Hacking Houston–The Passengers (II)

On the sidewalk I saw someone waving, a little unsteadily. Not a good sign. She approached my car and tapped on the glass. I opened my window to a slight black woman, young but weathered, and mildly drunk. "You free, mister?"

Author's map of Houston showing streets mentioned in "The Passengers"
HOUSTON 1973. SHOWS THE CITY’S MAIN ROADS, AS WELL AS STREETS MENTIONED IN “THE PASSENGERS.”

FOR SALE

One weekday afternoon, at a shopping center in the southeast part of the city, I picked up a middle-aged woman with glasses and dark hair. She wasn’t going very far, she said, but she had a couple of sacks so she didn’t want to walk.

After driving west on Bellfort a few blocks we crossed Mykawa, a street that began near South Loop and went southeast, with railroad tracks running beside it all the way. East of Mykawa was all white, with housing additions and trailer parks within commuting distance of the East End industries, while west of Mykawa was all black, Third Ward. It was the sharpest, most sudden example of racial division in the city.

We drove two blocks past Mykawa and took a right on Belbay, an attractive residential street. A few black junior high school kids were laughing as they walked home from school. After a minute the woman said, “That’s the house there, on the left, the one with the For Sale sign in front.”

As we pulled up, she continued in a dreamy voice, “We’re selling our house. Neighborhood’s gotten all black.” As she got out, she added, “They haven’t bothered us none, nothing like that, but still, it makes you feel kind of uncomfortable.”

FRENCHY’S

It was the last house on the block, a one-story frame house with a scruffy front yard. The neighborhood was black, middle to lower middle class, located just north of South Loop near Cullen, one of the busiest streets in Third Ward. I honked the horn a couple of times, and after a minute a hefty white woman about fifty years old stomped out of the house. As she approached the left side of the cab, I reached back and opened the door for her, but she shouted, “I’m getting in the other side!” which she did. She closed the door, adjusted her dress, and barked out something about MacGregor and Scott and French, and Dowling after that.

I drove north on Cullen for a while, turned left on North MacGregor, and as we approached Scott Street I asked if she wanted me to turn right.

“Yeah, turn, turn, French.”

I turned. “French?”

“Not French, Frenchy’s. Frenchy’s! Don’t you know where Frenchy’s is?”

“No.”

“You don’t know this part of town, do you? You know where Church’s Chicken is?”

“Well, I know where a lot of Church’s Chicken stands are, but there must be thirty of ’em in the city, and I sure don’t know where they all are.”

“Church’s Chicken is up here,” she declared with finality, “and Frenchy’s is across the street. Nope, you don’t know this town.”

I drove north on Scott a little ways and pulled into Frenchy’s, a small food stand with an outdoor walkup window. She took a five out of her purse, handed it to me, and asked me to pick up her lunch, which she had already ordered over the phone. I walked up to the window, where I was the only white customer, paid for the sack of food, and brought it back to her, along with her change.

“Thanks.”

“Keep going up Scott?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah, keep going. You know where Dowling Street is, doncha?”

“Sure do.”

“And McGowen?”

“That too.”

“Well, take Scott to McGowen to Dowling, then.”

While I drove, she attacked her bag of food: a hot, smelly sandwich, fries glistening with grease, and a Coke. By the time I turned right on Dowling, she had finished her meal, leaving the cab smelling like an old kitchen. Dowling was the Lyons Avenue of Third Ward—poor and run-down, with young black men leaning against buildings and old black men sitting on steps. We were only a few blocks southeast of downtown when we stopped at a furniture store, one of several in the area. Evidently she worked there.

She paid the fare and opened the door, dragging the empty sack behind her. As she was about to get out, though, she changed her mind about the sack and asked me to take care of it. She said there was a trash can in the next block. “Yeah, okay,” I said, as she thrust the oily sack at me. She got out, closed the door, and went in the store. I drove to the trash can, threw the sack away, cranked open the windows, and took off.

FOUR QUARTERS

One weekday morning the dispatcher announced that a cab was needed on West Mount Houston Road. I wasn’t particularly close—I was parked at a cab stand about five miles away—but when the ride was still open ten minutes later, I decided to take it. Mount Houston Road was located outside the city limits, in the northwestern outskirts of the metropolitan area. Driving there, moving in a matter of minutes from a congested urban landscape to a sparsely populated rural one, was like entering a world that had been left behind.

