On Friday, November 18th at 3:00 p.m. the ride to the Pittsburgh Airport was hairy. I had finished my work for the National League of Cities at its annual meeting, jumped (well, “struggled into”) a cab (“last one at the Wyndham” said the dispatcher) only to face a city almost in lock down. Several bridges had been closed, routes sealed off, all in preparation for Pittsburgh’s pre-Thanksgiving festival of lights. Everyone, it seemed, was bolting, conferences disgorging harried conventioneers, accidents further clogging already clogged arteries and dispatchers pleading for more cabs.
My driver didn’t seem fazed. She pulled two U-turns, occasionally darting in and out of breakdown lanes, eventually looping around, avoiding the interstate by weaving through suburbia. A normally 45-minute trip was inching up on three hours.
Despite her Indianapolis 500 heroics, we were, much of the time, stopped dead or creeping along at 5 miles-per-hour. We had plenty of time to talk.
Turns out this middle-aged African woman had three sons, 16, 20 and 21. She had worked in a retirement community and in a hospice, but “too much loving, too much caring put the weight on. I got up to 400 pounds.” We spoke about her three sons, their need for positive adult role models (where to find them – father, uncle, grandfather, coach? We talked about each one.) We explored ways her boys might find their respective career paths. Her oldest had already fathered a child. Now what? Perhaps the military for discipline, focus, exposure to a wider world, and job training. We talked about the election, which weighed heavily on both of us, and how to bridge a divided, fearful America. She said, “I’m praying for Trump, because if he feels safe, then we’re all going to be safe. You know, everybody can do something. Have to do something. I work 12-13 hours a day. I don’t have much time to do too much. But I can pray, especially when I’m stuck in traffic. And I’m on the phone to my fellow cabbies all the time. We support each other. We have each other’s backs.”
She kept commenting on “all these poor folks trying to make planes, trying to get home to loves ones,” exhorting her fellow cabbies to rescue those stuck at hotels throughout the city all the while saying, “Mr. Jack, you will make the plane to your wife and grandkids, ‘cause I’m going to cut through the suburbs.” “Nicole,” I said, “I’m Jack, not Mr. Jack.”
I commented on her amazing ability to affirm in the face of pain, her attraction to the tough stuff, even the toughest stuff –those in hospice. I wanted to know more. “Nicole, here you are in the midst of this traffic mess trying to get me home. Half the time you’re worried about other people on the road as well as your fellow cabbies. What gives you such a positive spirit? What keeps your feet under you?”
She didn’t say anything for about a minute. Then suddenly she burst out with, “Mr Jack, look at that sunset!” The pre-winter sun had woven a brilliant tapestry of reds, oranges and blues. Then silence as we each inhaled. Then this: “Mr Jack, do you know what? Do you know that this day has never, ever been? This is a newly-created day! Never was before. Never will be again. The only one, ever. And we’re here, sharing with each other, blessed to be in it.”
We were quiet for a bit. I felt “amen.”
We made it to the airport in time. She gave me her card. “Mr Jack, call me. I want to make sure you’re on that plane going home.” We hugged. Oddly, we each had tears in our eyes.
Her answer to my question was profound, an answer I needed: Gratitude. Every day new, electric with possibility. And service: making sure people get home.