When I was a taxi driver I wrote a blog. The blog got picked up by a publisher and adapted to a book. In the book and the blog I told many stories. I held back some of the details in some cases. There is one story I no longer wish to hold back on a critical, but not defining, detail.
In Chapter 26, I told the story of a woman with mental health issues and job loss issues who was experiencing homelessness. I am about to share that story with you. Before I do, I need to tell the bit that I did not want to tell before. Why I held it back and why I am telling it now.
The woman in the story was transgender. Her job loss was related to her transitioning. A lot of people in the taxi will just lie to you about their grandiose lives. In this case, there was enough in her story about finance and college and corporate speak that I knew she used to be a person of means who lost everything.
Why did I hold this detail back when I wrote the story? I had already written a chapter about a married lesbian couple where one of the wives was abusive to the other. I did not want to give people who hate another reason to hate anyone in the LGBTQIA community. I did not want people to think her mental illness and being transgender were somehow related. I did not want the story to be distracted by her gender identity. The story of her humanity in an inhumane situation should be able to stand on it’s own without her orientation or gender identity in the mix.
I tell the story with this detail now because she was one of my early experiences with a trans women. She passed well and the only way I knew she was trans was because she told me. She also told me some simple tricks to hide your adam’s apple. Scarves and contouring tricks with make up were her two main go to’s.
I will be honest, I do not remember how the topic of her being trans came up. I know it was not something she just divulged to everyone. It was relevant to the conversation and my being safe to tell. It was also a brief part of our conversation.
Homelessness, job discrimination, and lack of access to quality health care, including mental health care. This is a part of the transgender story for too many people. As we have more and more elected officials that are transgender, I hope we see this shift.
Here is the chapter, as it was originally written as seen through the lens of what you know about her now. Lover her, care for her, and from time to time, think about her and wonder if she is doing all right.
Chapter 26: Now What?
We often do long out-of-town runs. We often pick up out of the low-end motels. We do not often do a long out of town run from a low end, “no-tell” motel. I got a page from dispatch to pick up a woman from a motel and go to a nice town in the North suburbs.
While on my way to pick her up, the dispatcher gets on the radio and informs me that she has flat rated the run for $82 and the woman claims that is almost all the woman has anyway, so I should get cash up front.
I pull into the motel and the woman is standing by her room with the door open. As I pull up, she asks me to back it in so she can load her stuff in the back. She is about my age, tall (well over 6ft), and has messy short blonde hair that looks like she may have tried to cut it herself.
Without hesitation, she loads her belongings into the back of my cab. ALL of her belongings. Everything she owns. Like so many people I encounter, she lived in a motel. Now, she packs up her stuff with almost childlike glee. I know that expression. It is not one I see very often. It is the expression of someone who is moving out of a motel and into something more permanent. Someplace safer. Someplace that may be home.
The cab is pretty full by the time she is done. Suitcases, boxes, bags, a lamp, a ceramic ashtray, and even a ceramic Buddha. She hops in joyfully and is ready to go. I politely inform her that I need the $82 upfront before we could ride. She hands me a debit visa and a little fear sets into me. If this thing does not process, she will have to unpack all this stuff before leaving the cab. The panic was short lived as the approval code for the transaction came up and we were on our way.
The drive was going to be a little less than an hour so we had time to get to know each other. She told me about how, after 8 months of living in a hotel, she is finally getting a chance to get a leg up. A friend of hers has offered to let her stay at her place for 3 months and has a job opportunity for her. This is three months to not have to pay steep motel bills. Time to save up money to get a small apartment. A chance at a real life. A chance at a home, even if that home is a studio apartment.
I asked how she ended up in this position and she told me. She used to be a personal banker. She never prepared for an unexpected job loss. When she realized she was in trouble and could not make it on her own, she had to make some hard decisions as the landlord sent her an eviction notice. She placed what she could in a small storage center and went to Joliet to take a job as a bank teller.
The job did not last long. She admits freely that it was by her own doing. Depression and stress led to self-medication. Drugs are pretty easy to get in some motels and liquor stores always seem to be strategically located near no-tell motels.
Now things would be different. She had been clean and sober for a few months and she had a job lead and a clean place to stay. Life was looking up and she was grateful to her friend. There was something else, though.
There were signs of mental instability in her. She spoke about how she was able to talk to the cockroaches in the motel and they would talk back to her. Sometimes, she claimed, demons would take the form of roaches and talk to her, to try to tempt her and get her away from God and light. She then told me how her Bible and her favorite book, by a popular spiritual guru with a television show, both had miraculous abilities. If she needed spiritual guidance she could open a page randomly and the words would change before her eyes to say exactly what she needed to know.
