I’ve traveled for work the past two weeks, and am jet lagged and tired. This morning was me in slow motion: unmotivated to go to work, dreading the commute on the train. I opted to hail a cab, convincing myself that it was a treat well earned–that I’d been working hard and deserved such a luxury. It took less than 2 minutes to hail a cab.
As I settled into the back seat, I was relieved to see that this cab had a barrier wall between me and the driver: a padded lower portion keeps my knees from bumping the seat ahead of me; whilst a Plexiglas upper portion allows me to see, but prohibits easy conversation. Again, I was tired. I rambled off the address to my office building without even a glance towards the front seat and situated my purse and computer bag. I like to know where everything is, so my phone is handy, and so I’m less likely to forget a bag and leave it in the car when I make my exit. I really didn’t pay attention until the driver repeated the address back to me, and said “Is that right, ma’am?”
I cringed. “Ma’am” is usually a moniker bestowed upon me by a twenty-something. I thought about my graying hair and sighed. Then looking up, realized that the polite driver was an elderly Black man. “Yes, thank you, sir.” I mumbled, embarrassed. And something made me glance at his hands: white gloves. My elderly Black cab driver was wearing black dress pants, a starched white shirt and collar, and yes… white driving gloves. He suddenly had my full attention. And the irony of the past week with the George Zimmerman trial came sweeping over me. All I could think about was that scene from “Driving Miss Daisy”. AUGH. I was the privileged white woman being chauffeured around by a Black man!
Classical music streamed through the cab, along with the chilly draft from the air conditioner. Gosh, it is cold in this cab, I thought. Oh! That’s why he’s wearing the gloves! He’s got the air turned on high for me, and he’s suffering in the front seat. I leaned forward and said “Are your hands cold? Is that why you are wearing gloves? Because you can turn the air conditioner off if you’d like. I’ll be fine.” Somehow my comment felt benevolent to me. I was being gracious. “No ma’am,” he said. “I like the air conditioner. I wear these gloves because my hands hurt on the steering wheel. Friction or something. At the end of the day, my hands just ache if I don’t wear them.” Gosh, Donna. It isn’t about you. Get over yourself.
Gratefully he heard my comments as concern for him, and he opened up. It seems he’s originally from Nigeria. “I am a wealthy man, you see,” he said. “I live in the U.S. for 6 months, and then at my home in Nigeria for 6 months.” He pulled out a packet of photos he had on the seat next to him. “I own 5 acres and have it all walled in. My home is in there. I have 8 bedrooms, and each has its own running water. I have my garden there, and my cattle. Everything I need is there.” He laughs heartily. “I play classical piano.” He nods towards the radio. “My children all like that hip hop music” but he says that his music has “endurance.” “My composers are 300-400 years old and they are still being played on the radio. Theirs will be gone in 3 or 4 years.”
His story begins to unfold: “I became a captain in the Nigerian army on October 1, 1960–the day Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom. I am a man of discipline, and it has served me well. I have married, have achieved a Ph.D. in Chemistry, taught as professor, and raised 4 children. And as of May 2002 my youngest child finished college. Now I am a wealthy man. I sit in my car, in the air conditioning all day, listening to classical music, and people put money in my pocket to drive them around. This is not work. I am a wealthy man. I love life. Life is beautiful.”
This amazing 85 year old man dressed with dignity because it was befitting to him. Not, as I imagined in my narrow perspective, to fulfill the role or stereotype of ‘servant’.
I have much to learn.