It was another quiet night—the tail end of that same winter—the last time I saw Lenny.
I was northbound on Lake Shore Drive, fifteen over the special winter speed limit, which was supposed to keep the road salt spray from killing the saplings shivering in the median.
The lake was a vast darkness on the right. To the left lay the park and beyond that a string of high-rent highrises climbed straight into the clouds.
A shiny Mercedes shot past in the left lane. A rusty Buick followed along. I flipped the wipers on to clear the mist that had risen off the road.
A horn sounded. I looked over as a brand new cab slipped up the Belmont Avenue ramp. I slowed down a bit and the cab pulled alongside. The inside light went on and Polack Lenny pointed a long finger at his own forehead. I couldn’t read his lips but I knew that he was once again calling me a dot-head. "Hey, Lenny." I turned my own light on and gave him the finger in return.
For most of the years I’d known him, we’d both driven company cabs. I hadn’t known his real name until he’d won a taxi medallion in a lottery and put his own cab on the street. I’d been one of the losers in that same lottery, and I was still driving for Sky Blue Cab.
LEONARD SMIGELKOWSKI TAXI, Lenny’s rear door proudly proclaimed. His last name took up the entire width of the door, which had some obvious advantages. He might never get another complaint. Everybody’d get too bogged down with the spelling.
Lenny took both hands off the steering wheel and waved them around for me to see. I could almost hear his gravelly voice, "Look, Ma, no hands." He was obviously having a good time and he was probably rubbing it in a little. I was driving a three-year-old beater with 237,000 miles on it. If I took my hands off the wheel I’d end up bathing with the zebra mussels, and Lenny knew it.
He put one hand back on the wheel and turned the other thumb down. I pointed a thumb in the same direction. It had been that kind of night. I held an imaginary cup of coffee to my lips and took a sip. Lenny shook his head, then laid his head on a pillow he made with one hand. He waved one last time, then his inside light went out and his cab dropped back.
"What was all that?" my passenger asked as I sped back to 55.
"Just your typical bitching and moaning," I explained.
"It must be kind of scary."
"All those drivers."
"The ones getting shot. It must be kind of weird."
I’ll bet, I thought, and I glanced in the mirror. He was slouched in the corner of the seat, looking towards the lake. His face had lost some battle years ago and was now dotted with scores of tiny craters. His hair was long and streaked with grey. He was too old to be dressed in trendy black, to be nightclubbing on a quiet Tuesday night. He was the kind of guy who would always go home alone.
"What’s your line?" I asked.
"I don’t follow you."
"What sort of work you do?"
"Now that sounds scary."
He laughed. "Yeah, but nobody shoots us."
"Probably all shoot yourself out of boredom," I said.
"Hey, what’s the problem, man?" The guy sat up straight and gave me a hard look.
"Just making conversation," I said, the most easygoing guy in the world.
I took the Drive until it ended, then followed Hollywood into Ridge. Past Clark Street, Ridge narrows and winds along, following some old trail. A few blocks later, parked cabs lined both curbs. Lenny wasn’t the only one who’d given up early.
A skinny guy with a beaded seat cushion under his arm was leaning against one of the taxis. He looked my way and drew a circle in the air. A nothing night, I deciphered the code. I waved and tapped the horn as I passed.
The meter was at $12.80 when I stopped just shy of the Evanston line. The guy handed me a ten and three singles and got out without a word.
"Thanks, pal. I’ll buy the kid a shoelace."
Everybody wants a driver who speaks English until you actually say something.
A few years earlier I would have cruised Rogers Park looking for a load. It had been one of Chicago’s great cab neighborhoods. There’d always been somebody heading downtown.
There were still plenty of decent folks around, black and white, but just to be on the safe side, I turned my toplight off, flipped my NOT FOR HIRE sign down and double-checked the door locks.
The sign didn’t necessarily mean what it said, and the decent folks usually knew to wave anyway. But with the sign down, I could pass the riff-raff by without worrying about complaints.
I drifted east, working my way to Sheridan Road, and then headed south back towards the city.
On Broadway, I spotted Tony Golden locking up his Checker. I tapped the horn. He looked my way and pointed both thumbs straight down.