2500 West Mount Houston was an isolated trailer park surrounded by large, uncultivated fields. There I picked up a slender woman, about thirty, and her young daughter. They were going just down the road to a small shopping strip that served the essential needs of the trailer park. It had a beauty shop, a convenience store, and a laundromat.

“I’m sorry it’s such a short ride,” she said. “I would have walked except I have to bring my daughter along.”

“That’s okay.”

As we drove, the daughter was smiling and wide-eyed, looking at everything around her. She seemed excited just being in a car.

When we got to the beauty shop, the fare was 95¢. There were no other cars in the parking lot. The mother handed me four quarters and I gave her a nickel back. She and her daughter both said goodbye and went into the shop. I glanced at the quarters and noticed that none of them had the copper core that quarters have had since the mid-1960s. It made them seem almost foreign. Then I looked at the dates. The most recent one was twenty-one years old: 1952. The others were dated 1951, 1942, and 1938.

TEN CENTS

The Houston Oaks Hotel was located in the glowing core of southwest Houston, at the most upscale intersection in the city, Westheimer and Post Oak. Carpeted hallways connected the hotel to Neiman Marcus and the Galleria, and within a few blocks were Houston’s elite furriers, boutiques, hair salons, restaurants, and nightclubs. Four-star hotels like the Hyatt Regency and the Hotel Sonesta offered comparable accommodations, but the Houston Oaks had something those downtown hotels did not: surroundings that were as sheltered and as privileged as the hotel itself. By virtue of its location, the Houston Oaks Hotel shielded its guests from all the unpleasantries that lay just beyond the doors of the Hyatt or the Sonesta: the endless stream of downtown buses, assaulting you with their black exhaust, their pneumatic exhalations, and their terrifying fearlessness; the skyscrapers looming over you, blank-faced and inhospitable; the sunshine-deprived sidewalks; the nocturnal air of abandonment; and pedestrians of dubious morals, dubious sobriety, dubious affluence, and dubious intent.

The cab stand at the Houston Oaks was a designated strip of the Galleria parking lot. Hotel guests who wanted a cab walked across the driveway for valet parking to a passenger pickup island; the cab at the stand then pulled forward and picked them up. One Saturday around noon, after spending an hour in line, I got to be first cab, and was fantasizing about an airport run with a big tipper. A well-dressed woman in her thirties, with black hair, a round face, and pasty white skin, came out of the hotel. She had sort of a mousy look. She stood with her hands in front of her, holding a small handbag and looking straight ahead. I assumed she was waiting for an attendant to bring her car. But then she gave a little wave—at me?—so I stuck my arm out the window and motioned for her to come to the pickup island. She just stood there, though, looking straight ahead and smiling, and I decided I had misunderstood her. I didn’t want to pull forward unless I was sure I had a ride, because as soon as I did, I’d lose my place in line. But when, a minute later, she raised her finger in the air and smiled in my direction, I figured she must want a cab. Obviously she wasn’t coming out to the island, so I drove around it and pulled into the driveway.

Almost immediately I came to a stop. In spite of several attendants scurrying about, the driveway was impassable, clogged with abandoned Cadillacs and Mercedes. The woman remained in the same spot, unmoved, oblivious, still looking straight ahead, still with that ineradicable smile. I got out of the cab and walked up to her.

“Ma’m, did you want a cab?”

“Oh yes, I do!” She smiled at me.

“Well, I’ve got mine right over here …”

“Oh, good!”

“… but these cars have me blocked off, so it would probably be best if we walked over there.”

“All right!” she said brightly.

We walked to the cab and got in. The cars in front of us looked not just immobile but utterly forgotten, as though they had reached their final resting place. Behind us things seemed congested but navigable. After some tight maneuvering and some suppressed swearing, I managed to back out of the driveway, putting us in the main exit lane of the parking lot.

Nobody was doing any exiting, though. It was Saturday afternoon at the Galleria, and our car was just a motionless dot in an infinite line of motionless dots. I didn’t like to make passengers pay for being stuck in traffic, so I turned the timer off. I asked her where she was going.

“To Esther Wolf.”

“Do you know where it is?”

“Oh, no, well, I believe I heard it was on Post Road.”

“Post Oak Road?”

“Yes, that’s probably it, Post Oak Road. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, it’s the street we’re coming to. Do you know the number?”

“Oh, good. Yes, let me see, I have it here. Yes, it’s 1702 South Post Oak Road. Can we get there?”

“Yeah, eventually.”

