New York was gridlocked, the subway had shut down and everyone had come up from underground into the stagnant July air to hail themselves a taxi. But the traffic wasn’t moving and every cab taken. Luckily, I was already in one and was ’phoning my West Village breakfast appointmet to let them know I wasn’t going to make it in time.
Afterwards the driver spoke to me;
“Is that an English accent? I just love to hear you speak, the way you told them you’d be late even makes this mess sound palatable.”
He gestured at the crowded-in streets and the high rise and din. Steam rising from the pavement and distant sirens the backdrop for this traffic jam. We were in an emblematic scene of New York, he and I like punctuation marks in the epic ongoing story of it.
“Where is your accent from?” I asked.
He has a lot of New York in his voice, but it’s piled on top of something else; vowels clipped short, some of the consonants thudding in on the end of his words in a way I can’t place.
“I was born in Ethiopia, I came here as a kid refugee in the late 80s” he said, glancing at me via the rear view mirror. My head provided me with newsreel images of 1980s Ethiopia; pot-bellied, big eyed, tearless, children, covered in flies, too weary and hungry to swat them away. I looked back into his brown eyes framed in the rectangular reflection.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
It’s was stupid thing to say, as if it came from teenage me, watching the news reports of it.
“It’s okay” he said, “this country has been the making of me. It gave me food, and I went to school. I’ve got this job. I like this job. Moving people around the place, talking to people…”
He smiled a smile that made me feel like part of that pleasure, but also as if he wanted to move the conversation on.
“So you Brits have just voted out of Europe, right?”
We had. Only a month before the sting of it is still very fresh. I wasn’t sure I could talk to him about it yet.
“I’m surprised at you, when I think of the Brits I imagine those early seafarers 500 years ago who set out on tiny boats to see if there was any more world out there. They just sailed off…” He gestured at an imaginary horizon “not knowing if they’d fall off the edge, sink in the sea or find another world. Can you imagine such a thing? There must have known there was no chance they’d ever return, they must have been fuelled by a curiosity and bravery we can only dream of. You’ve all got that in your blood, but then you cut yourselves off from the world again. Why do you think that is?”
I felt the full weight of the disappointment in my country that many of us had been feeling since the referendum settling heavily alongside me on the sticky plastic seats in the back of this taxi. I said something non–committal and evasive like “We’re still trying to work out what the hell happened” and gave him that same smile he’d given me – yes I’d like to move the conversation on, he understood I think, and started afresh;
“I went to England once. When the plane was landing it I looked out of the window and the landscape was so beautiful, like it was hand-sculpted by God”
He made a thumb gesture, like that of an artist working in clay, which so accurately illustrated the scooped out, curving valleys and hills of southern England that I felt quite home sick. Home-sick for that disappointing, infuriating, beautiful, country of mine.
He starts on a new tack, on less political ground.
“I bought these peaches. They’re the exact same ones as I bought yesterday, because yesterday, they were so damn delicious!” He smiled at a four pack on the passenger seat beside him, two already eaten. “I can’t tell you how good they taste, so damn sweet and juicy. I thought, ‘what the hell kind of place could make something that tastes so good?’ So, I look on the packet and they’re from New Zealand. I think ‘I don’t know anything about New Zealand’ so, I looked it up on the internet last night. It’s like a tiny world, all habitats and terrains in one place; snow and ice and plains and mountains, and such lushness. And it’s peaceful. I knew it’d be a great place, it’d have to be, right? To be able to grow a thing that tasted so much of heaven. I’m going to go there. I’ve decided. The natural New Zealanders have the exact same skin tone as my children! I like that….”
A quiet settles on us, I feel such affection for this smiling man. Born into the worst of places and times but springing with positivity, with a world view that scrolls with deft dexterity around the centuries and continents and a curiosity to learn cultures and visit new places. The shadow of our brief touch on politics is still in the car with us, I can feel it and it seems he can too because next he says;
“Of course, we’ve got a big election coming up too next year”
And then he says;
“I’m voting Trump.”
This beautiful, black, Muslim, former refugee. This hard working, job loving, happy, engaging, international human. It hits me like a stone. I can’t make my face into a passive, relaxed, enquiring shape while I ask him why.
“You’re surprised, yeah?”
“I’m surprised, yeah.”
This world. This broken world.
(This is a true story, of a hot, July morning in Manhattan in the summer of 2016.)