“Barry, you got a pick up at 396 Madison. Apartment 3.”
“Got it. Be there in five.”
I dropped the mic on the front seat of my cab and pulled out of the mall parking lot. A call at 2:00 AM on a Tuesday night usually meant a drunk, a shift worker, or someone headed to the airport for an emergency flight. I hoped it was the trip to the airport.
The ride to Madison only took a few minutes. When I pulled up I saw the light on in the apartment at the front. It spilled from behind yellowed lace curtains. Most likely some old lady with cats headed out on a red-eye flight to a funeral. The rest of the small building was dark. I debated whether or not to go to the door or just honk the horn and wait. Most cabbies just honk and wait a minute or two. I preferred to add some humanity to the job. Besides, a little personal touch and a smile were good ways to get a tip and didn’t cost you anything. No one wandered the streets or was drinking on the stoops which made me think the neighborhood wasn’t too sketchy, so I decided I’d go in and knock on the door.
The building was clean, but tired. Worn carpets, old paint and the stale odor of past meals were the palette that defined the building. I would have bet that most of the meals came from cans with Chef-boy-ardee on the front. I walked down the hall, past an ancient cast iron radiator and knocked at a door with a brass number three on it.
“Just a moment,” the woman’s voiced quavered through the door. The lock turned and I heard a chain slide from the door. I pasted a smile on my face that I hoped looked friendly and not psychotic.
The old woman was slight, and stood all of 5 feet tall. With her flower print dress and pill-box hat with a veil she could have been an extra in a Humphrey Bogart movie. Wrinkles wove character into her face and her eyes were watery and red. She reminded me of a newborn bird with paper-thin skin and blue veins.
Her eyes caught mine. “Young man, would you be kind enough to take my bag out to the car?” She pointed at an old-fashioned leather valise on the floor beside her. It had a few faded stickers that adorned its sides from vacations long forgotten.
“Of course, ma’am.” I tipped my baseball cap and entered the apartment. The furniture had all been wrapped in white drop cloths and there were boxes piled along the walls. There were no knick-knacks on the side tables and no pictures on the mantle. Clean spots on the wallpaper marked where pictures had been taken down. “Moving?”
“You could say so,” she looked wistfully around the room as she pulled on a pair of white gloves. “Thank you so much for carrying my bag.”
“Not a problem. Can I get anything else for you?”
“I have a small box in the corner,” she pointed to a small box behind the door. “It has some pictures and other things.”
I hauled the box and valise out to the car and went back to retrieve my passenger. She sat primly with her purse in her lap on one of the sheet covered chairs. Her eyes were wet as she looked around the tiny apartment.
“Ma’am? You okay?”
“Fine, fine,” she dismissed the remark with a wave of her hand. She wiped her eyes with a dainty lace-edged handkerchief. “Just an old lady who gets weepy at times.” She stood, straightened her dress and walked to me, taking my arm. I looked down in surprise, I hadn’t had a woman take my arm in, well, ever. She looked up at me and I could feel her shrink into me as the emotion seeped out of her.
“C’mon,” I said with a thick voice. “We’ll get going.” We strode slowly down the hall and carefully down the stairs to the waiting cab. She kept her head high and stepped carefully. She had all the weight of a tiny shadow attached to my arm.
I opened the rear door of the cab and ushered her in. Safely tucked in place, I jumped in the front of the cab and buckled in. “Where to?”
She gave me the address. It was the other side of town, it would take about a half hour to get there. “Off to visit?” I asked.
She laughed. “Goodness, no. I’m moving to a new place, but I want to do something before I get there.”
“What’s that?” I was curious. What would a lady her age want to do at 2:30 AM?
“Can we go through the downtown?”
“It’s not the fastest way. It’ll take –”
“It doesn’t matter to me how long it takes,” she smiled back at me in the mirror. “I’m not in a big hurry to get to my new place. They really aren’t expecting me until morning and I can afford the fare.” She tapped the side of her white faux-leather purse.
I shrugged and pulled out. We headed for the downtown district. The customer is always right, and a little extra fare wouldn’t hurt, there aren’t all that many customers at that time of the morning.
The downtown core was all shiny steel and glass buildings. Traffic lights and arc-sodiums in the parking lots kept the night at bay. The streets were deserted, even the hookers had called it a night. The only traffic included the occasional police car or fellow cabbie. If you wanted to sight-see and take your time, this was the time to do it.
Her frail voice came from the backseat as we drove around. She directed us up and down streets and stared out the window. We were out by the arena. “Can you pull over here for a moment?”
“Of course.” I signaled and pulled to the curb next to a parking lot. There were a few cars parked and an abandoned attendant’s booth. A sign announced that hourly parking was six dollars and that the lot wasn’t responsible for damage to your vehicle. I put my arm on the backseat and looked over my shoulder. “This good enough?”
She pointed to the parking lot. “There used to be a department store here. Do you remember?”
I shook my head. “I moved here about ten years ago.”
“It was a Kresge’s. I worked as a telephone operator when I was a much younger girl.” She laughed at the thought and continued. “I met my husband here, at the soda fountain. He was the elevator operator. It wasn’t a very good job, but I did get to see him every day. He looked so handsome in his uniform.”
