Steve was a tall, lanky guy, with keen eyes and longish hair about to turn gray at the fringes. He fancied denim jackets and blue jeans and drank a lot of Coca Cola. He had worked some years in a factory, but found the work dull and the discipline stifling. He bought a cab with all his savings and became a cab driver.
When she had introduced us, Ann had said that he was a bright person. He was, exceptionally so. I wondered why he hadn’t gone to college and carved a career for himself. Then I realized, from his description of the Catholic school his parents chose for him, that the school was no different from the factory that had so repulsed him later. A free spirit, the mindless discipline of the school had alienated him from academic pursuits. A loss for him, surely. But, also a loss for everybody else.
Yet he retained a curious spirit and sprightly interest in public affairs. He read newspapers avidly and I noticed he never missed the opinion pieces. Steve said that there something about taxis that prompted people to chat, and they often wanted to talk about things other than the weather. Reading the papers helped him respond well. He enjoyed the conversation. He also liked to surprise his passengers with well-informed, well-reasoned responses. Probably, he said, some people boarded a taxi with the assumption that the driver would be an ignoramus, and declaimed brashly about a new tax or a controversial law. He relished the dazed look on their face when he gently countered with a polite counter point.
Steve offered another very different reason for his reading habits. He had a short-lived relationship with a woman who enjoyed his company but could not bear to roll with his easy-going, free-floating life style. “How can you live forever without a plan, without any ambition,” he recalled her saying more than once. No, he didn’t have any ambition. Plans did not make any sense for him. So they parted company after four years, but now he has a son. The mother certainly has a plan for him, but he loves to run away from it periodically and come to spend a few days with his dad. That is the time Steve cherished. He wants to be able to speak intelligently and knowledgeably with his high-school son, and hopes to do so when he enters college next year. He even has a plan to do some online courses on the subjects his son will cope with as a freshman.
Steve admitted, clearly with a certain embarrassment, that they had very opposite views about immigration. His son felt the country should welcome immigrants because they work hard and contribute new ideas and energy; the residents ought to shed their prejudice and give them a chance. Steve felt a stream of new people from other countries dilutes the culture of the land and starts making the local people uncomfortable in their own country. He had misgivings about colored people who continue to speak their own language and do not assimilate.
He turned to me and said, emphatically but apologetically, “Don’t misunderstand me. You speak our language, you do an important job. You will easily become a part of the American society. You are not a problem. But the others are.”
I said, “Steve, in this country, everybody starts off as an immigrant or a member of an immigrant family. And everybody assimilates sooner or later. Is that the problem or our suspicion of people who seem different from us?”
We were having the discussion in his cab late in the evening. It was Easter night and he had mentioned that he expected a large number of passengers. I had offered to give him company and observe how his work life pans out on a busy night. Steve had enthusiastically welcomed me and said he would enjoy chatting with me while he did his work. It was about ten in the evening and we had already ferried seven clients.
“Who is that man sitting in the taxi?” he asked sharply.
Steve replied, “He is my friend. Traveling with me.”
The man grimaced and said, “I don’t want a colored man in the cab with me.”
I could see Steve’s face in the street light. He blanched visibly. Then his jaws hardened.
He turned to the man and said, “Then you can’t travel with me.”
It was late, and the man probably figured that he might not get another cab easily on a busy night. He persisted, “Why does that man have to be in the cab?”
Steve’s face now was a granite mask.
He said curtly, “Because, sir, he is my friend.”
The man left and we sat silently for a while in the taxi, waiting for the next passenger.
After a long pause, Steve said, “Maybe my son has a point.”