was so fresh off the boat he didn't realize that his every utterance was a cliché
is the land of opportunity
, my friend. Every man is free to work and to feed his family, to live in peace." I was merely making small talk with a cabby
when I asked him what he thought of America so far. "In my country it is difficult and dangerous. Every man must struggle every day to survive. We are all blessed to live in this place." His enthusiasm and sincerity told me that the hackneyed rhetoric was new to him.
"You look like a kid, Daniel, don't tell me that you have a family to support." His eyes were smiling behind his sunglasses when he turned to me in the backseat and said, "I am twenty-two years old. I have four children and each is an American!" Daniel held my gaze until he was certain I gathered the weight of his words and in that moment I realized I had met my first perfectly happy human being.
Daniel made the crossing from Ethiopia when he was eighteen, accompanied by his wife and younger brother. He and his brother Samuel had both taken jobs driving cab for the same company within a month of their arrival and had been productively crisscrossing Minneapolis ever since.
I met Daniel as the result of a ruthless conspiracy between the State of Minnesota and The Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The Breathalyzer read .10 exactly
so I dodged the full-blown drunk driving
charge but received the consolation prize of a "wet careless." It's slightly more serious than a simple careless driving ticket but less stigmatizing than the dreaded DWI. This "DWI Lite" was the result of a compromise between a powerful lobby and a state government
that couldn't build prisons quickly enough. I had to pay five hundred dollars
and take a cab to the tavern for sixty days.
Getting liquored up in a bar is a spendy proposition to begin with and sliding there and back in a cab is worse. The hidden costs of my new hobby were spiraling out of control so I needed to mitigate the expense somehow. I had already rationalized the tavern going itself as research for my novel but the forty bucks each way in a cab was breaking my back.
I noticed that most of my taxi cab drivers were East African and many of them were from the same part of Ethiopia. I had been marked in their circle as a long fare and a soft touch so they were the first at the curb when the phone rang. They were a ridiculously friendly bunch and I came to realize that they were tight with one another and that two of them were brothers. It occurred to me that I could get a "value added" cab ride if I pumped them for first hand information about their homeland and language. The ride was twenty-five minutes each way so I'd be getting a safe driver and an Ethiopian tutor for less than a hundred bucks an hour.
Daniel gave me two cell phone numbers and told me that I could call them directly at any time and he or his brother would answer. When I explained that I wanted him to tutor me on Ethiopian to mitigate the expensive ride, he was surprised and delighted. We fell into a pattern of him teaching me vocabulary on the ride to the bar and testing me on what I had retained, through the storm of alcohol, on the ride home. He instructed his brother, Samuel, to speak to me in Ethiopian exclusively whenever he answered my call.
Both brothers were articulate, erudite and eager to share what they knew with one of the natives. Daniel told me that in four years I was the first person to ask about his homeland. Everyone else wanted to remind him how lucky he was to be in America, something he understood far better than they did. What started a couple of months before as a frivolous cab ride, became the center of my summer and among my fondest experiences in this life.
Daniel and Samuel taught me everything I know about Ethiopia and I'm in their debt.
As you get older
your circle of acquaintances broadens and the odds against seeing people you know on television and in the newspaper narrow to even money. When I moved from a small town to a large city I read the accident reports and obituaries from the small town with some trepidation, almost certain I would know the people involved. It seems paradoxical but there is a greater distance between people in a crowd and the big city will desensitize you with nameless tragedy.
I remember the first time I saw someone I knew in the big city newspaper. I would normally flip right past the obituaries but for some reason I glanced at the exact spot in the page with a name I knew. "Hey Mary, look, that guy I tended bar with at the hotel downtown is dead at 32. Yep, It's the same guy. It says survived by a sister named Tina." It seemed strange that someone I knew should emerge from a swirl of more than two million souls but there it was in black and white.
With the passage of time and the broadening of my circle such an event became tragically commonplace. It was a rare newspaper that didn't contain a friend or a friend of a friend bumping into a bad scene. I didn't have to sift through the little obituaries to get the story on my African friend.
Homicidal mania sells newspapers so they spilled ink all over the front page for the murdered cabby. The story of the killing was all over the previous night's news so I didn't feel I needed to read the gory details. I'm ashamed to say that I was going to ignore the story and look for happier news until the word "Ethiopian" caught my eye. The account of the tragedy triggered recognition slowly, each word harder to read than the last through glazed eyes, "named Daniel, survived by brother Samuel, aged twenty-two, four children."
Daniel's wife explained to the reporter that they emigrated from Ethiopia to escape violence.