The Stranger Who Changed My Life: The Taxi Driver and the Doctor

When a taxi driver asked one simple question, he transformed his family's future.

By Irving Stern from New York Newsday | for Reader's Digest magazine

Cab driverFor 28 years, three months, and 12 days, I drove a New York City taxi. Now, if you were to ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday, I probably couldn’t tell you. But the memory of one fare is so vivid, I’ll remember it all my days in this world.

It was a sunny Monday morning in the spring of 1966. I was cruising down York Avenue looking for a customer, but with the beautiful weather, it was kind of slow. I had stopped at a light just opposite New York Hospital when I spied a well-dressed man dashing down the hospital steps. He was hailing me.

Just then, the light turned green, the driver behind me honked impatiently, and I heard a cop’s whistle. But I wasn’t about to lose this ride. Finally, the man reached the cab and jumped in. “LaGuardia Airport, please,” he said. “And thanks for waiting.”

Good news, I thought. On Monday morning, LaGuardia is hopping, and with a little luck, I could get back-to-back fares. That would make my day.

As always, I wondered about my passenger. Was this guy a talker, a mummy, a newspaper reader? After a few moments, he started a conversation. It began ordinarily enough: “How do you like driving a cab?”

It was a stock question, and I gave him my stock answer. “It’s OK,” I said. “I make a living and meet interesting people sometimes. But if I could get a job making $100 a week more, I’d take it—just like you would.”

His reply intrigued me. “I would not change jobs if it meant I had to take a cut of a hundred a week.”

I’d never heard anyone say such a thing. “What do you do?”

“I’m in the neurology department at New York Hospital.”

I’ve always been curious about people, and I’ve tried to learn what I could from them. Many times during long rides, I’d developed a rapport with my passengers—and quite often I’d received very good advice from accountants, lawyers, and plumbers. Maybe it was that this fellow clearly loved his work; maybe it was just the pleasant mood of a spring morning. But I decided to ask for his help. We were not far from the airport now, so I plunged ahead.

“Could I ask a big favor of you?” He didn’t answer. “I have a son, 15, a good kid. He’s doing well in school. We’d like him to go to camp this summer, but he wants a job. But a 15-year-old can’t get hired unless his old man knows someone who owns a business, and I don’t.” I paused. “Is there any possibility that you might get him some kind of a summer job—even if he doesn’t get paid?”

He still wasn’t talking, and I was starting to feel foolish for bringing up the subject. Finally, at the ramp to the terminal, he said, “Well, the medical students have a summer research project. Maybe he could fit in. Have him send me his school record.”

He fished around in his pocket for a card but couldn’t find one. “Do you have any paper?” he asked.

I tore off a piece of my brown lunch bag, and he scribbled something and paid me. It was the last time I ever saw him.

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