One night I received a page from dispatch to pick up a woman from a hospital and take her to a homeless shelter. I went to the main entrance and waited for her.

A nurse escorted the woman out, handed me the voucher, hugged the woman and promised to pray for her. The woman had obviously been crying. I asked her if everything was all right. She said in a monotone that she just had a baby. Not knowing what else to say at this moment I asked if everything went well. "Yeah, he was healthy and beautiful and is going to a good family. It's for the best. He's better off. It's for the best. He's better off. It's for the best." I asked her if she really believed that.

"If I say it enough, maybe I will."

There was silence for a minute or two and then she exploded.

"He's my baby! Of course I don't believe it. She'll pray for me. Everyone says they'll pray for me. Prayers mean nothing. What good is a prayer and calling me brave when I had no choice?" She was sobbing.

"Why didn't you have a choice?"

"They wouldn't let me stay if I kept him. They got crosses everywhere and tell us about God. The mother of their precious lord got to keep her son! Born in a barn and no one made her put him up for adoption. Tell Mary it's for the best. What kind of preacher says it's right to take a baby from his mom? How is that okay? Pray for me? Give me my son!"

"They forced you?"

"It was STRONGLY encouraged. I didn't have a choice. When I started looking into my rights, the encouragement got intimidating. Threatening to call family services and have me declared unfit if I didn't do the right thing."

"Im sorry. I'm so sorry."

"He's never going to know me. He's never going to know that I didn't throw him away. That I wanted him. He's never going to know I love him. Never been homeless before. I'm going to get out and this is never going to happen again. Someday I'm going to drive by that hellhole with their crosses and know I don't live there."

"How long have you been homeless?"

"Three months. I left him. I was scared of what would happen to the baby if I stayed. I went home to my parents and they told me God would want me to go back. I wasn't going back so they kicked me out."

We got to the shelter. As she was getting set to leave I told her what I could.

"I won't tell you I'll pray for you. But I want you to get out of this dump. Okay?"


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Motels and Connecting the Dots

When you drive a cab in a city, it does not take long to realize that people live in motels. They are security guards, factory workers, cabbies, bartenders and waitresses. They live there because they need to live somewhere. When you have no credit and not enough money in a bank account for a security deposit and first month's rent, it is sometimes the only viable option short of a homeless shelter. The manager does not care about your credit score. He just wants a photo ID and the weekly rate paid upfront.

The problem is, once you get in the cycle, you cannot get out. For what amounts to a studio apartment (at best), you are paying what many pay for a nice one bedroom apartment. Add to that the cost of all the eating out since most do not have a kitchen and you are now paying what some pay for a two bedroom apartment or even a mortgage on a modest house. The expense makes it difficult to save money. Nearly impossible for some. They live in a constant state of survival for a variety of reasons. Some are single, some are couples, some have kids and some have beloved pets.

Cabbies take them to work, laundromats, grocery stores and even the occasional night out. We talk to them about life and how things are going. Some get under your skin and you really hope that the reason you don't see them anymore is because they got a lease and a real address.

There was a waitress like that in the back of my cab a few times. She was young, shy and ever so hopeful. She lived in a motel. She loved her job, she loved her co workers. She loved all the free coffee and the fact the manager would let her take home food. When she spoke, her voice always danced if such a thing is possible. There was nothing but positive energy despite harsh living circumstances. There were dreams and passions and energy and love for everyone.

I finally asked one night. How did you end up living in a motel?

She spoke of the controlling and abusive husband. She spoke of the beatings and the verbal abuse. She spoke of the manipulations that affected her self worth and diminished her dreams and vibrancy. She spoke of the desperate escape to a women's shelter in our city that has helped many victims of domestic violence and rape. They took her in and they restored her self worth. They helped a woman who has been isolated from her family for years and afraid of everything risk it all to fight for freedom and a new beginning.

That would be the last conversation we would have. I learned through the grapevine that this waitress does not live in the motel anymore. She lives with him again. He sometimes comes to her place of work and will grab her cell phone, look through it and say horrible things to her. The light that reignited in her is dimming fast.

