Another Holiday Story: Playing the Lottery

Playing the Lottery

Winter 1969, Boston. I was driving a cab at night, while attending Harvard Divinity School. I had run through some scholarship and loan money, and needed cash. But I also thought it would be a good experience for a wannabe writer.

When I turned my cab onto St. James Street downtown and saw the kid in front of the Greyhound Bus depot signaling for a taxi, I knew my time had come.

It was nighttime in Boston, the winter of 1969. Cold. Icy. I was a Harvard graduate student with a pregnant wife. We needed money, and the cab companies always needed drivers. The cabs were junk heaps, the pay was lousy, the darkened city was a jungle. But the jobs were there, and so was I. And so, at that moment, was the kid, turning up the collar of a thin jacket against the bitter wind.

It was only about two-thirds of a block from the corner to the bus station, but in the few seconds it took to drive that distance, I went through a whole internal dialogue, something like this:

Go ahead, pick him up.

I don’t want to.

What are you saying? You know if you won’t pick up a young black man, just because he’s a young, black man, number one, you’ll be breaking the law, and number two, you’ll be giving in to a crude racist stereotype.

That’s right, I admitted, I would be. But the fact is, I’m still afraid.

Afraid? You? You, the former civil rights worker, the dedicated Quaker, who not so long ago was putting your butt on the line to smash segregation in Alabama?

Yeah, that’s me.

What about the night you spent in jail with Martin Luther King? What would he say about this?

Why did you go and bring up Dr. King?

You know perfectly well why.

With the solemn visage of MLK in my memory, I knew I was losing this argument. But there was one ace up my sleeve that had to be played first.

Look, I said to myself, Alabama and Dr. King and all that were great. But that was then, and this is now. Dr. King is dead, remember? Shot, murdered. And he’s not the only one. . . .

I played the ace . . . .

Remember the two cabbies?

Two Boston cabdrivers had been murdered that winter. I don’t remember much about the first one, except it was a robbery, and it happened in one of the ghetto areas.

I do recall the second, though. It had happened not long before. The cabbie was a black man, of the kind our Republican [allegedly Quaker] President, Richard Nixon, supposedly loved: a married man with little kids. A small businessman, who owned his own cab, and worked long hours week in and week out. He was improving himself, being a model citizen, living the American Dream, on the road to success.

But only a few nights ago, somebody got into his cab, told him to drive into one of the ghetto areas, then robbed and shot him.

Or maybe he was the one they stabbed, with some long knife right through the thick car seat. I’m not sure anymore. Anyway, his road to success had ended on a dark street in a pool of blood.

So that made two dead cabbies in Boston’s ghettos in about two months’ time. The first killing made other cabbies, both black and white, nervous about picking up blacks, especially males, especially at night. The second murder made us, including me, downright scared. Driving a cab at night became like playing a deadly lottery. Every time I walked down the long ramp into the cab company’s underground garage, my stomach hurt and I found myself wondering, is it my turn tonight?

There were only three ways to deal with this fear, as far as I knew: One, refuse to pick up blacks, especially young males; or two, pick up everybody, and live with the fear. Or three, get another job, somewhere safe.

But part-time jobs were hard to find. Lots of students at Boston’s many colleges drove cabs.

I had faced the fear before. One recent night I had picked up two black men. they acted very friendly, and told me to head toward Roxbury, the city’s largest black neighborhood. As I drove, the two of them talked and joked about a card game they had been in, and how they were heading to another one where they expected to win big.

They gave me more directions which took us deeper and deeper into Roxbury, and then down side streets where street lights were few and far between.

With every turn, I became more apprehensive. Finally one of the men must have sensed my fear, because he reached over and lightly patted my shoulder. “Don’t you worry none,” he said softly, “we don’t mean you no harm.”

And they didn’t. Finally pointing to a house, they asked me to stop, got out, and paid their fare. No problem. Except that I was trembling all the way back downtown. But it hadn’t been my turn after all. Not that time.

Yet each night was a new drawing, when the fear could return. And now here it came again, in the form of a skinny black kid standing and shivering in front of the bus depot.

What about the two  cabbies? I repeated to myself.

