When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single window on the ground floor, just at the edge of light cast from a solitary lamp post. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute and then drive away.
But, I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.
I walked 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 80'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 1940s 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 knick-knacks or utensils on the counters. Yet inexplicitly in the center of the room was a fully set, small dinner table extravagantly set for two, unlit candles and all.
"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said.
I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. I couldn't help but ask her about the dinner table.
It was only then that I smelled the lingering aroma of fresh baked bread.
She thanked me for my kind inquiry and said, "It's nothing, I was to have dinner with a very old and long lost friend. His daughter called at the last minute and informed me he had passed earlier in the day due to a heart attack."
Her eyes were glistening and I could feel her sorrow and disappointment.
I told her. "I'll take his place, I'll reminisce with you."
"Oh, you're such a good boy, but you must make a living", she said.
"It's OK, there'll be other fares," I said.
She took my hand and led me to the table.
To my amazement, as she lifted the napkins covering each plate, the food was still fresh and warm.
We sat and ate and talked.and talked.and talked.
She talked about the building down the street where she had once worked as an elevator operator. She talked about where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds and about the furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl, about their courtship, her pets.about never being able to have children. About her travels, her fears and her loves, her life.
For reasons unexplained I had no concern for the lost money from my usual late night, early morning fares.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired, let's go now."
"And where are we going my lady?' I asked.
"I'm on my way to a hospice.I don't have any family left, my doctor says I don't have very long."
We drove in silence to the address she gave me. When I started the cab I reached over and turned off the meter.
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.
Again she said, "You have to make a living."
Again I said, "There'll be other fares."
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me
"You gave an old woman a long overdue evening of joy," she said. "Thank you."
I squeezed her hand 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 indifferent driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to notice her surroundings and just 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 an ordinary brown paper wrapping.