On my very first hospital run I picked up this long-faced, country white guy who’d survived seven surgeries in the last five years. He looked to be late eighties, all but dead, but friendly in a half-deaf way. As soon as he was situated in the back of my taxi, he started grinning and showing me a bunch of scars I didn’t want to see. I drove him thirty miles outside of town to a fallow field, where we found a tractor path through high grass. After ten minutes of squeaks and groans from the cab’s suspension, we arrived at a rusted trailer with a padlocked door. I helped him up the cinder-block steps and pushed the door open upon a dark room containing one metal chair. A bunch of grasshoppers were flying around the wedge of sunlight I’d let inside. After sitting him in the chair, I asked if he had anybody taking care of him. A grasshopper landed on his cheek, and I brushed it away. “How you gonna eat, mister?” I knew he’d be stuck in that chair, and in the horrible heat, until somebody else arrived. How could he go to the bathroom? Was there a bathroom? All I could make out in the dark was a stunted countertop with a camp stove.
“Who’s taking care of you?” I yelled.
He yelled back that his brother lived nearby. I nodded, glanced around, then shook his hand and said OK, good luck, and left him sitting in the dark as I drove through the tall grass in my creaking Town Car. It wasn’t until I’d emerged from the far side of the field that I thought to phone up the hospital. They promised to double-check with his brother. And that was that. The old guy with the seven scars was gone. For all I know, there’s a skeleton of him sitting in that trailer right now. For all I know, the grasshoppers got him.
Charon Taxi has a contract with the local hospital so that when somebody dirt poor — and this is the poorest state in America, Third World in parts — when somebody destitute in North Mississippi needs a ride home, Charon Taxi will deliver them to wherever they abide in the state. A nurse once called me out on how much we charge, and I laughed and assured her that I earned every penny I made off hospital runs. She thought that over, then said, “Yeah, I bet you do. We give y’all the dregs, huh?”
The dregs. Not a kind word but not untrue. Taxis traffic in the desperate. People at the end of their ropes eventually stagger into cabs.
Tommy Charon, my boss, likes to say that day-shift cabbies are the fabric that holds society together. While the night crew hauls around gaggles of Adderall-vomiting coeds and makes twice the jack we do, the day shift takes citizens to work, mostly black people in the service industry. We cart the halt and lame to Kroger and lug their groceries up flights of stairs for dollar tips. We serve as care managers for the elderly. I’ve done everything from helping old people pee to taking out their garbage. We are the poor man’s ambulance, and we are also, sad to say, the poor man’s shrink and/or priest, our cab the confessional in which people test-drive their wildest fears and prejudices.
But it’s the hospital runs that haunt you late at night, such as the time I picked up this fifty-something white guy who had told his dentist that if he didn’t prescribe a stronger pain pill, he was going to shoot himself. The dentist reported this to the police. An hour later two policemen showed up at the man’s house and explained to him that he could go to the hospital in their cruiser or they could call an ambulance, which would be expensive. Through his toothache the guy told the cops he’d only been kidding about shooting himself. The ambulance arrived and the cops made him get inside, and he spent all day in the psychiatry wing, getting interrogated about suicide.
By the time I picked him up it was half dark, a dismal, rainy evening.
“Seems like a man oughta have the right to kill himself,” he fumed from the back seat.
I said, “Yeah, that’s kinda the most basic human right there is: the dying middle finger.”
We talked about suicide for a few miles. I didn’t mention that both my father and my grandfather had killed themselves. My grandfather used a rope; my father used pills and booze. Neither left a note.
We grew quiet until right before we reached his house, when he said, “I wonder if my TV dinner’s still safe to eat.”
And that night, while falling asleep to dream about phantom pickups, phantom tips, phantom cheapskates, I thought about that guy reheating his TV dinner and smelling the various compartments — the gooey Salisbury steak, the shriveled peas, the wet-cement potatoes — trying to decide if it was safe.
