Sunday, August 1, 2010

Conversations With My Cab Driver

If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down. – Mary Pickford
“I’ll get you there in plenty of time,” the cab driver said, sensing my urgency. I just left a meeting at a Pittsburgh law firm and was in jeopardy of missing my scheduled flight home. “My name is Darryl,” he added politely.

Darryl was an African American man with short-cropped hair, slightly balding with patches of gray, who looked to be in his mid-40’s. Outgoing and personable, he possessed a touch of street and appeared to be in his second or third phase of a life lived on the harder edges of town.

“Oh, damn,” he said, “I must have left my phone back at the cab station. Would you mind if we stopped by the station to get it?”

I warily asked if it was on the way, reminding him I was in a hurry and concerned about missing my flight – “you know, with security and all.” He said he knew a shortcut, and then relented, sensing my concern about the time. He gestured with his hand, as if throwing an invisible object. “I’ll get it tomorrow. I don’t want you to miss your flight.”

He drove a block or two, but I could see he was distracted. I told him that it was okay to get his phone. “If it’s on the way, it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.

Darryl appreciated my self-sacrificing gesture. “Ahh, man, thank you. I promise it will only take a minute. I’ll run right in and we’ll slip out the back and bypass all this traffic.” He said his co-workers would laugh at him again, and he wondered whether he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “I forget stuff all the time now.”

I assured him not to worry. “I can’t remember what I had for lunch,” I said. “But it’s only short-term memory loss. It’s natural, not Alzheimer’s. It affects everybody as they get older.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” Darryl said. Me too, I thought.

Darryl sped around corners and cut through side streets. We passed a middle-aged Hispanic man walking under a bridge on the side of the road, limping with a cane. Darryl waved to him and shouted apologetically, “Sorry, man, I don’t have time to stop.”

“I would normally pick him up and give him a ride. He works at the cab station. I’ll explain later we were in a hurry.” Darryl looked worried and his concern for the man seemed sincere and genuine, a compassionate gesture amidst the cold realities of urban hacking.

A minute later, Darryl turned into the parking lot of the cab station. “I’ll be right back.” He got out of the cab and ran, or tried to; he had the familiar gait of a once limber man, now full of stiffness and aching joints. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, with white socks and black sneakers. He’s old school, I thought to myself.

Darryl returned to the cab and thanked me. “I don’t know how we ever got along without these things.” He drove off and weaved his way in and out of traffic, explaining all of the shortcuts and tricks of the trade that he has learned over the years, bypassing the rush hour congestion, which on the west side of Pittsburgh is caused by the traffic converging on the Fort Pitt tunnel beneath Mt. Washington.

I commented on the area’s scenic beauty. The rolling green hills of western Pennsylvania surround Pittsburgh’s triangular skyline, which is situated at the meeting place of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers, each peppered by historic steel-framed bridges. The city of Pittsburgh has come a long way from its soot-filled history of steel mills and smokestacks and now boasts of a renewed downtown business district with parks, shops, and sports stadiums, a performing arts center and two major universities.

“I love this city,” Darryl said. “I’m here for good.” Thinking he had come to Pittsburgh from elsewhere, I asked Darryl where he was originally from. “I’m from Pittsburgh,” he said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought maybe you had moved here from somewhere else. So you were born and raised in Pittsburgh?”

“Yeah,” he said, though I sensed a slight hesitation.

I mentioned that one of my daughters almost went to the University of Pittsburgh. In learning that I had a daughter – “Actually, I have two,” I corrected him – he wanted to know what I thought of Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers accused in March of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student. I was no fan of Roethlisberger, I assured him. Darryl noted that Roethlisberger has a reputation for being arrogant and rude, and that he expected restaurants to comp him on meals and treat him like the spoiled, pampered athlete he is. We discussed how celebrities and sports figures too often let their fame take control of their lives and affect how they treat other people.

Darryl asked me about the OJ Simpson case, wanting my honest opinion. “He was guilty,” I said. “The evidence was overwhelming. One of the strongest murder cases I have ever seen.” Darryl agreed. He offered that Ray Lewis, another pro football player gone bad, also was guilty of murder, even though he, too, evaded the charges. “All black people know he’s guilty," he offered, "he’s a murderer.”

I didn’t know much about Lewis’s case, I said, only that two people were stabbed to death after getting into a brawl with Lewis and two companions following a Super Bowl party ten years ago. We identified other apparent injustices and discovered that we had more in common than our different backgrounds and appearances at first might suggest. Darryl volunteered, “Black people have to stop using the race card. I mean, man, we have a black President.”

Darryl asked what type of car I owned and if I had ever used jet skis on the water (I had not). “Oh, man, you got to do it.” He had rented them on a trip to Aruba once. "Man, it was a trip.” I told him I would try to go there someday.