The minutes ticked by as we inched our way through the Galleria parking lot. When we finally reached the light I took a left onto Post Oak, but right away I had to stop. The street was just an extended version of the parking lot. We were a hundred yards from the intersection of Post Oak and Westheimer—which, in all four directions, was backed up as far as you could see, motionless carcasses of steel and glass glinting in the summer sun.

We got into a rhythm: creeping forward a bit, then parking for a while. Creep, then park; creep, then park. Ten minutes of this brought us to the stoplight at Westheimer. Once we got past the light we were able to move. I continued north a little ways, then took a left into the Saks Fifth Avenue Fashion Center.

“Keep your eyes open,” I said. “I think it must be here somewhere. Yeah, there it is.”

“Where? Oh, yes, I see it. Wonderful! That wasn’t far at all. How much do I owe you?”

I looked at the meter. “$1.15.”

I got out to open the door for her, meanwhile looking at the Esther Wolf sign: “Misses Junior Apparel—Sports Wear—Accessories—Lingerie—Intimate Apparel—Furs—Boutique.”

She got out, thanked me, and handed me two dollars. I paused, hoping that something on this ride would turn out right, but she just stood there smiling. I fished into my slacks, pulled out 85¢, and gave it to her.

“Oh no, please, some of this is for you,” she said, and handed me the dime. With mutual thanks, we smiled at each other and departed.

AN OLD COUPLE

2714 Morrison was a small rest home located on a shady, secluded street in the Heights. I went there one Saturday afternoon, and as I pulled up in front I saw an old couple standing on the porch. The woman motioned me back, wanting me to come up the driveway. I backed up, swung into the driveway, and pulled forward.

They started walking toward me, the man shuffling with a cane, his wife helping him. When they reached the car, he flung his cane onto the back seat. Then, like someone trying to move an awkward piece of furniture, he maneuvered his body into the cab, limb by limb. His wife went around and got in the other side.

“My husband can’t step down off the curb, that’s the reason I had you pull in the driveway.”

“Oh, okay.”

She gave me the address of a beauty shop on Heights Boulevard, and that’s where I dropped her off. “Just take him back to where you picked us up, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And remember to go in the driveway.”

As we pulled away from the beauty shop, he asked me to swing into the U-Tote-M next door. “I wonder if you’d mind going inside and getting something for me,” he said.

“No, that’s fine.”

He gave me some money and I bought him two beers. Then we drove back to Morrison. He got out slowly, creakingly, holding on to his cane and the small paper bag with the beers. The fare was about two and a half dollars, but he gave me four ones and told me to keep it. With small careful steps he walked back to the porch, where a black man—perhaps an attendant, perhaps a fellow resident—opened the screen door for him.

*     *     *     *     *

A few months later I went there again, this time early on a Saturday evening. As I drove up, I saw the same couple standing on the porch, so I pulled in the driveway. She helped him walk to the car, but she didn’t get in. She asked me to take him to the Church’s Chicken stand on North Main, then bring him back.

We drove over there, and after I parked he started to get out. I asked him if he’d like me to get the order. He said okay, and told me what they wanted, but between the thighs and breasts and drumsticks and biscuits, I couldn’t seem to get it straight, and finally he said he wouldn’t mind getting it. It was crowded in there, and he had to stand quite a while. When his order came, I carried it to the car and put it in the back seat.

“Doing good business tonight,” he said.

When we got back, his wife came out the front door and walked up to the car. Again he left about a dollar and a half for a tip. I was going to close the door for him, but he said, “That’s okay, I can get it.” Then he and his wife walked slowly toward the porch.

BOOKS

The first time I managed to catch a downtown radio call was one weekday, just after noon. I was sent to the back of the old Central Library, a brown brick building across from City Hall. There an old lady, tall and thin, waved at me. I pulled up and got out to help, because she had an aluminum cart with her. In the cart were two large grocery sacks, both filled to the top with books. I took the bags out and put them in the trunk, then folded the cart and put it in there too.

She said she was going to Haddon and Commonwealth. I didn’t know where that was, so she told me to go straight for a while. We took Allen Parkway out of downtown, heading west. I asked her if she had just checked out all those books.

“Yes, yes I did. Checked them all out for two weeks. See, I come here every two weeks, and I bring one load of books back to the library, and take out a new batch. And I always ride Yellow Cab both ways, ’cause the drivers are always so nice to me.”

“How many of those books do you think you’ll get to in two weeks?”

