In the Mission District wee hours a restaurant owner led a sobbing man across the sidewalk and helped him collapse onto my cab's back seat. "Geary and Larkin," he said, and shut the door. The sobber focused on me through dark, swollen eyes, and in a voice ringing with pain, screamed: "My mother she's dead!"
"Oh, that's awful," I said, and I wasn't just patronizing him. Ten years earlier my own chokedup Mom phoned with the news that Dadseventyone years old and in apparent good healthhad suddenly dropped dead. And while I never raged at strangers about the unfairness, I can certainly understand why someone would.
My passenger: "She was only fifty-two! Last month I visit back to Mexico. We have wonderful times. When I leave, my mother she tells me, 'Good to see you. You go back now. I am fine.' That was two weeks ago! Yesterday my brother he sends me a telegram. My mother she died yesterday! She had cancer! She never tells me!"
I looked back. His arms were folded in an X across his chest, fingers spread wide, clutching his shoulders as though to keep his quaking body from flying apart. "I want my mother back!" he bawled.
"Aw, man, don't get me crying. I gotta drive."
"Before, when I was little, my mother she would pick up cartons in the street you know cardboard? and sell them. We had nothing. She had thirteen children, but I am the only one who comes north. I get a green card, and for seven years I send money. Now my mother has a real house. Concrete floors. From my money. You know what she tell me once! This is her joke: 'You are not my son. You are too good to be my son.'" His eyes squeezed shut and he sputtered like a garden hose with a kink in it.
Many nights, usually around the seventh or eighth of my ten hours behind the wheel, I realize that I've become so engrossed in my work that I've completely blanked out my wife and child and house and my whole other life. I stop and imagine the porch light shining, and Rhonda and Sarah asleep in the bedroom. Once in a while I go even further and picture my mother and three siblings scattered across the globe.
At Geary and Larkin my fare tried to press six dollars on me, but I refused: "No way, not tonight." He'd given me enough already, had put me in touch with the primal unpolished humanity underlying our hypnotized lives. We swing from day to day like kids going hand-to-hand across a playground jungle gym, oblivious to the miracle that somehow we're all here because of a mother and father who got here the same unbelievable way. But maybe it's best to forget. If we stayed fully conscious about the people we love and have loved, and about how much we do miss or someday will miss them, we would spend our whole lives blubbering.
"'You are not my son,' she tells me. 'You are too good to be my son.'" My fare was still crying, still not ready to leave. His name was Carlos and his trip to Mexico had left him too broke to go back for the funeral. His boss, the restaurant owner, had given him six dollars for cab fare. But if tomorrow I dropped by the restaurant he, Carlos, would buy me a beer.
A small drama began to unfold on the sidewalk outside. A middleaged woman in a green pantsuit collapsed in front of the China Mandarin Express Food and Donuts. A crowd gathered, an ambulance whooped down Geary. "That woman!" Carlos cried. He led me through a complex, multistage handshake, wiped his eyes, and stepped out onto the pavement. As I drove away I saw him in the rear view, standing on tiptoes at the back of the circle of onlookers, trying to catch a glimpse of the stricken woman who, it occurred to me, was probably somebody's mother.