San Quentin State Prison
Thirty years ago as a college student, I drove a New York City cab for the summer. Of all the cab runs I’ve had, I’ll never forget the night I was dispatched to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I arrived at 2:30am.
The building was dark, except for a single light shining through a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, most drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute and then drive on. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation, to just drive away. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, so I reasoned to myself.
I walked to the door and knocked. “Just a minute, “ answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her eighties stood before me. She was wearing a yellow print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the wall, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
She stated she was quite surprised to see a young black man come to pick her up in this part of Brooklyn, especially this late at night and she was quite grateful for that.
I came to the door. “Would you please carry my bag out to the car,” she asked. I took the suitcase to the cab, and then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the cab. She kept thanking me for my kindness, and she said that my mother must be proud of her son.
“It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.”
“Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, “Could you drive through the garment district of Manhattan?”
“It’s not the shortest way to Westchester County, “ I answered quickly.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.” I looked in the rear view mirror and saw her eyes were glistening.
“I don’t have any family left “ she continued, “and the doctor says I don’t have very long to live.” I quickly reached over and turned off the meter.
“What route would you like to me take,” I asked.
For the next four hours, we drove through New York 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 were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a young girl. Several times she asked me to slow down in front of a particular building or corner and we would sit staring into darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sunlight glimmered across 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 circular driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we drove up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you, Sonny?” she asked reaching into her purse.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living,” she said.
“There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent down and gave her a big hug and kiss on the check.
She held on to me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy, “ she said. “Thank you!”
I squeezed her hand and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of a closing of a life.
I didn’t pick up another passenger during that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of the day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had got an angry driver? What if I refused to take the long run or had honked once and then drove away? I don’t think I have done anything with more emotional impact in my 53 years on this earth. I remember this experience as if it happened yesterday. I truly believe that we’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware, beautifully wrapped inside what others might consider a small moment.
People might not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Here I am thirty years later, diagnosed with terminal bone cancer while incarcerated in San Quentin Prison, remembering a little event from decades ago. To this day, she made me feel good about myself, and for those brief moments she felt good about herself her too.