There is hope, though. This young woman works at the pancake house that Saint Noble  frequents. Saint Noble is her friend and talks to her while she goes there to dine, draw, read and pay retail for community. She shares her age and her wisdom and her unconditional love as kindling to keep the dying embers of hope alive in the young waitress.

The people that ride in the back of cabs late at night seem to know each other.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

We Called Him Tully

On December 27th an announcement was made by our company. Kelvin had passed away. Kelvin was a driver for us for many years. He was tall, had a deep voice, unkempt hair and sort of a beard. He also spoke multiple languages, had an amazing grasp of history and art and cultures. If you needed singles or change for your cash bag, he was the first to offer it up. He was a father and seemed to be estranged from his children, but never really went into why. Most of all, to us, his name was Tully.

The first time we met, he was yelling at me in the parking lot because I was not moving my cab out of the space fast enough. The second time I met him was in the shop. While he was doing his paperwork and reconciling his trip log he was telling off a younger driver for making fun of his accent. I assumed that he was a cold and hard man. Parts of him were. That said, the man had a passion for robust discussion and sharing his thoughts on God, philosophy, history, science and art.

Coming from an Orthodox background he had a huge respect for clergy and always greeted me as reverend. He always wanted to share his thoughts with me in the hopes of my agreement. Truth? Often he was speaking above me and I was learning from him. Especially in matters of church history.

My impressions about Tully are not what matters. We would speak briefly during shift changes and there are people who knew him longer that could describe him better. What matters is that he did not die alone.

He had been ill for awhile. With no health care and limited funds, it was hard to get the care he needed. So his illness grew until his mind and body could fight no more. He was in St Joe's hospital and it was obvious he would not live through the night. He did not have anyone else to call. He called our operations manager. Our boss.

Two men sat together with a hand being held. Two men stood in that uncertain threshold between life and death. Two men until there was only one man.

I don't know if he had a memorial. I don't know what the state did with his things. I don't know if his children know. I know men like Tully are often forgotten and moments like his passing are forgotten as well. That is our loss.

His name was Kelvin. We called him Tully. He didn't die alone.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Getting Home For New Years

New Year's Eve is the busiest night of the year in a cab. It is a different level of crazy. Around 11:30 I was clear of all my calls and had a brief moment to hit a gas station to use the restroom and get a coffee. Shortly before midnight my paging system alerted me to a fare to pick from the west side about a mile away from me going to the train station. The train station? At midnight? Night was already weird, so why not?

I pulled up to the house. A young african american comes out with a pie tin in a plastic bag. He is gingerly holding it as he gets in my cab. I ask him if he's really going to Union Station. He says,"Look, I only got ten bucks. I'm just trying to get home. Can you just get me as close as ten bucks will get me?" I ask him his address, he gives it. I know the street. I know the neighborhood. I also know ten dollars puts him just shy of a mile from home in a neighborhood where idiots think shooting guns at the stroke of midnight is a good idea and swell tradition. He's a kid with a pie.

I ask him about the pie. He says its for his mom and "auntie". I can smell the fruit, it's still warm. I hit the meter, put the cab in drive and say, "You are going home."

"I only got ten bucks, man."

"I don't care, I'll cover the difference, it's New Year's, man."

We drive and make small talk. The radio dj at a party in downtown Chicago starts the countdown at 15 seconds. We stop talking as I cross the ancient iron bridge to the east side. At the count of zero we hear the celebration on the radio and a few gunshots in the night. We are quiet and alone together. I turn off the radio. We both need the silence. I looked back at him in the rear view mirror. We made eye contact and he nodded slightly. It is hard to describe what was there, but it was tangible. Neither of us were where we wanted to be in life and we did not see the next year being much different. But we were together and we understood it. We survived and we will survive. It was the nod that people who have known each other for years share. It is the nod that is a conversation. Nothing else is needed. We saw each other.

Two minutes later I pulled into the alley behind his house. He gave me his ten dollars and I took two dollars out of my wallet and put it into my cash bag to cover the rest of his fare.

I looked at him and said,"Happy New Year Trayvel."

"Thanks for getting me home. My name is Trayvon."

I waited for him to get in his house door before driving off to the casino for my next fare.

This time. This night. Trayvon got home. All he wanted to do was go home.