driving a cab “with Meher Baba”
(on the dashboard) in the late ‘70s
by Max Reif
from the book WELCOME TO MY WORLD
compiled by Mr. Gokaran Shrivastava
Though I had come to Meher Baba amid great joy in 1971, I was in a depressed rut in early ’77. All I could feel of Baba was a terrible longing borne of separateness. Going daily to the job I had, filing papers at the large apartment complex my father managed, took every bit of my will power.
Through friends, I learned that Adi K. Irani, Meher Baba’s Secretary, was about to visit Chicago, only 300 miles from St. Louis, where I was living. I persuaded my dad to drive up with me.
During a private interview, I told Adi about my depression. He listened. Then he closed his eyes, as though in meditation, for about a minute. Upon opening them again, he looked at me in a very kind way.
“Do not worry,” Adi said. “Everything will be all right. You will get a better job.”
I had never enjoyed filing papers in a back room 8 hours a day. Till I felt better, though, that was about all I could see myself doing. The thought never occurred to me that changing jobs would cure the depression. A month after my visit with Adi, though, the company that owned the apartment complex suddenly sold it, and I was laid off.
A few days later, at the local natural foods restaurant, I ran into my friend Tom. Tom was a member of the Holy Order of MANS, a mystical Christian community. Baba had drawn me to this community — I’d even had a vision of Him during one of their meetings. It was my surrogate Baba group until Michael and Cynthia Shepard started Baba meetings in St. Louis a year or so later. Tom seemed excited and happy to see me. He was bubbling with something he wanted to share.
“Hey, Max!” he said “I’ve got an idea! Let’s go down and get a taxi to drive! We can share it. One of us can drive days and the other, nights.”
I had long felt driving a taxicab in a big city would be too dangerous. Now, however, as I heard the suggestion come from an enthused friend, Baba seemed to wipe all those feelings away.
Tom and I went straight to the Laclede Cab Company, which at that time was the elite taxi outfit in St. Louis. There, we both proceeded to flunk the very intimidating Knowledge Of The City test. So we went across town — and down a couple prestige notches — to Checker Cabs.
All cab companies seem to have seedy-looking office spaces in low-rent districts. Checker’s building and lot didn’t look much different from Laclede’s, but I noticed their old, green-and-yellow cabs were not as shiny or as well-maintained as Laclede’s newly-painted red and black ones. There was one thing in Checkers’ favor, though: they were willing to hire us!
I went out a day or two later to train for the job with a light-skinned African-American driver named Pete. Pete had me drive to one of the many Checker waiting stands that were scattered throughout the metropolitan area. This one was on a busy street on the near North Side, the African-American side of St. Louis’ dramatic racial divide. It overlooked a neighborhood of old, palatial mansions in a park-like setting.
Light snow lay on the ground that day. The big homes looked lovely. I hadn’t even been aware of the existence of this neighborhood. I had grown up in a homogeneous, primarily Jewish suburb. My stint as a taxi driver proved to be a passage to a universe beyond that former shelter of my ego.
The dispatcher on the radio, his voice competing with the crackle of static, was calling off stand numbers. If you were waiting on the stand he called first, you responded immediately with your cab number: “Seventy-one on stand six.” When you did, that fare was yours. The dispatcher gave you the address, and you drove to pick up your passenger.
If no one was on the stand closest to the pick-up address, the dispatcher would call a second, nearby stand number, then a third. After that, he would open the job to bids, and the closest bidder would get it. Such etiquette helped civilize the taxi business. Now and then, of course, some driver would be suspected of lying about his location, but mostly, the system worked well.
We waited about half an hour. In that time, Pete bid on a couple of jobs
we weren’t close to and didn’t get. Watching him, I was getting an idea of the radio procedure. Suddenly, Pete gave me the microphone, saying in a firm tone, “When I tell you to, just push the button, say ‘Number 71 on stand 19', and let go of the button!”
A minute later, the dispatcher called, “Stand 19.”
Pete nodded and said, “Go ahead.”
