I Sing Because I’m Happy, I Sing Because I’m Free

North Philly

I felt as though the air had grown thick; I navigated it laboriously, as one walks through knee-deep water. Sweetness and flavor were gone; colors had faded into a thousand gray variations. I was 26 and thoroughly adrift. In need of employment I followed a path worn smooth by thousands of over-educated lost souls before me, complete immersion in a dead-end, service sector job.

Penn Radio Cab was a poorly managed, independently owned taxi company that prospered by transporting Philadelphia’s under-served population throughout its most distressed neighborhoods. We were not Yellow, parked in front of swish hotels, on our way to the airport, oh no. Our days and nights were spent prowling the forbidding landscapes of North and West Philadelphia where money was scarce and life was cheap.

The management at Penn Radio exploited its drivers mercilessly – 12-hour shifts, 6-days a week, weekends mandatory, no exceptions. Saturdays were okay, but Sundays were useless, no fares, no money. Rolling the desolate, trash-lined streets, awash in post-apocalyptic rubble, cars on cinderblocks, hookers, junkies, cops, and newspaper delivery trucks, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes.

Early one Sunday morning in April, gritty city trees in graffiti-smeared planters bravely pushing buds out into the carbon-monoxide, I answered a radio call in North Philly. It was a slim brick row house in a block of identical dwellings distinguished by the presence of bright green Astro-turf on the front steps. Out of the house, moving with precise determination; came a distinguished, buttoned-up black nurse. She got in the cab.

Philadelphia is known for its hospitals, so when she gave me the address of a Baptist Church I was confused. In my innocence I asked her if she was attending church on her way to work. She said no, she worked at the church. More curious still I asked her why a church would need to have a nurse on hand.

She said, “You know, in case somebody gets too happy.”

Then it all came to me, like a wave. Being a choirboy at St. Martin’s in the Fields, my mom driving me and my friends to the service on Sunday, listening to the live feed on WHAT from The Cornerstone Baptist Church at 33rd & Diamond Streets and the way the entire congregation sang with a completely unqualified euphoria of jubilee shout halleluiah until we couldn’t figure out why the building was still standing and even then I ached for that kind of belief, that faith, that mad commitment and wondered how it must feel to give yourself up to the divine and surrender and then we would go to St. Martin’s in the Fields and sing and men in tweed with their women in mink would fall asleep and I thought this can’t be what religion is.

And so I drove the nurse to her church.

Nocturnal Missions And Disappearing Acts

Moonlit Tours Cover

In 1976 I returned to Philadelphia after three years in Louisville where I worked for a newspaper and got an advanced degree. (I discovered later that an M.A. in creative writing virtually assures unemployability.) My mother had died, my father had taken up with a student of his, and I was well into a prolonged clinical depression. I had no family, no job prospects, and more importantly, no will; so I got a job as a cab driver.

There was an existential purity to that job; it was sublimely meaningless, which was deeply appealing.

For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, a river of unimportant people flowed through the back seat of my cab. I can honestly say I didn’t care about them at all. Some were beautiful, some were ugly, some were entertaining, some were annoying – it didn’t make a difference. They all had one thing in common, the only important thing; they needed to go somewhere and they were willing to give me money if I took them.

One fine spring morning I was dispatched to a Pennsylvania State Liquor Store where I was to collect a fare and proceed to The Alden Park Manor, a stately red brick apartment complex abutting Fairmount Park. I pulled up to the curb and there, holding a brown paper bag and waiting patiently, was an attractive, middle-aged black woman with a wooden leg. (She was wearing a skirt and no stockings; the device was in plain sight.) Neatly dressed and perhaps a bit too thin to be healthy, she looked road-weary and yet oddly serene.

It was a short drive and conversation was minimal. She leaned forward to pay me and whispered.

“Would you like to come upstairs?”
“I really should be going.”
“I’ll give you a drink.” She wiggled the brown paper bag.
“Thanks a lot, but, I can’t drink on the job.”
“I’ll take off my leg,” her voice danced musically, “you can have a look.”
“Um. Well. Well. Um.” I simply could not think of anything appropriate to say.
“I’ll let you touch my stump.” Her smile was warm and generous.
“Yeah, I really do have to go.”
“I’ll pay you, I’ll give you $20.”
“That’s all right, thanks all the same.”
“The other drivers like it.” This was offered with a whiff of bitterness. She opened the door and got out.

I had been living in depression for a very long time, my own pain had become alpha and omega. For that instant she had forced me out of my prison and into hers. I felt the wreckage, the doom, the longing – the strange hunger that would cause a person to abandon all shame and propriety in order to be fed.

The world is larger than you know, I thought to myself.

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