Sometimes life’s most joyful moments emerge from the most mundane situations. CoLab Executive Director Dayna Cunningham was in a taxi, rushing to a meeting, when she found herself putting down the iPhone to listen to a cab driver.
NYC Taxi Fisheye by Jeff Howard on Flickr.
As we turned into the BQE, I stole a look at what turned out to be a very kind face in the rear view mirror. I noticed how nice the taxi was – new, with comfortable split seats in the front. Unlike most cabs, which have a bulletproof partition between driver and passenger with a few air holes and a slot through which to pass money and receipts, this cab was completely open.
We were already half way to my meeting, and half way through an abridged version of the driver’s life story. Without thinking, I’d set aside my gps, and my native-New-Yorker-cab-passenger-attitude, in favor of listening. This is what he said:
I came to the U.S. in my twenties, almost thirty years ago. My whole family came. There were eleven of us. My father died young of lung cancer—he loved strong cigarettes that he rolled himself and smoked without a filter; my mother told him all the time to stop. He stopped the day he learned he had cancer, but it was too late. My mother moved all ten kids to New York Chinatown. We lived in two one-bedroom apartments. It was really small and crowded.
But I loved Chinatown! I am from a small village in China where people speak a language called Toisanese; in China very few people spoke it, but in Chinatown everyone spoke Toisanese; I felt right at home! I could talk to anyone and got a job on my second day in the U.S. I worked making bicycle deliveries for a Chinese restaurant. The owner loaned me a bike and told me to ‘just ring the bell and shout, “food delivery!” Food delivery! Food delivery! These were my only English words for a while! After my first week I bought my own bicycle.
He eventually started a family. His daughter is a very good math and science student at the elite Bronx High School of Science, one of the finest public high schools in the country. “Bronx Science,” or “Science,” as it is known in New York, has educated generations of ambitious students.
In my own Bronx-born-and-bred family, its reputation looms large. With enough ambition, a working class kid could go there and end up as a doctor with a nice house and family in the suburbs. My dad went to Stuyvesant, the other elite public math and science high school in New York City, and took that exact route. We left the Bronx when I was six and I grew up in leafy New Rochelle, 30 minutes from the city.
My daughter wants to go to Cornell, or maybe MIT and I think she has a good chance. Imagine that: me coming from such a big family and my mother never went to school. But my daughter could go to Cornell or maybe MIT. She is only a sophomore and has already done very well on her pre-SATs. Her friends want to go to Cornell, so she wants to go to Cornell. This past weekend, I drove her to Princeton and then to Cornell. It was a very long trip, more than seven hours from one to the other, with the family in the car and it being so very very hot outside. But the ride was great! Cornell is very beautiful. Green. We stayed in a hotel overnight and that was really nice. Then we drove back home. I like Cornell a lot though I want my daughter to visit a lot of schools and decide for herself.
My daughter is almost as smart as my mother, who never went to school. My mother’s father died when she was very young and her family could not afford the school fees. So every day my mother would walk to the school and stand outside, listening to the lessons through the open window. She learned to read and learned her numbers that way. When the kids in the classroom did not try hard, the teacher would point through the window to my mother and tell the kids, “you are lazy, the girl outside has already learned your lessons!”
My wife wants my daughter to become a dentist. She tells her all the time, “Be a dentist! You can make a lot of money.” But I don’t agree. I want my daughter to learn environmental science. I think everyone should give something back.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met such a garrulous man.
Driving a cab is new for me. It’s been about three years. I used to work for a jewelry manufacturer. It was a good job. I was a supervisor and I learned how to make a lot of things. I even could use the skills around the house. I made a lot of things there too. I managed 15 people and the pay was very good. In 2008, the business began to go down. Jewelry is a luxury and people couldn’t afford to buy it any more. So the owner, who was a really great man—very good to me, closed the plant. He had no choice. We were all out of work. That is when I started driving a cab.
I love driving a cab! It is much better than supervising 15 people even though the pay is not nearly as good. When you are a supervisor, there is always someone with a question and you have to help people all the time. I bought my own cab last year; this is my car. I really love getting into it in the morning. I start every day not knowing where I am going to go. Every time someone flags me down, I’m headed someplace new! I go all over the city, I’m free! My longest ride was with someone whose plane got rerouted from Newark to Kennedy. He had to get to someplace way down in southern Jersey. I took him the whole way! It cost over $200 dollars but he was really happy to get there and it was a really lucky day for me!
When we reached my meeting destination in lower Manhattan he turned off the meter and then turned full face around and, beaming, thanked me for riding in his cab. I reached into my purse, tore off a scrap of paper and wrote down my email address. “Please give this to your daughter,” I said, “in case she decides to visit MIT.”
A week later I am still thinking about this ride. I am thinking about journeys — trying to piece together the connections between his journey and mine, and the brief journey we took together in his cab. It’s one of those thoughts that come to me out of nowhere, and then fades away when a meeting starts or my email dings. It’s nice to have something pleasant to ponder.
Post by Dayna Cunningham.