There was no answer. But the recollection of Dr. King wouldn’t leave me alone, and besides, it had been a slow night. Fares were infrequent and trips were short. I needed the money. I played the odds, and pulled to a stop in front of the kid. He climbed in the back, smiled, and mumbled something about the cold. Then he told me to take him to one of the big projects on the edge of Roxbury. This wasn’t so bad, I thought. The project was not that far from downtown, and there were street lights. I lifted my foot from the brake, and the cab’s rickety automatic clutch stuttered and jerked us forward.

Turning right to head for Huntington Avenue, an idea came to me. Maybe it would help defuse these racist stereotypes to get them out in the open and talk about them, or at least what gave rise to them. I was a divinity student, after all; maybe we could do what the Bible said, “Come, let us reason together.”

So as we drove, I started telling the kid about the conflicting emotions I had felt before I picked him up. I mentioned my work in the civil rights movement, and how that made it harder to be in the position I was in. I added, of course, that I understood something about the racist society that produced conditions which put people into positions like this, his and mine.

As I talked, he didn’t say much, but in the rear view mirror I could see him nodding and smiling at me. He seemed to get it. I relaxed.

Soon enough the project came into view ahead, spread out over a low hill, and I slowed down. The buildings were several stories high, square and blank looking. Around them snow had half-melted, then frozen hard and shiny, reflecting the metallic glare of the orange street lights. I glanced at the meter: the fare was about five dollars. Of  that, the cab company kept half. Still, $2.50 was more than I’d had a few minutes before. A small fare was better than no fare.

I stopped at the edge of the hill, and the kid got out. I rolled down the front window on the passenger side to take his money, and he stood there for a moment, feeling in the pockets of his jeans. Then he turned on his heel and began to run across the snow toward the darkness between the two nearest buildings.

He had only taken a couple of steps before I knew what was happening, and opened my door and got out. The cab was low-slung. Its roof came up no higher than my armpit. Looking over it, I saw my breath in the cold air, and watched the kid’s shoes make holes in the hardened snow as he ran. For a split second I thought about trying to run after him. Then another thought came to me: If I had a gun, I could lay my arm right across the roof of the cab to steady the aim, and by God, I wouldn’t miss.

Then a second thought came: Yeah, and if I had a gun, by God I’d do it.

Then I forgot about the cold, and about the kid disappearing between the square, blank buildings, and slowly got back into the cab, pulling the door shut with a thud. I was breathing hard, as if I had been running, chasing the kid all over the sprawling project. I started the cab, left it in park, and sat there, staring out the window at the orange glare.

I realized I was furious, boiling with rage on several levels at once. I was enraged at the kid, for running out on me. After all my liberal talk, he had acted out the stereotype I had so wanted to dispel. But I was also angry to be out a five dollar fare. The cab company checked the meter every night, and insisted on collecting all the cash it recorded, giving me back half the fares in a paycheck two weeks later. They didn’t care if somebody ran out of my fare; that just meant the whole five bucks came out of my pay. So I was also angry and humiliated at the fact that I needed that $2.50. needed it  enough to be so anguished at losing it.

Most appalling of all, though, was simply the fact of what I had wanted to do standing by the cab. So easy: lay my arm across the roof, take careful, sure aim, squeeze. Feel the kick against my hand, let it steady again for a second, then squeeze again. And again. Yes, so easy.

I couldn’t believe it. I had been ready to kill over five dollars. I sat there for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a couple of minutes, wondering who this stranger in my taxicab was. Where had this racist killer come from? And what was I to do about him? No answers came out of the streetlamp glare, or from anywhere else. Finally the cab radio squawked, and the dispatcher said they needed taxis at the airport.

I usually ignored such calls. The few times I had gone running after them, the airport was packed with cabs when I got there, and I had to sit in line for an hour.

But maybe tonight it was worth another try. I wasn’t making any money here. I shifted into drive and took my foot off the brake. The creaky clutch shuddered and the cab crept forward.

“Taxi!”

I hit the brake and peered around at the project buildings. No one. Did I imagine the voice? I moved my foot again, and resumed the creeping.

“Taxi! Taxi!”

I touched the brakes. The calls were real enough. But from where? I scanned the project once more. Nothing. Then something flickered in the rear view mirror. There he was. A man, coming down the slope from the top of the hill, stepping carefully to keep his footing on the cracked ice in the gutter. A black man.

