by Jonathan Ferrini
It was a hot summer, and I was “sweating” my physics final exam. I was required to take physics for a second time during summer school after failing the course during the Spring Quarter of my sophomore year in college. I was also “sweating” the grueling, twelve-hour days I was working as a ride-share driver.
My family lived in a large, luxurious home in an affluent part of town. My parents were both successful professionals. Although I wanted to become a software engineer and design new App’s, I spent most of my time playing video games, drinking with my friends, and slacking. I attended a rigorous STEM university, and the students were very competitive. The coursework was tough and required intense study. Nobody reached out to one another to share notes or help explain difficult subject matter. Our access to the professors was limited, and we waited in line to approach overworked graduate students, serving as teaching assistants, who had limited time and patience for our questions.
Distraught because I flunked physics and wasn’t devoting the necessary time to my studies, my parents meted out “tough love” to me; they kicked me out of the house for the summer with no money, and told me “to make it on my own.” They explained the experience would be “good for me” and motivate me to take my “studies seriously.”
I found a friend's couch to sleep on for the summer. I needed spending money, fast, and signed up for a ride-share job using my hybrid car which was ideal because it had great gas mileage. Being a ride-share driver had its advantages because I could “cash out” my earnings daily, which were immediately deposited into my checking account without tax withholding. I drove twelve hour days, earning about $200, less gas money. After twelve hours of driving in heavy traffic, I returned home, hungry and exhausted. After a few hours of physics study, I’d fall asleep after eating a frozen dinner.
The job took me all over town, and into neighborhoods, I didn’t know--mostly lower income. I’d often race through these “bad” neighborhoods, running red lights, to avoid potential carjackers, and fearful of the menacing appearing homeless who roamed the neighborhoods. It was tiring work, but I met interesting people, beautiful girls, and I felt a satisfaction from a hard day’s work.
My ride-share App alerted me to a pick up at a downtown, budget motel, which always resulted in a scary ride. The passengers were usually frantic after being evicted, intoxicated, or mentally ill. I accepted the rides because I needed the money, and, all rides have the potential of becoming long and lucrative.
I arrived at the motel where an elderly, grey haired, Black man, was tending to an elderly, frail, silver haired, Caucasian woman in a wheel chair. As I approached, he was eager to see me, waived, and approached the vehicle. He told me they were only going a “few blocks,” and he apologized for the “short ride.” It was a hot day, and I gave them my last bottle of water because they were perspiring, and I feared they were suffering from heat stroke. They were thirsty and grateful for the water. I noticed the elderly woman’s hands were grotesquely twisted, and she had difficulty holding the water bottle with both hands. The Black man gently held the bottle to her mouth, allowing her to sip the water.
I opened up the trunk. The man carefully lifted the elderly woman from the wheel chair, and buckled her into the rear seat with tenderness and care, suggesting a relationship similar to a mother and son. He folded the wheel chair and placed it within my trunk. This man was large and imposing but exhibited chivalry, kindness, and love for the crippled old woman.
He thanked me for “picking him up,” which suggested he may have been the victim of ride-share discrimination by frightened or insensitive drivers. He remarked, “I’m sweating worse than an Arkansas mule.” I had never heard that expression before, asking, “Where did that saying come from?”
“My pop was a sharecropper in Mississippi and used it and other sayings often.”
He was perspiring and distraught about his cell phone battery dying. I plugged his cell phone into my recharge cord, cranked up the air-conditioning, which calmed him down, and he thanked me. We immediately liked each other.
He introduced himself as “Rollo,” short for “Rollin’ On.” He described himself as a “rolling stone,” never spending too much time in one place. He introduced the old woman as “Beatrice.” I introduced myself as Zack.
Rollo was an imposing figure but a “gentle giant.” He was about 6’2,” 220#, and his body looked beaten down from a long life of grueling work. His face also showed the many years of a difficult life. He was maybe seventy. The elderly woman looked to be pushing eighty.
“What’s your story, Rollo?”
