Saturday, January 24, 2015

A drive in the suburbs of Chicago and Sydney

The American
An elegant older gentleman with thick white hair drove me from Northwestern to O’Hare the other day, our limousine cruising by the drab suburban sprawl that surrounds midwestern downtowns, years of harsh winter leaving its signature drabness long after the snow is gone.

Limousine drivers will never begin a conversation, but if initiated I have seldom met one who has remained taciturn.  When I tell him I live forty miles North of New York City, the floodgates open.  His grandmother died as a young woman in Yonkers, of the killer flu that swept the nation in 1914.  She was 21 and lies buried in a graveyard in Yonkers.  The grandfather left for Chicago after that.  He went to her graveyard in the 1950s when he had last visited New York City.  

He had the Midwestern habit of using complete sentences in slow cadence, emphasizing the occasional syllable when you least expect him to.  He asked me whether I was a professor.  "An adjunct one at Columbia", I said.  "Well", he responded, "my father almost joined Columbia but then decided to accept an offer to be Comptroller at the University of Chicago.  Sometimes when he had to travel to Argonne, they would send the helicopter out for him.  There was one piece of advise my father had given me", he continued, as young men and women with knee high leather boots and floppy loosely knotted scarves headed for lunch just weeks away from Fall.  "Work hard but leave your work behind when you get home."  Did he practice what he preached?  "Oh, yeah.  He would come home and that would be it. Often he would come home and then my mother’n he would go out.

I wanted to know how long the father had worked at the University.  "Well, my father--he loved his Budweiser and his Chesterfields way too much and he was gone early.  It was 1964 and it was the day that he bought my mother a brand new car.  Went down to the Chevy dealership and bought her a Malibu convertible.  That same day they drove out in the new car to her sister’s place in Wheaton, Wisconsin.  They returned home and that same night he passed away in a massive heart attack.  He was 52.  I was then a student at SIU.  An’ the call came in.  They gave me the news.  So that night I ended up boarding a train.  I was 21."

The conversation moseyed its way, like they can do on such rides, to the music of this city and how Chicago at one time was the music capital of the country.  And not just because the city was churning out pressings of Blues albums, as blacks migrated to the industrial Midwest, but because Chicago’s radio stations, due to their central location in the nation, were able to reach both coasts and therefore held an advantage. 

The man was a repository of the city’s history.  Leaning back on his seat, his white hair in contrast to the dark interior, he would flick a turn signal here, a tap of the brakes there, and let loose, like a slow steam leak on a valve, a stream of words sculpted with a story teller’s chisel. He rattled off the names of musicians who lived in Chicago.  About the Jazz club in downtown that I had visited last year and which he thought had moved since then. We passed by Oak Park. Ernest Hemingway was born there.  Frank Lloyd Wright worked here.  People still came from afar to look at some of Wright’s buildings.  At the turn of the century folks would take the train on the weekend to Oak Park and spend the day picknicking.  Where, I asked him. In the parks!.  That’s why the name.  We pass Arlington.  He shows me the school where Hillary Clinton went.  

He was a throwback.  A seventy year old driver in a big black American limo with a soft leather interior and a softer suspension shushing its occupant in near mechanical silence through the outskirts of Chicago. Imaginings of a past city and visions of a past world dominated by Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Studebakers, and men in dark suits and hats that suddenly felt so real in this massive vehicle with black leather and crimson upholstery.

The Bangladeshi
The morning of our departure from a trip to Sydney we took a cab to the airport. The driver was Bengali and had lived in Australia for over 20 years. I asked him how he liked it. It had been good for his family, he said, not particularly so for himself. He had been a professor of textile engineering in Bangladesh for 18 years and held a Masters degree from Leeds. After arriving with his family in Australia as immigrants, he was unable to find work as a professional and had remained unemployed for the first five years. They had lived on dole and his wife’s income. This led him into his first job as a cabbie on the late night shift. He painted for us a different picture of Sydney than what we had seen—one of crime, gangs and drugs and the dangers faced by a taxi driver on the night beat. He spoke of a Bangladeshi cab driver who was thrown off a bridge late at night, his head bashed on a stone.

Our cabbie seemed happy to be speaking to us, and as a fellow Bengali in a small town would do, gave us a full accounting of his and his family’s situation. He spoke in almost a complete monologue throughout the 30 minute journey, except for my occasional questions seeking further detail or clarification, intrusive by Western standards, but accepted and expected under such circumstances. His family had done well and all four of his children had completed college. The eldest, the son, was 36 and earned good money as an IT professional and travelled the world. A son-in-law was working towards his Ph.D. Two of the daughters worked, one was a housewife. Except for the older daughter, the children's marriages had been arranged. He and his wife had made the arrangements themselves within the Bangladeshi community. He was close to retirement and looked forward to a time when he would start collecting his pension. It was a success story for a man who arrived here in tenuous position but now had 11 grand children in his adopted land. It had been at the personal cost of his professional ambitions and except for a bittersweet acknowledgement of this in his opening sentences, his accounting had remained mostly matter-of-fact, and tinged with some pride as he spoke of his children’s jobs and education.

I have seen the story of the educated cabbie in the West over and over. I have met Pakistani professors of comparative literature, Bangladeshi aeronautical engineers, and numerous Ethiopian engineering graduates driving cabs in cities across America. I have had a Columbian cabbie wave to me a dog-eared copy of a book by Borges that he would read while waiting to pick up a passenger. They have talked to me about their lives, often with a resigned sadness, and an acknowledgement of the counterweights that have been part of the baggage of this balancing of their lives. They arrive in the West and compress their stature, head bowed, crouching as a man has to when entering a short tunnel, and in the end resign to live their lives in this manner doing jobs that are incommensurate with their education, in the hope that their children may stand upright, or that they may be able to send more money back to their families, or that some day they will be able to build a nice house back home and retire on their savings from the West.

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