Category Archives: Commute

On Rugby and Grace

My seatmate on the CTA this evening was a gentleman from Sierra Leone. We got to talking and laughing about the horribly lopsided score of the NZ All Blacks vs. US Eagles match on Saturday. He asked me how much I paid for tickets and I felt a little evasive. I answered by saying how much the face-value of the tickets were, then said I’d paid a bit more than that. He then added up the cost of parking and the food and guessed how much the afternoon cost me.

I grew horribly uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed by the extravagance. He realized that and said “But lady, some times things are once-in-a-life-time events, and worth every penny. Five years ago I insisted that my wife and I take our kids home to Sierra Leone to meet my family there. It was very costly and we debated whether we should. I finally told her to stop worrying and let’s just do it. Now, my children are older and might remember more and appreciate the trip more… but look at the world. With ebola like it is and the travel restrictions, and how many are sick and getting sick… we will likely never go again. So many in my family are dying, we’ll likely never see them again. It was good and opportune that we went when we did. I wanted my mama and papa to know my children. And they got to meet them. Some of my family is in the village… we can’t even phone and find out if they are still alive.”

It brought tears to my eyes. He reached out and held my hand for a moment, then dropped it and wiped tears from his.

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This morning I brought my cab driver to tears…

"This is the story of a cab driver. Not of a white, American woman."

“This is the story of immigrant cab drivers.  Not of a white, American woman.”

My cab driver this morning was pretty quiet, until he asked me what route I wanted to take (about 10 minutes into the fare).  I told him “I don’t care… you guys know better than I do what the traffic and construction is like in the city.  Take whatever route you think is best.”  That somehow seemed to open us up for conversation.

He began asking me the usual: if I’d always lived in Chicago, why I moved here, etc.  I find these questions are often an inroad for these immigrant men to talk about their own lives, so I’m always happy to oblige.  I answer their questions and then turn the same questions back on them.  He mentioned he was from India, but had lived in the U.S. now almost 20 years.

“What do you do for a living, ma’am?” was the next question.  “I work in technology.  Educational technology.”  He nodded in acknowledgement, then remarked about the scarcity of jobs these days, and asked if I thought getting an education was worth it any more, with college tuition now so high, and income so uncertain.  I responded with my industry standard (as someone who works in a for-profit educational institution) “I think the youth are going to have to focus on professions instead of liberal arts.”  And then I paused, because I was feeling a bit dishonest. “Liberal arts are important, and give you a broader perspective on life.  But it is very hard to start out in such deep debt.  I don’t know.  To be honest, my heart says kids should definitely get an education, but my head knows it is very hard to pay for.”

He looked at me skeptically in the rear view mirror.  “Look,” I said, “You are talking to a woman who did doctoral work, but is working in a completely different field now just so she can pay her student loans.”  He seemed surprised.  “You have a doctorate in technology?!?!” he asked with more than a hint of incredulity.  No, I reassured him. I studied theology.

He stared straight ahead and said nothing more.  Then I noticed his shoulders began to shake. A hand reached up and he wiped his eyes.  Finally, he simply pulled over, apologizing the whole time.  And that’s when I realized he was laughing.

“You spent 20 years studying theology and you manage a technology group?!” he roared, cracking up.  “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.  This is the story of immigrant cab drivers.  Not of a white American women.”

And I had to laugh too.

What a cab driver from Kashmir taught me about hockey…

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

I got stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, the first night of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and the Blackhawks.  My cabbie was visibly frustrated as time passed with little movement.  He counts on multiple fares each hour to meet the cost of renting the cab each day, let alone make a profit.  Sitting for over an hour in traffic doesn’t bode well for his income for the day.  I caught him watching me in the rear view mirror. He’d been pretty quiet thus far in the trip.

I smiled and told him to put me on the clock, instead of charging me by the mile.  He smiled REAL big and said “You understand taxi drivers, yes?” I laughed and said, “Well, I understand what it is like to be struggling to make a living wage.  And I want to be fair with your time.”

