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Writing

Conversations with an UBER Driver: From DC back to Dulles

It’s 5:00AM and raining. I sit crouched under a tree by the side of 18th Street waiting for my ride. I see his Toyota pull up around the bend and I rush over.

Emmanuel helps me with my bag and I hop in. We take off towards the airport. He introduces himself as an Ethiopian American. From our destination, he knows that I’m a tourist or a visitor. He asks me how I enjoyed the city.

I had a great time. One of the things that stood out the most was the food. During my week here, I was able to go and try out easily a dozen or so good to great restaurants.

At that his interest is piqued.

“Have you tried any Ethiopian food while you were in DC? There is lots.”

That I had noticed, and while it had been on the radar, it never materialized.

“It’s not matter,” he says. “Next time you are in town, you will try it out.” He pauses a moment, realizing something. “You like spicy food right?”

I love it.

“That’s good,” he seems relieved. “Our food is a lot like Indian food when it comes to spice. Not everyone is able to enjoy it the first time, but they come back and it gets a little better each time.”

I point out that I was amazed to see so many Ethiopian restaurants in one place. In the neighbourhood where I was staying, there were no fewer than three.

“DC is our second country,” he explains. “Back home we have 90 million citizens. Here in Washington DC area, there are 250,000 Ethiopians. That makes this one of our largest cities.” He laughs. “It is a good place to move to. I plan on bringing my family here later this year.”

I tell him that’s great news.

“It is. I haven’t seen my daughter in four years, but this year I will. This year we will all be reunited.”

He quickly cuts into a different comment, asking where I’m from. Canada.
“Canada? I wanted to go to Canada, but they would only let me work one job at a time. How is a man supposed to make enough money with only one job? Here, I worked three for the first six months. It was good. Made lots of money.” He flexes his arm. “Now I only work two. Much more manageable. I get free time now.”

We take an exit that leads towards the airport, but we’re still a while away. He points to the road ahead.

“People, they always talk about the Egyptian pyramids. Any time someone talks about engineering, it’s always pyramids, pyramids, pyramids. But how many people have ever stood and stared at an American highway? I think these are just as impressive.” He pauses, then adds, “and they actually do something. They don’t just sit there in the desert. They move people from place to place.”

I take a moment to admire the highway. I can’t say that I ever thought about it that way before, as something to admire. Mostly just something we take for granted, being able to travel from one state to the next in a matter of minutes.

Convenience.

“All these roads were built by somebody. A generation ago, many of them weren’t here. I wonder what this area will look like one generation from now. The next generation,” he sighs. “I think it’s no good. When I was growing up, things were different. Kids had discipline. You need discipline to get somewhere, you know? Otherwise you are just a kid your whole life. It makes me worried. The worst part is all these things kids say to each other. Bitch, mother fucker… these are silly words. I don’t see why they love them so much. When I was growing up, you see, Ethiopia is a very religious country. No one would go around saying those things to their sister or father or friends but they do here. It must make them feel bold.” He laughs. “I was never so bold back home. No way man.”

We near the airport. It’s still raining. He pulls over to the departures gates.

“Planes too. I suppose those are marvels too aren’t they? Something someone else invented is going to take you back to Canada. Have a good flight.”

I wish him well.

Categories
Writing

Conversations with an UBER Driver: From Dulles to DC

They city was greener than I was expecting.

From the sky, we break through the clouds and make our long descent over parts of Maryland and Virginia. I catch a glimpse of rain-slick streets below.

The sun is breaking out, the wet asphalt catches the star’s bright reflection. Streets look like rivers, parking lots like ponds. I swear I see flooding, but it’s only the last of the rains.

The flight ends with turbulence and I’m happy to land. Customs, just as shaky.

Standing in line, we wait to enter the USA. A man, somewhere off to my side, shouts in a thick Australian or New Zealand Accent. Everyone turns at the sound. He runs past the lines, into a place where passengers clearly shouldn’t be.

“Stop now!” shouts airport security as they close in from all sides. “Stop moving!”

“I’m walking,” was the last discernible thing he says before they surround him. He waves a suitcase wildly. A brief struggle and the man is tackled to the ground. I see the cuffs come out. A moment later he disappears things returned to normal.

Outside, the skies are clear. The arrival ramp crowded and busy. I hail an Uber, hoping to spot him in the crowd and him me. A car that matched the description cruised by.

“Hank!” I shout, bobbing my way through cars parked and immobile. His name is not really Hank but even a driver has a right to some anonymity. The car slows down.

“Thank goodness you spotted me man, it’s packed out here today.” His voice has an accent that strikes me as Virginian but with articulation reminiscent of Denzel Washington. He peers out the open window and opens the door for me. “Hop in.”