We drive a lot of poor people, homeless people, addicts, and alcoholics. Untreated mental illness is part of the territory. I was kind and treated it just like any other part of conversation. At one point she asked if I believed her. I gave her the answer I give everyone when asked that. Just because I have not experienced something does not mean it did not happen. Usually the answer is no but I find the answer I give to be a lot more polite and kind.
We get to the address her friend gave her and it is a vacant lot by train tracks. She is starting to worry and calls her friend, leaving a voice mail. I tell her not to worry. Sometimes addresses go out of sequence and there are a lot of places on the other side of the street. We explore and find nothing. She calls her friend again to try to get directions and this time I can hear that the call goes straight to voice mail. Now I have a sinking feeling. Her “friend” is dumping her calls to voice mail.
About this time, dispatch asks me if everything is okay. I tell dispatch that we are having trouble finding the address. Dispatch has our cabs on GPS and with a few clicks of a mouse they can tell exactly where we are and where we need to be. She told me where the address should be. I knew what I would find there but, just to be safe, I wanted to run through the steps again. It was the vacant lot by the train tracks. I informed dispatch of this and she tried to pull up an image on Google maps. As we feared, there was no address. Just a vacant lot and the calls still being dumped to voice mail.
I explain to dispatch the situation I am in and tell her I am going to seek options here. I ask my fare for her friend’s phone number. I am seeing her hopefulness fade away and the full fragility of her untreated emotional condition replacing it. My cell phone number does not get dumped but it also does not get answered. I leave a voice mail.
“Hi Sandra. This is Pat with TeleCAB. I have your friend, Jennie, in my cab. We came all the way to your town for her to stay with you. The address you may have given us is incorrect. Please call me back before I have to make this a police matter. She has no more money for me to take her anywhere else. I really don’t want to involve the police, so please return my call.”
She asks me if the police was a bluff. I told her I honestly did not know. I ask if she has anywhere else to go. Anyone else she knows who can take her in. She says she has a few dollars in her pocket. There is no money for a motel and no one else to stay with.
There have been severe thunderstorms all night and it is starting to rain again. Leaving her on the street is not an option. I talk with her a few minutes explaining to her that, in these suburbs, there is an organization called PADS. They set up emergency shelters in various churches and provide other assistance. Now her anxiety hit full force.
“I’ve never stayed in a homeless shelter!!! This is wrong. I don’t know what to do. Can’t we just stay here until my friend answers the phone?”
“Jennie, she is probably dumping your call to voice mail. I don’t know why she is not answering your calls but she probably won’t ever answer. I’m sorry.” About this time, my phone rings. It is her friend. I answer. She asks me who this is. I tell her I’m a cab driver from Joliet and I have her friend in my cab. She says she doesn’t know what I am talking about and I have the wrong information. I know I am being lied to. My fare hears every word. Her confusion is genuine and her fear is high.
I tell her that I have friends that volunteer with PADS. I also tell her that, since it is after normal check in time, I am going to have to call the police and have them aid us with intake into PADS. We have been in town for almost an hour at the point I call the police. I am now losing money.
I explain to the police dispatcher what is going on and the aid we need. I thought I was very clear, but dispatch had misunderstood and interpreted the situation as someone trying to skip on the fare. I was unaware of this. The fare and I step out of the cab to have a cigarette. Just as we are both finished with our smokes, 3 squad cars pull into the parking lot we are sitting in with lights flashing. She goes into full paranoia mode, jumps in the cab, and locks the back door.
I spend a few minutes with the officer in charge of the scene and work past the misunderstanding and what it is we need so I am not leaving her out on the curb in the rain. He gets it. He also knows the name of the woman she is supposed to be staying with. The officer and I coax her out of the cab to talk. She is terrified. He sends one of the other officers to the other woman’s correct address and tries to get her side of the story.
That officer comes back ten minutes later to report that the woman initially refused to answer the door and then claimed she never spoke to the woman. When pressed more, she said she did talk to her but does not want to talk about the details and does not want her anywhere near her property.
The police officer in charge of the scene thanks me for my ethical behavior and patience and has me follow him to a large Congregational church that was serving as the PADS shelter for the night. The officer goes into the church and makes the arrangements. He comes out and assists me with getting her belongings to the church door. More than two and a half hours after this trip began, I am on my way back to Joliet. Jennie has a safe place to stay with professionals who might be able to help her. Things were not without hope but they sure did suck.
The story hit the gossip mill in the company. Many felt that I was the person who needed to be there for her that night. They felt many would have left her to rot at the side of the curb. It was ironic. It took losing my faith for it to become natural to behave like a person of faith should.