“Oh, all of them. I’ll read them all.”

“You’ll read all those books?”

“Yes, I’m a pretty fast reader. I usually read four or five books a day.”

“Wow. Any particular kind of book?”

“No, not really, all kinds. But fiction, especially, I guess. I like to read novels.”

“Have you always read this much?”

“Well, I always liked to read, but I never used to spend so much time at it. But my husband died about a year ago, and ever since then I’ve spent the whole day reading, from the time I get up until I go to bed. It keeps me from worrying about things.”

Soon afterward, following her directions, I pulled up to her home. It was in a quiet neighborhood with angled streets and old brick homes, just west of Montrose. I unfolded the cart and put the grocery sacks back in. She thanked me for helping her and said she could manage from there.

GET OUT OF HERE, WHITEY!

One day I picked up an old lady near Telephone Road and Lawndale. She lived in an older white neighborhood with green lawns and one-story brick homes, nervously wedged between Third Ward and the East End, between the black enclave around Cullen and the Hispanic enclave around Harrisburg. She was going to an office building on Main Street.

We drove west about a mile to Cullen, then south toward the University of Houston, a mostly white island in a mostly black sea. When we got to Elgin, we again headed west. “Is this Wheeler we’re on?” she asked.

“No, this is Elgin. We’re a few blocks above Wheeler.”

“Oh, well it looks kind of like Wheeler.”

“Yeah, it’s all Third Ward over here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t drive on Wheeler if I could help it. I really got a scare once when I was on it.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I was just driving along one afternoon, and a Negro lady on the sidewalk screamed at me, ‘Get out of here, Whitey! This is our street.’ And you know, I looked around, and there wasn’t a single white person in sight. I got out of there in a hurry. I really was frightened.”

“How long ago did this happen?”

“Oh, three or four years ago. I don’t drive any more.”

By this time we were almost out of Third Ward, and soon afterward we reached Main Street.

RUBY

One weekday afternoon I was driving through downtown, hoping as always for a lucrative hotel pickup. I was in the left lane of a one-way street, waiting for the light to change. On the sidewalk I saw someone waving, a little unsteadily. Not a good sign. She approached my car and tapped on the glass. I opened my window to a slight black woman, young but weathered, and mildly drunk.

“You free, mister?”

“Where are you going?”

“Are you the cab they sent for me?”

“Huh?”

“The other driver put me out here, and I told him to call me another cab.”

“Let me check.” The light was about to change, so I grabbed the mike and barked, “622, Code 6”—a request for information. No response. “622, Code 6,” I repeated.

“622, go ahead,” the dispatcher replied.

“Has a cab been sent downtown yet, to Louisiana and uh, Lamar, I think?”

“I don’t know, 622, you got to ask the other station about that.”

Shit. I was driving around downtown, but was still tuned to the radio station that handled southwest Houston. By now the light was green, the other lanes were moving, and the drivers behind me were getting antsy. “Geez, get in,” I told the woman.

She got in the back, and I turned left onto Lamar. Downtown was always flooded with cops and cabs, so I couldn’t risk leaving the meter off, but I did turn the timer off. “Where are you going?” I asked again.

“Ah’m goin’ to Fith Ward, man, you know where that is?”

I hadn’t been hacking long, and had only a vague notion that it was a sprawling black ward in the northeast part of the city. I wasn’t sure how to get there. “Well, no, not exactly. Do you?”

“No, mister, I don’t know.”

I had to keep moving, so I stayed on Lamar for a block, then turned left onto Smith, heading south. There was a parking lot with a black attendant on the right, so we pulled over. “Which way is it to Fith Ward?” my passenger shouted out her window. He said to go down to Polk and turn right, which would take us to West Dallas.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right, man,” she said to me.

I stayed on Smith a couple of blocks, but when I got to Polk I didn’t turn. “That’s not right,” I said.

“Huh?”

“He’s talking about Fourth Ward, not Fifth Ward. I’m not really sure where Fifth Ward is, but I know it’s not west of us.”

I turned on the next eastbound street and pulled over to the curb. “What street are you going to? What’s the address?”

“I don’t know, mister, it’s my mother’s house, and as soon as we get to Fith Ward I can show you where to go.”

“But I don’t know how to get there.”

“Mister, I don’t have much money. I can’t pay while we just sit here. How much do I owe you?” She leaned forward, preparing to get out.

“Take it easy, the timer’s not on. We could sit here all day and the meter wouldn’t go up.”