“To hell with him!” I muttered. “Let him walk.”

My foot rose, the cab began to move.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING? a voice shouted in my head. DON’T! I hit the brake,  the car jerked to a halt. My stomach hurt.

“Let him walk!” came the silent cry again, and my foot lifted. I could see the man clearly in the mirror now.

“Taxi!” 

I watched him keep coming, and then another figure appeared beside him. A black woman. She was carrying something, clutched it close to her chest. Blankets were wrapped around it. A baby. I was watching a family, stumbling through the frigid night, needing to get somewhere. How long had they been waiting for a cab to come to this neighborhood?

“Let them all walk!” Up came my foot, and the cab crawled unsteadily forward, down the hill, picking up speed away from them.

“NO! YOU CAN’T!”  My internal tug of war shifted ever so slightly. Shame edged out rage just enough, and my foot stamped down one last time. The cab squealed and rocked to a stop. I sat behind the wheel, my chest heaving, feeling as if I’d been beaten up from two different directions at once.

A moment later and they were tumbling into the back seat. He was shivering, she readjusted the corners of the baby’s blanket.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the man asked. Was I expecting gratitude?

“No, not at first,” I lied. He said they wanted to go the train station. Good, I thought; back downtown.

I drove silently for several blocks, but the turbulence inside me had not subsided. Finally I spoke. “Look,” I said, “I’m not proud of it, but I wasn’t going to pick you up at first.” I told him about the kid from the bus station, about having to cover the fare out of my meager pay, about how angry that had made me, even as I was ashamed of it.

They listened, without making much reply. The man grunted once or twice. The woman gazed down at her sleeping baby, and stroked its head. If it was sympathy I was after, they didn’t have any to spare. Maybe they were more accustomed to the rigors of the city than I was. Hell, they almost certainly were. I let them off at the train station, and the tip was skimpy.

The rest of that night was quiet, except that I didn’t sleep much when I got home. In the light of day, the trauma of the lost fare eased somewhat. As far as things that could go bad for a cabbie were concerned, having someone run out on a five buck fare was pretty small potatoes. Hardly worth mentioning; just deal with it, man. The worst part, the part that lingered, was the gut-memory of my reactions. Even now, two generations later, I can still see the roof of the cab, feel it cold under my arm laid across it, the careful squeeze and the kick. My clearest, most haunting memories are of things that didn’t happen.

None of this made it any easier the next time I went to drive. Trudging down the long ramp into the cab company’s garage, my main thought was the usual: whether that night it would be my turn, again, for something worse.

In fact, my turn didn’t come that year. But a couple weeks later, another cabbie’s did. Same deal: down to the ghetto, then the robbery and the gunfire.

Three dead cabbies in one winter was bad enough. But when I read the newspaper story, my blood froze. He had been a graduate student, moonlighting. Just like me.

I put down the paper. I was supposed to drive that night. What was it I said the last time? There were only three ways to deal with this fear, as far as I knew: One, refuse to pick up blacks, especially males. Two, pick up everybody and live with the fear. Or three, get another job, somewhere safe.

No, said something deep inside, there is a fourth choice.

I listened carefully. What’s that? I asked.

The fourth choice is, you could buy a gun, it said.

I stood up, left the house, got into my car. I knew I had to act fast, before I lost my nerve.

Half an hour later I was there. “You’ve got to help me,” I told the man at the counter. “I’m desperate. I can’t take it anymore.”

The man nodded. “I think we can find something for you,” he said, and picked up a looseleaf notebook.

And they did. The staff at the student employment office found me a work-study job on the campus. I quit driving cabs, and spent the rest of that term clipping articles out of newspapers, on the fourth floor of the Harvard library.

That year Massachusetts started a state lottery. A few times, when I wanted excitement, I bought a ticket. But my number never came up.

2 thoughts on “Another Holiday Story: Playing the Lottery”

  1. This is such a touching story; thanks for your honesty Chuck.

    This is a 4th of July that will spoil the holiday for me forever.
    I raised my sons in Highland Park IL , I knew one of the victims.

    Our Second Amendment rights are killing us.

    1. I’m very sorry to learn this, and of the new mass shooting. I worry about this every day now. Thanks for the kind words about the story.

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