"Didja hear about Billy?," asked Rick.
"You know... older guy, glasses, always wears a baseball cap."
Rick could be describing about half the drivers here, including myself.
"Yeah, well, last week Billy went to the doctor complaining about a back ache. Turns out he has terminal lung cancer. He has maybe two weeks to live."
"For months he figured he was just stiff from driving long shifts. It got to the point he could barely stand up."
"All they can do is give him somethin' for the pain... He finished out the week, then went home to die."
"What? He decided to spend one of his days on earth drivin' a cab?"
"What else was he going to do? He's been driving a cab more than forty years. That's twelve hours a day, six days a week, every week of the year. I've been drivin' nearly thirty years and I don't remember him ever takin' a vacation. No hobbies. No real friends. Just drivin' a cab and his family. And them he only got to see maybe one day a week. He put his two kids through college, but that's a lot of missed recitals and Little League games. But whatcha you gonna do?"
"How old is he, Rick?"
" 'Bout 65, I guess."
"That's really depressing, Rick."
"I guess he figured his family could use the money."
Now I don't even know Billy but this shook me up. Not because of the tragedy of his death, but because of the tragedy of his life. I wonder if 40 years ago, when Billy first started driving, what dreams he had for himself. He'd be 25, strong, full of energy, with nothing but time and his imagination standing between him and the future. Perhaps he wanted to go to college, travel the world, start his own business. Perhaps he figured cab driving was a part-time gig, something to tide him over. Perhaps he looked at all the other middle-aged men driving cabs and told himself, "I'll never let myself turn into that." Who knows?
But then he met a girl, knocked her up, got married, had one kid, then another, and suddenly all those doors closed. He had responsibilities, bills to pay, obligations to keep. All of his dreams disappeared like his breath on a cold winter's morning. And maybe years later he looked in the mirror one morning. He saw the face staring back him with the graying temples and the thinning hair and the dark circles under his eyes and he asked himself, "Jesus, where did the last forty-fuckin'-years go?"
But heck, he may have told himself, he wasn't that old. He could still have dreams. Maybe once the kids are out of the house; maybe once the mortgage is paid off; maybe once the wife and I can finally save a little money and time for ourselves.
But first, he tells himself, I gotta go to the doctor and get my back checked out.
I ask Rick how he got into cab driving. He explained that he was welder, and that he worked in the boatyards in Quincy. After they shut down in the Eighties he couldn't find a welding job. There was a recession going on and a lot of welders out of work, so he started driving. Like the rest of us, he thought it would be a part-time thing. But, one thing led to another and, thirty years later, here he is.
Does he ever think about doing something else? "Nah, I don't give it much thought."
A couple of weeks later, a small note was posted on the office bulletin board announcing Billy's death with the name of the funeral home and the hours for the service. I don't know how many drivers went to the service. I don't know how many drivers who even knew Billy. A week after this, another note was posted, announcing that the city had awarded Billy the "Cab Driver of the Year" award--posthumously.
"Can you believe that?" Rick says. "Forty goddamned years and he has to die to get it. You think they could at least give to him while he was still alive."
I spend the rest of the night driving in a kind of daze. I keep thinking about the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, about a guy wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison who over the course of 25 years tunnels his way out. And I keep thinking about that line: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."