While we were talking, a black man wearing a three-piece suit got out of the car parked in front of us and was about to enter an office building. My passenger rolled the right window down and stuck her head out. “Say, brother!”

The man, somewhat taken aback, looked over at us, then reluctantly took a few steps in our direction.

“Say brother, which way is it to Fith Ward?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. I haven’t been in Houston long. I’m from Chicago.”

My passenger pulled her head back in the car and slumped in her seat. “Now I ain’t never goin’ get there.” She paused, then said, “That other taxi driver didn’t want nothin’ to do with me. He jes’ stopped at the corner and pushed me out. Won’t you help me?”

“Hell, I don’t know where you want to go.”

“I wanna go home.”

That shut both of us up. We sat there in silence for a while.

I decided to try something else. “Do you know any big streets, or freeways, near where you’re going?”

She lit up. “Jensen, mister, you get there on Jensen. You know where that is?”

“Jensen, huh? Yeah, I can get us to Jensen, then you’ll have to take it from there.”

We continued east and soon the meter clicked to 75¢.

“Mister, I thought that meter wouldn’t go up none.”

“I can keep it from going up when we’re stopped, but not when we’re moving. I can’t drive around with the meter off when I have a passenger.”

“Well, you oughta turn it off, mister, I can’t pay much. Just got a dollah and some. Mister?”

“Yeah, well, I’m getting you there as quick as I can.”

“I don’t think this is the way to go, though. That other man told us it was back that way.”

“You want to get to Jensen, right? Okay, well, this is the way to Jensen.”

I drove to the northeast corner of downtown, then went east on Navigation. Jensen began soon afterward, extending north from Navigation. While I concentrated on driving, she talked in a rambling way about an operation, and a child, and how she didn’t have much money, and how her mother wouldn’t pay for her cab, and how she wanted something to drink.

“You like to drink, mister?”

“I like beer.”

“I like Budweiser. What kind you like?”

“Oh, it doesn’t really matter. Any kind.”

“I’ll bet you like Texas Pride,” she chortled, and we both laughed.

After going a few blocks on Jensen she recognized where we were, and became excited. She asked me to pull into the parking lot of a liquor store on the right, so I did. She reached into her small purse and gathered her money.

“Why don’t you go in and git us a six-pack?”

“Do you have enough money?”

“Oh yeah, I got the money right here.”

“And what about the cab fare—do you have the money for that too?”

“No, mister, like I said, this is all I got. Tha’s what I told you.”

By now the fare was almost two dollars, and it looked like she had about a buck and a half.

“Well, I think we’d better just get you home. Then you can use that money for the fare.”

“Then I won’t have no money for wine. Don’t you want to go in and git something?”

“No, I don’t think so. Why don’t we just try to find your mother’s place.”

“Okay, mister, I’ll show you the way now. Don’t worry about that.”

We continued north on Jensen to the East Freeway, drove briefly on the feeder road, then wound our way through the narrow streets of a black neighborhood to a dirt and gravel road. Lost in the southwest corner of Fifth Ward, Press Street was so obscure it was omitted on some city maps. Only a few blocks long, it started near the feeder road on the north and dead-ended at some railroad tracks on the south. On one side of Press was a row of white wooden houses; on the other, an overgrown field, along with railroad tracks running parallel to the street.

She had me stop at one of the houses and pointed at the porch. Several people were sitting there, including her mother—a large middle-aged woman, seemingly uninterested in the arrival of a cab.

The fare was $2.45, and again she started digging her money out. “I don’t have that much, you know, mister.”

I knew that at the end of my shift I’d have to give the cab company the full $2.45, so any shortfall would come out of my pocket. “Couldn’t you get some from one of them?”

“Oh no, my mother wouldn’t give me no money for this.”

“Okay, well, pay me what you can.”

A few moments later she said, “Hey mister, look at this.” She pulled her sweatshirt up over her stomach, revealing a long scar. She seemed proud of it. “See, that’s what I was talking about.”

She finally managed to give me $1.65, and told me to be sure and come by the next day to get the rest. She wanted my name and cab number, so the next time she needed a cab she could ask for me. I wrote them on a piece of paper and handed it to her.

“You know, that first cab driver was a black man, but he wouldn’t put up with me, wouldn’t help me get home. And you’re white, but you’re my brother.”

She put her hand over the seat and asked me what my name was. We shook hands, and I told her it was Glenn.

“I’m Ruby,” she said.

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