In the wee hours it's rare to pick up a fare who came into this world much before the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The after-midnight downtown scene looks like a scene from the sci-fi flick, Logan's Run, in which malevolent powers-that-be surreptitiously terminated every citizen at age 30. The slender man hailing me from the curb one recent night was a true anomaly: He looked like he might recall the Truman administration.
"Hey, buddy, out kinda late tonight?" I asked casually, and probably intrusively, as he settled into the front seat.
"Oh, dear, I'm never even up at this hour," he replied. I noticed he was wearing a worn but elegantly tailored topcoat and a tall fur hat. If he pulled it down over his ears it would reach his shoulders. Though odd, his look was somehow dashing, in just the way that old-fashioned word connotes. "I'm locked out of my motel room. I don't know what on Earth has become of my key."
"Well, that's not good. Can't you get a copy from the night-desk clerk?"
"That's the problem. He's off-duty at 10. I know the name of the owner, though, so I'd like you to take me to his home on Saratoga Avenue."
"Sure thing," I said, and I pulled out in the direction of North Avenue. "The owner knows you're coming, I take it? It's pretty late."
"Not exactly. I know his name is Mike Kelley, so I looked him up in the phone book. The problem is, there's quite a few of them. I tried two numbers, and they were the wrong Mike Kelley. This one, on Saratoga Avenue, just didn't answer."
I was doing my best to follow the logic as we swung onto the Northern Connector. "So why are we going there if the guy's not in?"
"Well, a lot of people turn off their phones at night. My conjecture is, he might be home, just not picking up."
"Uh, yeah," I said, glancing at the radio clock. "It's 10 after one; the Mike Kelley on Saratoga Avenue is probably asleep."
"You may well be right, but it's a true emergency. Where am I going to sleep tonight? I must get into my room!"
"You've got a point there, sir," I said. "It's worth a shot. What brings you through town, if I may ask?"
"I'm living up here. I've been at the motel since the fall."
I forget there are people who essentially reside at the low-end motels. It seems like a less-than-ideal living arrangement, but with the demise of rooming houses and the dearth of single-room residences, cheap motels may be the only viable option for some folks.
But this guy struck me as an unlikely candidate for the motel lifestyle. His formal speech, for one thing, suggested an upper-crust childhood. His bearing was refined, his attire shabby-chic Ñ though in his case, perhaps not by calculation. He was like a dispossessed duke.
We exited the Connector at North Avenue, took the first right onto Saratoga and eased to a stop in front of what we both hoped was the right Mike Kelley home. A Jeep Explorer was parked in the driveway, but the house was pitch black.
"What do you think?" my customer asked.
"Good luck," I replied.
He approached the darkened front entrance, hesitated a moment, then rang the doorbell. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi Nothing stirred in the house. He turned to face me and shrugged his shoulders. Just as he raised his pointer finger to ring again, a light came on upstairs. Moments later the door opened, and I could see the silhouette of a robed woman. After a brief verbal exchange, she let him into the house.
Nine minutes elapsed Ñ for some reason I timed it Ñ and my guy returned to the cab. "That was the wrong Mike Kelley," he said, "but his wife graciously allowed me to call another one who's out on Lost Nation Road."
"Great," I said. "So you were able to reach him?"
"No, I got his answering machine, and I think it sounded like him, but, honestly, I'm not sure. Perhaps we can go to the house?"
So far I'd been going along with the man's approach, but now it was time to bring some hackie experience to bear on the situation.
I said, "Frankly, sir, I think at this point you'd be wasting your time and money. It isn't called "Lost Nation Road" for nothing. I call it "Lost Cabbie Road." It wends way the heck out through Essex, Westford, who knows where. I think it's just too much of a long shot."
"I suppose you're right," he said. "What do you suggest, then? I certainly don't want to pay for another motel room for the night."
"Maybe the shelter at the Wilson can help you. If not, there's always good old Dunkin' Donuts. It's 24 hours, you know."
"Egad! Those are not very appealing options. Is the Wilson that place over on King Street and Church?"
"Yup, that's the one."
"I think I'm going to pursue the other option. I do enjoy my coffee and donuts, and I have a paperback novel with me that I just started. The motel office will reopen at dawn, so it's not too long a stretch Ñ providing, of course, I can stay awake. You don't suppose they'll kick me out for loitering, do you?"
"I wouldn't think so. Just tell the kid behind the counter what's going on. He'll probably enjoy the company this time of night."
We drove back downtown, and I dropped him at Church and Main. "Thank you, my good man, you've been a prince," he said as he gave me a generous tip. I especially appreciated it, since I hadn't charged him for the waiting time on Saratoga Avenue.
I glided along the streets, mulling over the Debonair Duke of Donuts. Where had he come from, and where would he go next?