A few minutes later, in the heart of Uptown, a couple staggered out from beneath the marquee of a boarded-up theater. I slowed to look them over, then stopped.
The woman opened the door behind me. Her blouse was undone. Someone had been in a big hurry and popped all the buttons. She’d tucked the tail into her skirt, but when she leaned into the cab, I had a clear view of some very inviting cleavage.
"Hello," I said.
"You go Gary?" she asked. She didn’t sound like she’d been in country too long. She was small and dark, with high cheekbones and probably more than a trace of Indian blood. One tiny brown hand rested on the back of my seat.
"Indiana?" I asked.
She nodded and her breath reached me and suddenly she wasn’t pretty at all.
"Sure," I said. Gary was thirty miles. I pushed a button to lower the driver’s window and took a deep breath of city air.
"How much dollars?" she wanted to know.
"Say forty bucks." I gave her the slow-night discount. "But I gotta have the money up front." And I would have to keep the window cracked all the way.
She turned to her partner and spoke in Spanish. He was a sawed-off guy wearing cowboy boots that still left him well below average height. He pushed her out of the way and leaned in the door. His breath wasn’t any better. He could barely stand. "Fucking thief," he said, and slammed the door.
I coasted a few feet then sat waiting for the light to change. In the mirror I watched the pair stumble up the block to a big, beat-up Oldsmobile, a gas guzzler if there ever was one. They were a couple of drunks left over from some after-work saloon and now little man was going to drive the lady all-the-way-the-hell to Indiana. When they got there, their breath would mix nicely with Gary’s coke-furnace air.
The light changed and I started to roll.
Two guys in business suits bolted out of a nearby nightclub. I stopped halfway into the intersection. A car trapped behind me blasted its horn.
The first one in the door was a kid of about thirty. He was lean and trim with short, sandy hair. He wore a pale pinstripe suit. Some sort of junior executive, I decided. The second guy looked more like the genuine article. He was ten or fifteen years older and somewhat heavier, with lines in his face and grey in his hair. His suit was a deep, dark blue with tight, gold stripes.
"Jesus Christ, get us the fuck out of this neighborhood," Junior said.
The trapped car finally got around me. "Asshole!" somebody shouted as it squealed past.
"Hey, this is a good neighborhood," I said. I followed Broadway as it curved east and went under the elevated tracks. Off to the right a group of winos were passing a bottle around. They hadn’t even bothered with the time-honored paper bag.
"Looks like New York to me," Senior decided.
"You want to see some bad neighborhoods," I offered. "I’ll show you some bad neighborhoods."
"I’ve seen enough," Senior said. "Take us back to the Hilton."
I cut over Wilson Avenue and headed towards Lake Shore Drive, a few blocks away.
"Sorry about tonight," Senior said. "Tomorrow we’ll try Rush Street. Can’t go wrong there."
"I’ll never trust you again."
"Used to be everything north was nice. ’cept for Cabrini, of course."
"What’s Cabrini?" Junior wanted to know.
"Worst housing projects in Chicago," Senior said. "You know the first trip I ever made here I got some advice that served me well. Guy told me two things to remember about Chicago. Don’t go too far south and keep away from Cabrini-Green."
"Here’s how it really goes," I chimed in. "Don’t go too far south. Don’t go anywhere west. Be careful when you go north."
"What about east?" Junior wanted to know.
We were southbound on the Drive by then. I gestured towards the lake where a light fog was rolling in. "Can you swim?"
"It’s still a great city," Senior said. "Too bad we can’t see anything. Best skyline in the world."
There was a wall of fog-shrouded residential highrises on our right, most of the windows dark for the night. The towers of downtown were concealed behind thick clouds.
"Where you guys from?" I asked.
"Naptown," I said.
"A nice place to raise a family," the senior man informed me.
"We’ve got some of those around here someplace," I remembered.
An empty Yellow shot past, its toplight blazing away.
"I hear you guys been having some problems," Senior said as I flipped the wipers on in the taxi’s wake.
"Somebody killing cabdrivers."
