Sunday, April 08, 2001

Alive and well

Catch a cab for a strange trip

        I don't need to go to Europe to experience what it is to be a foreigner in another land. All I need to do is go to any major city in America and find myself dependent on a taxi for transportation.

        Driving a cab is a good job for a newcomer to our country. The pay is good. You can set your own hours. You can work exclusively off the calls dispatched on the radio or carry a cell phone and give your personal number to preferred customers. You need to acquire a good working knowledge of the streets in your chosen city and speak only a minimal amount of English.

        As a frequent taxi passenger, I have learned these and many other things from drivers. Many of these drivers are remarkable people — Mohammed, for example, who ran naked from his native village and gives thanks every day for life itself and family — and Daniel, the physician from Czechoslovakia, who is not yet licensed to practice in the United States.

        Sometimes, the English of these cab drivers from other cultures is astonishingly clear. More often, though, it is halting, difficult, and I — who cannot see the accompanying gestures or facial nuances — am temporarily the stranger in a strange vehicle, dependent on another stranger (whom I cannot understand) for safe passage to my preferred destination.

        With each city, each taxi, I am embarking on a possible adventure when I step inside and close the door.

        Being unable to see someone before they speak can be an advantage. Many misconceptions are rooted in visual assessments. Thus, I have basked in the certitude that mine is an unbiased perspective. Still, I confess, my silent prayer at many an airport has been, “Let the driver speak English.”

        If this seems to you like no big deal, let me give a few examples.

        In Boston, I wanted to go to a particular hotel in Cambridge. The driver was from Russia.

        “Cambridge,” said I, enunciating with precision.

        “Cambridge?” said he, with all the good intentions he could muster.

        He held out a paper map for me, punched a finger at one spot, and repeated, “Cambridge?”

        I thought we were connected on this point for sure. As it turned out, there was more than one hotel of the same name in Boston, one in Cambridge and one downtown, and we hadn't connected quite clearly enough. A rainy morning, an hour before a scheduled meeting, checking into a hotel where no one has heard your name (and where you are unable to read the sign telling you that you are in the wrong place) is, you see, much like being in another country.

        In Philadelphia at midnight, my cab driver from Iraq opened my window repeatedly for street people to lean in and talk to me, acting as our translators — speaking for me, gesturing for him — to make some meaning out of my spoken direction to “cross the railroad tracks and turn left past the bridge.”

        A few times I have been afraid. But generally, the only reasonable approach to these miniature adventures in international relations is humor.

        I make conversation with these brave human beings whose native towns are often unknown and unpronounceable for me. I laugh with them over our shared confusion and education. I know that they know that the “otherness” of being from another part of the world can be very much like the “otherness” of having a disability in a culture where physical perfection is idealized.

        And I think about emulating their courage.

       Contact Deborah Kendrick at 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Kendrick


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