On a more recent hospital run I picked up this old black man who looked a hundred if a day and was still wearing his hospital gown. I drove him to Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum, Morgan Freeman, and many a Blood or Crip. It was these gangs that were on my mind as I sped us through Batesville, where the road flattens out. Usually I love driving in the Delta. It feels like I’ve landed on a new continent with new rules. Many of these rules, it turns out, have been made by drug gangs. The Delta is famous for its lack of law enforcement. Cops are considered an anomaly.
Twilight in Clarksdale found my Town Car parked on King Street, where a flickering streetlight revealed dozens of teenagers milling around, holding forties. It occurred to me then, and not for the first time, that the Lincoln fit into the projects far better than I did. My kitty, a metal cash box with my log sheet clamped on top, was in the front seat with about a hundred bucks inside. As I was lifting the old guy out of the cab, his hospital gown came untied, and suddenly he was standing there naked under the streetlight. Meanwhile dozens of young black men, whom I prejudicially assumed to be Crips or Bloods, were closing in on us. I was trying to retrieve the old man’s gown from the street when a large woman arrived and said, “Get outta here, mister,” and, that quick, I jumped behind the wheel and drove away, veering to avoid the two kids who had purposely stepped in front of my cab. I slalomed between Bloods and Crips, then took the first left at a squeal.
Later I would wonder if those kids had really been gangbangers at all. Probably not. Probably they would have helped me get the old man into his house. But that’s another thing that happens in this job: you accumulate the idiot prejudices left behind in the back seat among the lighters and hair extensions. You listen to enough racist yabber and pretty soon find yourself thinking all black kids holding forties are Crips. You swear off your prejudices, but they keep accumulating. You vow away the traffic tantrums, yet the dash camera keeps recording them. And most every day you learn there is a limit to your kindness.
I’m that rare beast, a Mississippi Buddhist, but not a good one. I used to think I was a good Buddhist, or at least a decent one, before I took this job driving a taxi seventy hours a week. Now I know better. I am a bad Buddhist, maybe the worst Buddhist in the world. But, in spite of my failings, I still believe the teachings of the Buddha to be profound and psychologically advanced, especially his emphasis on impermanence. (“They will be gone soon” is the mantra of every cabdriver in the world.) Therefore every morning, after attempting to meditate, I make a few largely symbolic resolutions to work that muscle called empathy, to benefit other beings today, and one of the things this job driving a cab is really good at is crushing my resolve and teaching me again and again that there is a limit to my kindness.
And behind all my well-meaning resolutions lurks this one meth-head, a girl around twenty who had just lost everything moments before being shoved into my cab by sheriff’s deputies. I’d answered a dispatch five miles north of town and pulled up to a house with four cruisers parked out front, their blue lights stuttering in the Mississippi sun. Eventually the deputies came over with this white girl who was weepy and snotty and carrying a half-black baby who was weepy and snotty and screaming. The cops pushed them into my back seat and ordered me to get the hell out of there or they were going to arrest her, too.
I hesitated, then told the nearest deputy we needed a car seat for the baby. He gave me the hard eye as the girl cried out, “They won’t let me take nothing — not even diapers.”
I said, “C’mon, sir, we gotta have a car seat. That’s the law.”
The deputies conferred, and then a young officer was sent back to the house, where God knows how many men were sitting handcuffed on the floor. He returned holding a battered car seat. I half expected a rat to crawl out of it as I buckled it in, then drove away with the woman weeping with convulsions that sounded like someone dying.
The baby needed a diaper change, but it felt rude to reach for the bottle of air freshener. We drove past some projects to a small house at the end of a red-clay road. The girl, who owed me about twenty-five bucks by then, handed me six dollars in balled-up, snotty bills, then started counting change out of a zip-lock baggie. Finally she handed me the whole bag. I gave her the change back but kept the bills. And that’s what I’ve felt wretched about ever since. What the hell was I thinking? Here she’d just lost everything, and I didn’t even give her a free ride? What kind of human being could be that cold-hearted? No, instead of helping her out, I took her last bills and left her standing in front of an empty house, holding a hungry baby with a stinking diaper. I could have bought them some diapers. It wouldn’t have killed me. I could have bought them groceries.