"Christ." That was all anybody wanted to talk about.
"Seven guys killed, that’s something."
"Three," I corrected him.
"Seven, three, whatever," Senior said. "It’s gotta make you nervous."
"I’ve been driving for twenty years," I lied, "I was born nervous."
They both laughed.
"You know what a taxi rolling through the ghetto is?" I asked.
"An ATM on wheels."
"You don’t go there, do you?" Junior said.
"You know, those neighborhoods."
"I don’t have any choice."
"Just pass ’em by," Senior advised.
"It isn’t that easy," I explained. "Say you’re driving by some fancy highrise and the doorman steps out blowing his whistle. You pull in and out walks the maid going home. What you gonna do?"
"Just step on the gas," Junior had the answer.
"Then they write your number down and call the Vehicle man."
"Yeah, but you’re alive," Senior said.
"But eventually I’m out of a job. And, what’s the big deal? It’s just some old lady trying to get home."
"And you’ll just be another dead cabdriver," Senior said.
"There’s worse things."
"What kind of work you guys do?"
"Sales," Senior answered.
"Hardware." Junior fell into the trap.
"There you go." I said.
It took a minute to sink in. "They must send you people to school, teach you to be so disagreeable," Senior said.
"Just something I learned from all my wonderful passengers." And that was the end of that conversation.
I got off at Wacker Drive and took the lower level around the basements of the Loop. This was the city’s famous two-level street. The downstairs was dark and dingy, full of loading docks, dumpsters, rats and bums. The detour added about a mile to the trip. The Hardy Boys knew what I was doing but neither had the balls to call me on it.
"Fourteen-fifty," I said when we pulled up in front of the Hilton.
Hotel Steve’s Yellow was in the cab stand. Steve appeared to be sound asleep. But he’d wake at the first sign of a suitcase. "The ritzier the hotel," he’d told me once, "the worse the tip." And he was the man who would know. He spent a good part of his life asleep in hotel lines.
Senior threw a twenty over the front seat. "Keep the change, asshole," he said. I guess he was trying to prove some point but it was lost on me. I wouldn’t have tipped myself a dime.
I cruised downtown for a while but nothing was going on. Traffic signals turned from red to green to amber. Three out of four cars were empty cabs.
The cleaning ladies were getting off work, hurrying towards State Street to get the bus out to the Southwest Side. The last time one took a taxi was 1947.
I drove up Dearborn, beating a Checker for the federal courthouse side of the street, then cruised along hoping for a lawyer or maybe a late-night jury but there was nobody around.
At Monroe, two guards led a bum up from the First National Bank plaza and pointed him south.
Up the street, the Picasso sculpture rusted away in the plaza of the Daley Center. Nobody came up from the subway. A Flash Cab cut in front of me and turned west. I continued north, over the river.
Empty cabs were sitting in front of most of the popular nightclubs. More sleeping drivers, a sure sign they’d been waiting too long.
In an industrial area north of Chicago Avenue, I pulled into an alley to take a leak. A van was sitting in darkness at the other end of the alley. I started to back out to find a more secluded spot but then the lights of the van came on and it pulled away. I shifted back into drive, coasted to the middle of the alley, stopped, turned my headlights off and opened the door.
There was a truck yard on my side of the alley, enclosed by a cyclone fence which was strewn with windblown litter and overgrown weeds. On the other side of the alley an old factory had been converted to lofts.
I was almost finished when I heard the sound. It was muted at first, a cat’s cry floating on the wind. Then it came again, louder and much closer, a strange, high-pitched whimper. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on edge. I finished quickly, jumped in the cab and stepped on the gas.
Toward the end of the alley where the van had been, a pile of garbage lay across my path. As I approached, the pile shifted. Something flashed briefly, caught in the headlight beam. A pair of eyes.
I heard my father’s voice, my very first driving lesson: "Never run over a pile of leaves." I laid on the brakes, jammed the cab into reverse, and shot back out the way I’d come in.
I sat there facing the alley. I flashed my brights a few times but now there was nothing to see; just a dark pile alongside an overflowing dumpster. Could I have imagined the eyes?
