I never thought I’d be telling a story like this.
Friday night, I picked up a girl. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m an Uber driver, and I pick up lots of girls. But they mostly don’t start crying when they get into my car.
When an Uber driver picks you up, we mostly don’t know much about you. We know your name and your current location, and that your credit card is good. That’s all we really need to know – Uber is pretty anonymous, and that’s a good thing. Everybody is entitled to their privacy. Obviously, I’d never met this girl.
I picked her up in my old neighborhood, more or less – in the parking lot of the Walmart that replaced the grocery store my mom frequented when I was a kid, which had been a Winn-Dixie in those days. I’m not sure there’s such thing anymore, not Winn-Dixie, not my neighborhood. I grew up in an area of Louisville that a lot of more affluent folks view with disdain – a place where people make a living, but they do it by getting their hands dirty every day. Mostly white people who wear ties to work don’t come to Dixie Highway. Southwest Jefferson County is for employees, not management material. Black people have been allowed to buy houses there since about 1985, and nowadays are welcome in about 2/3 of the area. It’s a place where both parents have to work to pay the bills, and maybe kids don’t get the supervision they do in places where at least one parent is around. Lots of mischief, lots of drugs. Drugs are killing Dixie Highway. It seems like all my old friends are dead or in prison – heroin is a bitch, and when you do drugs on Dixie Highway, heroin is where you end up.
This girl wasn’t on heroin. Or likely any other drug. People are my business, and I can spot an addict a mile away. She was wearing short sleeves and flip-flops, and shorts. Intravenous drug users cover their joints, their injection points, to hide the needle tracks. She wasn’t in that kind of trouble. But I knew she was in trouble – any time someone gets into your car with three backpacks, they’re in trouble. Even then, they mostly don’t start crying as soon as the door closes.
What on earth do I do with a sobbing girl in my passenger seat? Most Uber passengers ride in the back – they may want some small talk, but they aren’t there to be engaged, they just have a destination and need a ride. The riders who choose the front seat often need a friend. But they’re usually not crying, and usually not carrying everything they own.
I had to ask if she was okay. See, I have a daughter. And I don’t let people get hurt around me. It’s a sort of human decency thing, and a product of a bullied childhood – I often say that the best part of growing up to be the big kid is taking up for all the kids like me. She’s 20 years old, not much older than my own little girl.
I wasn’t prepared for this.
Her mom passed in April, after a period spent paraplegic, the result of a nasty car accident.
Her dad was a drunken, abusive lout. She wouldn’t talk much about him, except to say that she had sisters, but she was his favorite. She absolutely refused to consider going home.
She had finally run to a friend’s house, a few months before, not too far from her father’s home, still in the neighborhood. Her ‘friend’ is 27 and works at a local fast food joint, the kind with only drive-thru windows and no dining room. I say it’s her friend’s house – he’s 27 and was living with his mom and stepdad.
Was. I guess that didn’t last long. He got kicked out of their basement, and she had to go, too. They had been living in his car, parking in the back lots of various businesses where they could get lost in groups of cars to avoid notice.
When I found her, sitting on the front sidewalk of a Walmart with her backpacks in a cart, it was because he had thrown her and half her stuff (he still had the bag with her wallet and phone charger) out of the car and left her there. Apparently, she had the audacity to drink the last beer at a party, out of a 12-pack she paid for.
All she really had left was an Uber driver she’d just met.
She wanted me to drive around to the parking lots they’d been sleeping in, looking for his car. She didn’t really want to find him, but she needed her wallet, her ID and debit card, and her phone charger. Her phone was on 2%, the last bit of charge used to summon me.
We never found him. After a few minutes I ended the ride, turned off my Uber, and kept looking for this guy. I couldn’t bear to take her money anymore. We really didn’t have any luck. He wasn’t anywhere she knew to look, and being mobile, with her debit card, he could be anywhere.
Dixie Highway is a big place.
I had to take her somewhere. I wanted to help, but I can’t begin to fix what’s wrong with this. She adamantly refused to go to a shelter. Our conversation turned a little darker, about guys trying to take advantage of her situation, asking for things she wasn’t willing to do in return for things I’d consider common decency. I could feel the nausea building along with my anger, and eventually I asked, “Are you afraid that I want something from you?”