We chatted about the usual ‘stuff’ then, the ice apparently broken by reliving his financial anxiety.  We talked about places we’d lived, and about the city of Chicago.  I asked him if he was a hockey fan (seeing that night’s traffic was due to the first game of the Stanley Cup finals).  He shook his head no, but then said “Wait.  That’s not fair. Let me explain…”

“I do not care for the violence, ma’am.  I have seen too much violence in my life.  But then, it is not any more violent than any other sport, is it?  At any rate, it is not a sport I grew up with. But I must confess that I rejoiced when Patrick Kane made that goal last week.  That goal paid a million people.”

I looked at him quizzically.  He smiled. “You see, he scored that goal, and hotel workers, airline workers, cab drivers, restaurants… all of Chicago benefited.  That goal set in motion (like a trigger or a catalyst) a series of events which will ensure that we have plenty of work, and good income. For that goal, I thank Allah.”

And I smiled, pondering the thought that it takes more than a village: it takes a hockey goal.

Being in the crossroad…

With my cat, all routes pass through my lap. She will walk 20 ft out of her way to walk across me, sometimes returning to the very spot in which she started.    If I’m asleep, she will jump on the bed, walk the full length of my body, leap off, and trot to the bathroom sink to get a drink out of the tap. I am a feline thoroughfare.

Pausing for inspection on the way for a drink of water.

Pausing for inspection on the way for a drink of water.

It would seem that in the realm of feline philosophy, it really indeed is all about the journey.

On American progress….

My cab driver this morning was a friendly, talkative Nigerian man.  I asked him if he was going to vote tomorrow, and he frowned and shook his head: “I cannot because I won’t get my citizenship until next year.  I’m sorry to be missing this election because I believe it to be very important.  This country is so divided right now–a house against itself.”  I asked him if he had a favorite candidate, and he was quite vocal on which candidate he thought was most trust-worthy, who most clearly is in touch with the poor, and who won’t abuse his power.  He went on to express his anticipation of becoming a US citizen, and how excited he’d be to have the privilege to vote in 2016.  “I never really understood human advancement until I came to this country.  In my country, if there had been this much ideological conflict, there would be bodies everywhere.  Corruption is pervasive and death would reign.  Here, we argue and fight and then life goes on.”

I quieted as I listened to him speak.  I’ll admit that I believe I am lucky to be a citizen of this country, and in large part, what he says is true (at least for me, a white, middle-class woman).  But I get antsy and nervous when someone begins declaring this the greatest of all nations, particularly when that someone is from another land. I looked at his face in the rear view mirror and noted the scars running across his dark cheeks: a tribal ritual declaring his manhood.

I hesitated then finally offered this: “You are right: there are some places in the world where political differences end up in a blood bath. Guns run rampant, and disagreements are settled with weapons.  But here I think the violence is more insidious.  Here, we kill people through neglect by our trickle down theories.  We assume that markets will right themselves.  We are Darwinian in our handling of social problems–we watch the poor die slow deaths in food deserts: deaths of diabetes and cholesterol related illnesses.  We wring our hands in astonishment and murmur to ourselves about the respect for life as we watch folks on the south side kill each other in gun fights, gang fights, and drug deals.  Yet we don’t see how our latent racism contributes to the lack of self-respect and respect for others.  No sir… we don’t have politicians wielding armies or raising weapons over their heads, but we do have violence in our streets.  Violence that is too easy for white middle-class Americans to ignore.  And when we vote  so that an election only benefits a certain portion of the population, we are killing people slowly, in our own insidious way.”

He took a long look at me in the mirror and said “God knows you speak the truth, sister.”

The burden of poverty

I overheard the following speculation about the fast-approaching winter weather between two of my colleagues at the office: “One nice thing about winter in Chicago…there aren’t as many homeless around begging for money.” His conversation partner nodded in agreement.  They proceeded to discuss how it was hard to walk down the sidewalk at times without being accosted by beggars.  The usual “they are just going to buy drugs and alcohol” meme was repeated.  These gentlemen parted company as I made my way to the coffee machine.  I found myself suddenly conscience about the spare change I was using to get that cup of coffee.  I muttered something to the effect that the homeless weren’t migratory birds.  That elicited some harsh looks and one colleague said “You know what I mean… the homeless are a pain.”