I turned east and started away. Whatever or whoever it was, it wasn’t my concern.
That got me out to Wells Street, where a string of empty cabs was heading north for home. I didn’t see anybody I knew. That’s the way the business was heading, more Indian, Pakistani, and East African drivers and fewer Americans every day.
I thought about the eyes, about the movement in the pile of trash. It was probably nothing, I decided. And I remembered Polack Lenny’s lesson: Never go back.
Oh, the hell with that. I released the brake, circled the block and pulled up to the mouth of the alley, about ten feet shy of the dumpster. I stopped with my headlights trained on the pile, grabbed my canister of mace, got out and approached slowly.
There was a rolled-up furniture pad lying next to the dumpster. The pad was torn and soiled and, if there was anything inside, it wasn’t very big. I tiptoed closer and there weren’t any eyes. There was broken glass scattered around – maybe some of that had reflected my headlight beam. "Hello," I said, just to be sure, and I tapped the pad with my foot.
The pad moved. I jumped back as a corner slid downwards and the pair of eyes reappeared. They didn’t look up. They were just there. A pair of shadowy eyes set in a small dark face.
I moved forward slowly, holding the mace out front, my finger ready on the trigger. Christ, it looked like a kid. A little black kid hiding in a furniture pad in the middle of an alley. The eyes were flat, unfocused, and full of fear. Two narrow wrists were crossed and a pair of tiny black hands gripped the edge of the pad.
It was a girl, I realized. She was lying on her side, curled up inside the pad. If size was all I had to go on, I would have guessed she was somewhere around nine or ten. But there was something much older in those eyes. "You okay?" I said.
"I’m cold, mister," she whispered. I could barely make out the words. "Real cold."
"You’re gonna be okay," I said and the girl uncrossed her wrists and showed me how wrong I was.
The pad opened. Someone had cut her to ribbons. Thick brown ribbons and narrow red ones that flowed down her chest and soaked into the pad. I turned my head away. "I’ll get help," I whispered and I hurried back to the cab.
I grabbed the microphone and hit the switch for the two-way radio. "Ten-thirteen," I shouted. "Ten-thirteen!"
A dispatcher came on. I gave him my location and cab number. "There’s a kid here, in the alley," I said, leaning into the cab so she wouldn’t hear. "I think she’s been stabbed. She’s bleeding real bad."
"Stand by, sir, while I call the police."
"Call an ambulance," I said.
"Check," the dispatcher said.
I looked up. The girl had rolled and now lay on her back, one knee in the air, the pad wide open. She wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothes. Her chest was a bloody mess. Her head was turned my way but even in the headlight beam her eyes seemed hidden behind a cloud.
A triangular patch of curly black hair caught my attention. She was no nine year old. But she was still a kid. Fourteen or fifteen. That was my new guess. A kid that someone had dumped like a piece of garbage.
I switched my headlights off. "They’re gonna get help," I called. For a second her eyes seemed to focus. "You’re gonna be okay," I said.
It seemed like long minutes before the dispatcher finally returned. "The police and ambulance are on the way," he announced.
"The police request that you stay there until they arrive."
"I’m not going anywhere," I said.
"Thank you, units, for standing by," the dispatcher said, addressing the rest of the Sky Blue fleet. "At 1:07 a.m. the emergency is clear. Let’s go back to work."
I flicked the radio off. "The ambulance is on the way," I said. In the distance I heard the first siren.
"I’m cold," the girl said.
I walked over and lifted one end of the pad and draped it back over her. It was heavy with blood and with pebbles and dirt that clung to it. A hand grabbed my leg. Even through my trousers it felt as cold as ice. "Don’t go," the girl said softly, and then she said something too faint to hear.
I crouched down. "My angel," she whispered. Her hand reached up and found one of my hands and held it tight. "Are you Relita’s angel?"
The first squad car came barreling around the corner, siren crying and blue lights flashing. I stood up slowly as the squad screeched to a halt. "You’re gonna be okay," I said, and her hand slipped away.
A short heavyset black woman jumped out the driver’s door of the squad. "Stay right where you are," she said, pointing a stubby finger my way. I stayed where I was while she reached back into the car and came out with a hat to match her uniform.
