An installment in "The Great Divide," a New York Times series on inequality, has a worthy phrase for comfortable and secure residents of Colorado Springs, or anywhere else, to ponder. Memorable, because it lacks the preachiness we're accustomed to on the subject. It says we should "reimagine our perception of poverty." An incident early in my cab-driving adventures sends the message home.
To a popular family restaurant on North Academy Boulevard I was called to collect a single passenger whose only identity on the dispatch screen was "uses walker." I found him in a chair under an awning, the manager to his side, engulfed by darkness and the clatter of dishes and voices. The manager had a tense stance, as if ready to flee from some heinous customer-relations crime.
A step toward them, and an eye-searing odor rolled down from their direction, and the manager retreated right on cue. As he left, he muttered something to the effect that "it's all up to you now, sir."
The man in the chair did indeed have a creaky aluminum walker and asked for assistance to rise. A bitter, freakish waltz began. At standing height he towered 6'9", and was well over 300 pounds. He wore layers of sweaters and a stained, duct-taped down vest, and most strangely, knee-high boots wound thickly with rolls of additional tape. He was a gray-haired giant, roughly 65, a wandering nocturnal Goliath among the spiffy franchises.
To embrace the poor and homeless forces a "reimagining" of unsettling immediacy, and you wonder if it's not the more authentic and effective way than the ones presented for readers of the Times. Body odor ravages the viscera, and in this case, it was accompanied by a rain of curses and demands that I lift this and carry that and lay hands behind knees and around the waist on our way to the open taxivan. The giant spoke with a kind of butler's condescension, in complete avoidance of the Herculean efforts required to get within 20 feet of him. His righteous tone created in me a turbulence mixed with rage, pity and confusion. I'm not proud to recall or record my behavior. I'm no Albert Schweitzer, I learned, though for years I've assumed the opposite.
I complied, but cursed right back. I said I would not tolerate being spoken to like that, etc., and had every right to reject his call and drive away. Speaking man-to-man, did he have any idea how revolting and burdensome he made himself to others, to society, and our welfare system, etc.? He countered with spiteful accusations and indictments of my inhumanity, callousness and evil, nearly foaming at the mouth. I lifted his knee and huge taped feet into position as his curses and admonitions intensified. He stretched across both rear seats, and demanded that I fasten him in rather than reach over for the seatbelt himself. The door barely closed from his immense overcapacity.
"Just drive south!" he ordered, "I'll remember when I see the place! Just drive!"
By now I'd lost the power of speech, which gave me time to think. Maybe the man is right, I am callous and evil.
Months later I am still considering that question, though I dole out dollars like many drivers to the hungry and disadvantaged outside convenience stores every night. Once, at the gift I made of a packaged ham sandwich to a man in his 30s, he burst into tears. Another time, while prone on the sidewalk, a man pleaded that I purchase for him a small bag of Doritos chips, please, please, sir. "You got it, man," I replied. "Cool Ranch," he added as I entered the store.
This living theme of shared space between the haves and have-nots in the Springs will come up again, but for now I must deposit it like Goliath at trail's end. He chose a spot between a Village Inn and a jewelry store, and we went through the same elaborate coaching and instruction thing extricating him limb by limb from the van. I had matured in that helping-hand direction already. The location made no sense as a place to disembark. From nowhere he seemed to choose another nowhere. I unloaded his considerable baggage, placing it neatly where he stood. He paid the hefty fare from seeking and changing his destination for quite some time, getting in one more "evil." It was the hardest-earned $25 of my life.
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