I felt like I was addressing the entire world with a momentous pronouncement. After repeating exactly the words I’d been told, I let go the button. I did it clumsily, like most things we try for the first time after merely observing. “Pick up at 5821 Cabanne. Going to the Jefferson Hotel,” the dispatcher
“Say ‘ten four’”, Pete told me.
“Ten four,” I said. Fully embarked now on this new adventure, I pulled away.
The next evening I went out alone. I picked up the taxi at the Checker office from Tom, who had driven the day shift. Almost immediately, after cruising downtown to begin my shift, I was told to pick up a fare at the Gateway Hotel, a “grade B” truckers’ hotel a few blocks from my stand.
It was about 8 pm and dark. Pulling in front of the hotel, I saw three
shadowy figures file out of the poorly-lit lobby. They opened both of the cab’s curbside doors. Two of the men got in the back, the third in front. I saw, as they got in, that they were all Asian men, probably from China.
“Where would you like to go?” I asked, smiling.
The man next to me smiled back and spoke a sentence in Chinese that I
found totally incomprehensible. I turned my head and tried asking the two men in back, who also smiled and answered in Chinese.
I glanced at the DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY card I’d put on the dashboard.
Baba looked delighted with the situation! There followed more bilingual conversation, looks, shrugs…and then the four of us sitting in total, stumped silence.
I noticed that the man next to me was holding a matchbook in his hand. It had on its cover an ad for a Mongolian restaurant. I saw that the restaurant’s address was across the Mississippi River, in Illinois. I pointed to the matchbook.
“Is that where you want to go?”
“Ah!” the man said. His face relaxed into a sun-lit smile. The language barrier had been broken. My cab-driving career had begun — with a big laugh.
The day-to-day memories of my year in a Checker taxi have begun to fade with time. Delicious flavors of a year of discovery meld together. Vivid memories of some landmark experiences linger, though. The year brought me into loving connection with people from every side of life.
I felt honored to drive elderly ladies carrying shopping bags safely to and back from the supermarket. An old man collapsed one day getting out of my cab, and I half-supported, half-dragged up to his wife in their high-rise apartment. Another day, I joyfully obliged when a lovely woman asked if she might “anoint” my forehead with Holy Oil.
In winter, the white smoke from industrial chimneys went up all over the city as I drove the frosty highways. I came to think of the smoke as representing the prayers of all the city residents — the prayers of their lives — going up to God.
I drove priests and prostitutes to work. Inevitably, there were several experiences of disillusionment. Once, a teenage passenger remarked that I was taking him to a reunion with his childhood counselor at the State Orphan Home. I felt involved in the young man’s life-passage. When he told me he had to go and get the $18 fare inside the house, I trusted him too much to be suspicious. After waiting awhile, I realized he’d slipped away — taking me “for a ride.” I felt intimately violated.
During a period when I was acquainting myself with Meher Baba’s words as Jesus in the New Testament, I brought my Bible along with me to read while waiting at stands. Three Pentecostal ministers got into the cab one night at the airport. In town for a national convention, they needed a ride downtown to their hotel. I had recently been thinking about the phenomenon of “talking in tongues”, and got to ask these gentlemen some questions about it. They were impressed — and I was astounded — when I opened my Bible, cold, to the page on which Jesus speaks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one of which is talking in tongues.
I used to talk about Baba or God to people frequently. I felt so enamored with Meher Baba that very few other things existed for me. Baba was exciting! What else was there to talk about besides the divinity of the universe? I may experience a bit of embarrassment at my excessive enthusiasm, if I have to re-live this period again during my between-lives interval.
One time I drove a cab full of people from the airport to hotels downtown during a severe blizzard. It was one of those nights when people would beg me to let them in the taxi so that they didn’t have to sleep at the airport.
The people packed in that night were all strangers to one another. My heater wasn’t working, and I drove, carefree, talking about God, the whole twelve miles downtown along Interstate 70. Though I don’t know whether I’ve brought people closer to God very often in my life, I’m pretty sure I had some of them praying that night!
An architecture student got in the cab one night. “I just happened to be reading an article about spiritual architecture, by a Sufi mystic,” I began.