The other cop, a chubby white guy with pink cheeks and a baby face, approached hatless, flashlight in hand. He seemed much too young to be a cop. But he had the gun and the badge, and the flashlight, which he shone straight into my eyes.
"Come out of there slowly," the woman said.
I put my hands up to shield my eyes. "I can’t see."
"Just walk straight ahead," Baby-face advised.
I walked until I reached my cab.
"That’s far enough," the woman let me know. "Now put your hands on the hood. Back up a little. Spread your legs."
"You know, I’m the one called you guys."
A second squad car came screeching to a halt. I looked back under my arm. Two cops jumped out and headed for the girl.
Baby-face frisked me while the woman stood holding the light. He went all the way down to my ankles. "Okay," he said when he was done. "Why don’t you tell us what happened."
I pushed off the car. A third squad car pulled into the far end of the alley. "I don’t know," I started to explain.
The woman trained the light on the hood of the cab. There was blood where my hands had been.
"Turn around," Baby-face said, and I turned around to find him holding the flashlight. "Let’s see your hands," he said.
I held out my hands and there was no hiding the blood. "I was holding her hand," I explained.
"Turn ’em over."
I turned my palms up.
"We’re gonna stick you in the back for a minute," the woman cop decided. She walked over and opened the door of the squad car. Baby-face escorted me over.
I slid into the back seat. The woman started to close the door, then stopped. "You got a driver’s license, I presume." She held out her hand. I pulled my wallet out and handed her the license. She closed the door.
I caught sight of my reflection in the shield that separated the back seat from the front. "You stupid son of a bitch," I said to it.
It was the social event of the night for the boys and girls in blue. One squad followed another and soon the street was a galaxy of flashing blue lights. Each new arrival had to get their fill of blood, then they would back off and stand around in small groups talking and smoking cigarettes, laughing like there wasn’t any kid bleeding to death a few feet away.
The ambulance came, and suddenly there was a big production moving cars to make room for it, as if its arrival were somehow a surprise. Baby-face got in my cab and backed it out of the way.
The detectives showed up while they were loading the girl into the ambulance. She was so slight she barely made a bump on the stretcher. How old was she really, I wondered. Without warning, an image of my daughter slipped into my mind.
I tried to push it away by concentrating on the scene outside. There were two detectives. One was tall and very distinguished looking. He might have been a senator. He had thick, snow white hair and wore a grey trench coat. He looked tanned and relaxed, like he’d just gotten back from a Florida vacation.
The younger detective was even taller but extremely thin. He pulled out a slender notebook and began to write.
The woman cop walked up and started to wave her arms around. She pointed my way and the detectives looked over. The senator lit a cigarette, took a few quick drags, then tossed it away and climbed into the ambulance. The younger detective continued to write.
I looked down at the wallet in my hands, opened the back compartment. The smiling face, protected by plastic, stared back.
The photo had been taken by a street photographer at Buckingham Fountain one summer Sunday. She’d been eight years old back then. A little girl whose blond hair was beginning to turn brown, standing with her father, a tower of water rising behind us.
My complexion was naturally dark and I could usually pass for Greek or Italian or any of the other Mediterranean lines. But in the photograph my skin appeared bleached. I’d lost way too much weight and it wasn’t from dieting. I was unshaven, disheveled, obviously hung over. It had been the worst year of my life. But my daughter didn’t see any of that. She was smiling up at me with such obvious love and devotion that seven years after the lens had snapped shut, the photograph still broke my heart. I only saw her one more time. That was her reward for all that love.
She would be fifteen now, out in sunny California with my ex-wife and her new husband.
For years, I’d been waiting for the phone to ring or for a letter to arrive or, dream of dreams, to find her sitting on my doorstep.
The door of the squad car opened. "You ready to come out of there, Edwin?"
I looked up as the ambulance pulled away. The detectives stood waiting.
"Eddie," I said.
"Eddie it is," the senator said. "I’m Hagarty. This is Detective Foster."
"How you doing?" I asked as I got out of the car.
"Hold out your hands," Foster said.
