The night of Monday, June 18, was the steamy cap to the sizzler the day had been. In an effort to avoid the heat, I had decided in the morning to avoid the middle of the day and work overnight instead. My efforts at sleep proved futile, and the three-hour afternoon nap I had looked forward to had resulted in maybe twenty minutes, if I count the several times my snoring woke me up from the blissful drift.
So, I sat in the parking lot of the Wellington Restaurant on the south end of Arlington Heights, staring at the dispatch computer, which had, after two hours, extended my fare toll to four for the entire day. I was not looking forward to struggling through the night to find comfort enough to sleep, or to stay awake while chauffeuring any passengers I would be lucky enough to get. I was tired. I was ready to just call the day a wash and go home.
Off to my left I noticed an older white guy, at the edge of elderly, scruffy face, thick, dirty glasses, salt-and-pepper hair wildly asserting its independence from the edges of his tweedy, long-billed cap which he wore backwards – I presumed he was of Scandinavian heritage – lugging an oversized gym bag and a briefcase across the six lanes of the desolate Arlington Heights Road. He looked right at me as he walked, so I thought, "Headed to the local commuter train station. Eight dollars. More if he tips."
He approached, asked if I was available, and then asked if I could take him to the Super 8 motel in Elk Grove Village. "That's a little better," I thought to myself, figuring it to be around 12 dollars.
He got in the car and immediately began ragging on Chicago. "I can't believe how difficult it is to get a taxi here! I thought Chicago was a big city!"
"You're not IN Chicago," I chuckled, amused by his statement and apparent lack of regard that he had walked across the street and into a taxi."You're in the suburbs. It's a little different."
Unsatisfied, he continued to say mildly disparaging things about my city, so I was mildly irked from the start of the ten-minute ride to the Elk Grove Super 8. During the drive I got a sense that he was either trying to bait me into an argument, or that he was missing a couple of marbles from his jar. As he chatted – pretty much non-stop, as I would eventually learn – he alluded to having in the past been punished for a "serious crime" – threatening someone's life through the mail – and since then being followed constantly by some elements of "the government," who harass him wherever he goes. My irk slid toward uncomfortable creep....
As we rolled up in front of the Super 8, he said, "Yeah, I'm tired of this city. I think I'm gonna go to Indianapolis."
I nodded dumbly, looking at the meter and hoping the guy was going to actually have the $12.40 to pay his fare.
"So..." he said, "will you drive me there?"
I turned and looked at him. I wish I could have seen the expression on my face. "You want to go NOW!"
"Yeah. Is that all right?"
I silently regretted the sleep I didn't get at nap time, as well as the thousand-plus miles the taxi was overdue for an oil change.
"That's a LOONG drive..." I said. I made the decision that he was indeed a few bricks shy of a load, and there was no way I was going to take him to Indianapolis!
"I'll pay you a thousand dollars if you drive straight through. You can stop first to gas up, get whatever you want to eat or drink for the trip, and then we go. Straight through."
I had judged this book by its cover. He was scruffy, not handsomely dressed, despite that he smelled of clean clothes and recent use of soap. I didn't want to blurt right out that I didn't believe he had a grand on him, so I hesitated to say anything. Then he said, "I'll pay you six-hundred up front, then four-hundred when we get there."
He certainly seemed confident, so I figured I should be as well. "Fine, but do you have a thousand bucks on you?!"
He began to fumble through the pockets of his cargo pants. Within a few seconds he pulled a thick stack of papers – hotel pamphlets, guide books, note scraps – and from within the stack he revealed a neatly folded wad of fresh $100 bills. He peeled off ten bills, held them up for me to see, and said, "Yeah, I got a thousand." He had at least twenty more bills in the wad.
"Okay," I said. "Let's go to Indianapolis!"
While he fumbled around putting everything away, and while I was still concerned about how alert I would be in a couple hours, and if the car would make it (I'm a little neurotic about it sometimes), I said to him, "While I certainly don't want to turn down your money, are you sure you don't want me to just take you downtown to the bus station where you can get a ticket to Indy for maybe fifty bucks?"
He said, "Well, if I took a bus, I'd have to lug all my stuff through the station, and onto the bus... No, I'd rather you just drive me."
It wasn't until he left me to go get his stuff, and I used the opportunity to try to contact my niece who just recently moved to Indianapolis to start her nursing career. I figured if this guy didn't stick a knife in my throat when we got there, I could at least sleep off the drowse at her place. But, alas, she was already in bed and didn't hear her phone ring.
