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Today's Story by Robin Bullard

I didn’t want to carry a wino, and I didn't take this job to do social work.


It was my first radio order of the night, coming out of the shoot. Army and San Jose. I don’t know why I checked in for it exactly. I think I simply wanted the dispatcher to know I was paying attention. He gave it to me right away though. He didn’t even wait to see if anybody else was interested. “Eleven-oh-seven. Saint Luke’s Main for Albert.”

I picked the mic back up and repeated dutifully, “Saint Luke’s Main for Albert.” Then I drove the eight blocks it took to get there.

I pulled in under the lighted overhang and up to the white zone. It was just getting dark and I could see into the glassed-in lobby. Banks of blue upholstered seats with nobody sitting in them. No attractive nurse going home after a long shift. No old lady going back to the motel while her husband lay in dialysis. No basketball player on crutches. The only sign of life was a rent-a-cop sitting behind a counter. I felt pretty certain I was wasting my time.

As I got out, I realized there was someone there but he was outside the building. Hunched down in the shadow of a trash bin was an old man, a street person in a beat-up wheelchair. He registered in my eye and in my mind even as I simultaneously made a conscious effort not to look at him. Maybe he said something as I strode past, but I wasn’t listening.

I walked through the automatic doors – fwooosh – and around the corner. The security guard was a black man whose police hat looked too small for his head. He looked at me from behind the check-in counter as if he had been assigned to wait for me and me alone.

“Somebody called a cab,” I said. “Somebody named Albert.”

“Let’s see,” he said. “He was here a minute ago.” He seemed to be brushing nonexistent crumbs off the spotless Formica. “I think he might of went outside.”

“I didn’t see anybody,” I said.

I needed to get back to work. If the old derelict was the one who’d called, and if I didn’t make eye contact with him, it would be the same as not having seen him at all. I headed out of the building looking straight ahead but, by then, he and the wheelchair had moved directly in front of the door.

“Albert,” he said.


“I’m Albert,” he said. “I’m the one who called.”

I looked down on the ratty-looking, rumpled old man, probably sixty, maybe a bit more. I don’t know. His dim face was a welter of blotches and his scraggy beard looked scribbled on by an idiot. To look at him was to think, “homeless, filthy, wino,” in no particular order. His blue jacket had day-old puke dried on it. His nylon sweat pants with zippers down the sides were bunched-up around his thighs. His dirty white tennis shoes were unlaced and you could see the sores on his swollen ankles. A dozen or more plastic bags with god-knows-what in them were dangling from the handles of the wheelchair.

“You have any money?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I’ve got plenty of money. You want to see it?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Where you going?”

“I gotta go to Mission Hospital,” he said. “I gotta get over there to sign in because they won’t take me here.”

We were six feet from the cab. I examined the shrubbery at the edge of the driveway for several seconds. When I finished, he was still looking at me.

I took the three steps to the passenger door and opened it for him. The front seat was not an option.

“Can you get a little bit closer to the curb?” he said.


I slammed the door and circled around the cab considering how easy it would be to pull away. I didn’t want to carry a wino, and I didn’t take this job to do social work. He was filthy. He was sick. He might very well have lice, and dealing with him and his chair would take a lot of time, while all over town, people—clean, well-dressed people—were looking for a ride home from work. Mission Hospital was less than fifteen blocks from Saint Luke’s and I wasn’t going to get more than six bucks for this, even if he had the money.

Still, I jockeyed the cab into the curb, got out, came back around, opened the passenger door, and pushed him in his filthy wheelchair up against it.

He grabbed the door handle and attempted to pull himself up. I watched while he herked and jerked and grunted and perspired in an effort to get his butt off the seat. I also watched his pants slide down his legs. It turned out that he wore his pants only as high as his thighs and it was the jacket that covered his privates. I could see that this made it so much easier to pee in the seat of his wheelchair, which was piled high with damp and filthy newspapers.

“Pull up your fucking pants,” I said. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Just a minute.”

Somehow, after a long ordeal, he got himself in. I didn’t help much beyond keeping the door from swinging. I didn’t want to touch him.

