The Early Tears with Vic Pasternak: Lesson #12 — Mississippi Fred McDowell makes for a good night

Illustration by Josh Carroll.

Some nights are made lucky. For instance, the dayshift driver left a blues CD in the pleasure radio. Blues ain’t really my thing, but for whatever reason this set grabbed me. I even pulled the disc out to look at the name markered on it, then slid the disc back in. Just one dude playing one guitar in a droning bottleneck style. It had an old country sound that lifted me a bit so my nightshift had the pleasant quality of a film.

The music also had me not giving a damn. Like they say, “Better than booze, safer than pot.” The ordinarily tight-wound fiber of my being came unfurled just enough so that everything felt right and easy. All shift the night people wagged their tongues and shook that ass, but none of it could touch me.

I swept into the Groove at midnight and caught a group up to North Liberty. They climbed six in back and one up front, and he’s the asshole of the bunch, of course.

“Cigarettes!” he barked at the windshield, meaning he wanted to stop at HandiMart.

I pulled right in and dude shuffled out. The pleasure radio sang on, “I asked for whiskey, she give me gasoline …

The woman sitting on the lap of the guy in the middle recognized me.

“You’re the coffee guy!”

“And you’re the coffee girl,” I sang back at her, more accurately. She worked at Java House, and I imagine she had thousands of coffee guys. We’re friendly, and she apologized for her friends.

“You guys are fine, and I’m sorry you’re not more comfortable. But, ‘Cigarettes!’—”

I gestured at the windshield, meaning the dickweed buying Marlboro Lights.

I’d hauled him before with mixed results. Some nights he was my buddy, other nights he played like he owned me. He was a land-dev up in these hilly new parts of town; go figure.

He came out and fell in the front seat, groaning. “Home, James. Ha! Do you get that a lot? You don’t get it enough!”

Soon as we passed the Boat, I opened the throttle and raced over the freeway headed north into the trees. The guitar jangled and sprang out of the radio mesmerizing all of us. Nobody spoke until my co-pilot rudely slapped the dashboard.

“What the fuck is this?”

“This is Mississippi Fred McDowell.”

He didn’t care, was already punching buttons for the FM dial and cranking the volume.

I slapped his hand away and punched the CD back on.

When my voice came it was calm and firm: “Touch my radio again and I’ll break your thumbs.”


“You heard me. My cab, my radio, my rules. And Fred McDowell stays on my radio.”

Dark cloud a rising. Baby, I wonder what’s going to become of me.

“You’re a real dick.”

“And you’re a real dick. I work in here. This is my office. How’d you like it if I stumbled drunk into your office and put on Fred McDowell?”

None of the six squeezed behind us spoke; the radio jangled, and I could feel dude staring like he wanted to light me on fire with his eyes. I floated through the winding roadway curves and maintained perfect distance from the paint.

With shaky fingers, dude bumbled through the unwrapping of his cigarettes, muttering, “This fucking guy.”

“No smoking in here,” I said, ashing at the window and blowing smoke. “City says it’s against the law to let you.”

“You’re smoking!”

“The cops don’t care what I do.”

“Don’t nobody pay this guy! This guy works for tips. I’m paying for this cab.”

But he didn’t touch the radio. Maybe he was scared. I sensed he was scalded more than anything. He wasn’t used to anybody talking to him like he deserved.

We had two stops in North Liberty. The first was in a dead-end off Juniper, back when that whole neighborhood couldn’t be reached by anything else. As we turned in, dude wanted out of the cab so he could smoke, “Since our driver’s such a fucking asshole! You just better pick me up on the way back!”

“I’ll have to count that as a stop but sure.”

I yanked to the roadside to let him out then peeled off before he shut the door.

“How many are getting out up here?”

“Three of us.”

Another voice came from the backseat. “Just let me say it’s awesome to hear anybody talk to him like that.”

“Ah, he can be such a dick!”

Coffee Girl added, “Oh my God, I am so sorry.”

“He doesn’t bother me,” I said, and I meant it.

In the driveway, the three climbed out groaning and laughing. One handed me a $10 then the other two reached in their pockets. I attached the cash under the bind on my clipboard.

We rolled back out of the neighborhood, and up ahead was the dude. I signaled to pull over then overshot him by 50 feet.

“You cocksucker! Ha!” he laughed last when at last he caught up to the cab, breathless, “Making all these drops out here and you’re not getting fucking tipped! I’m paying for this ride! Don’t nobody—”

“They don’t care, man. And neither do I. So can it.”

We rolled across town into the newer hood trapped behind 240th Street. Nobody spoke while old Fred sang “You Got to Move.” After the song ended, they were looking him up on their phones.

I pulled in the driveway and called the fare $27.

“I’m only charging the stop at HandiMart, and I’m not charging for extra passengers because your friends seem like pretty cool people.”

Dude stood in the driveway throwing $27 in fives and ones on my passenger seat, demanding, “Did anybody tip this guy? Nobody tip him!”

Fistfuls of cash were meanwhile passed to me from the back, over the seat and my shoulders. As I rolled out of the driveway, dude ran after the cab hollering, “Have a good night, you goddamned son of a bitch!”

And as I rolled out of the neighborhood, I counted $75 bucks including the cash on my clipboard. Before pulling onto Highway 965, I wrote $25 as the total on my tripsheet and claimed my token two dollars.

Like I said, lucky night.

Sean Preciado Genell is author of the Vic Pasternak novel ‘All the Help You Need,’ available now at Prairie Lights. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 216.

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