I held out my hands and then turned them over as they examined them under a flashlight beam.
"I was holding her hand," I said.
"Tell us what happened," Hagarty said.
"I don’t know," I said, as Foster shone the light down my shirt and pants. "I just found her."
"How did that happen?" Hagarty asked.
"I stopped to take a leak," I said. "When I was pulling out I saw her. I mean, I didn’t know what it was but it was moving. So I backed out and came around the block."
"Did she say anything?" Hagarty asked as Foster pulled out a camera and started snapping pictures.
"Just that she was cold."
I shook my head, then held out my hands as Foster moved in for a close-up.
He put the camera away and took my arm. "Why don’t you show us where you took this piss."
I led them past my cab which had all the doors and the trunk open, and down the alley. "Somewhere ’round here," I said.
Foster shone the light around. There were several patches of wet pavement and a large puddle from a recent rain. "What do you think?" he asked.
"Too much coffee," Hagarty said. He pulled out a penlight and aimed it at a bunch of weeds growing along the fence. "Queen Anne’s Lace," he said.
Foster swung his own light that way. "Well, well, well," he said.
"You see anybody else around?" Hagarty asked.
I told them about the van.
"What kind of van?"
"I don’t know," I said. "Just a van."
"You can do better than that," Hagarty said.
I closed my eyes and tried. "It was brown or maybe red," I decided after a moment. "Could have been a Ford. I’m not sure."
"Don’t stop now," Hagarty said as Foster scribbled away in his notebook.
"It had a ladder on the back," I remembered. "You know, so you can climb up to the roof. That’s all I remember."
"Was there a spare tire back there?" Hagarty asked.
"I don’t remember."
"Tear drop windows?"
"You know one of those customized jobs."
"Sorry," I shrugged.
"I don’t know."
We walked out of the alley and stopped alongside the cab. "There was a bumper sticker on the back," I remembered one last thing. "I don’t know what it said but it was yellow with dark letters."
Foster scribbled some more in the notebook, then pulled my driver’s and chauffeur’s licenses out of a coat pocket. "This your right address?"
"How about a phone number?"
I gave him my phone number.
"What’s your sheet look like?"
"Do you have a record?" Hagarty translated.
"Just some stuff with my ex-wife," I said.
"Like what?" Foster asked.
"Domestic battery," I said. "It was all bullshit. She got a restraining order, the whole bit."
I shook my head. Wasn’t that enough? She’d ended up taking my daughter away.
Foster handed me my licenses. "What’re you planning to do with that mace?" he asked.
"What do you think?"
Hagarty lit a cigarette. Foster put his notebook away and stuck a cigarette in his mouth but didn’t light it.
"Is she gonna die?" I asked.
Hagarty shrugged. "Last year we had a couple cabdrivers," he said out of the blue.
"Yeah, when they weren’t getting any press," Foster said. "Now they’re all over the front page and all we get is winos and whores."
"You guys need me anymore?" I asked.
"No, you can get out of here," Hagarty said, "soon as these clowns get out of your way." He handed me a business card. Detective James Hagarty, Violent Crimes, it read. "You remember anything, or you see that van driving around, give us a call."
Foster pulled out his notebook and scribbled one last line. He threw his cigarette away unlit then closed the notebook. I got in the cab. The contents of the glove box were scattered over the front seat. I started the engine and turned on the lights. The two detectives got into an unmarked Chevy and pulled away.
My cab was surrounded by squad cars but the cops weren’t in any hurry. They finished their stories and their cigarettes.
I gathered up the insurance card, owner’s manual, the pads of receipts, matchbooks and lost disposable lighters, and crammed them back into the glove compartment, then sat there waiting, wishing I still smoked.
The girl would be in the hospital by now. They’d be putting her back together and, from what I’d seen, her odds weren’t good. But for some reason I was sure she’d survive. I said a little prayer. Relita, it was such a strange name.
I turned the FM on long enough to hear a few riffs of jazz trumpet then tried the two-way radio where there was nothing but static.
I sat there listening to it, waiting.
After a while the clowns got out of my way.
Copyright © 1996, 2009 by Jack Clark.