Taped to the wall of the shop of Lannie, my former barber in Des Moines, is a quote from the late comedian George Burns: “Too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy running taxicabs or cutting hair.” I looked at that quote almost every visit (for the five or so minutes it took to clip my thinning locks).
I mention this because of the highlights of my December trip to the Midwest, a close third (behind seeing my mother and brother and walks on country roads) was the hurried trip to my father’s grave with a taxi driver, Mohammed.
A couple of decades of taxi rides in New York will cure you of conversations with cabbies. That wisdom came to mind moments after my whining about Omaha’s snow and cold. Yet the subsequent two-sided conversation with Mohammed was anything but New Yorkish. He made me think. It was another teaching moment for me, and for Ellen and Reid.
January 12, 2011
Ellen/Reid: This note is a couple of days late owing to the snow/ice barrage down here and the fact that I needed a workable printer. Not that you were wringing your hands waiting by the mail box. I had to chop a path through the ice on the pathway behind the house if I had any hopes of making it to the office. My place will never see a snow plow. The office today is a ghost town.
Ellen, given that you teach African and Asian immigrant children, here’s a side story from my Christmas trip that might strike a chord with you. The cab driver who shuttled me to your grandfather’s grave was a guy named Mohammed, who had fled Somalia with his family about 10 years ago. He, too, was a teacher but had been trying to gain his footing in the U.S. I’m normally loathe to strike up conversations with cabbies, but he seemed genial enough. I made some offhand comment about the lousy weather and that seemed to break the ice.
We got to the cemetery in pretty quick order without a ton of conversation beyond he was from Somalia and the weather didn’t inordinately bother him as much as it did me. He waited while I went through the snow up the hill and searched plot by plot in the effort to find the right marker. It was when I got back into the cab that our conversation changed during the 20 or so minutes back to the airport. He was respectful of your grandfather and although I’m not sure how, we began to talk about his Muslim faith and how he feels accepted in the Midwest.
He denigrated the zealots who miscast his religion beyond what he reads in the Quran. He wondered where are the moderates among Muslims, and he followed that up by saying most were afraid to speak out because of what can happen to those with moderate views. Mohammed wasn’t one of these cabdrivers who just simply spout things loud and long. He was very considered in what he said. I asked and he responded. He happily found the U.S. and Omaha to his liking because his kids are getting a good education, he and his wife have jobs and the opportunities are there for anyone to be anything they want to be in the U.S. He thought freedom was a great thing that Americans sometimes overlook or take for granted. I agreed. I suppose living in the hellhole that is Somalia would shape a person’s outlook on life.
We got back to the airport and I shook his hand as we parted ways. I’ve thought a lot about that 45 minute encounter. Mohammed was positively glowing about the potential for his family, and it was incredible to me that his I’m-glad-to-be-here attitude had yet to be infected by others who have a far more jaded view on the Mohammeds (or any of the other immigrants) among us. Mohammed painted Muslims with a different brush than I’d been exposed to, and I learned more about tolerance in that short period than I have in a long, long time.
There’s an object lesson in there somewhere. I try to keep that in mind in the face of immigrant news and the views so prevalent down here and elsewhere. I find myself slipping, though, in my resolve to take judgments about people one person at a time. My friend John at Caldwell has a hand in continuing to shape my perspective and resoluteness, too. I guess I can only be in control of how I act and react, one person at a time.
Well, I’d better go. I navigated the slick roads this morning to reach Uptown. No doubt you two laugh at a 5” storm bringing Charlotte to a screeching halt for days at a time. I stocked up on bread and milk like the other panicked locals, most of it has not been consumed. So much for a winter apocalypse.