Sometimes pity and compassion stay at the same sleazy motel where the walls between their rooms are paper-thin.
I was driving my taxi in the wee hours of the morning. Bars are closing; people are in need of a ride home. The green LCD screen of my dashboard-mounted dispatch computer casts a subtle glow in the interior of the 1989 Chevy P.O.S. It's like TV, only worse. It looks like a keyboard with a narrow screen at the top. It beeps when dispatch wants to send horribly misspelled messages with terrible grammar in capitol letters. I no longer chagrin at messages like “FLT MSG: THIS IS A REMINDER TO REMIND YOU TO BE CAREFUL FOGY WEATHER MAKES THE DRIVING DANGERUS.”
I get fidgety when business is slow. The entertainment factor of the beeping box has long since lost its novelty. The smell of gasoline and smoldering engine belts cling to my nostrils. I highly doubt I would have noticed if I didn't quit smoking a week ago. Music is not an option, seeing as the radio had long since been removed and in its stead was a gaping hole filled with wires and receipt books. I resort instead to the Wurlitzer gland in my brain that secretes music and creates an internal soundtrack. At that moment, I was singing along loudly to “The Main” by Grant Hart. The high pitched beep that signals communication from the dispatch center interrupted my one-man show to an audience of none. I read the words "Trip in 108" on the screen and press the "Accept" button. The address belongs to a little bar/restaurant in Linnton called The Decoy. My fare's name is Bob.
The interesting thing about the dispatch calls is that you get this little slice of information: an address, a name, sometimes a destination or a pick-up time, but usually only the former two. So there I was en route to pick up Bob at The Decoy. Like going to the UPS warehouse to pick up an unexpected package: you don't know what you're going to get. It’s a game of chance. The fares after the bars close do tend to be some of my most interesting trips. People tend to be looser-lipped and more entertaining. Sometimes they get annoying, but I just chalk that up to my bartender karma. When I was bartending, I would just hand off the drunk ones to the taxi drivers. There's a universal balance at work with the pain-in-the-ass customers and I wouldn't want to upset it.
I drove through the North West industrial district and westward on the Route 30 bypass. To my right, the St. John’s bridge stretches across the river. I remember that someone told me it was a scale replica for the Golden Gate bridge, built for exhibition at a World’s Fair years ago. It reminds me of a cue stick resting on a pool sharks hand, waiting for the right moment to knock the moon out of the night and usher in the day.
When I arrive at The Decoy, I find Bob to be a pleasant middle-aged gentleman, who happens to be stumbling over himself and most objects between himself and the taxi. He is clean shaven, with sandy brown hair and a light skinned complexion. He wears the khaki pants - pastel sweater outfit of an infomercial host. I help him into the cab and ask where he's going. He mumbles something about 50th and SE Powell. I turn the taxi around, start the meter, and begin our trip.
I find out a few things about Bob.
Bob has his own business selling gas hearths through the internet. He made approximately $8,000 this week through that business. He has spent the last year dating five women. Two of these women are acquaintances, and have had drunken public confrontations with Bob in the middle. Three of these women have decided to marry someone else. The third one actually telling him that this evening. One of these women revealed that she was already married, and there was some drama attached to it that I didn't get because he was not his most organized with his thoughts. The last one apparently lived somewhere in the neighborhood of 50th and SE Powell, and was what he considered a "backup."
The molecule-sized CDs in the Wurlitzer gland clicked and whirred as Jackson Brown began to sing “Take It Easy”
“Well I’m a runnin’ down the road tryin’ to loosen my load,
I got seven women on my mind,
four that wanna hold me,
two that wanna scold me,
one says she’s a friend of mine”
Fiftieth and SE Powell arrives amidst Bob’s tall tales and lonely lamentations, and when we get to the intersection, we commence a 20 minute drunken-back-seat-driver version of pin the tail on the donkey. He sees a landmark and tries to remember which way he walked to her house from that spot. The landmark is a bar. Regardless, we eventually find the house. He pays me for the trip so far and asks me to wait and make sure he gets inside okay. I then spend the next 15 minutes watching him, meter running, stumble around this house and knock on every available window and door.
It is at times like this I reflect on my lot as a man. I don't recall ever being that desperate in my life. I may have made the inappropriate drunken phone call at 3am. I know for sure to have misinterpreted body language or things that were said. All things considered, I feel I have reached a certain level of maturity in my late twenties that preclude me from stumbling around a woman's house, knocking on anything in reach to wake her up and let me in.
At this point I begin to think along several different trains of thought as other multimedia entertainment glands adjacent to the Wurlitzer begin to pulse.
My first instinct is to transform into a sideshow barker: "Step right up folks!" I'd yell from atop the taxi, "Venture forth if you dare! What a piece of work is man," I'd say," see how he grovels! Observe his pitiful actions! Watch in horror as you see the depths of patheticalness one man can sink to!"
I then hear the roar of thousands of people in a stadium, and a sportscaster’s voice: “Folks, Bob has really outdone himself tonight. A true testament to the warrior spirit that embodies this sport. Eight whiskey sours and a crushing blow to the ego would have had most men crying and puking into the porcelain goddess by now. But look at him go, spirits still hopeful in the face of such impossible odds.”
Classical music overrides the cacophony of the crowd as the scene segues to a distinguished Englishman in a high-backed velvet chair: “Bob’s performance is quite brilliant and absolutely inspiring this evening,” he’d say in a royal-sounding British accent. “He has really captured this character’s fragile sense of identity and self-worth. Even though the flap of a butterfly wing could shatter this brittle mask of confidence and composure, he carries on still, face first into the maelstrom.”
I snap out of my fantasy land and enter into a practical state of mind. If this woman is home, and looking forward to a surprise visit from Bob, she would have made her presence known by now. I happen to have seen the blue glow of a television when we pulled up to the house, so someone is home. That light has since been extinguished. Bob figures that because this woman expressed interest in him a week ago, she really wants his drunk ass tripping all over her property, banging on any door or window he can reach. Bob doesn't realize that if not a week ago, then right at this moment is when he lost the opportunity to bang anything on this property ever again.
So I try and explain the futility of the situation to Bob. I am enjoying the wait time, 30 bucks an hour to sit and watch a customer degrade himself is pretty easy money. I do not however wish to be involved in any infractions of the law, nor have any more part in bothering this woman. I finally convince Bob to get in the cab and go. He asks me to stop at a Plaid Pantry and he buys some sandwiches. He insists on looking in the White Pages for her number. After several failed attempts at using the phone, he gets back in the taxi.
The drive back to Linnton is long and quiet. I feel bad for him, but am also grateful that after I drop him off for the last time, I have $83 more than when I started.
I drive towards downtown on the Route 30 bypass and reflect on the last hour and a half. To my left, the St. John’s bridge stretches its long iron fingers across the river, and Tom Waits begins to sing:
Old Jack Chance himself leanin' up against a Wurlitzer and eyeballin' out a 5 ball combination shot
Impossible you say? ...hard to believe?… perhaps out of the realm of possibility? Naaaa
He be stretchin' out long tawny fingers out across a cool green felt with a provocative golden gate and a full table railshot that's no sweat and I leaned
up against my banister
And wandered over to the Wurlitzer
And I punched A-2
A shrill beeping interrupts the concert. I look at the dispatch computer and read the words: "Trip in 105." I punch the "Accept" button and push harder on the gas.