I was stunned.  Yes. I know exactly what he meant.  We’ve become so very self-sufficient that we view poverty as a burden upon the wealthy.  How’s that for turning economics and logic on its head? It isn’t the poor who are burdened by their poverty: it is the wealthy who are inconvenienced, temporarily made to feel guilty, and are forced into being arbiters of stewardship and grace.  The poor just have to be poor.  (Read that as lacking agency, autonomy, etc.).  It is their ontology.


I said it before but it bears repeating here: When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it was not to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because it’s a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives.

In this particular season, remembering the words “the poor will always be among us” is to remember that their lack of visibility isn’t an indicator that poverty is being eradicated: to the contrary, the poor are dying to find shelter–quite literally.

To my grousing, nibbling colleagues who are making upwards of $100K, I ask you to learn to unburden yourselves of poverty, and instead embrace the burden of wealth (which is properly yours anyway).  Lay aside your claims to self-sufficiency and learn to recognize that the position you are in was not self-made. Be grateful for those who gave you a break: for parents who provided a home, guidance, an education; for health–both mental and physical; for employers who took a risk in hiring you for that first job; for congregations who provide you a spiritual home.  Remember that you didn’t earn everything you have.  Grace was afforded you when you least deserved it. Be an extension of that grace to others.

Dear men-in-my-life…

This evening I had to work late, and took a cab home because I was tired and didn’t want to spend an hour on the train.  I got into a cab without thinking much about it. We started down the street and the door automatically locked.  I noticed the cab smelled bad: as if someone had been smoking in it.  And that it was filthy.  I told the driver where I wanted to go the corner of “Sheridan and XXXX”.  He said “I’ll take you via Ashland.”  I told him I normally go on Lake Shore Drive when I take a cab, but he argued with me, in a very patronizing tone, that he thought traffic would be better if we went his route, and that the last time he took Lake Shore (my route), he got stuck and had to ask his passengers to get out of the cab.  Slightly alarmed,  I asked “you aren’t going to leave me stranded somewhere, are you?”  I would gladly get out and hail another cab, if that was the case.

The next thing I know I’m on I-94 (quite the opposite direction) heading north and feeling quite panicked.  And my anxiety went through the roof.  He didn’t talk, he just drove erratically and very fast and turned the radio up.  He didn’t answer my questions.  He finally got off on Peterson and then drove east over to Clark and then to XXXX, running lights and take curves too fast.  I was almost in tears, feeling like I was being kidnapped, wondering how to roll out of a moving car without getting hurt.  I pulled my cell phone out and had the emergency number under my finger tip.  By the time I got home the fare was about $10 more than it normally would be, and I was a mess.

When we arrived, he said “See.  This was quicker than Lake Shore.”  When I got out, I stood there next to the car with the door open and lost it with the driver, yelling and ripping him a new one.  “You NEVER ignore a woman and take her or a route in the dark that she’s not familiar with, and you NEVER refuse to talk to her.  You NEVER lock a woman in your car like that!  YOU NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. How dare you!!”
I was so upset when I got inside that the doorman came over and hugged me out of concern, afraid I’d been assaulted. He also went out and yelled at the driver once I explained in gulping sentences what had happened.
And now I’m embarrassed.  But angry. It just didn’t feel safe at all: very vulnerable in the hands of some strange man who wouldn’t listen.  And all in an attempt for some complete stranger to prove a point to me.
Now I recognize these are unusual circumstances, and that the guy was a jerk.  But let me be clear to all the men-in-my-life: women experience vulnerability differently from men.  
In a society where 1 out of every 4 women experiences rape, you need to learn that women spend a great deal of their time being ‘careful’ and guarding themselves.  The world is a potential hazard: so we have learned to be cautious in ways you don’t think about.  I have a good friend who finds it silly that I don’t like to walk alone to and from the train stop near my building after dark: he sees it as no big deal–just a couple blocks.  He also laughs because I’ll walk way around a parking lot to go somewhere, instead of between parked cars, especially at night, as I don’t like the shadows and feel unsafe.  I’ve tried to talk to him about this: that women have a very different perception of what is and isn’t safe… but he never quite gets it.  “Aren’t you feminists supposed to be tougher than this?” he asks.  Or he jokingly comments “Oh, Donna… you’re a big girl.  You could take him.”
I have been quite shaken by the cab incident.  And I unreasonably feel foolish about it.  I say ‘unreasonably foolish’ because I have every reason to have been shaken.
I had to take a cab again this morning, and found myself in silent tears in the back seat: this time, for no good reason.  This time, the driver was polite, asked the route I wished to take, ensured I was comfortable in the car, etc.  But my irrationality… my ‘hysteria’… my nervousness was rooted in a real cause.
So please remember: when we ask you to walk us to the train, or out to our cars, or whatever… we are not looking for etiquette.  We are not envisioning some romantic perspective on the world, where men hold doors open, throw their coats down in the rain to keep our shoes from getting wet/dirty, always pick up the check, and bring us flowers.  We are asking that you acknowledge that the word is a dangerous place: more so for some than others.  And to do your part.

