This is a story written by US writer Kent Nerburn that went viral as The Last Cab Ride. Originally entitled The Cab Ride I’ll Never Forget, it appeared in his 1999 book, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace. I reprint it here because I want as many people as possible to read it and benefit from it.
Postscript: Kent mentioned in a recent blog post that a Scottish singer named Nico wrote a song based on the story.
Shalom (שלום), MAA
There was a time in my life twenty years ago when I was driving a cab for a living. It was a cowboy’s life, a gambler’s life, a life for someone who wanted no boss, constant movement and the thrill of a dice roll every time a new passenger got into the cab.
What I didn’t count on when I took the job was that it was also a ministry. Because I drove the night shift, my cab became a rolling confessional. Passengers would climb in, sit behind me in total anonymity and tell me of their lives.
We were like strangers on a train, the passengers and I, hurtling through the night, revealing intimacies we would never have dreamed of sharing during the brighter light of day. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh and made me weep. And none of those lives touched me more than that of a woman I picked up late on a warm August night.
I was responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partiers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or someone going off to an early shift at some factory for the industrial part of town.
When I arrived at the address, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a short minute, then drive away. Too many bad possibilities awaited a driver who went up to a darkened building at 2:30 in the morning.
But I had seen too many people trapped in a life of poverty who depended on the cab as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation had a real whiff of danger, I always went to the door to find the passenger. It might, I reasoned, be someone who needs my assistance. Would I not want a driver to do the same if my mother or father had called for a cab?
So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute,” answered a frail and elderly voice. I could hear the sound of something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman somewhere in her 80s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store or in a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor.
The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. “I’d like a few moments alone. Then, if you could come back and help me? I’m not very strong.”
I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
“It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”
“Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said. Her praise and appreciation were almost embarrassing.
When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I should go there. He says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to go?” I asked.
For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she would have me slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. Without waiting for me, they opened the door and began assisting the woman. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her; perhaps she had phoned them right before we left.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase up to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living,” she answered.
“There are other passengers,” I responded.
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”
There was nothing more to say. I squeezed her hand once, then walked out into the dim morning light. Behind me, I could hear the door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I did not pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the remainder of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? What if I had been in a foul mood and had refused to engage the woman in conversation? How many other moments like that had I missed or failed to grasp?
We are so conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unawares. When that woman hugged me and said that I had brought her a moment of joy, it was possible to believe that I had been placed on earth for the sole purpose of providing her with that last ride.
I do not think that I have ever done anything in my life that was any more important.
Here is the prayer by St. Francis. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all tried to follow it, regardless of our religion, or no religion?
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
—St. Francis of Assisi
3 thoughts on ““And where there is sadness, joy” by Kent Nerburn”
Thank you for sharing this story and poem Mark. I had read both recently and they are worth reading every so often to remind me that life is much more than me!
Here’s a post about a comment Kent Nerburn made that I found objectionable: https://markashwill.com/2022/02/25/mixing-historical-apples-oranges/ I meant to reach out to him to request an explanation or clarification. Did he really mean what he said? “It’s an insightful and spot-on post with one glaring exception, the reference to ‘buckle-shoe Pilgrims as colonizing marauders — and all can be seen as inevitable, if not legitimate, evolutions of our awareness and understanding. But the baby is sliding out with the bathwater. When the myths are all drained, the magic is gone.'”
Here are the lyrics of Nico’s song, which she was kind enough to share with me.
She packed up her dresses,
Folded them neatly away.
The hat on the hook by the door,
Seemed to watch her and say.
It’s the last time you’ll walk on this floor,
One last turn of the key in the door.
She looked round one last time and she wondered,
Had there been more?
The Taxi had pulled up outside,
Awaiting her fair,
Sat a long time and he wondered,
Is anyone there?
One last fair or one less is the same,
But then out of the darkness she came,
Just one suitcase she held in her hand,
All that’s left to her name.
Driver just one final ride,
For you see this is my final night,
For I’m moving into the last place
I’ll ever reside.
The driver he looked at her face,
It was weathered by time,
He knew what she meant when she said
It was her final ride
So he took her the long way through town,
Up the side streets, the main roads and down,
To the places she knew in her youth,
A memory now.
The lights they shone brighter,
Than anything that she’d seen before,
As the sun started coming up,
The taxi arrived at her door,
She said thank you for what you have done,
For my one final ride in the sun,
And with that she just opened the door
And she was gone.
And the driver he never forgot,
The old lady and what she had taught,
That the power of kindness and love,
Well its all that we’ve got,
It’s all that we’ve got.