About 20 years ago author Kent Nerburn wrote a book, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” and in it he included one of my all-time favorite stories. Down through the years the story has been entitled, “The Taxi Story, “The Last Cab Ride,” and other variations. When the story was introduced in his book, Ken actually gave it the headline, “Where there is sadness, joy.”
I ran across Ken’s blessing to all of us several weeks ago and promised myself that someday when I could, I wanted to share it in hopes it will touch you the way it does me every single time I read it. Today’s that day. Better yet, about 10 years ago, after it was sent to “Kenny” from a reader in England, he mentioned it on his personal blog, which read in part:
“I am thrilled when my ordinary life offers up an extraordinary moment that brings some solace or insight or enjoyment to others, and such has been the good fortune of that moment in the late 1980’s when I was driving the “dog shift” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What is noteworthy about that moment, beyond its poignancy, is that I did not create it; I merely experienced it and let it unfold.
“Life gives us all such moments,” he wrote, “I call them ‘Blue Moments’ — where a brilliant light shines through the ordinary moments in our ordinary days. They come unsolicited and unannounced, and provide us the gift of significance and, if we are lucky, the opportunity to serve.
“What it is important is to remember that these ARE gifts, and that we cannot receive them if we are not open to them,” he also noted. “We need to listen closely, watch closely, and take care not to rush past or through them when they arrive. They are the fabric of our lives, and they will weave themselves with complexity and beauty if we give them time to do so.”
* * *
THE LAST TAXI RIDE
Written by ‘Kenny’ Nerburn, 1999
When I arrived at my destination I honked to let her know I had arrived, and yet nobody came out; after a few minutes of waiting I honked my horn again, although patience was quickly wearing thin. This particular customer was my last fare of the day, and for just a moment I heavily considered just driving off and leaving them behind: I figured that no amount of money would ever be worth the extra time and effort of having to wait outside for a whole thirty minutes…boy was I wrong.
Eventually I decided to just park the car and knock on the door myself, and when I do I’m greeted with the sound of a frail and shriveled voice: “just a minute, dear, I’m sorry for holding you up for so long.” I could hear something scrape across the floor and making a distinct scratching noise.
After what felt like ten minutes the door opened wide, and a woman who looked to be in her mid-90s was standing before me; she was wearing a simple dress with a print design and a hat with a dark veil on it that looked like something out of a 1940s film noir.
Next to this woman was a tiny almost comical suitcase made of some kind of nylon fabric, and her residence looked liked it had been uninhabited for centuries: the furniture was covered in plastic so thick that it was as if she were preparing for a nuclear fallout, and wanted to make absolutely sure that everything stayed pristine. The whole sight of her home was honestly a bit jarring.
I could see from outside that there were no clocks hunt up on the wall, and to my surprise there were no knickknacks either. There was no cutlery on the countertops, and hidden away deep in the corner was a cardboard box jammed full of framed pictures and what appeared to be glassware from the Renaissance.
Her body shook a little as she looked up at me. “Would you please carry my bag to the car for me? It’s a bit difficult for me these days.” I picked up her suitcase and stored it in my cab and then made me way back; I was a little bit nervous that she might ask me to start loading up her house like some kind of budget U-Haul: preying on the likelihood that I would be too nice to say no.
But instead she took my arm and we slowly shuffled out to the curb. She thanked me for my kindness several times, but I told her that it was nothing to worry about, and that I was simply treating her the same way I’d want for my own mother.
Her face wrinkled up and she smiled: “you’re such a gentleman, I’m sure your mother is very proud of you.” After we were both seated in the cab she provided me with an address, and asked that I take her through the downtown streets.
“Trust me when I say that it’s not the quickest route,” I quickly shot back.
“Oh I’m not worried about all that, sweetie, I’m in no kind of hurry: I’m going to hospice.”
What she said caught me off guard; I looked at her through the rearview mirror and I could see her eyes glisten. “I don’t have any family left to miss me,” she said, “and the medical staff says I don’t have much longer.”
As quietly as I could, I switched my meter off.
“Well ma’am, which route would you like me to take?” For over two hours we drove all over the city. She showed me where she used to work operating elevators. We drove through the neighborhood that her and her husband called home way back when they were newlyweds. We stopped at a furniture warehouse that used to be ballroom where she danced as a young girl: it’s fascinating how complex and beautiful the lives are of the countless people we’ll never meet.
Every now and again she’d ask me to park by a particular corner or building and would simply sit in silence: staring into the darkness for no discernible reason. And as soon as the sun began kissing the borders of the horizon she lightly sighed and said “I’m tired. Let’s go.”
And the both of us traveled in complete silence for the rest of the trip, and we finally arrived at a smallish building with a drive way that rested underneath an overhang. Two care takers emerged from the building as we drew closer; they seemed concerned with the woman’s movements, and it seemed as if they had been waiting for her to arrive.
I grabbed the old woman’s miniature suitcase from the trunk and carried it to the front door; by the time I arrived she was already housed in assistance devices. She looked at me with intent and asked me how much she owed me, but I told her it was free of charge.
“Oh come now, you have to put food on the table.”
“And there are plenty of other customers who will help me to do so.”
I kneeled down as if I were operating on pure instinct, and I gave this old woman who I had never met the most sincere hug of my life. “Thank you,” she whispered, “you gave me a final memory of joy.” I clasped her hand and I turned to leave: drifting towards the dim morning light that I have become all too familiar with.
I opened my car door, and behind me another door shut: the sound of a life being closed. My shift ended right then and there and yet I didn’t go home: I cruised aimlessly while lost within myself. I didn’t want to pick up any more passengers; I was searching for myself and searching for answers.
What if I never picked that old woman up? What if a driver with less patience had shown up at her door step? What if I only honked once before deciding that enough is enough? How many times has this already happened without us having ever realized it?
As I mulled over these questions I came to a realization: I don’t think I have ever done anything else more important than what I did tonight; I think that’s the beauty of the world though, that great moments will always catch us unaware: wrapped humbly within insignificance.
* * *
MATTHEW 25:35-40 – “ … for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”