I didn’t even realize what a jerk I’d been until later that week when I told the story about the meth bust to my friend Vance, and he interrupted me at the moment when the woman was handing me the snotty bills; Vance said, “Keep it, lady. Sheesh.” Like he knew that I’d never have considered taking her money. And I was so ashamed that I let Vance believe I hadn’t taken that baby-food money. But I had. I’d palmed those snotty bills, and now, confronted with my friend’s faith in me, I saw myself in a revealing light.
Next time I am going to do better, I promised myself. Next time I am going to be kinder. So every morning, unless I’m too hungover, I get up and meditate on compassion. Some days it works, but most days compassion hits the end of its leash. After a certain number of exasperations the tank of human kindness runs dry.
A particularly wretched example of this occurred the day I was parked at the town square by the Corner Diner, 8:30 in the morning, the car’s hood shimmering like blacktop in the heat. That’s when I got dispatched to take a fellow driver to the garage. Zeke was about forty and sometimes took his ten-year-old son out with him in the cab at night. His son’s presence must have helped considerably with tips. And his son was about the only reason you’d tip Zeke, who resembled a redheaded version of the Unabomber and smelled like cat piss. Remembering my resolutions, I fought the urge to stop the car and order Zeke outside, but I did roll down my window. My eyes were watering. It was that bad.
Months later my friend Kyla would get a ride home in Zeke’s van. After cussing him out about the obscene stench, she texted me that it was the worst smell she had ever endured. “And I don’t think that was cat urine. I think it was human urine.”
On our way to the garage I asked Zeke what had been fixed on his van. Getting anything repaired by Tommy required a prolonged lobbying process and a few threats to quit.
“Brakes,” Zeke replied.
“Brakes? No way. I’ve been begging for brakes for months. Listen to these things.”
I hit the pedal, which went dutifully to the floor and shuddered.
“Have you been crying or something?” Zeke asked.
“No,” I replied, trying to shelter him from the truth about his body odor. “It’s just allergies.”
He kept staring at me, his eyes twinkling as if with merriment. But it wasn’t merriment, I realized. It was menace. Or maybe it was the twinkle of insanity, of secret manifestoes and homespun bombs. And why the hell did Zeke get brakes instead of me? All the day-shift drivers thought Tommy favored the night shift. I was resisting the urge to phone him up right then. In my imagination I quit grandiloquently every day. But in real life I needed the money. I’m early fifties and worried sick about the future. Retirement? As far as I can tell, this Town Car is my retirement.
“Enjoy your new brakes,” I said bitterly as I dropped Zeke off at the garage.
He paused before getting out and pointed to my bouquet of eccentric air fresheners: Bigfoot, Shakespeare, and a flying saucer. “That Bigfoot?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s pine scented.”
“I saw him once,” he said. Then he got out and slammed the door without elaborating.
“Yeah? Did y’all murder cats together?” I shouted once he was out of earshot. Then I reached under the seat for the air freshener and unloaded the spray bottle on the Town Car. His poor son, I kept thinking. The world seemed to me at that moment to be filled with great herds of three-legged deer staggering pathetically through endless woods.
Five minutes later, still driving with the windows open, I got dispatched to the hospital. Fighting the urge to phone Tommy and demand new brakes, I walked into the ER and filled out the paperwork.
I was photographing the receipt when a nurse I liked walked over and told me, “You know she just got out of prison, right?”
“No. They never tell me anything. Is it meth?”
I asked where I was taking her.
“Sardis Lake. She owns a camper there. Except her ex-husband, who also just got out of prison, might be staying there. They hate each other, so God knows what’ll happen when y’all show up. That’s her. Miss Pamela.”
