Martin was driving east in his taxi down Delmar Boulevard, just inside the city limits. Blocks of dark tenements and closed shops went by in shadow. He felt a little twinge of fear, passing the lighted liquor store at Hamilton Avenue, where the African-American men stood alone or in small groups, holding brown paper bags or drinking from open beer cans. Even tonight in the cold rain they were there, standing under the eaves of the roof to keep dry.
Martin looked at the serenely smiling photo of Meher Baba, his spiritual guide, on the card he’d propped up near the centre of the dashboard and felt the anxiety lift. The whole world was an illusion, and he did not have to worry about it. The picture was the one from Baba’s later years, when his moustache and nose were both enormous and his whole face seemed to beam “Don’t worry—be happy,” which, in fact, was the caption below the picture. Some years later, an artist named Bobby McFerrin would see the card and use the words as the basis for a popular song.
There hadn’t been many fares this evening. Martin was more or less passing time as he drove, listening to a jazz station playing a leisurely rendition of “All the Things You Are.” The music was punctuated by occasional bursts of static followed by the dispatcher’s voice calling a stand number. None of the stands were anywhere near, so Martin decided to head downtown, where business might be better.
From the day six months back when his friend Tom Fisk had suggested they get a taxi to drive, one of them working days and the other nights, the job had been an adventure, the kind of thing you’d do for the joy and experience whether you got paid or not. From the first day, he knew it would be like that. An African-American driver named Pete had taken him out for training. They’d waited at a cab stand in North St. Louis and then picked up a passenger a few blocks away, in what Martin had been trained to think of as the ghetto. Martin was surprised, turning off Goodfellow Avenue, the main road, onto a circular private drive of old mansions with a park in the centre. He’d never known such things existed in that part of the city.
From that day on he was aware that this, rather than his years in the vast lecture halls of a university, was his education. Whether he was carrying an elderly black lady to the supermarket and back, driving a young man out to the county to visit the orphanage where he’d been raised, or—this had happened on his very first fare—watching three Chinese men get into the back seat, and realizing they spoke no English, and couldn’t even tell him where they were going, the daily encounters with men, women and children of all walks of life were finally curing his insular upbringing in a suburb peopled mostly by Jewish families like his own.
Driving along Interstate 70 at night, when the factory smokestacks were belching white smoke, Martin always imagined them to be dynamos sending the city’s prayers up to God. He felt fortunate to be one of the angels ferrying people in the vast human beehive of an American city in the late 20th century.
Approaching Union Boulevard, he put on the turn signal and got into the right-hand lane in order to cut over to Lindell Boulevard, with its long immaculate row of mansions at the edge of Forest Park. From there he’d turn east again and drive past the Chase Hotel.
The traffic light cast its red glow upon puddles disturbed by the rain. Martin stopped the cab and prepared to make the turn. A couple of hundred feet down Union, he noticed a figure waving an arm in the air. Someone appeared to be trying to flag him down.
The Checker cab company had a rule against picking up flaggers, especially in the central city at night. Business was so bad at the moment, though, that the prospect was tempting. This section of Union was somewhat gentrified, and Martin was not as on guard as he would have been a few blocks north. Furthermore, there was a human being out there getting soaked. Martin took seriously his archetypal role as ferryman for travellers and its accompanying responsibility of keeping them safe.
Making the turn, he eased the 200 feet forward and pressed his foot lightly again on the brake so that the sedan, with its bright gold checkerboard logo overlaid upon its green body, would stop without a skid. A tall, youngish man with a scruffy wet mop of red hair stood in the centre of the street on the passenger side. He wore an old grey raincoat and his face looked pinched and haggard. As he reached for the cab door, which was still locked, Martin pushed the button on the centre console to lower the passenger-side window.
“Where you trying to get?” he shouted over the rain, which was falling harder now.
“Malcolm Bliss Hospital!” shouted the young man, an Appalachian twang in his voice.
Martin considered the options. “Oh, heck, get on in,” he replied after a moment. “I’m not supposed to pick up flaggers, but it’s such a nasty night and the bus could be hours!” He pressed the button that unlocked the door and the young man opened it and climbed in. Martin pushed down the flag that started the fare box going, and then stepped on the gas. The rider’s destination was the psychiatric building of the ancient, dilapidated city hospital that serviced St. Louis’ poor. It was five or six miles away on the city’s southeast side. Martin, who had long enjoyed the irony of the institution’s name, had occasionally joked to friends about becoming a rock singer and using “Malcolm Bliss” as his stage name.