“I’m sitting here praying to God you don’t.”
She’s 20 years old.
I don’t know how this story ends. We never found her friend or her things. I dropped her off at the McDonalds near her job, where she said she had friends who could help. I asked her to text me and let me know she was safe. I never heard from her.
I went home and cried. Not for her – she repeatedly told me she was going to be fine. Strong, she said, been through a lot and she’s a survivor, as if she were reassuring ME. I laid in bed next to my wife and cried like an overdramatic child who had just learned how cruel the world can be. I kept hearing the words to this song she was singing, over and over:
I’m proud of who I am
No more monsters, I can breathe again
And you said that I was done
Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come
Cause I can make it on my own
And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known
I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain, oh-oh
When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name
I’ll never understand how we treat our children. Or anyone else, for that matter. How any human being can neglect, abuse and throw away another of God’s children. Why can’t we love one another? Really, truly love one another, not the Sunday morning kind of love, but the kind that stays active when the suits come off, and the subject isn’t a talented celebrity but an ugly, dirty man with stringy hair and tattoos.
Last week I twice saw a man in a sleeping bag at 4th and Broadway at 7:30 in the morning, lying next to his dog. He looked rough, but the dog looked glossy and well-cared-for as he watched over his person.
When will we love each other even as much as a dog loves us, and as this man loves his dog? Are we not capable of the love of a simple dog?
Day before yesterday, a man asked me for change for a $5 bill at a bus stop. I didn’t have it, but I had enough for both our fares.
What would you have done?
Today was Chris Cornell’s birthday. Chester and Chris were best friends.
Can we now, today, wake up to the reality and seriousness of mental illness? Can we accept that we are doing our brothers and sisters a horrible crime when we deny each other the care we need based on some idea that we can’t afford it, or that some people don’t deserve it?
Do you think Chester Benningfield’s mom deserves her pain today? And he can afford help. What about some guy or girl who can’t work because of their mental issues? Do their parents deserve this? Who among us deserves to die, in this land of plenty, for being unable to pay? Because they might owe it to someone else.
Who deserves to be thrown away? The girl in the story – she told me, “If I were 17, or pregnant, or married and beaten, there would be help for me. But I’m grown and a high school graduate with a job, so I’m trash.”
No sir. I won’t reach for you, for your arms are short and you cannot reach for me. Because if I help you, you’ll owe me, and I can’t be owed, I need mine now. Maybe it’s a better question to ask: Who among us would consider them in debt to us if we were able to save the life of a fellow human being? Are you that petty?
Guns cause violence. Wait, what? Follow me. It used to be that to really harm a man you had to look him in the eyes. To stab a man, you have to be close enough to smell his sweat, to feel his breath on you. Not true with a gun – you can shoot a man from your car, from behind safe shelter. Even a coward can do that. Most of them are, to be honest — it doesn’t take a man to fire a gun, it takes a coward to be scared enough to need one.
It’s the same with anything else – used to be that a man had to look you in the eye and tell you no if you couldn’t afford help. It was personal. Now it’s a Senator who’s never lived your life, never once pulled an all-night shift at a gas station or assembled airplane wheels or mined a lump of coal, or worked at a Staples while he slept in the back parking lot in a Chevy. Or helped a mentally ill person back to health. And we’ve re-elected him six times. He’s never looked you in the eye, but he can tell who among us deserves to suffer.
We have people in this world today insisting that drug addicts don’t deserve to wake up and try again tomorrow to clean up their life. People whose answer to uninsured sick folks is to tell people in debilitating pain, with terminal illnesses, to get a job, or get a better job. We have people who want to stop feeding poor kids and say things like “Maybe hunger will motivate them to work.”
They’re all evil. None of us deserve to suffer. None.
We’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re, every one of us, brothers and sisters and partners in the struggle of human survival. We’ve created this idea of debt as if we can owe each other a part of what we all were given to share. We’ve created this idea of deservedness as if we weren’t all intended to fight for and love and care for each other.
Don’t you see? I am he, as you are he, and you are we, and we are all together. One day I just knew, that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed, and I was a part of all creation and it was a part of me, and it felt like… God? It was the day my spirit began to heal. The day I stopped dying.
As Chris Cornell said, the day I tried to live.
How ya living, fam? Who are you?