Tuesday, December 20, 2011


"...to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars --- compassion, love, and the subsurface unity of all things." - David Foster Wallace

   I took a cab home from work last night. The driver was a middle-aged man and he had a thick accent that I assumed came from somewhere in Africa. He asked me where I was heading, and then he returned to his cell phone conversation. His voice was loud and his demeanor jovial. He had large hands with knuckles like fat acorns, a big soft smile, and deep lines on his forehead. He laughed often and with his whole body.

Sahara Desert
   As the cab took us south on Halsted, I noticed something irregular about the driver's speech. A hitch and a stutter. And I felt a bit surprised by that. I was surprised because I have a preconceived notion, a shallow stereotype, of what a stutterer is like. Anxiety ridden, timid, insecure, etc. And this man seemed to be far from any of those things.

   And then I realized that I was mistaken. There was no hitch. No stutter. The man was using a language that includes clicks and pops and something that seemed to come from the top of the throat and the roof of the mouth. As if he were gathering phlegm. The sounds were more quiet than those that were more familiar to my ears. Just soft and subtle sounds among the louder bits of English, French, and something unrecognizable.

   And as I listened intently to the man's conversation, I became more and more curious about him. I climb into at least a couple hundred cabs a year, and almost all of those drivers are foreign born. But this time, as I listened to these foreign sounds from the back seat, I stopped to consider just how radically different this man's native country may be from the one that he lives in now. And I wanted to know about those differences. Or perhaps there are more similarities than I'd guess. Which I'd also like to hear about. Either way, I just wanted to hear this guy's story.

   I didn't get his story though. He did finish his phone call a few blocks prior to pulling up in front of my building. So I was able to ask him where he was from. But that was it. I decided to be content with that.

   He is from Algeria. The largest country on the African continent. Home to vast stretches of Saharan Desert. Home to the Atlas Mountains and Mediterranean coast lines. Large cities in the north. Oil reserves in the south. Home to obscene wealth and widespread poverty. Home to Berbers and Arabs. Home to despots and civil wars. Home to countless tribal groups and the cultural stamp of English/French/Italian colonial powers. Home to fishermen and blacksmiths. Beggars and thieves. Home to mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. And home to cab drivers.  

   And I wonder where this cab driver's story fits in. He was born in Algeria. A little baby. Probably some time in the 1960s. Probably into one of the densely populated cities in the north. Perhaps Algiers? Maybe Oran or Constantine? How long did he stay there? What was his experience like? What was his family like? Did he leave them behind when he left the country? Or were they here in Chicago with him today? Were they even alive? Does he miss home? Does he lay awake at night and think of somebody that is half a world away?

Atlas Mountains
   Obviously I'll never know the answers to those questions. Our paths crossed briefly. I won't be more than a slight gust of wind in the story of his life. But I want him, even if it's just a small piece of him, to be a bit more than that in mine.


  1. One of the things that is so interesting to me about modern life is that we come in contact with SO many people - and they all have a story. Each one of them. Every person we meet, however briefly, has their own narrative, their own history. This man's might be full of adventure, and tragedy, and triumph, the likes of which would make mine pale in comparison. Or maybe not. Maybe I would find his story rather boring. Maybe he would be bored by mine. But his narrative is just as important as mine (and God knows how mine is so very, very important to me). When I lived downtown I would look up at all the high-rises around me - just within view - and think about how each one probably had about 200-300 apartments or so, and in each one of those 2-300 apartments was whole other world. A completely different narrative, with a different protagonist, a different love interest, a different central conflict, and a different theme. And that was just in that one building. And when I looked up, just up from the city block where I would walk the dogs, I could see at least 10 of those buildings at any given time.

  2. Beautifully written.

    also- love Jonas' comment! =)