“Things are a little different today,” I said. “Heck, those jobs don’t even exist any more.” I paused for a minute and added. “Neither do soda fountains.”
She nodded. “It’s funny, the past is so clear. When I look at all this, I don’t feel old. I feel like I was twenty again.”
I cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’re over twenty?”
She laughed and her eyes sparkled for the first time that night. “Young man, you have earned a handsome tip.”
I doffed my cap at her. “As my lady sees fit.”
She looked out at the parking lot again. “Do you mind if I get out for a moment?”
I took a look out the windshield. “It isn’t the best neighborhood in town to be wandering around in.” I looked back at her and shook my head. Her eyes shone as she looked out at that old parking lot, and I could tell she wasn’t seeing or hearing anything that I was. “It’s your meter, ma’am. I can turn it off if you’re –”
She cut me off with a wave of her gloved hand and pushed the door open. She spent a few minutes wandering around the parking lot, looking at empty places and talking to herself. At one point I heard her giggle. She slowly wound her way back to the car and climbed back in. She pointed in a new direction and I drove.
The next stop was a neighborhood that consisted of burnt out houses and abandoned cars. Weed covered lots were filled with garbage and the rusted hulks of twisted shopping carts.
“Our first house was on this street. Two bedrooms. We bought it right after we were married.”
“Not many people live in this neighborhood now.”
“Well, it was a lot cleaner then. There were sand-lots for the kids to play in, and the drive-in was only a few blocks away. My husband and I loved to go to the drive-in on Saturday nights.”
“Like anything in particular? Westerns? Scary Movies?”
She blushed. “We didn’t watch the movies much back then,” She giggled and pointed in the direction of the old drive-in. “But we certainly enjoyed the drive-in.”
I cleared my throat and felt my cheeks burn a little at the change in topic. “Was the house very expensive when you bought it?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh my, It was so dear,” She held up three fingers. “It cost us nearly three thousand dollars.” She shook her head. “I know that doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was a lot of money.” She pointed to an old oak that towered above a boarded up house to our right. I slowed to a crawl. “My husband and his best friend Ernie planted that tree in 1947. Our kids played together.” She paused and then shook her head. “Mercy, has it really been that long? I saw Ernie’s daughter last month after her husband had passed. Where do all the years go?”
I drove for a while more, stopping every once in a while so that she could just stare out the window, lost in a world that I couldn’t see. I stopped to get gas and we continued to wind our way through the city.
“Do you see that building?” She asked.
“The abandoned one?” I asked, looking at the crumbling building across the street. It may have been grand at one time with its high windows and grand entrance, but now it was boarded up and looked like it was a home to crack-heads and rats.
“It was a ballroom, once upon a time when such things were popular. Young ladies and gentlemen would meet and dance. We would be dressed up and listen to the bands. Oh, how I loved to dance. I would spend hours getting ready.” I heard her shift in the backseat. Her voice was soft and rough now. “Oscar always looked so handsome in his suit. Tall and dark with his hair slicked back. I was so lucky.” She reached out and ran a finger down the glass of the window. The sky had been lightening for the last hour and now there was a touch of pink at the horizon. She straightened and faced forward. “Let’s go, please. I’m ready now.”
We drove in silence for the last twenty minutes. I didn’t know what to say or even if I could say anything. She sat quietly in the back, head held high and her eyes half-closed.
I turned onto the tree lined street and looked for the address she had given me. There weren’t many houses or buildings of any sort. I saw the address on a sign attached to a squat white building. My heart skipped a beat and my eyes went to the rear view mirror as I signaled my turn.
“Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Yes, Saint Joseph’s Hospice. They’re expecting me.” She sat ramrod straight in the backseat, her purse clutched in her hands.
We pulled into the grounds where the hospice was located and crunched up the gravel driveway. I stopped at the front door and two orderlies stepped through the front door and approached the cab. It was obvious that they had been waiting for her.
“How much do I owe you?” She pulled a wallet out of her purse and began to riffle through the bills inside.
My eyes misted and my voice cracked. “No charge for the ride.”
“Don’t be silly, you need to make a living.”
“There’s always another fare, ma’am. But you can do one thing.”
I stepped forward and surprised myself by giving her a hug. My eyes moistened when I felt her tighten her hold. She stepped back and took my hand in hers.
“Thank you, young man. You made an old woman very happy tonight.” She stood on tiptoe and gave me a soft, dry kiss on my cheek.
The orderlies stepped forward and took the valise and small box. They put her into a wheelchair and trundled toward the front door. They were very solicitous and clinical. She was in good hands.
I drove around for hours with my radio off. I didn’t want another fare for a while.
The sun was up and people once again filled the streets. They hurried here and there, honked horns, walked while talking on cellphones or grabbed coffee. They tossed litter on the street and passed each other in a rush to get where they were going, completely oblivious to the past that lay all around them.
I didn’t pay attention to them. Through my windshield I saw a beautiful young girl in a beaded ballgown, hanging on the arm of a handsome man with slicked back hair in a tuxedo. They walked up the red carpeted stairs of the Ballroom Palace. She smiled up at him, totally in love. The muted tones of big band music could be heard when they opened the door and then faded as they passed to a happier place.