Driven to help the needy Missions of mercy: A cabdriver in Baltimore for a quarter-century, Larry Kess is viewed as a lifesaver by the ill and elderly patients he ferries to Sinai Hospital.

January 14, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Cabbie Larry W. Kess Sr. reads his Bible each day but he can be a devil behind the wheel when he's dispensing goofy humor for his seriously ill friends bound for Sinai Hospital at the cut-rate Kess prices.

A Baltimore cabdriver for 25 years, Mr. Kess has served hundreds of Sinai patients for the past nine years, frequently paying out of his own pocket, as an unofficial chauffeur of cheer. He's been temporarily boxed in by the week's snows but planned to resume action this weekend.

He'll pick a dark cloudy day to talk about the beautiful sunshine. His fare says, "Larry, look outside. It's raining hard." Mr. Kess' response: "No way, miss. I'm talking about the sunshine in my heart."

Smiles in the back seat.

He will suddenly scratch his salt-and-pepper beard and declare to another patient that he's lost. The patient asks, "You really lost, Larry?" The cabbie says, "I've been lost for 46 years. I'll never be found."

Laughter in the back seat.

Mr. Kess may wear a Dallas Cowboys shirt one day, a New York Giants shirt the next, a Miami Dolphins shirt another day. This prompts Dr. Mark J. Brenner, director of radiation oncology, to inquire, "Larry, don't you have any loyalty?"

Laughter in the hospital.

His ailing riders may ask, "You crazy again, Larry?" He'll turn around and fashion an all-encompassing grin, from which emerges a pet phrase, "No fool, no fun."

He has many soothing words, too, but, "If you joke the right way when people are sick and near death, they accept things better."

Enough of the funny stuff.

The people at Sinai think so much of Mr. Kess' therapeutic skills and generosity that over the holidays, they honored him with a basket of presents.

Mr. Kess often doesn't collect money for his drives. Or he eats most of the fare himself. He is virtually obsessed with a simple idea:

"When people are sick and need help, you help. Many of them are on their way out, but they need to get places first."

Mr. Kess' dozens of mostly elderly and sick clients are on fixed incomes. Often daily, sometimes several times a week, they need cancer radiation treatments or kidney dialysis or rehabilitation or to see a social worker.

Outside the North Baltimore hospital, they may need only to go shopping or see a sister, and they don't have a car, are too old to drive, are confused by public transportation.

He asks "What can you afford?" Or, "I'll pay the difference." Or, "Forget it." Or, "I'll pay half."

An Edmondson Village man came to Sinai for treatment on the wrong day and became highly agitated. "I heard him and said, 'Get in, I'll take you home for nothing.' He calmed down."

The Catonsville driver has never been a Sinai patient -- he was hospitalized elsewhere after he broke his leg once as a sheet-metal worker.

A fellow cabdriver introduced him to the Sinai traffic. Word of mouth among Sinai staffers and patients has helped make him a fixture. He pays a set daily fee to Diamond Cab Co. for the vehicle's use and then can charge as little as he likes. He drives other passengers at normal rates to make ends meet.

Ethel Lockner of Hamden spoke for many of the sick when she said, "Larry's a prince. He'd do anything for my husband, Edward. Edward suffered so much with lung cancer. He died five months ago. But Larry was so good to him the rides and the friendship."

She said she couldn't afford to pay full fare, so she cooked for Mr. Kess instead. The recipient gives her dishes five stars.

Dr. Brenner, the radiation director, called Mr. Kess "a gem who has become crucial to what I do here, as crucial as anybody."

"These radiation patients may need eight weeks of treatment, five days a week. They may not be well-to-do. Transportation is a real problem. A daily matter. So this Joe Cool guy with shades and football shirts starts transporting our patients for treatments. I begin to hear stories about him.

"You can't imagine what this sensitive man does. This big guy escorts little Jewish ladies out of his cab and lovingly takes them into the hospital and walks them all the way to the right department.

"He takes an alcoholic patient who's fallen through the cracks and gets him a bath and buys him a shirt with his own money. He does this over and over.

"There are others who help out here, too. A security guard is learning Russian so he can deal better with the Russian patients but Larry sticks out."

Mr. Kess is proud of his three children and five grandchildren, hasn't planned marriage again since his divorce in 1991 and last took a vacation in 1989 -- a cruise to Bermuda.

The timeliness and urgency of his rides show up in the Kess logbook, packed solid with names, addresses and phone numbers.

Some patients recover in good shape, and he keeps in touch. But many logbook entries end with a notation that the person has died. "Many friends pass," he said and shook his head.

Mr. Kess said he consults his Bible before work each day, often the 23rd Psalm. "I ask God to help me and keep me out of harm and danger. In return, I'll help the sick. It makes me feel good. I think it makes them feel good."

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