Although we had dropped the topic of where he was from several miles back, Darryl sought to re-visit it. “Actually, there was a period of time I lived in Washington, D.C. Back in the 1980’s”

“Oh yeah? So did I,” I said, excited about our common history. I had spent thirteen years in Washington, I told him, “In the eighties and nineties. Where in Washington did you live?”

“Well, I used to be involved in some bad things,” Darryl acknowledged. He glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “I worked for a big drug lord when I was there.”

“You mean Rayful Edmond?” Who else could it be? I thought. Rayful Edmond was The Drug Lord in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He was responsible for the epidemic of crack cocaine that hit the streets of the nation’s capital during the 1980’s and caused its reputation as the murder capital of the United States. His drug organization allegedly is tied to over 400 murders.

“Yeah, man, how’d you know?”

I told him about my days as a prosecutor in D.C., when I tried drug dealers, murderers and rapists. I said I knew the prosecutors who tried Rayful Edmond, which at the time was a daily front-page story in the Washington Post. “I know all about Rayful Edmond.” I said.

“I worked as muscle for Rayful,” Darryl volunteered. “He used to have me collect drug debts for him. And if someone didn’t pay, he had me beat ‘em.”

No, shit,” I said, as in, what a small world.

“I probably wouldn’t have told you if I knew you were a prosecutor,” he said, a smile and nervous laugh betraying his glaze through the rear view mirror. “Good thing I didn’t run into you back then.” It was as if we discovered we once played for opposing teams, division rivals back in the day; as if he played for the Red Sox and I for the Yankees, former adversaries reflecting on our overlapping pasts.

Darryl explained how Rayful moved thousands of kilos of cocaine and ruthlessly enforced his code of silence; how they supplied Mayor Barry with crack and women, and how the fast life had grabbed hold of him for a few regretful years. Darryl never knew his father, and he had dropped out of school at sixteen. He fell in with the wrong crowd and followed some of them to the streets of DC, where Rayful took them under his wing.

Darryl assured me that he is a changed man, ashamed of his past. “I’ve turned my life over to Him,” Darryl said, pointing up. “I am a different person than I was back then. My life is good now. I have no interest in ever going back.”

Whatever his past transgressions, Darryl now was a man with a conscience, a working man who worried about his customers and co-workers. I did not ask if he had spent time in prison, and he made no mention of it, but I sensed he had, that his time away from Pittsburgh had been significant, his return a time of renewal and a fresh start.

Although we occupied the same space for only 45 minutes, I sensed that Darryl was a man who had truly reformed his life in remarkably positive ways.

As a prosecutor for nearly two decades, I accumulated many tales of redemption and second chances, stories that paint the world in multiple shades of gray, complexity and nuance, not the simplistic black and white, good versus evil world portrayed by Hollywood. Most criminal defendants, I discovered, are young men who have taken wrong turns in life; who lack valid role models, or any role models, certainly not a father. Often raised by a grandmother responsible for the lives of several other children, they live in a sub-culture that devalues education, responsibility and conventional means of success, all of which takes a back seat to fast money, flashy cars, and the lure of the underworld. Drugs and gangs are the ticket to the good life. But when the glitz and the easy life fade from view, when accountability takes root, they are just young men with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else; the desire to have people love and respect them, a chance to live life with legitimacy and respect. And like the rest of us, they need to find their way and for someone to give them a chance.

Somewhere along the way, Darryl got a second chance and grasped it. He now is a proud man who has embraced the American dream, works hard, and performs his job with professionalism, care and courtesy.

Twenty years ago, Darryl and I were on different sides of the drug war; he could have been any one of the thousands of young black men who came to court charged with drug dealing, or gun possession, or worse, violence, part of the cycle of mostly black-on-black crime that has plagued every city in America. Today, Darryl is a man redeemed, a living example of the triumph of the human spirit. He uplifted my spirits and, I think in a small way, I uplifted his, vindicating his choices later in life that have led him to a safer, more secure place.

The great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings. -- Rainer Maria Rilke
We reached the airport in plenty of time. I thanked Darryl, shook his hand, and wished him the best. “This was a fun ride,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting you. Come back to Pittsburgh soon.” He told me where to go once inside the airport. I stood momentarily on the walkway and waved goodbye, then watched as he drove his cab into the sunset, back toward Pittsburgh and a renewed life.


  1. mark,

    This was so inspiring. If only most of us would be able to see the white of the page that represents a person's life rather than the black dots which we all have, life would be a more loving experience. Thanks for another insightful and moving blog.

    It was wonderful meeting you last week. We thank you for the work you did on our behalf. It was greatly appreciated.


  2. Hey Mark,

    Thank you for the ride through my beloved and under-appreciated hometown! The next time I'm in the 'burg, I'll keep an eye out for Darryl. You beautifully described a random and precious encounter that I suspect neither of you will forget anytime soon.

    Kim Rubenstein

    P.S. We're due for another double date!