The "In-Vehicle Performance Computer" installed in Colorado Springs taxicabs emits two signals.
The first is a kind of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood greeting from the home office, two happy chimes calling your attention to the computer screen. It's followed by a message or company notice that the driver must read.
The second is more of a NASA-sounding triple bleep. It means that a ride is needed in your zone, and it's time to go to work.
Anyway, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood chimes in with a message just for me: "398, go to Voice."
I switch on my two-way radio to speak with the dispatcher, who then requests I discontinue on the radio and call in on my personal cell phone. This only happens when something serious is at hand and the rider is best kept from overhearing.
"Your passenger is suicidal," the dispatcher tells me.
It's about 6:15 a.m., cold and dark with lots of stars still out. A young man from a secluded cove of upscale residences had gotten in moments before and demanded that I take him to Penrose Main. "They're about to kill my wife! Hurry!" he shouted. I'd guessed he was about 23. No wedding ring. I'll call him "Jason" (and change other names that follow).
"Is he armed?" I return to the dispatcher in a whisper.
"Just a second and I'll check with the police," who are holding on another line. "No," she says. But she adds that the police don't know for sure.
Colorado Springs has an excellent classical music station, and when it's not asking for money, it plays everyone from Beethoven to Stravinsky. At this hour Vivaldi is the composer of choice, and it suddenly feels to me as though everyone around us has him going full blast.
Now, also keeping up with Vivaldi, a rapid-fire blur of exchanges takes place in the taxi, between driver and dispatch, rider and hospital, and rider and driver to determine if Jason is going to shoot himself.
"Are you OK?"
"No, man!" Jason bursts out. He's shaking. "My wife's dyin' now and I can't get to her because the cops are gonna pull you over! My family thinks I'm psychotic because I ran out! I just watched my wife's head get decapitated! She's a ballerina and she was doin' this thing and she fell back!"
"Dispatch to 398! What is your location?"
"PLEASE DON'T PULL OVER! THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE EMERGENCY!" Jason shouts.
"IF YOU HAVE TO LET ME OFF, LET ME OFF AND I'LL RUN!" Then into his phone. "GIVE ME THE EMERGENCY DESK! PLEASE!"
"This is 398, go ahead!"
"DID SALLY MITCHELL CHECK IN?"
"398, stay on the line!"
"HOW ABOUT SALLY EVANS!?"
"Could you repeat that, please?" I plead with dispatch.
"TURN RIGHT! WE'RE CHANGING IT!"
"What? Where are we going?"
"GET ME OFF! GET ME OFF! GET ME OFF!"
This goes on until we turn into a fast-food drive-thru next to a convenience store. Despite his agitation, he manages to pay me. I describe his clothes and general state to dispatch and agree to stay till the police arrive.
He roams the empty lot in circles, way underdressed for the cold, like something wounded and lost. He then climbs over some bushes and makes his way to the convenience store.
I still don't know if he's armed, and with the police coming, I expect the worst.
After buying something inside, Jason comes back out and stands, shaking. He's purchased three packets of NyQuil, and he tears them open and drinks them down.
I go up to him. I've never seen anyone shake so hard and uncontrollably.
"Can I get you something to eat?" I ask. He declines the offer, and one for extra clothes. He repeats his story, but just then the police arrive, casually asking, "What's going on?" and putting us both at ease. After a routine frisking, they gently take Jason, unrestrained, into custody and drive away.
I go back to the taxi, and another message from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: "398, go to Voice."