Mahmud picked up his microphone and pressed the talk button.
“This is Car 20.”
“Scoot on over to the Nite’s Inn Motel on Aurora,” the dispatcher requested.
“She’ll be waiting up front.”
He replaced the microphone, turned his car around and headed up to Aurora Avenue. He noticed they cleaned up the snow on the main drag, but there was still about an inch of the powdery stuff piled up on the sides of the road. The shimmering crystals of hoarfrost dangled off the leaves of each tree he passed, temporarily blinding him with their reflection of the early evening sun.
The legendary avenue had been changing lately. Ladies of the night weren’t walking as much. Spanking new businesses were being built, displacing the sea of contraband that usually flooded the area. At least the recently fallen snow gave the area a softer, less harsh hue. He remembered how treacherous the area had been – he’d encountered a robber himself, but like a linguist who’d forgotten speech, he chose not to remember those wicked months.
Mahmud checked the time on his watch: 1930 hours. He’d been on duty for only 90 minutes but only had two short fares so far. He hoped the slowness wasn’t a harbinger for the rest of his shift.
Pulling into the motel, he immediately saw his fare; she was the only person standing by the manager’s station. Conservatively dressed, he figured her to be about 55 years old. Noticing her left arm was in a cast and sling, he got out and helped her get into the back seat of the cab.
“Good evening,” she greeted him as he returned to his seat.
“Hi,” he responded.
He picked up his clipboard and pencil and started to write.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“The Safeway in Ballard,” she answered. “Do you know the one?”
“Yes. That one.”
He left the motel and started driving towards the grocery store.
“Are you going to work?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she answered. “Just shopping.”
Hmm. He thought it was a little odd she’d go that far out of her way to a shop especially since they’d be passing at least three supermarkets, but a fare’s a fare. It wasn’t his to question. His passenger, though, did get the sense he wondered.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Where are you from, Mahmud?”
“Oh! How nice! My name is Barbara.”
“I like that Safeway because I used to live around there and their pastry chef is the best.”
Mahmud nodded politely.
“You know, I used to drive,” she claimed.
“You gave it up?” the cabbie asked.
“Remember the real heavy snowfall three weeks ago?”
“I was driving to the doctor’s and I got broadsided by some kid who couldn’t stop.”
“Wow. And you broke your arm?”
“No. This wasn’t from that. Both cars are totaled, though.”
“You can’t be too careful.”
“I moved into that motel two weeks ago.”
“Really? I heard it’s not exactly the safest place in town.”
“I didn’t have a choice. That’s what Social Service will pay for. I used to live in Ballard, like I’d told you before, but some rat chewed through the electrical wiring in my house. It got set on fire. I woke to the house in flames.”
“Yeah. I only had time to grab my keys off the center table. By the time I got outside, half the house was gone.”
“You’re a lucky person.”
“I guess. My neighbors were pretty helpful. A few days ago I left the motel to walk to a local donut shop. On the way back I slipped on an icy patch on the sidewalk. Would you believe I broke my arm?”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“I hope your whole life wasn’t so unlucky.”
“There were bad and good times – same as everyone else. How was your life in Bangladesh?”
“Ah, well, you know…it’s a poor country. Some towns have no running water. There are people living in slums. There’s no sanitation. Diseases run rampant and uncontrolled. Seems like you spend your whole life just trying to get out.”
“To come to America?”
“Actually, any place with opportunity. Doesn’t matter. Libya, Saudi Arabia, Australia…”
Just then the dispatcher’s voice came on over the speakers.
“What’s your location, Car 20?”
Mahmud picked up his microphone.
“A few blocks from Market Street.”
“Oh, okay. Never mind,” the dispatcher said then hanged up.
Mahmud also cradled his mike. Seconds later, he pulled up to the entrance of the Safeway.
“What’s the damage?” Barbara asked, taking bills from her purse.
Mahmud smiled. He always thought ‘damage’ was an unusual and contradictory substitution for price, like the damage of a haircut or the damage of sending your daughter to school.
“It’s okay,” he answered. “On the house.”
“Are you sure?”
Barbara took a $10 bill and stuffed it in his pocket anyway. Seconds later, he got out to help her exit.
“You’re a good driver,” she congratulated him. “You don’t have to feel sorry for me.”
“I just think it’s good when folks can help each other out. Doesn’t always have to be about the almighty dollar.”
“I’ll need a cab in about an hour. Can you pick me up?”
“If I’m in town and not busy.”
“I’ll call them and ask specifically for you, Mahmud.”
“Okay,” he agreed, then got back into his taxi and took off.
It was chilly out that evening, but as he drove out of the parking lot he relished his payment – it was the first time he’d smiled in ages.