Notes from the Road: An Invisible War Zone

The rectangular patch of light from her cell phone waved in a frantic, silent metronome arc in the night. To my eyes, driving toward the young Black woman standing alone at the bottom of her driveway in the generic New Britain suburb, the phone’s light was like a searing rainbow that had bled away all color except a bluish white. The torrential rains had paused and I rolled down the window to verify that she was who I was looking for. She didn’t answer, but hauled herself into the back seat, and with her came a tornado of perfume and pleas and pathos.

Can I please go as fast as I can? It’s an emergency. She’d already been waiting and waiting…

The poors try to pull this shit all the time.

They can’t afford to pay me to take them to the store and back — can I please shuttle them home on my dime? And I do if I’m feeling compassionate, and I see that, sure, they may be walking out with a gallon of milk, but they’ve also got a carton of smokes tucked under the other arm, which I suspect was the main object of the late night quick-mart run. Or can I make an unscheduled (read: unpaid) side-trip to pick up a friend, and they run up into the apartment and leave me waiting out front for 10 minutes, at which point the two, or three, or four of them climb into my car so dank, a mile into the trip and you’d think they’d hotboxed my Fit.

It’s the inconsideration, primarily, that accounts for the rocky crust I’m re-growing that I made such a conscious effort to shed many, many years ago. Chances were good that this chick was trying to catch her cheating man in the act, and was going to one-star me and report my driving to Uber because her night was sliding sideways. Gig drivers are pretty handy, and vulnerable, whipping boys.

On the other hand, she paid for “Priority” service, so maybe she really had somewhere to get to, and get to fast. Hard to know with people. I’ve been tipped exactly $0 after driving someone 200 miles and serving them iced spring water and their favorite music the whole way (contemporary fucking Gospel) and I’ve been paid $20 (just this past Thursday, actually) to drive somebody six blocks. Of course, the six Springfield blocks in question were probably worth it at 1:30 a.m.

I pointed the car towards I-84 East and threaded my way through the dark, dowdy neighborhoods. She’s on the phone from the moment her door shut, so I knew I’d get to hear all about whatever juicy, meaningless bullshit instigated this trip. I was making better time than the app would have liked, but still, a mile into the trip, she interrupted her conversation to ask, in a voice that was measured and level, but with rare emotional intensity, “Sir? Sir, please? Please go faster?”

Something about the appeal tripped every tumbler in my consciousness, and I laid it down. In a moment, I heard her ask her phone, “What do you mean, “unresponsive? I don’t…what are…” and she trailed off to listen to a reply. When it came, the words “Oh, GOD…” plopped out of her soul like wet concrete off the boom pump. The little car surged forward. I told myself I would swear to the judge that every single light between New Britsky and Hartford looked damn green to me. 

After another quarter mile, she hitched into her phone, “Daddy’s trying to get through…I’ll see you in…as soon as I can…okay. Daddy? Oh, daddy, I don’t know. I don’t know. Get to that apartment complex on Farmington Ave — Clemens something.”

“Clemens Place,” I interrupted.

“Clemens Place. I don’t know, Daddy, look for the ambulances.”

The young woman choked out a conversation with her father for a few more minutes as I blasted up that highway onramp like it was a launch tube. I ripped down a rapidly diminishing merge lane past an ungenerous semi on my left while learning that my passenger’s little sister had just overdosed on something or other. I left the dollar mark and that truck way behind as my little car shuddered in protest.

The torrents of rain had stopped, but the asphalt was still slick, and puddles ambushed us repeatedly in the fast lane. I planned my hydroplaning as best I could, pointing the nose of the car where I hoped to come out of the slide, and praying as time and concentration permitted. I thanked God that I’d lived in Hartford for a few years, because, although many of the exits had been re-engineered over thirty-plus years, the topography of I-84 into town remained about the same — treacherous.

Sisson Ave., a left exit, came up on me quicker than I expected, and I sailed down the ramp grateful for the length of that long curve, which gave me the space to find my way back to 35 mph. Every light on the way turned green on my approach, and traffic parted like it had been choreographed. I gunned it and devoured the few blocks leading to Farmington Avenue, offering a quick sign of the cross as I passed the parking lot where the Sisson Tavern had stood for so many decades.

 I didn’t need to look for them, but my passenger was right about the ambulances. I turned into a drive I knew well and crept passed two cruisers, then double-parked a fire truck just 50 yards in front of my old apartment building. The woman was begging me to please just hold anything she might have left in the car. She flung open the door and jumped out before I’d even come to a complete stop.

I looked up ahead and saw an ambulance rolling slowly away from the curb, switching its lights off before it went even 100 feet. That was all I needed to see, but my passenger ran after the vehicle, wailing powerfully enough to tear down the sky. The ambulance stopped, and somebody helped her into the back, and then off it obituated into the gathering fog. I rolled down the window and called to the two uniforms standing around, probably drawing straws to see who was going to write this one up.