I stood looking down at the filthy wheelchair, which I now needed to fold and put in the trunk. I unhooked the grimy plastic bags from the handles and handed them to him one at a time through the open door. Then I popped the trunk and rolled the chair to the rear of the cab. When you fold a wheelchair, you have to pull up on the seat, and the seat was covered with a stack of urine-soaked newspapers. With one movement, I tipped them into the street. There was a damp towel underneath it all, and I flung it quickly into the bottom of the trunk where the chair, which I then folded, followed with a satisfying crash. I didn’t even try to close the trunk lid. It’s hard enough to make a wheelchair fit, and I didn’t want to touch his rig any more than I absolutely had to.

I got back in the driver’s seat and realized I hadn’t even turned the meter on yet. What’s ten minutes of waiting time anyway? Four-fifty? Who cares? This was a write-off. This was my freaking good deed for the day. I turned it on now and we drove. A half block later I opened my window. Another half block and I rolled down the window across from me to get some crosscurrent. It was okay, I don’t have any issues about breathing through my mouth.

The light was red and I was trying to rip the rubber off the steering wheel.

“Why didn’t you just stay at the hospital you were at?” I asked him. “What is this? The Fall Hospital Tour?”

“I gotta get to General to check in,” he said. “They’ll take me there.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I got bit by a spider,” he said.

I thought about that for a minute.

“It must have been one motherfucking tarantula,” I said.

“No. It was a domestic spider,” he said quietly. “I got bit in Franklin Park.”

I kept driving.

“I don’t think I know Franklin Park,” I said.

“It’s by the Safeway.”

I honestly didn’t know that park had a name. If anybody had asked me, I’d have said the park where the bums hang out. If you stand in the parking lot at Safeway and look across the street, you see an embankment covered with trash. Once your eyes adjust to the trash, you can see the bums lounging in the in-between areas. There’s a playground but I’ve never seen a kid up there.

“So this spider,” I said. “Was that one of those 40-ounce spiders?”

“That’s very funny,” he said. He didn’t seem offended at all. “One of the doctors said it could be a spider. I don’t really know. All I can say is I was sleeping in Franklin Park when we had that heat wave. The one that lasted three days straight. I was asleep and I woke up and I couldn’t move. I was lying there for maybe five hours and this guy came by with a cell phone and dialed nine-one-one.”

“So you were rescued by a good Samaritan,” I said.

“He was some kind of foreigner,” he said. “I don’t know where he came from. I just know I’ve been messed up ever since. I can’t do shit. I’m a damned invalid.”

“Why were you sleeping in the park in the first place?” I said. The traffic was backed up from the freeway on-ramp so we were just inching our way up Army Street. “Maybe you should be sleeping someplace where there aren’t so many spiders and dope-smoking bums?”

“I don’t smoke no dope,” he said. “I have some problems concentrating and I have some other problems, but I don’t smoke crack and I don’t smoke reefer.”

“Where’s your family?”

“They died.”

“You ever get married?”

“That was a long fucking time ago. What about you?”

I ignored this.

“Where you from?” I asked him.

“From here. From the City.”

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“George Washington High School,” he said.

He knew the name of an actual San Francisco High School.

“I grew up in the Richmond,” he said. I used to work at the Alexandria Theater for years.”

“That one at Eighteenth Avenue?”

“Eighteenth and Geary. It’s closed now. I was there for years. Even after the army.”

“So you were in the army?”

“Went in in ‘sixty-five. I got out of high school and this coach I knew said I could do a couple of years and then they’d pay my college. It was fucked-up advise,” he said.

“So you were Vietnam era,” I said.

“Two tours,” he said. “Came back and I didn’t know what to do so I re-enlisted like a damned idiot. Back then I thought I was a lifer.”

“So why didn’t you become a lifer?”

“I just got sick of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to see any more shit. I went back to working at the theater.”

“Why don’t you go to the VA hospital instead of Mission?” I said.

“I can’t sleep there,” he said. “And it’s too goddamned far.”

“That’s true.” I said. “It’s pretty far.”

