I don’t normally take taxis home. It’s a silly expense when home is 12 minutes walking distance from Central Square, but I was running late and my hands were filled with the thin, green, recyclable, plastic bags – signature bags from the super organic and earthy market that I never shop at — but had shopped at.
As I struggled to get out of the car I asked him if he could come back in an hour to take me to the airport. He smiled and willingly agreed.
So I scrambled to get ready, unpacking groceries, writing notes to the family, finding a lone earring here and a hair brush there. Those last-minute things that aren’t that important but feel important at the time.
And as promised he came back. This is when I found out he was from Algeria. He moved to the United States fourteen years ago and lives in East Boston. He drives this cab daily, taking frantic women like me home from grocery shopping, transporting tourists to and from places, and making runs to the airport. Like most cab drivers, he works hard. He doesn’t own his car but leases it, paying the fees out of his daily catch.
We began talking the way immigrants often talk – What was it like when you first came? Did you know English? Where did you live? How did you find work? The questions and answers flowed easily.
At one point he had lived in a suburb south of Boston and we talked about the social isolation of the suburbs, how both of us were lonely when we lived with larger homes and gardens, but less community. “I see people” he said in an accent unmistakably from an Arabic speaking country, “and they make their money and they move. ‘I can live in a house so much cheaper outside of the city’ my friends say. And I look at them and I say ‘But you will be so lonely’ – And they are!”
Along with building malls and lovely houses surrounded by pristine lawns, we have also built walls of isolation, social and physical.
We talked about being strangers in the city and the unlikely sense of belonging that comes with anonymity. We talked about being new in the country, not knowing the rules and having to pretend – pretend that we were happy, pretend that we knew what was going on, pretend that we had it together.
And then we were at the airport and I was grabbing my luggage and making sure I gave a big tip – a tip that showed appreciation not only for his work but also for the conversation. I smiled as I realized I had a deeper conversation with this taxi driver than I have with people who I know far better, who I see every day.
I’ve not seen him again but there have been other ‘cab driver conversations’ – Omar from Turkey, Ahmed from Egypt, Moustafa from Pakistan – they all come with a story, they work hard, none of them own their cabs, all of them face grumpy passengers and long schedules.
But they continue with a tenacity and resilience characteristic of immigrants.
Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners… we find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of being ‘other’ we find belonging and rest, be it in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.
Have you had a ‘cab driver conversation’ recently? An unexpected encounter right when you needed it?