She pointed to a thin woman being wheeled out of a room. Pamela had long hair, gray and straight, but with hints of the blonde who had first flirted with meth. Her eyes were pale blue, her arms sticks, her hands bony, her nails chewed. I guessed fifty, but who knew with meth-heads?
We got Miss Pamela into the back seat.
“I am so glad to be the hell out of there,” she said once we’d pulled away from the hospital. “Pardon my French.”
The campground was about twenty miles away: an eighty-dollar haul, of which I would pocket half, minus gas.
“I just hope my camper’s still there. My ex-husband knows where I hide the key.”
And already I knew that camper was not going to be there.
“Maybe you should call him?” I said. “You only get this one free ride.”
“The asshole won’t pick up. Excuse my Spanish. Anyway I got nowhere else to go.”
Nowhere else to go. What do you do when you got nowhere else to go? Well, you call a cab.
Pamela pointed to my flying-saucer air freshener and said, “They used to follow me around when I was a kid. Hey, is that Shakespeare?”
“Yeah. It’s Shakespeare-mint.”
“Huh. I’ve always wanted to read him.” She waited a moment, then added, “But I never will.”
Halfway to Sardis Lake we hit a line of thunderstorms, and the cab’s roof started leaking rain on my head.
“That’s kinda sad how it only lands on you,” Pamela noted.
We drove to the reservoir and snaked along the roads beneath the dam. There were puddles everywhere, but the sun was out again, and the pavement was steaming. As we approached the campground, Pamela began praying out loud, “Please let my camper be there, Jesus. Please, please, please, Jesus.”
And I knew in my bones that her camper wasn’t going to be there.
We rounded the last corner, and she said, “Oh, God, it’s gone.”
I stopped the car and closed my eyes. God damn it, Jesus, I thought. Would it have killed you to give this poor lady her camper?
Pamela began clawing at my right arm as if trying to pull herself into the front seat. I had to fight the urge to elbow her off me.
“Please, sir, let’s drive around. He might have moved it to another spot.”
We drove around the campground for twenty minutes. By then she was weeping. Next we searched some county roads where she thought the camper might be parked, but of course it wasn’t there either. Eventually I pulled into the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and explained that I wasn’t getting paid for any of this and had to take her back to the hospital.
“Please, can you take me to Pontotoc instead? Please? I’ve got nothing.”
Pontotoc was 120 bucks from where we were. I asked her who was going to pay me for the trip.
“There’s a man there will. Mr. Calvin will. He’s a bail bondsman. I promise he will. He lives in the woods off Highway 6. Please, mister.”
I briefly imagined myself being robbed in the woods off Highway 6 by Pamela and Mr. Calvin.
“I gotta take you back to the hospital,” I said finally.
“You do, they’ll send me back to prison.”
I told her they couldn’t do that, but what did I know about criminal justice in North Mississippi?
As we pulled back onto the highway, I perhaps left her with the impression that I was taking her to Pontotoc, which happened to be in the same direction as the hospital. But halfway there I crossed the line where kindness failed. That quick, I veered off the highway into the hospital entrance, and, the moment I did, Pamela started weeping and begging, “Please, please, mister, you said you would. You promised. You promised you’d take me to Pontotoc.”
I parked in front of the ER.
“At least come inside with me,” she said. “Please don’t let them send me back to prison.”
I sighed and went inside and explained the situation to the nurses, who promised me Pamela wouldn’t get sent back to prison. If they had to, they’d even let her spend the night on the waiting-room couch: “But don’t tell her we said that.”
I sidestepped Pamela on my way out and left without saying goodbye. I felt bad about that, too, but it had been a long morning, and I needed some food and a smoke. I slunk back to my taxi and drove away feeling instantly better because Pamela was gone.
But of course she wasn’t gone. None of them are, not really. They are always with me: Pamela; the guy sniffing his TV dinner; the long-faced, country white guy covered in grasshoppers; the old black man in his hospital gown; the snotty girl with the howling baby. They are all crowded into the back of my Town Car like some incriminating photograph I see, only for a moment, every time I check the rearview.