And so it went. Young, naïve, I talked to the Baba-lover in every fare. I may have been a fool, but in retrospect, I think I could have done far worse.
On one occasion, however, my efforts to share Baba’s Compassion nearly had a serious consequence. This was my only close call as a cab driver. Against the policy of the Checker company, I picked up a flagger one night, someone standing on the street in a heavy rain, trying to wave me down. Business was slow that night and I didn’t see how it could hurt.
The young man asked me to drive him to the Malcolm Bliss psychiatric hospital downtown, where he needed to pick up medication. Instead of taking him there immediately, I began sharing how compassionate Baba had been in my life. Since there was currently no Baba group in St. Louis, I drove to where my friends in the Holy Order of MANS were meeting. But after talking with me awhile, the young man turned very serious.
“I was a student in the ministry, and I left it because I couldn’t find God there. You keep talking of God. If you know how to bring God here for me, bring Him now!”
He was getting agitated. I tried to explain that it wasn’t quite that simple, but he told me to close all the windows and lock the taxi. I felt I was being taken prisoner in my own cab. When my passenger reached into his pocket, where I imagined he might had had a knife, I screamed “Meher Baba!” and ran from the car as fast as I could.
The next morning the police found the taxicab — abandoned in the vicinity of the Malcolm Bliss Hospital.
It was a year of learning the byways of the gross world…and seeing them as divine. I could especially feel Baba’s Protection of the world, His Grace, during rush hours downtown. Though it’s hard to communicate how, I feel Baba showed me in actual experience that in all the unmitigated chaos, it is Divine Grace and not the complicated system of stoplights, police, highway lanes, and such forms of human organization, that gives a city enough Order to continue its business for another day. Man’s efforts certainly play their part, but clearly, by themselves, are not enough.
Baba showed me so much more about those mysterious parts of the Divine Scheme, cities. Daily I witnessed them as museums, monuments, and shrines of and to the divine through the human mind and hand. Besides their beauty, which we all know can be sublime, cities are so complex that no person, be he/she architect or mayor, truly controls them. The city is a grand sculpture on which there are so many angles of vision, and in whose architecture so many historical periods are juxtaposed, that its expression inevitably transcends any conscious human intention. As I drove downtown in my cab, the buildings often appeared as many different-shaped Birthday Cakes—for every day is Birth Day, as Creation is re-born. Every tree lining city streets seemed an immigrant from God’s Great Forest, whose Spirit still breathes in them. In the fountains in front of public buildings, Eternity’s waters bubbled forth into Time and rippled in tiny ponds like mini-Oceans.
Gargoyles, nudes, and arabesques adorn the art-deco buildings from the ‘20s and ‘30s in downtown St. Louis. A pyramid and sphinx top the strange, neo-classical/Egyptian skyscraper, the Civil Courts building. Everything is ordinary, yet strange — common, yet divine. And me, the eternal driver, like a ferryman in a myth, taking God’s children from place to place and even trying to do my little part in taking them Home. As I drove my taxi, Baba Helped me to find and connect with Him in His Humanity, more than ever before in this lifetime.
My taxi career ended one day as abruptly as it had begun.. I had been starting to realize that my efforts to save enough money for my first pilgrimage to Meher Baba’s Samadhi by driving my cab would never get me there at all. One day, after turning my taxi in to the garage for 2 days off, I went to a park and sat under a tree. Suddenly, a thought just slid into my head: “If you go to work on a Mississippi River towboat, you’ll have the money in a month.”
Was it the grace of some Saint, somewhere on the other side of the world? I’ll never know. I drove my car straight downtown to the National Maritime Union hall, paid my union fee, and filled out the necessary papers. After two days of sitting in the union hall, reading and looking out the window at the very Mississippi I hoped to soon be working on, I received orders to board a boat in nearby Alton, Illinois.
The job paid $1750 a month — quite a bit of money in 1978! A month and a half later, I walked eagerly up Meherabad Hill, crossed the threshold of the Samadhi, and fell down at my Master’s Feet.
Avatar MEHER BABA, Ki Jai!
(Note: text above slightly edited from the version in the book.)