The Highly Enlightened Taxi Driver

You never come back from New York City without stories. Am I right or am I right?

I fully expected stories from the Social Good Summit to enlighten me, enrich my life, give me new perspective. But I didn’t expect those stories to start with my taxi ride from Penn Station to the hotel.

I walked off of the train looking like a wide-eyed Midwesterner arriving in New York for the first time. It wasn’t my first time, of course, but it was my first at Penn Station. Trying to plan my best means of egress, I pulled up my Google maps, found my hotel, and determined the right city block to be on when I left the station.

A quick stop at a Duane Reade and I was ready to begin my NYC adventure. I found the taxi line and wheeled up with my bags trying to look like I knew what I was doing as best as I could.

taxi cab stand at Penn Station

I think it worked. When it was my turn for a cab, the taxi stand guy waved me down, gave me a big smile, and said “Here you go, pretty lady.” I smiled and said thank you as he gave a wave to my cab driver.

My distrustful nature thought that they must be in cahoots somehow. That they were going to try to pull a fast one on me. And then I realized I was just playing up the NYC cab driver stereotype. So instead, I got in smiling and said hello.

The warmth and friendliness of my driver immediately put me at ease and we started chit-chatting about the weather. I could tell from his accent that he wasn’t a native New Yorker so I guessed he was used to warmer climates and made a comment to that effect.

He revealed he was from Haiti and I knew this was going to be an interesting ride. He had just returned from a trip there for the funeral of his mother and had only been back three days. I asked how things were in Haiti and what his trip was like.

He talked about the Haiti he grew up in and the Haiti that he now visits – two very different places. While it’s always been a poor country, he says the spirit there is different. And his impressions weren’t solely based on the earthquake that devastated the island  in 2010 (although he says it’s like a different place now that it’s missing so many landmarks).

We talked about poverty and he told me how Haitians don’t have many options. They don’t have wealth. All they have is their ability and desire to work hard, something that isn’t always easy to come by in Haiti. Sometimes, a simple pig or cow can make all the difference in a family. It can provide food and bargaining power.

And yet, every year, as Haitians are sure to face some level of devastation from the hurricanes, we focus on the loss of life or devastation to homes. But he talked about the devastation to the livestock. I guess it’s not easy to shelter a cow or a pig and inevitably the livestock are lost in the hurricane. In addition to food and shelter, a Haitian can potentially lose the only thing that helped him to take care of his family.

It was an interesting perspective and one I had never thought about. He confirmed, though, what I’ve been reading about lately. Haitians don’t want charity. They don’t want aid. They want help to grow their own economy and market. They want to be put to work and they want to earn and provide for their families.

After a rather heavy conversation, we reached my hotel on the Upper East Side. I could only express my condolences, leave him a big tip, and figure out how a story like his should be told.

Hotel Wales

Every person has a story was the sentiment echoing through my head and I knew that it was going to be a thought-provoking weekend.

Later that night, as I was finishing up dinner with some esteemed guests and a group of phenomenal bloggers, our guides told us they would not subject us to a return trip with blocks of walking and subway riding and that we would instead take cabs back to the hotel.

As our cab was flagged, three other bloggers piled into the back and I was encouraged to sit up front.

I don’t like sitting up front in a cab. It’s just a weird thing about me. And he didn’t seem all too happy about me sitting up there anyway.

So I chatted with the other bloggers in the back but the plexiglass divider and the strain of my neck made me realize that I should give up any hope of being involved in their conversation. So I faced my choice:

Awkward silence in the cab on the way home? Or small talk with the driver in hopes of an interesting story?

I struck up a conversation asking him where he was from (knowing by his accent he was probably of Middle Eastern descent). He quietly told me he was from Pakistan. I could tell he didn’t want to give up too much.

I asked him questions about how long he had been in the U.S. and how old he was. He seemed awfully young to be spending his time as a cab driver. He loosened up and told me about a little bit about himself.

He was a U.S. citizen and had been in this country for about ten years. He was recently married and his young wife was still living in Pakistan. He planned to bring her over as soon as he could and I asked him about his future. He said he was thinking of going back to college. To study what? Perhaps business. And what would he do with that degree? Start a business. What kind of business? Perhaps a gas station.

Sounds boring, I told him. Who grows up to want to own a gas station?

But I know the culture and I knew his motivations.

It was a very different ride from my older Haitian cab driver who was teaching me about his life wisdom and experience. This driver seemed young, almost on autopilot. Waiting to start the life he’s supposed to live.

I told him to go back to school now, while he’s young and has the time. Get his degree and find a good job so he can take care of his wife and perhaps children. And I also told him to think about what he really wants to do. Yes, I was trying to teach him about my life wisdom and experience.

Once again, we arrived back to the hotel. The other bloggers teased me about chatting the whole time with my new friend, the cab driver. But I walked away knowing a little more about him and his story and I heard the refrain echoed once again.

Every person has a story.



  • JMarkAfghans

    Lovely story – one of life’s most important lessons: everyone we meet has something to teach us.

  • Shannon

    Oh, I am going to have a real conversation with the next cab driver I encounter. I’m always afraid of being too intrusive, but, as you have so eloquently shown, most people want to tell their stories.

  • Melissa_FillingOurBucket

    And this is why I think you are such a wonderful, beautiful person.

  • Stella Dacuma Schour

    And you have a blogpost! At some point, living here in new york most of us master the art of small talk with strangers. Driving the cab, driving the bus, waiting in the bus line, asking for directions.

    How much of a master am I? I met my husband through small talk about harry potter 7 at a random sidewalk park bench in tribeca.

    One of the things I love about NYC, is really, just the opportunity to talk to strangers. Although sometimes, some strangers are very, very angry. Those? I just pretend I don’t speak English. LOL

  • Beth Zimmerman

    Voila – blog post! =) Interesting to hear about Haiti from a Haitian point of view. A team from our church, including my son, went to Haiti this summer for 2 weeks and their impressions of the people are quite different from what he describes. Equal poverty but very different … spirit I guess. I don’t know. It’s probably not fair for young Americans to judge the character of a third world people. (That came out way wrong but I don’t know how to say it!)

    I will say that the team was on a medical mission although their only medical training was that Sarah is a dental assistant, Hannah a doctor’s assistant (office), and Jill is an ER Registration Clerk. Sarah acted as a dentist and spent hours every day pulling teeth. The girls acted as doctors. The three guys were dental and medical assistants. Craziness!

  • SimplyGabriela

    Everyone has a story and many often just want someone to listen to it. You’re a great listener, I’m glad you were able to make connections with your taxi drivers.

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