Talk Takes a New Turn in a Taxi

MY plane landed at 7 o'clock on a Sunday night, and I was hoping for a peaceful taxi ride home. At least that was the plan. I had three bags, but the taxi driver was slow to help me load them. Then he finally emerged from the taxi.

I smiled and said hello. He pulled his grimace up to a neutral look and returned the greeting. We loaded the bags together.

I entered the taxi and nearly got right back out. My disgust at the strong human smell inside overpowered me. I had to crack the window.

He reentered the taxi. His hair was shoulder length and platinum. It shone in startling contrast to his otherwise middle-aged appearance, defying the fact that life had not been gentle with him. I gave him my address and settled back into my own thoughts.

"It is humiliating to drive a taxi," he muttered half to himself, half to me.

His statement caught me off guard. I suddenly realized I had a choice here. I could afford this man the simple dignity of being heard. I could listen and become involved in his life for a moment. Or I could close my eyes and ears as I had done so many times before.

"It is humiliating to drive a taxi?" I repeated his statement to him gently.

"Yes," he said, clearly pleased to have been heard.

"I have a college education. I taught math. But it was a conspiracy. It was all a set up. It was political. They brought false charges against me. They did it. Of course, I had to go and save the world then. It was a calling. They banned me from teaching. But I had to save the world. It was a calling...."

Oh no. My fear of crazy people caught my breath. "Stop," I told myself, trying to check my apprehension. "What if there is another point of view? What if there is another approach to this man?"

I drew in a breath and asked myself: What if I just listened and acknowledged him? Could that really be so difficult? It might even turn out differently than past experiences, when I have retreated from the opportunity to make a connection by cracking the window and preparing for the worst.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"I was born in Chicago, though I have no particular address."

From the smell, I could tell he slept in his taxi. I was uncomfortable with the intimacy of that smell, but this time I was careful not to allow discomfort to become disgust.

"People look down on me. They say, 'What are you doing? You have a college education and you are driving a taxi.' I have degrees in mathematics and music. I was ruled unsatisfactory. But I achieved more with those students than any instructor ever had. Then again I was saving the world. 1969. I had to go to Finland and I was preaching. I was converting the Communists. 1969."

He handed me two photocopied, double-sided, hand-written sheets of paper. They told a bit about his life and of various injustices he perceived. One page had a musical score he had composed.

"May I keep these, or would you like them back?" I asked.

"Oh, those are yours. You can keep them. I'm just trying to get the word out - one person at a time," he said.

"You have degrees in math and music?"

"Yes, I do. I was studying acoustics. I wanted to apply the math to the music."

"Wow. What instrument do you play?"

In less than a second he pushed in a cassette that he had ready, waiting to be asked to play. "Trumpet," he said, as the music began. It started as a trumpet solo, later accompanied by piano. It was quite pleasant.

"Is that you?" I continued.

"Yes, that's me playing. In 1969."

"You play beautifully."

"Thank you," he said, his shoulders starting to square. He peered at me in his rearview mirror.

He seemed to be coming out of his prison, starting to remember the art of conversing. I could see the remnants of what used to be a handsome man.

Then a clear, strong voice started to sing a hymn.

"Now who is this singing?" I asked.

"It's me," he said proudly.

"It's you? You have a nice singing voice. It is very clear."

He turned around, looked me square in the face, and smiled. In this moment, there wasn't a thing crazy about this man. And in that moment, I knew the healing power of love.

Then the tape started to corrupt. It whizzed and whirred and jumped a bit. Another song started to bleed into the one playing.

"This was recorded from an eight track," he explained. "And it messed up a bit. But I like it. I find it interesting...."

"Onward Christian Soldiers" started to play, lapsing occasionally into another tune. Sometimes both played at once, or in an echoing fashion, like songs sung in rounds.

We rode in silence, sharing his scrambled, pleasant concert. Then he talked some more about the music, the echoing, the magic of the corrupted eight-track recording.

IREACHED for my money as we approached my house. I was conscious of giving him a good tip, but not an inordinate one, which might have reflected a sense of pity that I did not feel for him.

I thanked him and wished him well. He looked at me directly again, this time with a smile.

"You are one of the few people in the world who appreciates me. Thank you," he said, beaming as he leaped out of the taxi to help me with my bags.

As I approached my front door, I felt relaxed, peaceful, and happy. Such a departure from the many times I've burst into the house grousing about an amusing yet unhappy taxi-ride story for my husband.

There had been a different way to share space with this taxi driver, this human being.

We had shared that taxi space with respect, dignity, and love. And the result, for him, if I may take the liberty, was a momentary escape from his time warp - somewhere between now and 1969. He seemed to enjoy taking a ride through the present.

For me, the realization was that we do choose our experience each moment. I had decided between retreating into my own world and proceeding into his.

And that moment had changed everything.

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