The Pillbox Hat





Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. It was a cowboy's life,
a life for someone who wanted no boss.  What I didn't realize was
that it was also a ministry.  Because I drove the night shift, my cab
became a moving confessional.  Passengers climbed in, sat behind
me in total anonymity, and told me about their lives.  I encountered
people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh and
weep.  But none touched me more than a woman I picked up late
one August night.

I responded to a call from a small brick four-plex in a quiet part of
town.  I assumed I was being sent to pick up some party-goers, or
someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or a worker heading
to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town.  When
I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light
in a ground floor window.

Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or
twice, wait a minute, 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 needed my
assistance, I reasoned to myself.  So I walked to the door and

"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 1940's 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.  In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos
and glassware.

"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said.
I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.
She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.  She
kept thanking me for my kindness.

"It's nothing," I told her.  "I just try to treat my passengers the way
I would want my mother treated."

"Oh, you're such a good boy," she said.
When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked,
"Could you drive through downtown?"

"It's not the shortest way," I answered quickly.
"Oh, I don't mind," she said.  "I'm in no hurry.  I'm on my way to a

I looked in the rearview mirror.  Her eyes were glistening.
"I don't have any family left," she continued.  "The doctor says I
don't have very long."

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.
"What route would you like me to take?" I asked.
For the next two hours, we drove through the city.  She showed
me the building where she had once worked as an elevator
operator.  We drove through the neighborhood where she and
her husband had lived when they were newlyweds.

She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had
once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.
Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building
or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly
said, "I'm tired.  Let's go now."

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. 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.
"You have to make a living," she answered.
"There are other passengers," I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug.  She held
onto me tightly.

"You gave an old woman a little moment 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 angry driver, or one who was
impatient to end his shift?  What if I had refused to take the run,
or had honked once, then driven away?  On a quick review, I
don't think that I have done very many more important things 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 small ones.