“I grew up in rural Mississippi, and I was a troublemaker raised by a single mom. We got by on food stamps and a vegetable garden. Despite our frugality, the food stamps would run out by the third week of the month. Mama was a great cook and could make a nutritious meal from very little foodstuffs. After the food stamps for the month ran out, I wanted to surprise her with a good cut of meat. I got caught stealing a chuck steak from the market, and the judge gave me a choice of spending a year in county jail or joining the Army. I chose the Army, which provided me discipline, a work ethic, self-respect, and “straightened” me out. I was happy to send most of my Army pay home to mama. I did one tour in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1972. I was spat on when arriving home at the airport up north by war protestors, and I caught the first bus home, back to my poverty-stricken town in Mississippi. Life was slow, no work, so I took to the bottle, and I fell in with the wrong crowd. Mama was having difficulty walking and complaining of numbness in her feet. White doctors wouldn’t treat Black folk, so I took mama to the only Black doctor in town. He diagnosed mama with Type 2 diabetes. He couldn’t treat her and urged me to take her for treatment to the nearest town with a university medical school hospital. Despite her Medicare benefits, the treatment was too costly for mama to pay. I took to stealing to pay mama’s medical bills. I stole anything I could pawn or fence for immediate cash. When she asked me where the money was coming from, I said I was sharecropping by day and working as a night watchman.
“I was eventually arrested, convicted, and I spent two years on a chain gang. Mama’s condition continued to worsen while I was on the chain gang, but she managed to survive until I was released.
“After serving my sentence, and with the help of a veteran’s organization, I found work as a truck driver trainee, offering full training, decent pay which enabled me to pay all of mama’s bills, and the job had good benefits, including medical insurance for mama. I moved to Phoenix where the trucking company was headquartered. Man, I loved driving. I drove the entire country and Canada, digging the freedom and independence of working for myself. North America is one of the most beautiful places on earth, Zack. I’d call mama every week from a different state or province, and mail her a souvenir. She was proud of me, which gave me the self-respect I sorely needed. Over the years, I developed lower back pain from hours of driving, and was I prescribed opiate-based medicines, which hooked me. I drank booze along with the opiates. The booze and opiates created a wonderful high and removed the back pain, but I became addicted.
“When I returned the rig to Phoenix after a thirty-day run, I failed my drug test, got fired on the spot, lost my commercial driving license, and I ended up on the streets as a homeless man in hot as hell Phoenix. I survived on unemployment benefits for six months, and then I turned to welfare. I took on odd jobs, when and if I could find them. I didn’t have the heart to tell mama I was fired, and I was too ashamed to call mama or return home to Mississippi. I became a drug addict. Within a year, the trucking company forwarded me a faded, official letter from the Mississippi Coroner’s office informing me that mama died and was cremated because no next of kin could be located. I suffered, Zack. The guilt of abandoning mama was so intense; it could only be quelled with heroin, booze, and meth.”
Beatrice couldn’t talk, except to mumble. Rollo reached over to wipe the spittle dripping from the side of her mouth. She was petite, and held tightly on to the arms of her car seat as if she was holding on to life. Rollo explained, “Beatrice was evicted from a hospice where she was expected to die from liver cancer. Her Social Security disability benefits weren’t enough to cover the expenses, even in a poor quality hospice. Beatrice has no family. She is going to die on the streets, alone, without me. Until her time comes, I’m determined to make her life as comfortable as I can. We’re like family, Zack.”
“Where did Beatrice come from?”
“I met her at the Salvation Army, sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria, having difficulty feeding herself with her shaking, twisted hands. I sat next to her and fed her. We’ve been together ever since.”
“How did she end up at the Salvation Army, Rollo?”
“Back in the eighties, politicians closed all the mental institutions and released helpless psychiatric patients, who had spent their entire lives under the care and supervision of mental health professionals, into the streets. Beatrice had been placed in a mental hospital for developmentally disabled children as a baby. She never learned to speak nor walk, but she could hear and understand most of what was said. She has Cerebral Palsy, which crippled her hands. She never knew life outside of the state hospital. When they closed the hospital, she met briefly with an overworked social worker who couldn’t understand her, handing her a list of privately owned, overcrowded, board and care facilities, and a pharmacy where she could get her medications filled. It was like casting a newborn to the wolves. Most of her life has included short term stays in emergency rooms, prison cells, or sleeping on the sidewalk.
