Rosenblum: Poignant essay about late-night fare has come home for author

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 10, 2012 - 8:40 AM

Kent Nerburn is an author and sculptor, a husband, grandfather and long-time advocate for Native Americans.

Kent Nerburn

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Kent Nerburn is an author and sculptor, a husband, grandfather and long-time advocate for Native Americans.

This week, 65-year-old Nerburn also is an Internet sensation.

A poignant essay Nerburn penned more than 15 years ago about his time as a Minneapolis cab driver has made that thoroughly 21st century leap: It's gone viral.

His piece has been reprinted on Huffington Post and Snopes.com (which confirmed that, yes, it really happened!), shared nearly 40,000 times on Facebook and viewed more than 780,000 times on Zenmoments.org.

Most sites have titled it "The Cab Ride" or The Taxi Driver," but Nerburn's original title reflects the soul-filled insights of a man with a doctoral degree in religious studies. He calls it: "And where there is sadness, joy."

At the moment, joy is winning.

"It's crazy," said Nerburn, who describes himself as "not quite a Luddite, but slow-witted" in regard to technology. All sorts of people are claiming ownership, he said, "including one fellow in England who demanded they publish it with his copyright."

Let them claim it, he said, as long as they honor cab drivers everywhere, whom he calls "the first line of defense against loneliness and isolation."

Nerburn grew up in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota before doing graduate work at Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley. He and wife, Louise Mengelkoch, a retired journalism teacher, now live a quiet life on a lake in northern Minnesota.

When in his late 30s and single, Nerburn worked as a sculptor, but it was tough to make ends meet. He started driving a cab during the night shift. One night, he responded to a call at 2:30 a.m. from someone living at a four-plex near the University of Minnesota.

"I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partyers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover or someone going off to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town," he wrote in the essay published in his 1999 book, "Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace."

When he arrived, all he saw was a single light in a ground-floor window. He almost drove away, afraid, but something kept him there. He walked to the door and knocked. A frail elderly woman stood before him with her suitcase.

"She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store..., " he wrote. "All the furniture was covered with sheets."

He carried out her bag, honoring her request to be left alone for a few minutes. When she got into his cab, she gave him an address, but asked him to drive her through Minneapolis first.

"It's not the shortest way," he told her. But she was in no hurry. She was on her way to hospice.

"We just drove," Nerburn said. They drove through northeast Minneapolis where she was raised, then past a downtown furniture warehouse that had once been a grand ballroom where she danced with her husband. "We drove wherever she wanted to go."

Hours later, he dropped her in Robbinsdale or New Hope, where she was greeted by two orderlies. He refused her attempt to pay him.

And then Nerburn drove alone, "aimlessly, lost in thought." He didn't take another fare that day. He never saw her again.

He penned the essay as part of an extended meditation on St. Francis of Assisi's famous prayer, which includes, "Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy."

The story of the 2:30 a.m. cab ride, he said, became "a homily about how you bring joy into someone's life in moments you least expect."

By the early 2000s, the story had traveled around the Internet, and morphed and changed as people started to claim it as their own. "Of course, you wish you were making a nickel off it," he said, "but that's the nature of the Internet beast."

Of course, a story like this wouldn't be complete without skeptics. Even his step-daughter grilled him about its veracity.

"It's a very well written and sweet story," commented one Huffington Post reader. "But why would the lady leave her place in the middle of the night? At 2:30 a.m.? If she had called the hospice ahead to inform them, why were they not concerned when she did not show up as planned? And what hospice would accept an elderly patient at that hour?"

Nerburn, a Minnesota Book Award winner and author of more than a dozen books, responded kindly. "Why 2:30? I don't know. Did I think it was strange? Not at the time. When you drive a cab, the stories of a single night could fill a book. It's a wonderful experience for drinking in humanity."

The stories ended abruptly when a rider pulled a knife on him. He never drove a cab again.

Nerburn is gratified that the cab story has legs and that many people in their 20s and 30s tell him how it touched them.

"They feel the world is too large for them," he said. "This speaks of an ordinary guy in an ordinary moment who happens to catch his better self. They write me and they say, thank you. I always try to write back. I tell them, life is a hard slog, but try to be kind."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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