Faith which has no bound(arie)s…

I’d been down at my folks’ for a weekend, and was returning to Chicago via Amtrak.  The journey south had been uneventful, albeit there was the raucous of a small child who apparently was in training for the senate: practising his filibuster skills; and then a grandma-type who promised she wouldn’t talk, but didn’t live up to her promise the whole three and a half hour trip.  I listened to her all the while running the ‘geesh, lady… have some boundaries” tape in my head.

Subsequently,  I found myself dreading the return trip, tired from having worked outside in the fresh air all Saturday, and hoping for peace and quiet. As I stood on the platform waiting for my train to arrive, I was surrounded by other passengers: joking and laughing; some smoking; all coming off as loud and obnoxious.  There sat on the lone bench, a very large black woman, who was hollering at a guy smoking over in the corner.  I thought, wow… I’d sit down but there isn’t room for both of us on that bench, nor is it clear the bench would hold.

I chose to stand, and eventually moved my way down the platform and away from the cigarette smoke.

I was feeling pretty smug when the train arrived, as I discovered myself planted on the platform immediately in front of the stairs we were to embark.  This meant I had first dibs on seating!  I rushed aboard and found an empty row of seats and planted myself there.  I strategically placed my purse on the seat next to me in the hopes that it would deter someone from sharing the ride as my companion.  And as the train began finally to pull away from the station, I breathed a sign of relief–I’d maintained the whole row of seats for myself.  I closed my eyes and prepared to sleep for the few hours back to Chicago.

“Excuse me,” the voice prompted.  “Can I please sit here?”  I opened me eyes to find the very large black woman staring down at me, pointing at the seat next to me which was currently occupied by my purse.  “Of course!” I responded with feigned enthusiasm.  I picked up my purse and slid closer to the window.

She sat with a heavy ‘plop’ next to me–or more appropriately ‘on’ me.  There was simply not room for the two of us in that row.  I squished to the side as much as possible.  We sat for a couple of minutes like this, her thigh overlapping mine.  I finally inquired as to what her destination was, wondering if I’d be spending my whole three and a half hour ride in this forced intimacy.  “Oh,” she said. “We get off at the next town only 40 minutes from here.”  She explained that she and her husband were going to church.  Wow, said I.  Do you take the train to church every Sunday?  I imagined the expense of such an ecclesial commute.

What followed opened my eyes and heart.  “Well, can I tell you why?” and she launched into her personal story.  In my head I sighed and thought that once again, I’ll be worn out by the time I get back to my apartment.

Here is what she relayed:  I know I look older, but I’m really only twenty-three. You see, I have multiple sclerosis (MS). I’m doing fairly well this week, and I was able to climb the steps to the train with only minimal help. I’m just walking slow. But MS cost me my vision in one eye, and I often lose my balance too. I just have to be careful. My legs are pretty numb, and I lost my driver’s license because my doctor wouldn’t clear me medically to drive. My weight doesn’t help my balance either–but all the steroids I’m on have caused the weight gain. It’s a catch-22 as I need them to be able to walk; but taking them makes me gain weight and it is hard to walk. So that’s why my husband and I just take the train.

She leaned forward and tapped her husband on the head in the row ahead of us.  He turned and smiled.  He was the young man who’d been smoking in the corner.  He gave a half-hearted, clumsy wave.  I figured he was embarrassed.

