Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Knowledge

I've been thinking about nonsensical, totally pointless kindness from strangers. Not why those people have been good to me -- because there's no reason in trying to figure out the reasons that they had -- but just about the moments when someone has reached out and propped me up.

If you've even had a migraine, chances are you remember the first. You probably felt like you were dying. I thought I was dying. If I wasn't dying, I was going to die from the pain. I couldn't tell if the pain was so bad it made me want to vomit, or if the feeling of impending up-chuckage was somehow part of the whole migraine scene, but I knew that if I didn't get up, I was going to throw up over everyone.

I was fifteen, and I was in London for the summer. I was seeing a play -- it was Raph Fiennes in "Coriolanus"-- and I remember that it was in an old bruised building that had been gutted especially for the production. It was supposed to be hip, but all I could focus on was how unbearable it was to feel my skin touch anything, even the inside of my clothes. Touching metal seemed to cause a ripple of agony up my fingers which then clawed into the crown of my head, and made my right temple throb. I sat for ten minutes, before I leaned over and said, "I have to go to the bathroom" and stumbled up and out of my seat.

My stupid black velvet slides clip-clopped on the industrial chic slabs of concrete and I was shhhhhhsshed! on the way out to the fancy-version of port-a-potties they had outside of the theater. I tried to vomit in one of them, but I couldn't see straight and I couldn't tell that it was my head, not my stomach that was killing me.

When I tried to get back to my seat, thinking that if I was going to be in horrible pain, it should be with Shakespeare as its soundtrack, but the usher's said I'd have to wait until intermission. I could either lean against cinderblock and cry for the next 45 minutes, or figure out how to get home.

The problem was, I had no idea where that was. None. This was before my love affair with London, so even going around the corner, I was helplessly lost.

I stumbled down to the road, and held up my hand. A black cab promptly pulled over.

"I'm don't have any money, and I don't know how to get where I'm going," I sobbed, one eye jack-hammering shut in the light.

Without pause, the driver said, "Get in, Love."

London taxi drivers, if you didn't know, undergo an immensely, seriously difficult test called The Knowledge. It's not uncommon to attempt The Knowledge three or four times before you pass and can get licensed. Part of the test includes 400 or so combinations of starting points and ending points, along with quizzes of what pubs, hotels and restaurants are along the way -- and those points must be known by name. On top of that, during the oral exam, candidates can be yelled at, teased, insulted and ridiculed.

So the driver knew exactly where to take me, and when he saw how sick I was, he started talking to me about what he'd done that morning to keep my mind off being sick all over his cab. "C'mon, Dearie, just take your eye off the pain for a moment."

I remember he must have been in his early sixties, and he was wearing a collared shirt and pullover.

When he pulled over in front of the house, he opened the door and helped me out, delivering me to a perplexed housekeeper and told her "Poor Chuck, doesn't know what hit her."

I must have looked insane -- I've seen my face when I'm in the grip of a migraine -- it's like a death mask, all white with huge black spots under my eyes, my jaw grinding shut. I was American (I promised to pay him when I had 'cash') and young, and really close to vomiting all over his immaculate cab.

But he drove me home nonetheless. I know that as a cabdriver, that was his job, but it's not his job to drive someone who might not be able to pay them, and it certainly wasn't his job to comfort a sick girl.

Has a stranger been thoughtlessly, needlessly kind to you? Tell me all about it.