At zero-dark-thirty this past Thursday morning, outside my hotel on Manhattan's upper west side, I stepped into a yellow cab, settled myself on the hard vinyl seat, and greeted my driver. A burly man turned and greeted me with a big smile and an accented, happily enthusiastic "good morning." As I invariably do when I'm in the city (a native New Yorker, I can't stop myself from referring to the Big Apple as such), and find myself in a taxi with a driver who evidences clear signs of being an immigrant, I asked my newest victim where he was from.
The facts came pouring out as we cut through Central Park and headed to the airport via the FDR Drive: eleven years since he left Africa. Legal. An American citizen. Now married with an eight year old daughter and a four year old son. Lives in Brooklyn, $1450 for an apartment, expensive, but it's two bedrooms, so that's good. Yes, uber has cut into his business. Whereas previously, he garnered $200 take home, after paying for his cab lease and gas, per twelve hour shift, that figure has dwindled to $150. That's a 25% decrease in his income, but I didn't hear one word of criticism about uber, any complaint about the unfairness of it all, merely acceptance. He drives his taxi six days per week. $150 per shift works out to $12.50 per hour, and nearly ten days of his pre-tax paycheck goes to housing. He lives in one of the most expensive cities in the country, raises a family on that amount of money. Fair and unfair didn't enter the conversation. It is what it is.
We started talking about the recurring sting of the presidential election outcome. Of course I lamented its result. He agreed it wasn't ideal, mentioned that he has ferried many, many upset passengers in the subsequent weeks, including an 82 year old woman who wept as they discussed what lay ahead. She had wanted to celebrate the election of a woman president so badly, among other things.
I remembered my 84 year old father's comment the night before while we ate dinner together. He is a former Democrat, who first voted Republican for Nixon in 1972, back when I was fourteen. Now he's a principled, pro-growth conservative, a man who believes in our constitution, who has waged his own battle to spread democracy through education, through the sharing of original historical documents that date back to the country's founding (the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History). This election, he discovered a bridge too far on November 8th, a lever he could not pull.
"I've lived through great presidents and terrible presidents," he observed. "The country is strong enough to survive."
My driver surprised me, echoing the spirit of my father's words. Was he channeling my old man? "It's going to be okay." He reassured me. "We will get through this." He didn't sound angry or jubilant, but calm, confident.
I thought about all my fears for this country that, up to November 9th, I had unabashedly loved, claimed as mine, and proudly represented. Those apprehensions arose from a stew of concerns stirred by the Republican presidential candidate's relentless hate-mongering during the too-long campaign season. I recalled his deliberate lying and tweeting of misinformation, his thin-skinned belligerence, his utter ignorance of countless critical matters. And now, of course, this president-elect's varied appointments over the past several weeks have only enriched that stew of mine, added meat and potatoes to the flavored concoction he had bestirred before the electoral college system crowned him as the 45th president of the U.S.
I listened to the tone in my driver's voice. The voice of an immigrant, an African, a man working to support his family, to educate his children, a natural target for the newly empowered haters stepping into the limelight across the U.S., focused on what's possible. I thought about my father's measured tone, a man who has witnessed many of the nation's highs and lows.
There are always things to regret about the past, losses and what-might-have-beens. My driver didn't spend one moment wishing for a long-gone factory job that guaranteed a blue-collar income. He didn't insist on remaining in the hometown he loved, a comforting community perhaps, but one where employment that matched his aspirations no longer existed. He didn't deny the possibly confronting reality that education and training is the only ticket to a different future, where survival depends on adaptation, not resistance to change. He didn't wait for a demagogue to save a job which has departed for foreign shores and already arrived in the land of no return, propelled by the winds of automation.
No lamentation at all, this man, at 5:45 on a chilly Thursday morning, driving me to JFK where I could catch my flight back home, told me that he would have to wait at least 90 minutes for a fare out of the airport, and that was a short wait, doing his part to make America great. Cheerful, resolute. He is not an innocent, nor is he ignorant. He has seen worse than I have. He knows that America, comparatively speaking, is already great. He believes in what humanity can make possible, despite personal experience to the contrary.
We reached Terminal 4 and the cab stopped outside the Delta Airlines signage. The fare was $54. Including tip, I charged $100 on my credit card. Not enough for the courage and direction he offered me. I wish I'd given him more, for his reminder to let my hope shine forth, to pierce the darkness of my own despair, was priceless.