In the three and a half years that I've now been driving a taxi, I have never once refused a customer, other than when I was already waiting for someone with a reservation. I never had any reason to refuse someone, nor have I ever set any criteria for such a reason. Until last Sunday night.
It's not that he's of any racial, ethnic, or religious persuasion; anyone who knows me well knows I don't carry those cards in my deck to play. It's not that he's homeless; a reader can peruse the annals of far·ra·go and the account of an instance of taxi charity to a homeless person...who was probably carrying more cash that day than I was. It's not anything about who or what he is or about his circumstances.
I had driven him once before. He has strapped to a small luggage dolly such a load of personal belongings that would collapse a pack mule: a backpack or two, a couple of soft cases, what I assume is a sleeping bag in a plastic drawstring bag, and two foam bed rolls. It's bulky and heavy, and it does not fit in my trunk without having to force the lid shut, squeezing the whole mess down. That first time he had me drop him off at a trendy little breakfast restaurant in a newly remodeled and refreshed shopping mall. I don't recall anything unpleasant then, other than his attitude and his difficulty getting in and out of my car.
He's a big fella, maybe six foot two or four or so. And he's not skinny. And he's pretty old, with white hair and a beard. He moves with extreme difficulty...and a walker. But all I can remember from that ride was fearing that he wouldn't have any money to pay the fare. And that pack.
This most recent Sunday evening I rolled up to the front of the Subway restaurant and saw him sitting on a bench outside, waving me over. He wore many layers of clothing and shoes or boots wrapped in duct tape. I remembered him immediately, and I groaned at the prospect of wrestling his obnoxious load of personal belongings into my trunk. As I parked the car, an employee of the Subway restaurant timidly approached me.
"I don't want to bother you, but another taxi was here earlier, and the driver wouldn't take him. 'I won't take him. I don't care if he has money.'"
How rude, I thought. "Did you get his car number?" I asked, pointing to my car number as an example of where to find the car number on a taxi from my company.
"Well," I said, "you can call the company and tell them you had called earlier, and they'll be able to tell which car was sent." I just thought it unacceptable to refuse this customer just because he's homeless. Or slightly difficult.
I had inadvertently parked the car with the rear passenger door impossibly close to a snowbank, so while the intended passenger approached, aided by his walker, I repositioned the car. During those few moments I heard the homeless man begin trying to hack something up. Not from his lungs; he seemed to be working out a loogie from the depths of Hades, his Godzillian snorts and coughs resonating against the windshield of my car. The poor young man from Subway who was being so nice and helpful stood mortified mere feet from the man as he hacked and coughed and spat out his demon phlegm. His face registering incredulous shock, the poor young Subway employee remained in place, but leaned so far to one side, away from the hacking, spitting giant that I was reminded of Buster Keaton's old silent movie lean-shoe sight gag. I was amused by the momentary slapstick as I moved to assist my customer.
And then I was assaulted by his stench.
I'm not being unfairly prejudiced here. I have driven some of the homeless people of this area on several occasions and, yes, some of them have been a little on the side of unclean. I realize a shower or bath is probably a luxury difficult to come by for the down and out. But, somehow, they find a way.
I don't think this guy has found the way.
I do not exaggerate. I can't even find appropriate words to describe the stench. It wasn't musky-armpit body odor; it wasn't stale crotch-rot. It was the hell-reek of pure, unrestrained bodily filth. I must repeat that I do not exaggerate. The smell didn't merely reach my nose, but rather flung itself at me and wrapped itself around my head and forced itself into my throat. I literally gagged! I fought the stench and abbreviated my breaths, as I know for certain had I inhaled fully, I would have exhaled my lunch.
The young man from Subway diverted me, to my momentary gratitude, with a request to help him load the old man's material existence into the trunk. The thought hadn't bothered me before I stepped through my customer's miasma, but now I didn't care to touch any of his belongings! But it had to be done. The load lay thick across the width of the vehicle, but taller than the depth of the trunk. "Uh oh," said Mr. Subway. "It won't fit."
Shuddering at the thought of having to yet again touch the filthy personal effects of Mr. 'Mephitis' to rearrange the load, I said with conviction, "I'll make it fit." I pulled down the trunk lid until it rested on top of the bundle. With nearly a foot remaining between lid and latch, I heaved my weight onto the trunk lid and smashed it closed. Mr Subway graciously excused himself, and then sprinted to the door of his store, likely for fear that Sir Stink might change his mind and decide to dine there after all.
Standing outside in the fresh air, I couldn't get within four feet of this guy without his atmosphere reaching my nostrils, and now he was wedged into the back seat of my car. Much to my relief, he asked me to open his window. I thought perhaps even he couldn't stand his own rank essence. I sent his window down only to learn that he needed to continue his barrage of coughing, hocking and spitting out the semisolid contents of his lungs.
"I wanna go to some sort of chicken place. You know of anything?"
I desperately racked my brain to think of the nearest chicken ANYTHING just to get him out of my car. A new Chick-fil-A just opened about a mile from where we were, but no, he wanted a real chicken place, like KFC or Popeye's.
"There's a Popeye's not too far from here," I said. My next breath brought me a face full of his effluvium and I felt my diaphragm convulse. I struggled to find a way to only exhale for the coming eternity of 10 minutes but, failing that, I opened my window and tried to hang my head out without appearing to hang my head out.
I drove in abject fear of catching another lungful and tossing my cookies all over my steering wheel, but the cross breeze created by his open sputum portal and my fresh air lifeline kept his cloud flowing out in his direction.
In a classic case of I-would-punch-you-in-the-throat-if-your-force-field-of-fumes-didn't-stop-me, I was already in the right hand lane and committing to a right turn when he said, "Hey there's a Culver's [restaurant] around here, isn't there?"
"Yes," I indicated with a finger pointed in the general direction of left.
"Oh, I would much rather go there."
So, having waited for the light to turn green before he changed his mind, I now had to turn right, and then turn around, only to wait through another red light, all the while wondering how much longer I could breathe without actually inhaling.
I pulled into the Culver's lot and parked in the disabled access slots. Without Mr. Subway to help, I had to deal with the Pack From Hell on my own...and I couldn't lift it from the trunk.
"You want me to help you?" Mr. Malodor asked. I had no choice. He helped me lift his belongings out of the trunk, and then he asked me to grab his filthy jackets from the rear seat.
I helped him into the restaurant where a slightly dazed young female employee asked if we needed any help.
"I'm just dropping him off," I said, quickly trying to deflect any suspicion that Señor Smell and I were together.
He turned past the door frame and headed for the nearest table, in a small nook where two women and several children appeared to be celebrating a birthday. No sooner had the olfactory offender sat down than the birthday party was suddenly packing up to leave! I was handed a 20-dollar bill for which I had to run back to the car to make change. I made the trip there and back, and lied when he asked if I could "come back in 90 minutes or so," or if he would have to call the company.
"No, you'll have to call the company. I have no idea where I'll be in 90 minutes." It was a Sunday night; not much going on. I knew as I said it that — wherever I was — I was going to be nowhere near Mt. Prospect, or in any zone close enough to where Dispatch might send me his fare when he called!
It came to me as I drove away that the next time I see this poor man I will not serve him. I can't. I just can't.
It's strange what can test the limits of one's charity. For me, apparently, my limit is my nose.