I drove a taxi for three-and-one-half years, equating to thirty-seven years in human time. Therefore, I feel somewhat qualified to form and express an opinion as to what type of individual selects this profession. There is something very wrong with the majority of these people. As to the few who are not disturbed prior to joining the ranks of the perpetually late and lost, it may be safely assumed that they will have fallen from Grace by the end of the first week of transporting other people for a living. Gambling, drinking, doping and womanizing are—in that order—the most common addictions to lead one into the beneath-the-radar world of the professional hack. Anyone damaged enough to believe that the glint of reflection from a poker chip, an ice cube, a hypodermic needle or a stripper’s eyes in any way leads to long term happiness is well-suited for this business, as is the distraught fellow who cons himself into believing he can actually get ahead in such a racket.
I fell into the latter category. After being robbed three times in two months, I decided I needed a different sort of clientele than one tends to find by taking calls off the dispatch radio and so went out on my own. I became a gypsy. I bought a high-mileage Lincoln Town Car, swerved through the minimal bureaucracy required for legality in Arizona, and handed out stacks of business cards.
Nearby hotels were enthusiastic. What I lacked in experience I made up for in contrast to my distant behind-the-wheel colleagues by capitalizing on the unfortunate bigotry possessed by my new select clientele. First of all, I owned my own vehicle. That meant that I kept the car in good working order and took quiet pride in the fact that whenever the Check Engine Light came on, I actually checked the engine rather than using the typical taxi driver’s solution of applying a strip of electric tape to blot out the warning signal. Second, I was not addicted to drink or drug. Third, I prioritized personal hygiene far above getting my pencil sharpened down at Madame Leah’s House of Obedience. And finally, I did not appear to come from the country of Somalia.
Six hotels accounted for ninety percent of my business. Most of these were Marriott properties and the majority of their customers were exhausted business travelers, most of whom required very basic transportation to and from the airport. The next largest chunk of my customers were personals, or what the rest of the world would call local individuals who call one specific driver for all their transportation needs. After that came a small number of drunks and occasional mystery callers whose source of referral would be murky. This latter type often may have been infuriating, but also tended to yield the best compensation, so it was a rare thing for me to pass on one of these calls, just as it was unusual for me to enjoy it.
I was asleep. The telephone rang. I grunted a greeting. It was Bobbi Jo. She said, “One of the dancers has a customer whose brother has a friend who says he might need a ride Tuesday, sometime, he’s not sure when. Are you available?”
“Who is this?” I asked, hoping to stall until my brain returned to its normal alignment.
“This is Bobbi Jo! Come on, Phil. You know who it is. Are you free Tuesday?”
I asked my dog Roscoe to check my calendar.
Bobbi Jo would feed me business like this once in a while in exchange for a free ride home from work. I remembered that I almost always got the better part of these deals, so I said “Yeah, sure,” and went back to sleep.
Sure enough, Tuesday came and a voice I did not know said over the telephone, “How long will it take you to get here?”
Some small number of people presume that their taxi driver has mental capacities which allow him or her to know everything about the customer, every detail from what the anonymous stranger looks like to his or her present location. Much as I hated to dispel this illusion, I asked, “Where are you?”
“Residence Inn,” came the soulless charcoal voice. “Eighty-Third Avenue and the 101 Freeway. I’m going to the Airport. I’m wearing a blue leisure suit. Hurry up.”
I hate being told to hurry up. Nevertheless I arrived in seven minutes. The man was not joking about the leisure suit.
I introduced myself. He slumped into the backseat. “Can I trust you?” he asked as we roared off.
I told him I thought so.
Watching my expression in the rearview mirror, he asked, “Do you know the name Cokie Roberts?”
I told him I did. “ABC News? National Public Radio?”
I watched him nod. He said, “I’m her father. I find myself in a bit of trouble. The young lady who recommended you swears that you are reliable. Do you think you can help me?”
I know my share of history, even when I’m delirious from lack of proper sleep. “Cokie Roberts’ father, you say? That would make you Hale Boggs?”
“Correct.” Pure charcoal, no soul.
“Congressman Hale Boggs from Louisiana?”
I adjusted the mirror and gave my passenger a long, soft stare. “You disappeared back in 1972, you and a guy from Alaska.”
“Your plane was never found.”
“And yet here you are in the backseat of my car.”
“Here I am.”
The man plopped into the rear of my Town Car with only two briefcases for luggage certainly looked old and crafty enough to have been a politician. I smiled into the mirror. He smiled back. I said, “Hey, you know, a lot of people have been worried sick about you! Where the hell you been?”
The normal ride to the Airport took twenty minutes. This was not an ordinary ride. So I shut my sarcastic mouth and listened. He told me that he had made trouble for himself a year before he officially disappeared. “I’d been in World War II. I’d met dignitaries and the hoi polloi. So when that pipsqueak Director of the FBI tapped my phone, well, young man, I was mortified. I marched right into the House Galley and called for the resignation of J. Edgar Hoover. Only two people had ever done that before and both of them were dead: John and Robert Kennedy. Shoot, I’d been on the Warren Commission. I knew what these FBI bastards were capable of doing. Well, the excitement died out after a while. I calmed down and after a time I didn’t give the matter much more thought. Then one day I had a visit from a fellow in New Orleans. A public figure there. He gave me information that linked the then-recent break-in at the Watergate with the assassination of JFK. He wanted my help.”