“That gal was the… the victim’s sister. Hey, did she, did she make it?” The older of the cops shot me a long look that seemed both pained and hollow at the same time. He didn’t say a thing, but shook his head so slowly in the negative, not breaking eye contact with me, that it felt like he was trying to syphon a dose of humanity out of me just to get through the rest of the night. He was welcome to a dram — it was still pretty early by Hartford standards. I switched off the app and drove over to St. Francis. I found a space on the street not too far from the Emergency entrance and shut off the engine. 

And then I wept until I didn’t have anything left.

Switching the app back on half an hour later, I told myself that this shit would bounce off of me if I could be prepared for it. When you knew you were in a war zone, you could expect the mortar shells and sniper fire. You could harden the fuck up and just focus on being operational. That’s the theatre you were in and you’d know how to keep facts from reaching your heart.

Ready to be done with Connecticut for a bit, I navigated back towards Springfield. My next ride request jingled my phone as soon as I switched back on. I picked up a disabled veteran and chauffeured him to his connection as he trembled and kept asking me to turn the heat up even though it was up all the way. I could tell he shot while he was inside because he was mellow like jello when he climbed back into the backseat. His voice was steady during spare but lighthearted conversation, and he was relaxed in a way only the angels enjoy. I dropped him back off where I found him — in the back unit of a motel down the road from Hooters.

My next fare was a bartender and his cocktail girlfriend. It was a long drive that headed me back towards Amherst, and the guy started the ride off shoving a Twenty in my face and thanking me profusely. Some asshole had slashed two of his pickup truck’s tires after he’d shut the guy off and bounced him, also stopping him from sexually harassing a female patron in the meantime. Three o’clock in the morning is a shitty time to be staring at your paraplegic vehicle, with nobody to call who’s not going to begrudge the wakey wakey. The guy tipped me $20 through the app after I dropped him off, too — totally unnecessary, but it goes a little way toward making up for the stingy fucks that tip $1 or nothing at all.

The sky in the east was starting to lighten, and I had a feeling I’d be wise to end on a win, so I made my way back to the Berkshires, shaken, looking forward to a couple/three beers once I rolled into the driveway at the break of dawn.

 After a few hours sleep, and a few more hours struggling to migrate The Greylock Glass over to a new, more pro, and much more expensive web host, I hit the road again, this time transporting a young woman who’d been fired from her fast food job after deflecting her boss’s advances and a hooker who’d recently had much of her arm burned pretty badly either by a john or her pimp. I ended the night driving a mother to the hospital where her son had spent the day in treatment for injuries sustained after, allegedly, having the ever-loving shit beaten out of him by a Holyoke school resource officer.

I started to weep again as I slipped westward down the Mass Pike. I didn’t know for whom. The ones who suffered the pain of other people’s actions? Their own actions? All of them? Maybe it’s all the same. I’ve been trying to piece it together for days now, and I’m no closer to an answer. But about the time I’d passed the Blandford Service Plaza, I realized where I’d been wrong in my thinking the night before. For months, I’ve been driving through that war zone that would toughen me up, transform me back into the unfeeling bastard who’s able to take a five dollar tip, happily, out of the hand of a seventeen year old girl who’d earned it on her back just minutes ago. She’d wobble out of my car and go spend the rest of her earnings on heroin or crystal or crack. Some dark night, I’ll find myself racing across the city, pretending to be The Little Taxi That Hurried, with her sister crying in the back seat as another father’s daughter lay on the floor of some shitty motel, convulsing from the Mexican fentanyl burning through her system.

And I’m doing all this witching hour gig-driving so that I can pay to keep operating The Greylock Glass. So that I can weaponize words to fight these injustices and try to elevate the human condition just a little bit. But instead, it’s more like I’m driving a medic vehicle through a battlefield. I’m picking up the wounded and dying, but instead of delivering them to a field hospital where they might be receive some recovery and rest, I’m shuttling them to different parts of the battlefield where the threats are different, but just as deadly to the mind, body, or spirit. I’m exhausted most of the time, and I know I can’t do this much longer. I also know I can’t save them all, but through journalism, I can save more of them than I can behind the wheel.

Reporting can inform, of course, but also can incite people to action. It can compel legislators to open their eyes and see the misery breaking the backs and spirits of their constituents. And maybe to shame them into crafting policy that alleviates one or two societal ills just a little. I wish I had millionaire angel investors willing to bankroll me as I exposed the suffering of the masses in the pages of The Glass, but I don’t. The money-people want to pretend these issues don’t exist. Or that they can be Law-and-Ordered away. They’d really rather I not expose the dark underbelly of the Berkshires. But my soul isn’t giving me that choice. Not many other newsrooms want to go where I’m willing to go or expose themselves to the realities I’m willing to witness. It takes guts and it takes heart. But it also takes money. I’m begging you — please help. 

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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