It wasn't until the guy (I never asked his name; I figure he was too paranoid to tell me) came back that I realized taking the bus would have been a daunting task, though we're it I, it would have been worth it to save nine-hundred dollars! He had one large suitcase, two smaller carry-on sized bags, a large duffel, a gym-bag type of thing, and a backpack. The trunk of my taxi was full!
All loaded up, we sat at the door of the Super 8 motel while he flipped through the pages of a La Quinta hotels guide. He was keen on being in downtown Indianapolis because he could be "more anonymous" there. He found a La Quinta in the downtown area, read off the address – which I entered into my GPS, and we were ready to go. He handed me a $100 bill and said, "We can go gas up, and you can get whatever you want to eat and drink for the ride, and then I'll give you the other five hundred. And of course the four hundred at the end." He was nothing if not methodical!
I drove to the Northwest Tollway and to the Oasis that is a quarter mile from where I entered. I topped off the tank, and then went inside to get a cup of coffee, a pint of chocolate milk (for the sugar), and a bottle of water. When I got back in the car I turned toward him and waited expectantly, at which point he said, "Oh! Of course! We made a deal, didn't we?" He dug into his pocket and produced five more $100 bills. When he gave them to me, I rather made a show of putting them into my left front pants pocket, but I actually stuck them in the map slot on the driver's door, just in case. In case of what, I wasn't sure. And we were on our way.
The ride was approximately three and a half hours, and the guy was quiet for maybe a half-hour of it. We covered a wide range of topics, from our families, to growing up, to the economy, to the civil rights movement, to the Black Panthers, but he did most of the talking. I had a lively spurt of monologue in around the civil rights/Black Panthers area, but was generally quiet the rest of the time. Interspersed throughout his blathering, the guy would mention the unnamed who followed him wherever he went, even surmising that we were being followed. Somehow.
Aside from there being what seemed an obscene amount of truck traffic for midnight, the only notable thing outside the car during the ride was that, at some point along I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis, there lies a massive wind farm. The windmills spread for what seems like miles in all directions, and the interstate slices right through it. Atop each windmill is a red, flashing FAA warning beacon. At night, since there is no illumination other than the warning beacons, the windmills are invisible. And the warning beacons all flash in unison, about once every three or four seconds, glowing on, then off again. For miles. It gives the eerie illusion of an unseen deck hundreds of feet in the air that's there, and then gone. I wasn't even certain it was a wind farm until, on the return trip, I looked up at one of the flashing beacons and saw the spinning blades at the hub in the red glow.
The La Quinta hotel on East Washington Street is literally about two blocks from the exit off of I-65, so I was spared the ordeal of hunting for it. We pulled underneath the overhang above the lobby entrance. With my back still to him, he said, "Here you go..." I turned to face him and he held the final four $100 bills in his hand. I put those in my left front pocket. He stepped out of the car and into the lobby, but not thirty seconds later he was out again. "They're sold out." He doubted the truth of it, but I silently guessed that the desk clerk probably assumed he was a homeless loon like I had.
He pulled out the stack of guidebooks again and began to look for another hotel when a local taxi cab rolled under the canopy. He decided that the local driver would be better suited to helping him find a place, so we unloaded him from my car, and he started loading himself into the Indy cab.
Wile I waited, I met eyes with the other taxi driver. He smiled and, in his east African accent, asked, "How's the business?"
I reflected on the four crisp bills in my pocket, and the six identical bills hidden in the car, and said, "Tonight is good!"
I don't think he recognized that my cab was from a place 200 miles away. "It's GOOD?!" he marveled. "It is slow for me!"
I gestured with my eyes toward my recent fare and said, "Well, maybe things'll pick up."
I got in my car, pointed the GPS toward "home," and went immediately back to I-65. About 20 miles in I finally stopped to go to the bathroom. About a hundred miles later I stopped for gas and a Snickers bar, and when I got to the Indiana suburbs of Chicago, I stopped to get a sack of White Castles. My biggest fear throughout the whole trip was being drowsy, but I was energized all the way to the southern reaches of Chicagoland, and that magic hour before sunrise when the body suddenly tries to crash. But, thanks to a lucky string of favorites on Chicago classic rock radio, I was able to belt my way through the fog.
As I rolled into the parking lot of my apartment complex, I thought about that Indianapolis taxi driver and wondered if he found himself in Louisville or Cincinnati that morning!
It's more than two days later as I write this, and still, whenever I think of the absurd, surreal ride, I shake my head. And I smile.