It was fitting that Pinkie and Rocco’s last ride together happened on Good Friday.
The cabdriver, Mike “Pinkie” Powell, zigzagged his Blue & White taxi across the Twin Cities, picking up passengers just like he always does. Rocco had wanted to do a ride-along with his best friend for months, but increasingly poor health made that impossible.
Rocco finally got his wish Friday. Nobody seemed to mind that he took that ride in a box beside Powell as Rocco’s favorite songs by Buddy Holly, the Carpenters and the Beatles played in the cab all day.
Theirs has been a special, albeit unusual friendship that began when Powell responded to Rocco’s call for a ride to the grocery store about six months ago. Rocco (a family member asked that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons) was waiting at the curb of a public housing building for seniors.
Rocco’s first words struck Powell: “I’m a burden on everyone,” Rocco said. “You probably don’t know how to break down a wheelchair, do you?”
Powell told him his own daughter used a wheelchair, so he could do it. Instead of waiting for Rocco to shop with the meter running, Powell offered to do the shopping instead. Afterward, the two struck a deal: Rocco would give a list to Powell and he would do the shopping for a flat fee of $7.
But Powell sensed Rocco needed something more than errands. He needed company.
Rocco, 47, didn’t have any close relatives, but kept in touch with a sister who lived across the country. A disease that affected his nerves had put him in a wheelchair and he couldn’t go out on his own. He told Powell that all he did all day was watch television on a small set that was slowly fading to black.
Powell looked on Craigslist and found a giant flat-screen TV with a remote and surround sound. Before long, Powell was stopping by to watch old westerns and sports on the television. Rocco would have a Michelob Light and he’d serve Powell a nonalcoholic beer.
The cabbie and his regular passenger learned about each other’s lives, little by little. Some days, Powell would just take Rocco out for a drive to get him out of the house.
“He became a friend,” Powell said. “One day he said if it wasn’t for me he didn’t think he’d want to live.”
Powell was far away from family, too. He married a woman in India, but she remained in the Punjab while he came back to care for sick family members in Minnesota. When he got low on money, he took to driving a cab and fell in love with the job. He picks up passengers at jail, takes cancer patients to chemo appointments and meets people in various stages of distress.
“That’s what you see in this job,” Powell said. “You see so much pain and so much hurt. The world is hurting right now.
“We are the first contact a person has when they go to a medical appointment,” Powell added. “How we treat them and how they feel means everything.”
In the past month, Powell could see that Rocco was getting sicker. “He started saying, ‘When I’m gone, can you do this for me?’ ”
“I’d say, ‘Sure Rocco.’ ”
When Rocco didn’t call for several days, Powell went to his apartment and pounded on the door. Rocco finally opened it, and Powell noticed that Rocco was very sick.
“I’ll just die here,” Rocco said. “I won’t go to the hospital without you.”
Powell got Rocco to the emergency room, then got in touch with Rocco’s sister, Rebecca, who was able to see her brother before he died.
“It was really a relief to find out he had somebody,” said Rebecca, who wanted the story to be told. “He didn’t really have contact with anybody but me once he was placed in public housing. [Powell] really did a lot for Rocco. It’s nice to know he took such good care of him.”
“For me, life with Rocco was a friendship that came out of nowhere,” said Powell. “If we could just pick one person, maybe someone you know or a stranger and do something good, it will make a difference for them. Say, ‘How’s it going today?’ to someone, and mean it. Or, just smile at them.”
Powell will grant Rocco his wish and spread his ashes somewhere along the Mississippi River at sunrise this weekend.
“He loved the big river, and how it traversed the whole country,” said Powell. “He said he never did anything great in his life, so he wanted to be part of something great when he died.”
But the ride won’t be free, Powell joked.
“He’ll pay my fare on the other side,” Powell said. “He’s good for it.”
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