Night Moves

by Pat Green

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Publisher: Aquarius
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 0-9909741-1-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 159

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In the fall of 2012, Pat Green was a preacher of a failing church, out of a job, divorced for six months, and feeling like a failure at every part of his life. He was living in a relative's house and desperately needed work and his father had been a taxi driver. So he got a job as a 6pm to 6am taxi driver in his home town of Joliet, Illinois. That job fundamentally changed his understanding of the people who live in the night, how their lives work, and what it means to try to help them.

This is nonfiction: a collection of short anecdotes about life as a cab driver and the people who have gotten a ride in Green's cab. They're mostly five or six pages long, just a short story or window into someone's life. I ran across Pat Green's writing by following a sidebar link from a post on Patheos (probably from Love, Joy, Feminism, although I no longer remember). Green has an ongoing blog on Patheos about raising his transgender son (who appears in this collection as a lesbian daughter; he wasn't out yet as transgender when this was published), which is both a good sample of his writing and occasionally has excerpts from this book.

Green's previous writing experience, as mentioned at several points in this collection, was newspaper columns in the local paper. It shows: these essays have the succinct, focused, and bite-sized property of a good newspaper article (or blog post). The writing is a little rough, particularly the remembered dialogue that occasionally falls into the awkward valley between dramatic, constructed fictional dialogue and realistic, in-the-moment speech. But the stories are honest and heartfelt and have the self-reflective genuineness of good preaching paired with a solid sense of narrative. Green tries to observe and report first, both the other person and his own reactions, and only then try to draw more general conclusions.

This book is also very hard to read. It's not a sugar-coated view of people who live in the night of a city, nor is it constructed to produce happy endings. The people who Green primarily writes about are poor, or alone, or struggling. The story that got me to buy this book, about taking a teenage girl to a secret liaison that turned out to be secret because her liaison was another girl, is heartwarming but also one of the most optimistic stories here. A lot of people die or just disappear after being regular riders for some time. A lot of people are desperate and don't have any realistic way out. Some people, quite memorably, think they have a way out, and that way out closes on them.

The subtitle of this book is "An Ex-Preacher's Journey to Hell in a Taxi" and (if you followed the link above) you'll see that Green is writing in the Patheos nonreligious section. The other theme of this collection is the church and its effect on the lives of people who are trying to make a life on the outskirts of society. That effect is either complete obliviousness or an active attempt to make their lives even worse. Green lays out the optimism that he felt early in the job, the hope that he could help someone the way a pastor would, guide her to resources, and how it went horribly wrong when those resources turned out to not be interested in helping her at all. And those stories repeat, and repeat.

It's a book that makes it very clear that the actual practice of Christianity in the United States is not about helping poor or marginalized people, but there are certainly plenty of Christian resources for judging, hurting people, closing doors, and forcing abused people back into abusive situations, all in the name of God. I do hope some Christians read this and wince very hard. (And lest the progressive Christians get too smug, one of the stories says almost as brutal things about liberal ministries as the stories of conservative ones.)

I came away feeling even more convinced by the merits of charities that just give money directly to poor people. No paternalism, no assuming that rich people know what they need, no well-meaning intermediary organizations with endless rules, just resources delivered directly to the people who most need resources. Ideally done by the government and called universal basic income. Short of constructing a functional government that builds working public infrastructure, and as a supplement even if one has such a government (since infrastructure can't provide everything), it feels like the most moral choice. Individual people may still stay mired in awful situations, but at least that isn't compounded by other people taking their autonomy away and dictating life to them in complete ignorance.

This is a fairly short and inexpensive book. I found it very much worth reading, and may end up following Green's blog as well. There are moments of joy and moments of human connection, and the details of the day-to-day worries and work style of a taxi driver (in this case, one who drives a company car) are pretty interesting. (Green does skip over some parts for various reasons, such as a lot of the routine fares and most of the stories of violence, but does mention what he's skipping over.) But it's also a brutal book, because so many people are hurting and there isn't much Green can do about it except bear witness and respect them as people in a way that religion doesn't.

Recommended, but brace yourself.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-11-11

Last modified and spun 2017-11-12