One rainy night recently, I walked out of my friend's house in South Philly and raised my arm to hail a taxi. I was just beginning to think I should have taken my friend's offered umbrella when an approaching cab flicked its hazard lights and pulled over. I hopped in, exhaled a grateful "Thank you," and gave the driver directions to my apartment.
As my friends will attest, I am one to strike up a conversation with just about everyone: the woman giving me a pedicure, the stranger at Dunkin' Donuts, or the nun waiting for a westbound trolley at 19th Street. I've loved hearing stories ever since my mother read me TheWater-Babies, by Charles Kingsley, when I was 7.
Anyway, back to the rainy night. "How are you?" I asked, leaning forward in my seat to make eye contact with the driver in the rearview mirror.
"I am fine, thank you," a heavily-accented voice replied. His name was Saharo.
I always like to guess where taxi drivers are from. Although I have a horrible track record for guessing correctly, I have found that my wrong guesses always garner at least a little laughter. Based on his French accent, I guessed that Saharo was from Haiti. Following a shake of his head, I blurted out all the West African countries I could conjure up. Eventually, both of us in stitches, I gave up, and he told me his home country was Sierra Leone.
Each conversation I have with a stranger is different. Some want to talk about their sorrows, others want to convey words of wisdom, and still others want to tell me about their families or just talk about the weather.
Saharo was easy to talk to, but I somehow knew not to ask him more about Sierra Leone. He told me that his family is here in the United States — "Thank God," he smiled — and that he was having a wonderfully productive day on account of the rain.
I happened to have a copy of the Proust personality questionnaire in my bag (an indication of my interest in people). I like its simple, defining questions, just as easily answered by a baron or a bartender. Most of all, I like how people seem to enjoy telling others about aspects of their characters that are mostly smothered by the small talk of our daily exchanges.
I told Saharo that I wanted to ask him a few questions. He turned down the Katy Perry blasting through the cab's speakers and said, "OK."
"What do you like the most about yourself?"
"My kindness," he quickly answered.
"If not yourself, who would you be?"
A pause, before he responded: "I'm happy to be myself, but, if I had to be someone else? A politician."
The next few exchanges flowed more smoothly. His favorite food, without hesitation: "Doro wat, which is chicken with hot peppers." His current state of mind? "Happy. I feel happy because I get to come to work, meet some nice people. … Sometimes, crazy people, too."
In the present
At the end, Saharo left me at my door, I left him a $2 tip, and he let me take his picture. For me, what remains from this conversation is his smile and the lightness of our exchange.
We have enough tough conversations each day. We have enough worrying about protests, violence, and war zones. It seemed important to let Saharo leave that part of his life in the past, at least for the duration of our 15-minute ride.
I learned to stay, at least sometimes, in the present. That was Saharo's gift to me.