Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflections - NY Cab Driver Story

Below what follows is a story, that has been circulating around the internet for some time.  I read this story a few years ago, thought "that's nice" and then that was it.  I mean, as a writer, it's altogether too easy to fall into a peculiar trap of disregarding everything you read.  You understand the essence of story, the construction of fiction, and how it makes you and your audience feel.  But to immediately disregard everything does something to the taints it, depresses it, shades it in greys.

So I try not to ask myself too much about whether something is 'real' or not, and just enjoy a good story for what it is.  But then people attacked its legitimacy, people who are more cynical than me, and there's something inherrently desparaging about that.  To say that someone is outright a liar.  There's a difference between attacking and searching for truth, one is pursued for intrinsic gain, the other is an assault on intellectuality.  So Kent Nerburn wrote a follow-up.  Which I would like to archive here to think more on.

A NYC Taxi Driver Story:

A sweet lesson on patience.

A NYC Taxi driver wrote:

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up 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 90's stood before me. She was wearing a 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 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 took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. '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 downtown?'

'It's not the shortest way,' 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. Her eyes were glistening. 'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice..'The doctor says I don't have very long.' I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

'What route would you like me to take?' 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 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 girl.

Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and 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 driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled 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?' 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 and gave her a hug.She held onto 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 the closing of a life..

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day,I could hardly talk.What if that woman had gotten an angry driver,or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.
Kent Nerburn's Followup, from
It’s three a.m. I should be in bed and I certainly shouldn’t be blogging, because one’s sense of proportion is never very trustworthy during “the hour of the wolf.” But I’m mulling over a fascinating chain of events and thinking about their significance, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.
Last week several websites actually attributed my cab driving story to me. For those of you who don’t know, it is a story that I use in my book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, to illustrate the line in St. Francis’ famous prayer, “And where there is sadness, joy.” The entire book is a series of ruminations/meditations on Francis’ beautiful prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

I wrote the book about a decade ago as a kind of spiritual meditation. I took each line of the prayer and tried to find some exemplification of it in my own or other people’s lives. My thinking was simple: St. Francis, of all the religious figures of the past, is perhaps the most universally beloved. He is beyond sectarianism, beyond doctrine. And though he was thoroughly Christian — some would say, too Christian for the church of which he was a part — something in his deep humanity has resonated down the centuries and transcended theological differences. I felt that I could do myself some spiritual good by engaging in an extended meditation on the prayer that may be the most universally beloved on the planet.

It was, and remains, an uneasy book for me, because it is in no way Christocentric, which Francis most assuredly was. But he was also the most embracing of the Christian spiritual thinkers. I figured that if he met me, he’d probably find a way to enfold my spiritual strugglings into his faith, so why not work backwards, and use that faith to illuminate my spiritual strugglings? It proved to be a good choice: writing the book was one of the most clarifying experiences I have ever had as an author.
But, back to the cab story. In the book I tell the story of when I was driving a cab in Minneapolis and picked up a woman who was going to a hospice. We drove around all night at her request in what was very likely her last real journey through the outside world she was preparing to leave. It was one of those “blue moments,” as I call them, when some kind of spiritual light shines through the ordinary affairs of everyday life. As most of you know, this is one of the primary themes of my work as a writer.

Well, this cab driver story, in various iterations, has moved virally around the internet for years. It got changed, detached from the Francis book, and attributed to any number of anonymous and not so anonymous sources. It frustrated me, but I tried to listen to my better angels and take satisfaction in the fact that at least it was being read.

Then, last week, something happened. Several websites, primarily,, and something called, I believe, picked it up. Within hours my website was being hit like it seldom has before. On the third day after the initial publication I had almost 49,000 hits. This has not happened since my postings on the Red Lake shootings a number of years ago.

What was interesting to me was the comments that people made in response to the story. There seemed to be two fundamental threads: “This is a beautiful story; I’m glad there are people like this in the world,” and “What a bunch of sappy, probably fictional, crap.” Well, though strange and improbable, it is not fictional. Anyone who’s ever driven a cab knows that things happen that are beyond belief.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What is important to me is that in this dichotomy of responses lies the human struggle that so many of us live on a daily basis. We want to be the good person who picks up the old woman, drives her around, and refuses payment for giving her the last ride of her life. And yet we are also the caustic, cynical, folks who pick at the world and carp about things that irritate us or upset us. As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Or, to put it in St. Paul’s terms, “That which I would, I do not. That which I do, I would not.” We are simply complex creatures that contain both dark and light in us in varying degrees.
What I wanted to do in the Francis book was to bring out the light. I did not want to claim that I was light, or that I always lived in the light. Those who make such claims are either saints, or deluded, or disingenuous. And there are precious few saints among us.

The constant presence, and overwhelmingly positive response to the cab driver story tells me that there is, in almost all of us, a yearning for the light. We want to be the good person, the one who does the good thing, the one who makes the proper response to the situation. Yet, sadly, and far too often, we do not. That I did so in that moment in the cab back in the mid 1980’s does not make me a good person. It makes me a person who, for one moment, did something that was good. As a dear friend of mine once said, “Most people just slog through the world trying to be kind.” That’s what I was doing on that unexceptional August morning when an exceptional moment broke through the ordinariness of an ordinary day.

If I wrote a book about all the times I failed to do the right thing, or actually did something mean spirited or jerky, it would be far longer than the book of my better moments. But you don’t need to hear about those. You have your own mean spirited and jerky moments, and the world is full of folks who celebrate those moments by indulging their cynicism and skepticism. The cab drive story was a reminder to me, that I passed on to you, that we do have our better angels, and that we should assert them when we can. That the overwhelming majority of you appreciated the story is simply proof that we all feel better on those occasions when we do let our better angels have their voice.

In this time when dominance is praised as strength, where skepticism is often more prudent than trust, where disengagement is safer than engagement, we need to be reminded that the kind gesture that makes us vulnerable and serves no practical end is often the best gesture of all. The cab ride, for me, was one of those gestures.

I am pleased that so many people have found it. I only hope that they will follow it backward to the source. Forget the word, “Lord.” Replace it with whatever term you use for your understanding of the Creator or spiritual force that animates this universe. But don’t forget the next phrase: “Make me an instrument of your peace.” That’s what the world needs now. That’s what I was trying to be on that cab ride. That’s what I’ll try to be today.
I hope you will do the same.