We pull away from the airport and that’s when I hear another voice in the car. I then realize it’s his GPS. I think it might be Mr. T, but as if reading my mind he asks: “Have you ever heard of Shaquille O’Neal?” I remark that I have. He nods. “That’s his voice.”

Shaq accompanies us out of the airport and onto the highway.

I decide that I want to talk with Hank. I break the ice and ask about the weather. He mentions that it’s been raining like crazy, but making things a whole lot greener a whole lot faster.

I slide in that I’m from Montreal.

“Montreal?” He repeats, interested. “That’s up in Canada right? State of Quebec?”

“Technically it’s a province.”

“I’m thinking of immigrating to Canada one of these days.”

“Because of what could theoretically happen in the next six months?” I ask, also interested.

“That’s part of it,” he says. “I love my country and I like it here, but I’m not too happy about the prospects of some loud crazy man running our country.”

He looks out the window a moment then resume concentrating on the road. “It tells you a lot about our country and what kinds of people live here if they can make that man a candidate for president.”

He goes on. “America’s been in a bit of a downward slide. Our president’s doing what he can to keep people’s heads above the waters, but there are tears in this country that run deep. I mean we got this useless congress, people paid to pass bills and they aren’t passing any bills. It’s like they got better things to do. How’s a good man like our President supposed to get his job done when we got people like that supposed to be working with him?”

He slows down, suspicious that a car parked on the side of the road might be highway patrol. “But I’m also thinking you guys have got it pretty good with healthcare up there.”

I remark that we do. We can see the doctor for free.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about. Here, our hospitals they try to charge you for anything and everything. They make you pay for the Band-Aids they put on your kid’s finger, or a cup of water. Can you believe it?”
His face takes on a philosophical look.

“When I was young, my dad was in the Navy. Stationed right around here. We had it pretty good, but he was no slouch. Still taught me that even if you have things one day, you gotta work if you want to get anything out of this life. But just working don’t seem to cut it anymore.”

As we reach Arlington, the roads clear up. His phone beeps in notification that another ride is along the way.

“Looks like we got a guy here in Arlington going to the same street as you? You mind if we pick him up?”

I don’t. We take the off-ramp and go looking for the second fair. He finds the street easy enough, but things get tricky.

“Can you believe it? There ain’t no numbers of these buildings.” He’s right. I can’t see a single one. He pulls around one bend and slows down. A blond woman with big sunglasses and a light dress stares into her phone and eyes the car wonderingly. He lowers the window.

“Hey lady, are you Calvin?”

“No”, she answers, seemingly disappointed. Then, rather remarkably, she adds “I’m Carmen.”

“Carmen? Close but no cigar. We’re looking for a Calvin. Sorry to bother you ma’am.” We back up and he turns around. As he does, we see a young Chinese man hurrying from one of the buildings towards the car.

“That must be our boy.” He looks over at the building were Calvin came from. “Sheesh. If he lives in a place like this, he must have deep pockets.

“Or his folks,” I add.

“Yeah, that must be it. Daddy must have a good job.” He glances past rows of cars in the parking. Most of them look just as expensive.

“Are you Calvin my man?” Hank asks and the young man nods. “Alright, hop in.” Calvin hops in.

As we pass through Arlington and get to the bridge, Hank remarks how things have changed.

“When my mother was a little girl, her daddy had a place alongside the canal for the princely sum of $10 a month. $10 can you believe it?” He gestures with his fingers to the rows new buildings. “I can’t even imagine what these stars must coughing up from month to month.”

“Place used to be called Foggy Bottom”, he adds. “Tells you what kind of neighbourhood it was. Now it’s all glamour.”

We cross into Georgetown. The sidewalks are crowded.

“It might look busy now, but last weekend there were people here like you wouldn’t believe it.” He slows down and makes a turn. “Must have been graduation or something.” He looks back at Calvin. “You graduate Calvin?”

“No, not yet.” He replies.

“Well, one day you will, and you’ll see how busy it gets with people and their families flying in from all over.”

We wait to take another turn.

“The damnest thing is there’s a cupcake shop somewhere around here and the other day I saw people standing in line halfway around the block. Can you believe it? Standing in line for a cupcake!”

I remark that they must be pretty good if people are willing to wait that long. He shakes his head.

“After a point, quality don’t matter. Even if that store is selling $10 cupcakes, there’s no way I’d wait in line like that for a single pastry. Anyways,” we turn again, just a block or two from my destination.

Out front, he slows down the car and I get out.

“I hope you have a good time in Washington,” he says.

“Thanks for the ride. Have a good one Calvin.

Calvin looks up from his phone, smiles and nods. They drive off.