I liked this. It was much more interesting than the guy who told me he was Paula Abdul’s illegitimate grandson.
My passenger pointed to the Freeway exit, which was not the way to the Airport. I followed his instructions. He continued with his story.
“October 16, 1972. I was scheduled to board a Cessna 310C in Anchorage and fly to Juneau. My friend in New Orleans called my hotel and said I should miss that plane. So I did. I learned later that night that the plane disappeared. The Coast Guard and the Air Force searched for thirty-nine days and never did find it.”
We hopped on Route 60 westbound towards Wickenburg. I was getting uncomfortable. I asked where he had been all these years.
“I took up with an Inuit woman and we muled for some Chinese heroin traffickers. Well, we did until Sak Red—that was her name—until she burned one of the Tibetan juice guys. Since then I have been holed up on Nogales, biding my time and watching a lot of TV.”
“That’s some story,” I said, following his instructions by taking the 303 Freeway southbound. “How may I be of service, sir?” This was where I expected to be asked for a donation. But he surprised me.
He patted my shoulder. “I’m old, son. May not have a lot of spare time left. I want you to take this Route over to the I-10 and go east. That’ll take us to the Airport. Long way around. I’m going to leave one of these two briefcases in your car. Cokie’s at the Biltmore tonight. You bring her the briefcase. Tell her it’s from Tom.”
“She’ll know. Do not ask her a truckload of questions. Don’t go into any detail. Just do this for me. Here, take this.”
He folded four one hundred dollar bills into my hand.
“I’m not happy about this,” I said.
He again patted my shoulder. “We’re public servants, young man. Happy doesn’t enter in to it.”
I dropped him off at Terminal 2, the United Airlines ticket counter. He left the briefcase with me.
I floored the gas and shot over to the Biltmore Hotel. I parked alongside the jogging path, turned off my top light, and examined the case. Oxblood, fake leather, not too heavy. I pictured myself getting arrested by federal agents for handing Cokie Roberts a case full of anthrax and dynamite. I pictured myself screaming at the TSA guys, “Wait! You don’t understand! This belongs to Hale Boggs, the missing Congressman!” That did not provoke much courage in me so I flicked open the dual locks and looked inside. All I saw was a manila envelope. I took it in hand and tore it opened. I found some photographs and a note that read: “Come to my garden at Trenton and Main where the crows and the alligators stick in the drain.” Dr. Seuss had nothing to worry about. As for the pictures, there were seven of them, all shots of Cubans, all of them with the faces circled in red ink.
It was very much out of character for me to buy into a lunatic’s delusions, having more than enough of my own to consume my time, but this was so bizarre that I wondered if any of it amounted to anything. While wondering, I parked the Town Car, walked right by the smirking valet and into the old world hotel. I approached the front desk, placed the briefcase on the counter and wondered what to say.
I read the name tag of the brunette behind the counter. Jennifer asked how she could help me. I told her I had a car service and that one of my passengers had asked me to drop off something for one of the hotel’s guests.
This Jennifer’s face took on the wide-eyed stare of teenage mania. “Oh my God! Is this the package that’s for Ms. Roberts on that TV show on Sundays?”
I told her it was.
“Oh my God! I could get in like just so much trouble for telling you this.” She stopped to breathe. “Ms. Roberts was delayed or something and she won’t be here for like hours. I can put this in the hotel safe for her.”
So surprised was I to learn that Cokie Roberts was actually staying at the hotel that I stuttered out my answer that what she’d said would be just fine. I gave Jennifer the briefcase. She inventoried the meager contents, placed everything in the hotel safe, and gave me a receipt. I tipped her twenty dollars. “Oh yeah,” I said, over my shoulder as I walked away, “Be sure to tell her that briefcase is from Tom.”
I watched the evening news every night for a month, read the local and national papers, and even called a guy I barely knew at CNN. There was no news on Kennedy, Watergate, a long-missing Congressman, or anything else besides a raging war in Iraq and a booming economy for two percent of the people who lived in America.
The truth is that I probably would not remember all this in such detail except for three things. First, I looked up Hale Boggs on the Internet and there was a faint resemblance to my passenger if you added thirty-five years and used your imagination. Second, it turns out the Congressman’s real first name, which he seldom used, was Thomas. And third, a black Mercedes 450 SLC stayed in my rearview mirror for a solid week. After that it reappeared on and off for another seven days. One morning it was simply gone and I never saw it again.
The day after I dropped off the briefcase, I called the Biltmore to make sure Cokie Roberts had picked up the item I’d left for her. The front desk person sounded bewildered and transferred my call to the assistant manager, a fellow named Jeffrey. This Jeffrey told me it was against hotel policy to discuss guests with anyone and certainly I could understand that, couldn’t I? He reckoned thus even though I was obviously confused because they did not have anyone named Jennifer working at their hotel and as far as he knew they never had.
I hung up and grabbed my wallet, where I’d kept the hotel receipt. It had apparently fallen out during one of my few financial transactions.
My only other clue was Bobbi Jo, a long shot at best. I called the bar where she worked. She had been fired. Nobody knew why. The world was crazy as a soup sandwich. I taped the message about crows and alligators to my car’s visor, just for old time’s sake.
I continued to take mystery referrals over the next couple years. They helped me pay the bills and buy a little relief here and there. I never did enjoy a single one of those mystery trips, but as a wise man once told me, happy doesn’t enter into it.