She continued:   My husband can’t drive either.  He has some medical concerns as well.  You see, we used to live in Chicago.  He was sitting on the front stoop one afternoon talking with his friends, and a man drove by and shot him 14 times.  I glanced back up at him and realized that his clumsy wave was simply that he lacked the coordination to do otherwise.  His arms were covered in scars from bullet wounds.  We attend church this far away because there isn’t one close to us who will welcome a black couple.  You know, you do what you gotta do…

As if her story wasn’t enough, she proceeded to formally witness to their faith.  In spite of all she’d been through in her very short life, she and her husband know God personally and believe in God’s presence watching over their lives.  Her witness was peppered with the declaration of how ‘blessed’ she was.  She inquired as to whether I was a person of faith, and rejoiced tearfully when I confirmed this.

I was stunned, and grateful for the woman who spilled out over the boundaries to share her faith.

Its a small world after all…

In a cab this morning, the driver told me that he’d never intended to be a cab driver and that really, he was a student. I was caught a bit off guard, and wondered what prompted this personal disclosure.  What are you studying? I asked. “I came from The Congo to Chicago to study Classical theology”. Huh, I said. I came from New Guinea to Chicago to study Postcolonial Theology.

We both had a good chuckle–to the point where he pulled the cab to the side of the road to wipe the tears from his eyes.

And I’ve made a friend.

Virtual realities…

I spent the last week at the JW Marriott Resort in Orlando, FL on business. For four days I didn’t leave the resort grounds as I was involved in business meetings from morning until late night.  But nothing was missing even though I was confined to the hotel: the vistas were incredible from the window, the pool inviting, the lazy river tempting, the walking paths paved smooth, and not a leaf out of place.  Not a leave out of place...Contained within the hotel was a convenience store, gym, wellness clinic and spa, Starbucks, clothes shops, restaurants, cleaners, shoe shiners, a news stand, bank… you name it, it was available: all to be charged to the room in a simple signature.  In the mornings a maid came and cleaned up my messy room, brought fresh white sheets and towels and removed all traces of waste from my room. At night another uniformed woman came in and turned down my bed, leaving chocolates on the pillows. I didn’t have to mess with the vulgarity of daily living; I didn’t even need to handle cash.

For those four days I breathed in conditioned air, bathed with spa soaps, ate gourmet foods. I listened to papers and presentations by people who are top in the field: the brightest minds on the bleeding edge of educational technologies. Every hall conversation was polite, and elevator rides were friendly.  Those I encountered were servile: at my beck and call wanting nothing more than to grant me a magical experience.

The one outing I took from the hotel was in a large luxury bus, designed to take groups to and from resort locations.  I sat with forty others in leather bucket seats which reclined, listening to my own private music as a friendly porter carried us to an Argentine restaurant: a facsimile of Carnivàle, complete with tango dance lessons, open bar, Cuban cigar rolling, fortune telling, artists painting, etc… we were transported to another world just twenty minutes from the hotel.  We could buy ‘authentic’ Argentine crafts made in China as souvenirs.

On the way to the restaurant, we drove through neighborhood after neighborhood of McMansions: each with large SUVs parked in the drive.  Occasionally you’d see the armored Hummer taking up more than its fair share of the driveway.  Endless suburbia stretched before us, disrupted by the occasional strip mall. The way was paved smooth.

I arrived back to Chicago late in the evening at O’Hare to find myself amongst other weary travelers, looking for their luggage. Conversations swirled around me in Hindi, Spanish, Polish and Greek. People pushed and shoved each other out of the way, children cried, husbands got short with their wives.  The taxi driver spoke little English, the cab was filthy and smelled from an overpowering air freshner.  He weaved his way through traffic at breakneck speed, bouncing this exhausted passenger from side to side.  Nausea ensued.

We drove through the Pakistani neighborhood where you can buy halal meat, then the Indian neighborhood where saris glittered the shop windows. We wove our way to my building through the West Indian and Ethiopian districts where the tang of Injera hung in the air . The doorman was not at the front desk and I had to wait several minutes to be let in.  The night air was cold.  The mail box was jammed with the week’s correspondence, much of which was balled up in the back of my box.  My apartment smelled musty and the cat litter needed changing.  She’d thrown up on the carpet in a couple of spots.  She greeted me with loud complaints about my absence, all the while rubbing cat hair all over my legs.

I was home. And I loved it.