After a fantastic three days spent with my cousins last month, I had four extra hours to kill in Chicago on my own. I decided a solo visit to the Field Museum was in order. I could browse the exhibits at my pace, and grab a souvenir or two for my grandchildren. The weather was perfect for a museum visit. A cold blanket of rain blew off the lake, chilling me in my spring garb to the bone.
Unfamiliar with Chicago weekend commutes, I decided to grab an Uber back to O’Hare three hours before my flight was due to depart. I clicked on Mohammed, driving an Acura MDX to get me to the airport. Mohammed and I exchanged greetings when I sat down; I noted that his English was broken, but didn’t get a vibe one way or the other about his personality. I settled in with my iPad, convinced I could catch up on my reading.
Five minutes into the trip, Mohammed told me the drive would be at least an hour, possibly as long as an hour and a half. We made eye contact in the rearview mirror, and I told him my flight didn’t depart until 5:30, so I was comfortable I’d make it on time. He said he’d try a quicker route, but the rain and traffic were both pointing to a long drive.
In my experience, the typical conversation between Uber driver and passenger is something along the lines of this:
“How long have you been driving Uber?”
“Do you like it?”
“Can you make a decent living doing it?”
And if they have a noticeable accent or foreign sounding name, “How long have you been in the United States?”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Normally my time with a driver is 15 minutes or less, so even though I try to stay away from those standard questions, there isn’t a lot of time for deeper conversation. But here I was, sitting on a Chicago highway with Mohammed, with 60-90 minutes to kill.
While I was shy and introverted the first 30 years of my life, I was forced to do the unthinkable and make small talk with strangers when I started selling real estate, and I spent the bulk of that time in a car driving buyers from house to house. It’s my husband though, who has taught me the most about the art of conversation skills. When we go out to eat or deal with a service person for more than a couple minutes, we part ways knowing a good outline of their life story. Steve loves to say, “They think it’s a conversation, little do they know it’s an interrogation.”
Last year, we pulled up to a hotel in Austin, Texas and Steve told me to go check in with the front desk while he transferred our rental car to the valet. I didn’t clock it, but I know he was alone with the valet for less than three minutes. I flagged him to bring the luggage in, and while we rode the elevator up to our room, Steve reported that the girl who took our car to the garage was from Peoria, Illinois and also worked as a day trader. I looked at him astonished and asked how he was able to get that much information out of another human being in such a short time together. He shrugged it off; he’s just a natural. I’ve learned from a master.
Mohammed started engaging me in conversation by telling me while this traffic was bad, it was far worse in New York City. I asked how long he lived there, and he said he was born in Brooklyn and had only moved to Chicago a year ago. I asked why he came to Chicago and he told me that he had four children, with one on the way and a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn wasn’t enough space. The kids had room to grow in Oakland, the neighborhood where he and his wife lived. He added that when he was finished driving in New York, it often took him 40 minutes to find a parking space once he returned home, another way his quality of life suffered.
I shared that I had four kids as well, and we discovered that we both had boy/girl twins. He began telling me about his wife and how much he loved her. She was from Knoxville, Tennesee. I asked how a young man from Brooklyn met a young woman from Knoxville and he said he used to be a professional dancer, and he was hired to work at his cousin’s wedding in Knoxville, performing and leading the dabka. His future wife was there, and she was instantly attracted to him. In spite of being born and raised in New York, Mohammed’s English was broken, and he had just returned to the States after spending three years with his father in Jordan. Mohammed’s sister translated for the young lady who couldn’t take her eyes off him. If you’re not familiar with the dance, watch this. It’s easy to see how the girl fell for the boy.
Mohammed liked this girl enough to stay in Knoxville. He told me they “dated” for seven months, but he never allowed any physical contact beyond hand holding. She would move in for a kiss, and he would lean in the opposite direction. Still, they spent much time together courting. Finally, after seven months, the girl asked him, “What is wrong with you, Mohammed? Are you gay? You never hug or kiss me.”
He told her because he was Muslim, he could do none of these things unless she was his wife. He was ready “for the marriage” and instructed her to think about it. I understood this was his marriage proposal. He bragged “not very much time passed on the clock, ” and she had a response. Yes, she was ready as well. They were 22 years old. Less than two years later, their twins were born. She learned to cook his favorite dishes from his mother, and while she didn’t convert to Islam, she fasted when the family fasted during Ramadan out of respect. Both his family and hers are happy with the marriage.
For more than an hour, we talked about how much he enjoys driving for Uber; we shared our love of our families with each other. I don’t normally get mushy about how much I love my husband, especially with strangers, but perhaps the four days apart from Steve left me feeling a little more open and vulnerable than normal. Mohammed added that his wife had only recently found out that she was pregnant with their fifth. He admitted he was shocked, but was sure everything would turn out well. His goal was to save for a house, and I shared some advice with him on obtaining FHA financing, so he didn’t need such a large downpayment.
I asked about his favorite foods that his wife cooked for him because I believe if you really want to learn about someone, ask them about the foods they love from their homeland. He described Mansaf in mouthwatering detail. Mohammed decided that I was his final fare for the day because his wife had a pot of Musakhan waiting for him when he arrived home. When we finally reached our airport destination, he asked me to wait before rushing to my gate. We stood over my luggage as he showed me pictures on his phone of all his favorite dishes. He told me I should visit Jordan someday, that it is a beautiful place and assured me it was not dangerous. “Our Queen is an American!” He exclaimed.
“That’s right, Queen Noor!” I replied. He grinned, pleased that I knew this.
I had forty dollars in cash left from my weekend, and I tipped Mohammed the entire amount. I shook his hand warmly and thanked him for sharing so much of his life story with me. He returned the gratitude for my willingness to have a conversation with him.
The easy conclusion from this encounter is that we are all more alike than different, and perhaps if we took the time to get to know someone from another culture, there would be much less fear of the different and unknown. While that is certainly true, my takeaway was more than the obvious. I’ve thought about human connections more as I’ve grown older.
Perhaps it’s my elderly wisdom ripening and waiting to be shared. One of my pet peeves is people who don’t acknowledge or even look at service people when they’re in front of them. An unforgivable sin is to treat them poorly or to be condescending. I make eye contact and share a smile with every server, barista, and cashier throughout my day. That brief connection can make a difference in their day or mine. Even as a lifelong introvert; I can’t stand the trend toward self-checkout lanes at the grocery or Target. I was peeved to see them included in my local Byerly’s during a recent remodel. Part of the reason I shop there is that I know several of the cashiers by name, and they know me as well. One always asks about my husband when I’m in his lane because Steve is unfailingly chatty with the man when he shops with me. More than a few restaurant servers and owners know Steve’s and my usual orders, and we enjoy our interactions with them. The mailman who delivers to Steve’s office daily is invited to our company holiday party each year because we’ve come to know him so well.
I think for me, the bromide holds true. There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you know their story.