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March 11, 2008

Ten Years After

In the most recent "Hackie" column, "A Friend of Grace," I write about two customers of mine, Gracie and Janet. After penning this story, it occurred to me that, 10 years ago, I had written a previous piece about Gracie, entitled "Mustang Sally." This might be unprecedented for me to feature the same person in two stories.

So, here's the story from 1998. (The names are different because I always alter the names of the folks I write about.)


“He’s gonna kill me,” she sobbed. Her voice was trembling, like someone overwhelmed by bitter cold, the tone a combination of fear and pleading. It disturbed me, and that’s saying something. In 20-plus years pushing the hack, I’ve seen and heard a lot. I haven’t seen it all — new things happen every day — but I have seen a lot.

Her head and bare arms extended through the passenger window as she stood on the curb gazing at me through mascara-streaked eyes. “I’m dead,” she said quietly, and now the change in feeling was more unnerving in its flatness. “I’m dead,” she repeated. “I’m dead.”

What on earth has Sally gotten herself into this time, I wondered. Each of the previous times I’ve given her a ride home – and there have been many –  she’s carried with her, like a suitcase, an air of excitement mixed with lurking danger.

Usually I can spot her a block away, wildly hailing for a taxi, two or three guys in her wake. The men may be gesticulating at her with determined animation, exasperation written all over their faces. Sally jumps in laughing and shaking her head as if to say, “Do you believe this?” But despite the outward show of insouciance, I always sense that I’m the get-a-way car and that Sally’s give-and-take with the men is far from innocent.

“Hey, Sally, what’s going on?” I asked.

She was now gulping breaths as if she was having difficulty getting enough air. “I lost my purse. It had my keys. He’s gonna kill me, I swear, he’s gonna kill me.”

“Look, do ya need a ride somewhere?”

“Yeah, I need to get to my friend’s house on Ferguson Avenue, but I don’t have any money on me. I lost my purse.” With that, she started crying again, big round tears cascading down the sides of her face.

“Just get in, will ya?” I said. “Don’t worry about the money, OK? You’ll get me next time.” I knew she wasn’t hustling me. There had never been any problem with her paying the fare, and she always tips well, to boot.

Sally gave me a grateful smile and settled into the front seat. Her smile is a knockout. The fact is she’s a total knockout; there’s no other way to put it. Her hair is a wild blonde mane. Her eyes are like two gray-green emeralds, glistening even when she’s not crying like she was this night. She’s quite tall with long graceful legs. Tonight, as was typical, she wore a short cocktail dress of some outrageous neon color, and shiny silver pumps.

Despite her overflowing charms, I’ve never flirted with her, and I never will. The reason is simple: it’s patently self-destructive to light up sparklers around a Molotov cocktail.

“Oh, God,” she pleaded. “Why is this happening to me?” Sally had managed to stop crying, at least for the moment, but was no less distraught. “The one night I take my husband’s car downtown, I lose the keys. He’s gonna kill me.”

I try to keep my nose out of the business of my fares. I really do. I’m neither a social worker nor a therapist, and, while I’m friendly towards my customers, they’re not my friends. But when it comes to my regulars, those folks I’ve driven weekly, sometimes for years — well, these people have become part of my life, notwithstanding how I deem to categorize the relationship. This is why I didn’t self-censor my natural impulse to reach out to Sally.

“Sally, tell me something, OK? Are you frightened that your husband is going to physically hurt you?”

“No, that’s not it,” she replied. “My first husband beat the crap out of me, but not Ron. But he just makes me feel so bad, like I wish he would just hit me; that would almost be better.”

“Sally, that’s called emotional abuse and, sometimes, you know, that can be worse than being hit.”

She raised her eyes. “That’s it, Jernigan! I’m so glad you just said that because that’s what it is. I said that to him once, but he just told me I don’t know what I’m talking about. It made me feel crazy.”

“You’re an adult,” I said. “You shouldn’t live in fear of anyone, no matter how bad you screw up sometimes. I mean, losing your keys — big friggin’ deal.”

“Well, it’s not just the keys.” She paused briefly. “It’s the car. It’s not at my friend’s house, and Ron’s not going to be happy about it.”

I was about to say, “What the heck does he care where you take the car?” when it hit me. I’m a little slow on the upbeat at times. As a Bostonian friend used to put it, “And then the sun rose at Marblehead . . .” Sally’s friend, as it were, was of the male persuasion, and she was about to be busted. This does not, in any respect, justify her husband’s abusive behavior, but at least I now understood the source of Sally’s panic.

We arrived at the friend’s house. The car, her husband’s car, was parked right in front. Worse yet, it was parked in the driveway, all Exhibit “A”-like. We pulled to a stop and Sally just sat there glassy-eyed, dreading getting out, not wanting to play out the rest of the night’s drama. She then turned towards me. For all the world, she looked only like a scared little girl, not the twice-married woman-about-town that she was. I just shrugged and said, “Good luck.” With that, she left the temporary sanctuary of the taxi and walked slowly towards the house.

Is it a matter of luck? It baffles me why some us find a modicum of peace, security and comforting love in this lifetime, while others float along rudderless, buffeted by the wind and rain. Some say you reap what you sow, but it seems to that only some are blessed with the good seed. All I know is Sally deserves better, and I have no idea how or if she’s ever going to find it.

I wish she could metamorphose into the wild mustang that she is in spirit. I’d find one of those horse trailers and hitch it to my taxicab. Then we’d drive out west and I’d set her free. But I guess you only catch that fare in hackie heaven.

March 11, 2008 at 12:01 PM in Hackie Unplugged | Permalink


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