I’m going to take my wife to breakfast,” he said, his first words in about five minutes.
He hadn’t blinked or batted an eye when I asked him to take me twelve miles south to Hyde Park. Instead, he told me he lived seven blocks from there. He told me he could drop by home and kiss his wife.
“She’d like that,” he said.
Over those winding twelve miles, the cabbie told me this story in bits and chunks through the partition. All I can vouch for accuracy is that Downtown Brown told me so.
They called him Downtown Brown because he would work the downtown area thirty, forty years ago when the other South Side cabbies stuck to the neighborhoods. The dispatchers teased him, joked that he was goofing off because no one would see him around Woodlawn.
“If you get ten of them together, I bet none of them would know my first name,” he said. “People have asked me ‘What’s your name?’ and I’ve said, ‘Brown.’ ‘Yeah, but what’s your name?’
Brown was his father’s last name and, by chance, the last name of the stepfather who raised him. Both Brown’s parents would have other children, but the family had a rule: No one could say “half.”
“There was no half-brother, half-sister. He was my brother. She was my sister.”
He grew up playing basketball along 63rd and was pretty good, he said. He would run people out. He would run them up and down the court to wear them down, he said in an elderly, cracking voice. In 1964, he married the wife he still wants to kiss and take to breakfast. He raised her daughter as his own, just like his stepfather raised him. The daughter died a few years ago.
“At the age of fifty-two,” Brown said.
It got very quiet in the cab.
Brown and his wife had two other children: a daughter who is a minister in Texas and a son who didn’t come up in the story much. At different points, all the children and several of the grandchildren took apartments in the building where Brown and his wife lived, one family spilling through the halls.
When his daughter went to become a minister, she left her own daughter behind. It was a hard decision. She was scared, but she had been called.
Brown promised to keep his granddaughter from the streets the same way he kept his own three kids. “I told her, ‘I kept you in this cab. I’ll keep her.’ ”
He raised his children in the cab, lining them up in the front seat to keep them safe when he couldn’t be home. Sometimes all three would cram up there. Sometimes there would only be one, so he would lay a pillow in his lap so the child could stretch out and doze as Brown took fares.
He did the same thing with the granddaughter.
“She would wake up and say, ‘I love you,’ ” he said, mentioning a sweet nickname she would call him. “And the passengers would be ‘There’s a baby in here!’ They didn’t know. They thought I was crazy. They thought I was talking to myself.”
That granddaughter still lives with Brown and his wife. In the three-flats of Woodlawn, the twenty-six-year-old lives in her grandparents’ spare room.
Med students need to save their money.
“You must be proud,” I said.
“Oh, I am,” he said, smiling behind the wheel of the cab where he raised a doctor.
Originally published as part of 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, daily Chicago stories in the spirit of Ben Hecht’s 1920’s column.