The Forgetten Four: An American Retrospective (Pt.1)

 

"I’ve never had a penchant for making myself the center of attention. It just isn’t a part of me. Somewhere between the values of my Midwestern roots and Irish immigrants, any sort of need to tout accomplishments or be in the limelight was lost. That isn’t to say that I don’t take pride in my work and want to be my best self, rather, it just isn’t within my personality to talk about myself. Even complements from family and friends make me uneasy. There are just more important things to focus one’s attention on, and I happily rank low on that list.

These aren’t my stories, rather the stories of four American’s that I count myself blessed to have met. Each has faced adversity in their day, each has experienced a different America. Between a Nigerian immigrant cab driver, a Sioux man from the Black Hills of South Dakota, a Black hotel coffee maker, and a veteran of the Second World War, I’ve learned a few lessons. We try so hard to be politically correct and to be open to everyone that sometimes we lose our way. Every person faces different problems from their neighbors, be it based on the color of their skin, their orientation, or any reason at all. Though I never learned the names of these people, I’m proud to be the one to tell their stories."- Doerr

 

Part 1: The Cabby

My first tale is of a Nigerian cab driver I met in my Baltimore days. He was kind, open to conversation, and had this permanent smile on his face. Not just a grin, but a smile, a real smile. The type of smile that made your day instantly better. He started by asking me the general questions any college-aged man receives from a stranger. Where do you study? What is your major? Why here of all places? Where are you from? I answered the string of questions with my now memorized response. Being the recipient of that same string of questions more than a hundred times within the past half year (and admittedly, a bit of a jerk at the time), I decided to throw it back to him.

“Where are you from?”

He was quick to answer. Proud to answer. He told me of his immigration from Nigeria during his teenage years, about how he lived in Baltimore housing projects his up until recently. He had saved money from his day job, as well as picked up a ton of extra driving shifts. Now into his late twenties, he was a homeowner, living happily in the outskirts of the city with his wife and children. I complemented him for doing so well for himself, and he pointed at an American flag pin affixed to his baseball cap.

“It was all because of this, all because you can dream and become anything here. I lived with a family of more than twenty in Nigeria. My house was always filled with people, and shared a room with three other family members. Growing up, I shared rooms with my brothers and sisters. I haven’t sat in a room alone my entire life, and now I can.”

I was speechless, it was if everything I ever experienced from my youth to then had been uprooted. Sure, I grew up a mile outside of Newark and have witnessed the projects firsthand, but only witnessed. I never went inside, never heard the stories of the residents. I’m a child of privilege who could always retreat to the solitude of my room whenever life became too much to bear. Dormitory living was a shock to my system the first time, so the very thought of sharing a cramped space with anyone was abhorrent to me.

We had about ten minutes left on the ride, and he was ready to share more. He told me of his family in Africa, of his son and his daughter, of his schooling, and how he was ecstatic to be able to drive people around the city and learn their stories. He told me how much the concept of doing a job and receiving payment excited him.

Through all of his stories and anecdotes, I just remember his smile. The way his voice rang out when he spoke about his jobs, and the way it trembled when he talked about how he would raise his children and what it was like being a father. He was beaming with joy, as if the prospect of just living was what got him out of bed in the morning. Soon we were ending our experience together, much to my chagrin. Within the last five minutes, he brought up a topic considered too controversial for two strangers. He brought up politics.

“What did you think of this election cycle?”

He was referring to the 2016 election, the very definition of a divisive period in American history. There was no way I was going to talk about my politics with a stranger. As open-minded and independent as I consider myself, the subject is inherently difficult. I once again flipped the question back, asking him his opinions on it.

“The whole experience of voting was amazing, like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It was almost surreal, to be able to pick who I want to govern me. Truthfully, it didn’t matter to me who won.”

I had to ask him why that was.

“Politicians always want what is best for their country, no matter what. They share the same sense of an American Dream, they just see it differently sometimes. But that’s okay!”

And there it was, we had arrived at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. It was time to say goodbye. Though there was a large white sign with red lettering that expressly said, “no tipping”, I handed my new friend a ten and got out of the cab. He rolled down the window and waved goodbye, that glowing smile as big as ever. I watched his taillights disappear into the cityscape.

I would never see him again, I would never even know his name, but I would never forget this man.