“I’ve never let go of the guilt associated with not being by mama’s side when she died. Beatrice reminded me of my mother. I was drawn to looking after her because it dampened the guilt raging within me. You like this ride-share driving gig, Zack?”
“No, I hate it.”
“Why the hell do it then?”
“Because my parents kicked me out of the house for the summer for failing physics and I need money.”
“They kicked you out of the house for flunking a course?”
“You have to understand, my parents are over achievers. Dad’s a neurologist and a clinical professor of neurology at the medical school, and mom manages a Wall Street investment fund. They think by kicking me out of the house, and forcing me to “make it on my own for the summer,” they’d “toughen me up,” and I’d take my college coursework more seriously.”
“Well son, I can tell you stories about tough love.”
Rollo pulled his shirt up over his head revealing scars on his back. “The scars on my back are from whippings my drunken father gave me trying to straighten me out. I begged mama not to intervene because he would turn the whip on her. He eventually split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves, never returning. “I’ll take “tough love,” rather than no love, anytime, son. Your parents are showing’ you how hard life can be. Me and Beatrice are perfect examples. It was fate that led you to pick us up. Maybe we’ll teach you about life?”
Beatrice tapped Rollo on the shoulder with her disfigured hand, as if in agreement.
“I don’t even know what physics looks like, but I flunked life, Zack. I wish I could get those years back because I’d accept all the “tough love” my parents could give me, if it would provide me with a future like the one you’ll enjoy. You just treat this summer job as a brief stay in hell, drive the long hours, and remember the faces of the many homeless you’ll see. Take each day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and hope for the best. If the wisdom you learn passes through one ear and out the other, or remains embedded in your memory, it is up to you. When you go back to school, attack your subjects like your life depends upon your passing each course. Any time you find yourself backsliding, remember me and Beatrice. We won’t forget you.”
I drove them a few blocks to skid row where he asked me to drop them. Rollo unloaded the wheel chair from the trunk, and carefully helped Beatrice into the chair. I felt guilty leaving them on a busy, hot street corner, amidst despair. Rollo thanked me for the ride, shook my hand, offering me the following advice, “Zack, you make your own luck in life. You have all the tools necessary for success. Don’t squander them. Seize every opportunity. Failure is your friend because it will eventually lead you to success. Nothing can stop you, brother.”
Beatrice nodded her head in agreement. She pointed to a faded, green, plastic, shamrock amulet, attached to a tattered string around her neck she must have worn for decades. Beatrice motioned Rollo to remove it from her neck and give it to me. The shamrock had the date of her birth inscribed upon it and must have been a present from jubilant new parents to their baby girl. The faded green paint, and lack of a chain, was like a metaphor for parents who gave up when they discovered their new born was disabled for life. I pondered the pain or relief they must have felt leaving their baby at a state hospital, never to see her again.
I was saddened watching Rollo carefully wheel Beatrice down the sidewalk to a rescue mission. I hung the faded shamrock from my rear view mirror as a reminder of my new friends.
As the remaining weeks of summer ground along, I treated my ride-share job like a sociology class. I purposely sought out rides in the downtrodden parts of town, and was pleased to pick up riders who I would have previously shunned for their appearance, mental condition, or economic standing. I was eager to learn who they were, what they thought, and how they came to be? I always learned something new about life and humanity from these sages of the streets.
It wasn’t until I began receiving voice mail and text messages from my parents, demanding to meet with them and “discuss the lessons I learned from my summer job” that I realized the summer had ended, and the fall term was soon to commence. I dreaded the specter of having to explain to my parents “what I had learned” from my summer of driving. They wouldn’t understand, and it wouldn’t be what they wanted to hear.
I was the first student to complete the physics final, racing through it as if it was an elementary school math test. I received an “A.”
