Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sometimes I like a good cab

One spectacularly beautiful morning last spring, I took a cab to work. Everything was green in that primal way that makes green my favorite color. It is unbelievable that a color can take hold of one's heart as green does mine. Especially in Baltimore, and especially in spring. When I got into the cab, I was greeted by reggae, full-blast. What better music for a gorgeous May morning than reggae. I felt as though the cab was practically skipping down the streets of my quiet, early-morning neighborhood. The cab driver was equally lively, with a wide smile and very white teeth. He sort of glowed. Happy. I like Happy. We exchanged pleasantries, and for a couple of minutes, shared a peaceable silence, bopping our heads along to the music. I couldn't place the artist, but the sound was pure joy. We commented on the beauty of the day, and the driver mentioned that these days were gifts and that no one notices the beauty because we're too busy lamenting that we always see the same old thing. He then noted, "Jesus gave us this and we squander it." I listened more closely to the words of the reggae song: "He is Risen." "Hallelujah." I asked the driver, "Is this Christian reggae?", to which he replied "Yes, yes. It is! It is glorious! Praise Jesus."

To say that "I am not religious, but I consider myself spiritual" is almost cliche these days. When people inquire about my faith, I am now inclined to say that I am a student of all faiths. I love them equally. And I appreciate, admire, sometimes even bask in the spirituality of others, as I did in the cab that morning. The driver was delighted to learn that I taught religion as part of my history course, and he quoted the Qu'ran with the same ease that he recited a passage from the Book of Mark (my favorite of the Gospels). He spoke of the presence of God in everything, and he equated Buddha with Jesus. I felt as if I had found my own personal guru.

When we reached my place of work, I thanked him for the wonderful conversation, and said that I hoped I would see him again someday. I asked him his name. "Isaac," he said. And then he stopped, the smile gone for a flash, and said "You will have a son someday." The grin returned, and he ejected the Christian reggae CD. "You have this," he said. When I protested, his smile broadened and he gently said, "But Paige, it is not mine to give. You are supposed to have it, and maybe it is just that we were both in the right place at the right time."

Huh. I suppose sometimes it IS that simple.

When I moved to Baltimore, without a car, and with questionable skills behind the wheel of one, I hadn't really considered the issue of transportation. In my naivete, I assumed that like all cities I had visited, Baltimore would be easy to navigate on foot and with the aid of that marvelous gift to the urban lifestyle, public transport. In my estimation, public transport is the lifeline of a city. It connects neighborhoods, it brings people together, and it makes us all have to learn how to live with one another during rush hour, when the subway is full, stopped interminably, and the subway car smells like chicken wings, or worse, the heat of a New York summer. In my five years of living in New York, I never stopped loving the subway. I enjoyed seeing the same people on my commute. I relished the time to read a book at the beginning and end of every workday. I wrote a lot. But to be honest, most of the time, I just people-watched. I witnessed everything from the spontaneous engagement of a hearing-impaired couple seated across from me to a frantic mother searching each subway car for her missing infant daughter (only to later learn from the evening news that she was responsible for her death). Subways are a barometer of how a society functions and they provide valuable lessons for how we can all learn to function better.

There are so many things that I love about Baltimore, but one of its inherent challenges is its lack of good public transportation.
I have lived in Baltimore for almost ten years now after moving from Brooklyn, New York. While I was primarily a subway girl, late nights working on the Upper East Side sometimes necessitated a midnight cab ride into Brooklyn.The streets of New York - at any hour of the day - scream goldfinch yellow. New York cabs are always there for you - like the postman, sort of. I loved the experience of learning how to effortlessly flag down a cab, how to tell if a meter was "hot" (i.e. if the meter was charging the passenger more than it should), and to this day, I am proud that I rode in one of the few checker cabs left roaming the New York streets. Cabs had me at hello.

Now, in Baltimore, principally because of the public transportation conundrum, I take cabs on a semi-regular basis, something that few people here understand. Baltimore is a city of drivers. I fall into the staunchly pedestrian category (in the truest sense of the phrase). While I recognize that this poses many challenges, I also willingly admit that I am something of a taxi-cab addict and I delight in my cab experiences. And it isn't because the cabs are readily available on my tree-lined, Norman Rockwell street in Baltimore county. They are not. It isn't because they quickly appear after I have called the cab company (a practice that took some getting used to after having perfected my cab-hailing skills in New York). They tend not to. It isn't because they are inexpensive. While I spend less on cabs than one would on a tank of gas, they are still an expense.

Put simply, I love the conversations, and the people with whom I am privileged to spend ten minutes of my day. Perhaps because I know that I only have this short snippet of time with them, I pursue conversation with a tenacity of purpose that over the years, has taught me about the capacity to share feelings, opinions, and indeed, experiences with someone I have never met, and may never see again. Cabs have become the more intimate surrogate for the very thing that I loved most about the subway: interactions with strangers. Except that now, so many of the cab drivers are not strangers. I know their opinions on everything from politics to relationships to the current economic crisis and how it is impacting the cab industry. I know their heartaches, their interests, their loves, and their idiosyncrasies. I know their stories.

Tony, a cab driver I used to see quite frequently and whom I would call for rides, was recently out of jail for burglary when I met him. He fell in love with one of the guards and they were married soon after he was released from prison. He works days and she works nights. Driving a cab was the only job he could find, and he was angry about that. He quit during the summer and text messaged me, telling me he wouldn't be able to give me rides anymore. I didn't expect to see him or hear from him again, and I worried that he might be back in jail. Ronny had a daughter who needed a kidney transplant. He worked three jobs to help cover the cost of her treatment while she waited for a donor. We shared stories of our love of dogs, and he showed me pictures of his 8 Jack Russells and his daughter, a beautiful young woman with dimples and bright blue eyes. Recently, I saw an article about her on CNN's website. She was the first patient to successfully undergo a new kidney transplant operation. I wanted to call Ronny and share my best wishes. It's somewhat challenging to become attached to people and have no way of contacting them.

This past Christmas season was not the most relaxing holiday I have enjoyed in recent memory. Two things, however, made me believe in the power of hope and the goodness of people. The first - Tony sent me a text message saying simply, "Merry Christmas and bless you for your kindness." The second - after truly believing that I would never see Isaac again (because in truth, that one interaction was somewhat lifechanging), he picked me up one extremely cold morning. "Hello Paige," he greeted me with a familiarity that took my breath away. "Bless this beautiful weather!," he exclaimed, as if the trees were shining green and the sky was blue and the sun brought everything into sharper focus. As if it wasn't gray, and it wasn't freezing, and it wasn't drizzling. As if the trees were not completely leafless.

As if I hadn't been squandering this moment. As if faith is everywhere, especially in cabs and subways.

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