About This Series
I’m intrigued by daily human interactions and transactions, and the ways in which our communities and cities are organized and laid out: who we interact with, who we ignore, who we get to know. Part of what I have wanted to unlearn from my self-absorbed lifestyle is being disconnected with so many human beings. These are my accounts of the people I’ve met: a moment of shared time and space, and an opportunity to get to know someone and hear what they choose and wish to share. The questions I ask make for a limited scope: a biased curiosity, never a ‘whole’, if we can ever come to know someone as a whole.
Today I met Henry as he drove my friend and I home after an afternoon of exploring the Islamic Art Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I first opened the door to hop in his cab, the leather interior was clean and worn. I found myself making a wish that it didn’t smell from a previous hungover passenger (it’s happened before). Thankfully, it did not.
I quickly glanced at his ID card and extended a warm greeting, “Hello, Henry! How has your day been so far?” He responded with a warm bellowing hello and ‘he he he’ giggle – every word he spoke came out of a smile. We drove along with all four windows down to let in the fabulously cool post-rain summer air. “I been here 27 years – this is the nicest summer we’ve had!” He has been living in New York for 27 years – as long as I’ve lived.
He proudly brought up his two daughters – 24 and 21, both graduated from college, one with a masters and saving up for law school, and one with a bachelors in communication. He talked about his daughter’s insanely high LSAT scores. “What school is she going to?” “Not yet… some money problems, but…” with a note of decided hope. He mentioned his associates degree from a nearby community college, proud to have an education and wishing he had more.
Looking at the passing buildings, I think about how menacing a group of men appears to me as they look at a lone girl walking down the street. What would I think of Henry in a group of men? Here is Henry, the father of two daughters, immensely proud, the one who raised them, who made them who they are.
“What is your background, Henry?”
“I’m from Ghana, what about you?”
“I’m from Pakistan and my friend is from Egypt.”
“You have a very nice personality,” he said, and turning to my friend, “You my friend, I could never guess where you are from, you have one of those faces.” We drove along quietly for a moment, my friend and I intermittendly discussing our day and enjoying the cool breeze coming in from the windows and the greenery of the Upper Westside.
When we had first gotten in the car, Henry was listening to music with the volume turned low, and I was itching to hear what he was listening to, to access this part of his brain. My curiousity surfaced: “Can you play us your favorite song?” At this point, something seriously switched in Henry – he lit up and laughed a huge, excited laugh.
Clicking through music, he began to play a song. “This is Bob Marley. It’s one of my favorite songs. Actually, I have a favorite song from every artist. Actually, I am a musician!”
“No way! What do you play?”
“Harmonica, guitar, and piano. Harmonica is difficult to learn to catch your breath. Once you learn that, it is easier. Guitar is complicated. ”
He went on to tell us that he was completely self-taught. When I asked him how long it took him before he felt he had a mastery on each of the instruments, he said about 12 years.
“Where do you play?”
“Mostly in Long Island. I played once in Bryant Park, and once in Washington Square.” I tried to imagine walking past Henry, wondering what I would have thought of him had I seen him playing an instrument on the street.
“This is fun! We should keep driving around!” Truth be told, I would have loved to keep driving around with Henry and having him share his favorite music. Before we left, he pulled out his harmonica. “See!” he said, showing it off – proof. “Let me play something for you.” He played a song I knew but can’t remember. I sat back and listened, enjoying this moment of him sharing what he loves, in a moment of love.
I wonder now: do we all need to aspire to ‘be something’? What if we ‘are’ something – as we are, who we are? A father of two daughters, a musician, a cab driver, an immigrant, a Ghaneian, a man, a person, a hearty laugher, a person with a favorite song from every artist. We romanticize ‘that day’ or the future, our ‘idealized’ versions of others and ourselves. In doing so we often miss what we have, who we are, right here and now.
I think about my views of human beings: what is the dark side to me, to the people I meet? How do we reconcile beauty and deep flaws? ‘Who are you’: what does it mean to know someone briefly, and what do their loved ones know of them?