“How come you’re going there?” he asked the passenger. Once people got in his cab, they became almost like family, and he felt entitled to make such inquiries.
“Pick up my meds,” the young man said matter-of-factly. Martin turned and looked at him and felt he understood more about the drawn seriousness of the face.
“I used to take psychiatric meds,” Martin volunteered as he pulled back into traffic, bringing his eyes again to the windshield. He could feel the passenger’s eyes on him, as if to say, “Why is he telling me this?”
“I had a total breakdown after some bad acid trips,” he went on. “My folks sent me to a shrink. He told me I had a chemical imbalance—that I hadn’t just blown my brain forever, the way I thought I had. He said there were pills that could actually re-balance me. I took them then suddenly one morning I woke up with the energy to go out and be with people again.”
“Hold on a minute,” said the passenger. “You said you used to take the pills. Doc told me I’ll be takin’ ‘em all my life! How’d you get off?”
“It’s a long story,” said Martin, sighing. “First of all, I believe now that it’s our consciousness that causes our chemistry—not the other way around! As far as getting off the pills, you see, even though they gave me energy, I never really felt quite myself on them. A month or two after they kicked in, I got involved with a lady and I came to feel I was cheating her, not giving her all of me, somehow. A few months passed and I just quit the pills, cold turkey. Unfortunately, I went right back to my black hole hell within a couple of weeks.”
“Why’d you expect anything different?” the passenger asked.
“Oh, there’s a lot I didn’t tell you,” Martin said. “You see, after about a month with the pills’ energy, I had a real spiritual experience. It involved the man whose picture’s on the dashboard. This love suddenly just wafted out of a picture of him I saw! It included everyone and everything—it was everyone and everything, somehow! I knew without being told that it was God. After that, since God was in my life, I figured He’d take care of me and I wouldn’t need the pills.”
“But you said that you went back into the black hole.”
“I did. Shows how little I knew!” Martin laughed. “Apparently, God doesn’t make everything a picnic, the way I thought He would. I even went back on the pills later, and this time they didn’t work.Lostthe girl, too! After the most miserable year and a half you can imagine, going to a day hospital with dead-end mental patients, I finally came through to a state of genuine peace, pill free.”
Martin believed in encountering a passenger, when he felt there was a chance to make a connection. He smiled to himself, remembering what had happened last week when he’d driven two Pentecostal ministers in town for a convention, from the airport to their hotel downtown. He’d questioned them about the sect’s practice of talking in tongues. One of them had replied, “‘Tongues’ are a gift of the Holy Spirit, but are not sufficient unless also accompanied by good works.” Satisfied with that answer, Martin had felt a sudden urge to open the New Testament he’d been reading for the first time while waiting for taxi passengers. He uncannily flipped the book right to Acts 2:1, the main verse on talking in tongues!
“Son, I think you’re on the right track,” the minister had remarked with a smile. It was like that. It seemed that in the cab, anything at all could happen. Another time a lady had asked Martin, “Would you let me anoint you?” Upon his consent, she applied a small amount of thick liquid to his forehead. The words “Thou hast anointed my head with oil” rolled through his mind, and he felt deeply moved.
Martin’s ecumenical mission went even beyond trying to focus on the Oneness of all religions at their core. Meher Baba said all beings were one—not just all religions. Martin wanted his taxi to be a travelling sanctuary in the St. Louis night.
He and his passenger rode in silence. Martin had decided to turn south on Kings Highway, rather than take the wet-slick expressway all the way downtown.
“Well, who is the guy in the picture?” the passenger asked. “He don’t look like no God to me. Look at that big nose!”
Martin smiled. “That’s what my dad says. His name is Meher Baba. He lived in India from 1894 until 1969. If you saw a picture from when he was younger, you might say he was the handsomest man who ever lived. But whatever he looked like, he said his body was only a coat.”
“Does he have a church?” the passenger asked.
“He didn’t come to start a church,” Martin said. “He said he was the Avatar, the same one who came to Earth as Jesus 2000 years ago, as Zoroaster, Ram, Krishna and Buddha before that and later as Mohammed. He said he comes back whenever we humans begin to forget why we’re here. The Avatar never comes to start a religion; his followers do it later. Baba was also silent in this Advent. He didn’t speak for the last 44 years of his life. He communicated in gestures and on an alphabet board, and said that when he breaks his silence, it will raise human consciousness to a new level.”
“If there ain’t no church, what you do you do for fellowship?” the young man asked. “You got to have fellowship, don’t you?” Malcolm was surprised at how his passenger, in spite of his rough grammar, seemed to grasp everything he had heard.