The summer of ride-share driving changed me. I didn’t want to return to the comfort of my home and plush bedroom, full of distractions, and light years from the reality of the streets I witnessed. I was independent now. I sought out minimalist accommodations within walking distance to campus hoping it would keep me grounded in reality, and permit me to focus on my studies. I was fortunate to find a small apartment above a liquor store a few blocks from campus. The proprietor was the owner of the liquor store, giving me a bargain rent because I was a “responsible college student" and would watch over the liquor store during closing hours. Although the apartment was a single room, dingy flat, with an old refrigerator, Murphy bed, and small stove, it was mine. I was beholden to nobody’s rules but my own.
I made contact with my parents by text message, with a lyric from a tune from my playlist. I chose Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited,” hoping the lyrics would convey to them what I had learned over my summer of “tough love,”
“When ya ain't got nothin,' you got nothin' to lose”
At night, I lay in the Murphy bed, and thought of Rollo and Beatrice, alone in the world, roaming from soup kitchen to homeless shelters. Rollo and Beatrice profoundly changed my life from that of a slacker to a motivated student because I saw the pain and/or affluence life can mete out. When the college term began, I attacked my studies with a new resolve. I couldn’t relate to my former classmates. I was a changed person. I fondly recalled the loving assistance Rollo extended to Beatrice and, whenever I encountered a student struggling with the coursework, I volunteered to help him.
I approached the university and volunteered to become a tutor in those courses I now was mastering. My offer was gladly accepted by the university, and, as students began attending my tutoring sessions, additional gifted students volunteered as tutors. I’m happy to say, I changed the reputation of my college major from a competitive, “lone wolf” major, to a collegial, “help thy neighbor” major. My efforts were not lost on the Dean of Students, who promised to write me a letter of recommendation upon my graduation and encouraged me to attend graduate school at our university.
My father and mother were very proud of my academic success. My father invited me to the Faculty Club to show off his over-achieving son. After lunch, we headed back to his laboratory where some medical students were dissecting, and studying the central nervous system of a cadaver. To my dismay, it was Beatrice lying on the stainless steel autopsy table. The autopsy technician approached saying,
“She was brought into the ER yesterday by a large Black man. She was diagnosed as having terminal liver failure. She died in the ER. The man wasn’t a relative but produced a legal document showing he was conservator for the woman, and he produced a notarized Last Will and Testament, including a
“Statement of Donation” of the woman’s body to our medical school.”
A medical student spoke up while dissecting Beatrice, “We lucked out with this cadaver because it gives us the opportunity to study her liver disease, palsy, and developmental disability. We might find a link!” I was tempted to reply, “Her name is Beatrice and treat her with dignity!”
I approached the autopsy table and stroked Beatrice’s fine silver hair. She was a small, frail woman, and terribly thin from years of starvation. I stared at her mouth closely, and could make out a glimmer of a smile. I was surprised to find that both of her hands were free from the contortions of cerebral palsy. Her fingers were straight, long, thin, elegant, and resembled those of a pianist. I asked the autopsy tech,
“I’ve seen this homeless woman around town and know that her hands were severely contorted by cerebral palsy. Why are they straight?”
My father overheard my question and answered, “I’ve seen this before, Zack. For some misfortunate people, the gift of life carries with it a price in the form of unfair burdens they must carry throughout their lives. For this woman, it was cerebral palsy of her hands and developmental disabilities. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen death provide a “repayment” of sorts for their burdens, and for this poor woman, it was the reward of beautiful hands.”
I suspected Beatrice was happy to leave this world, and I’m certain she was delighted to donate her body for the furtherance of medical science. I excused myself, entered the men’s room, closed the stall door, and wept. I was happy Beatrice found peace and beautiful hands in death, but wondered about Rollo’s fate, recalling the lyrics to the Dylan song,
“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”
I knew he missed Beatrice and his mama. I also know he would take delight to see the gift of beautiful hands death provided Beatrice. I washed and dried my face while looking in the mirror, and recited Rollo’s advice, “I’ll take “tough love,” rather than no love, anytime.”
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.