“You’re a very nice guy,” he said. “You’re a gentleman.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“A lot of cab drivers won’t take me,” he said.

“That’s because you don’t look like you have any money.”

“I got money. I get general assistance. I can show you.”

“It’s okay,” I told him.

“I got over forty bucks here,” he said. “I always take care of them.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “We’re almost there anyway.”

“I’m going to get signed in,” he said. “Then I’m going to wait. I’ll be waiting until midnight probably.”

We pulled into the parking lot by the Emergency entrance. This was a public hospital and, in complete contrast to Saint Luke’s, there were people everywhere. I remember a guy in my cab once called Mission Hospital “the depository for the dispossessed.” “Depository or suppository?” I asked him. It’s where the passed-out drunks who get picked up off the street get sent. But there are poor people from the projects too, and a lot of working people who don’t have insurance. It was bustling at this hour. Two ambulances and a police cruiser were parked up near the door. Two cops were standing there talking. I pulled up a car length or so behind them. The meter had reached the grand total of $5.80.

I put it in park and got out.

I unfolded the wheelchair and picked up the towel by its corner. I laid it on the seat with the driest side up, then I pushed the chair around. When I opened the door I could see that he’d only halfway pulled up his pants. He’d been sitting on my seat with everything hanging out and I just hoped my next passenger was a yuppie stockbroker. He’d managed to extract a battered envelope from his jacket and his hands were shaking as he fished through it for the six dollar bills he owed me.

“Forget it.” I said. “It’s on me this time.”

He turned to look at me with his grizzled face, and for just a second, maybe I imagined I saw a glimmer of the kid who grew up in the Richmond district.

“You gotta be kidding!” he said.

“It’s okay. Forget about it. I think you’re having a tough time, so just forget it.”

“You’re one hell of a nice man,” he said.

“Let’s get out.”

A couple more minutes of huffing and puffing. I had to see his floppy old pecker again and the blisters on his ankles. I grabbed him under the arms and pulled him out and got him on the seat. The cops kept chatting. They didn’t even look at us.

Finally he was settled in. He even pulled up his pants more or less. The plastic bags with all his crap were hooked over the handles again.

“Thanks,” he said. “Can you push me over there?”

We were about twenty yards from the glass doors where the big bold letters spell out “EMERGENCY.”


I pushed him up the wheelchair ramp that was cut into the curb. There was a paved walkway that ran slightly uphill with a railing on either side. The doors were big glass automatic doors that framed the light of the waiting room beyond. A teenage girl—a black girl with her hair in big braids—was standing in front of the double doors talking on her phone. She wasn’t bad to look at in her short denim skirt and tight green top. She was engrossed in her conversation, staring out over the parking lot. There wasn’t room to get around her and I had to slow down with the chair. When Albert spoke up, his voice was utterly malicious.

“Get out of our way, cunt! Can’t you see we’re coming through?”

The girl spun around and glared. “Wha’d you say to me?” She looked directly at me while she still held the phone against her cheek.

“It was him,” I said, nodding down at Albert—who had suddenly become, once again, appalling in his filthiness.

“Move your bitch ass,” Albert hissed.

“If I was a stinky-ass-piece-of-shit bum, I wouldn’t be talking,” the girl said, still looking at me.

“You’re totally right,” I said, mortified. “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up, Albert?”

The girl moved to the rail and went back to her phone call. “A couple of dirty winos calling me names,” I heard her say as I pushed Albert through the double doors that led to the waiting room. I stopped there and with a little shove sent him gliding. With his ratty, tangled hair poking up over the back of the wheelchair, I watched him roll into this steerage. Nearly everyone looked obese and slovenly. The alkies slouched in the black plastic chairs and the tweakers paced the linoleum. A colicky baby wailed beneath the fluorescent lights. Closest to me, an ancient gray woman sat collapsed like a ball of lint, and beyond her, coughing and wheezing, a hundred other human beings whom I really wouldn’t want to know.


Robin Bullard is a short story writer, a taxi driver, an advertising art director in reverse order of profitability, and has read publicly at SF LitQuake and Quiet Lightning.


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