“I used to live in Berkeley, California, and I went to Baba meetings there. St. Louis doesn’t have a group yet. Last year I was led to a kind of stand-in group, a mystical Christian group called the Holy Order of MANS. The feeling I get is the same as from Baba. It is Baba, actually. I even had a vision of Him there once! They just call Him by a different name, and I have to watch my words a little bit around some of them.”
Martin’s face suddenly lit up as he spoke. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “I just realized the Order’s community meeting is going on right now, a few blocks away from here! Why don’t you let me take you? I’ll turn off the meter!” Martin reached over and pushed up the flag. Then he turned right, weaving through the quiet, residential streets on the southwest side of the city, near the botanical gardens. Finally, he pulled the cab into a vacant parking space alongside the little park on Thurman Avenue.
“Where we at?” asked his passenger. “I don’t see no church.”
“It’s just a little storefront,” Martin said. “It’s down at the end of the block. You’ll see.”
“Man, I hope you’re not messin’ with me,” the passenger said in a raised voice that sounded slightly ominous.
“I’m not,” Martin reassured him.
“Well, you don’t have no idea who you’re talkin’ to,” said his guest. “I wanted to be a minister. I studied in seminary, two years! You want to know why I quit?”
“Because I couldn’t find God! Now you’re talkin’ about God like He’s somethin’ I can just reach out and touch any time I want? Well, I don’t want to hear no bullshit! You show me God, right now!”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Martin said.
“Hold it!” the passenger shouted before Martin could continue. “You’re throwin’ me a line of crap! I ain’t gonna take it!” Suddenly, the passenger flicked his hand out and pushed the button on the centre console that locked all the doors. Then he pushed another one that closed the power window on the driver’s side.
Martin felt like a fly caught in a spiderweb. These commands and actions sounded suspiciously like a modus operandi. Who knew what this fellow had done before?
“You better produce, damn it!” the passenger continued. “Show me God or I‘m gonna cut you!”
He was reaching into his pocket. There was no way to tell if he was bluffing. In a flash, Martin pulled up on the handle of his door and sprung it open. “Jai Baba!” he shouted automatically, bursting from the car to take advantage of what, for all he knew, was his last opportunity. He put his head down and churned his arms as he ran, dashing two full blocks before looking back.
No one was following, at least not that he could see. He slowed to a walk, still careful to stay in the shadows, and crossed the street. Then he backtracked to the storefront, which was all dark. He had arrived too late for the meeting. His friend Michael, the storefront’s caretaker, had already locked up and gone home. Fortunately, though, Michael lived next door. Circling back up the front steps of the adjoining house, Martin knocked on the door.
“Yes?” came a voice. A hand pushed aside the curtain over the little window and a face looked out.
“Michael! Quick! Open up!”
Michael, hearing the urgency in Martin’s voice, quickly pulled open the door. “What happened?” he asked.
“I brought a guy here in my taxi, to come to the communion service. We were on the way to Malcolm Bliss Hospital so he could get his meds. He seemed interested in God and I thought you guys might be able to help him. But when I parked, he insisted I show him God, right then! Like I could just pull God out of a hat! He started getting hostile, and locked the car doors and shut the windows. Said he was gonna cut me! I didn’t wait around to find out if he really meant it.”
“Where is he now?” asked Michael.
“I don’t know. The cab was parked a couple blocks back when I ran.”
“Let’s sneak back and take a look. We can come up from behind the trees on the other side of the street. Who knows if it’ll even be there anymore?”
They circled back quietly. The cab was indeed gone. They walked back to Michael’s and called the police, who soon came and began questioning Martin, filling out the stolen vehicle report.
“What kind of car was it?” one of the policemen asked.
“Green,” said Martin. The policemen looked at one another and one of them rolled his eyes. Martin felt for a moment as if the crime was no longer a stolen vehicle, but his being a man who didn’t know the difference between a Plymouth and a Chevy.
Michael drove him home. He went to bed and awoke next morning to the ringing of the phone.
“Good morning, Martin, this is Mrs. Rizzo.” Mrs. Rizzo’s late husband had left her the Checker company in his will. “Your taxi’s been found by the police,” she said. “There’s no damage, and the keys were right in the ignition. You can pick it up here at the garage, and get back to work any time you want.”
“That’s really good news,” Martin said. “Where’d they find it?”
“In the parking lot right across from Malcolm Bliss Hospital,” Mrs. Rizzo replied. “Wonder what the fellow was doing over there?”
For more information about Meher Baba:
A concise biography of Meher Baba’s many-phased life appears on Wikipedia.