American vignettes

5 December 2020
Philippine Star

It was the summer of 2018 and I had just arrived in Los Angeles, California, after two weeks at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury College, Vermont. I lived with my sister for a week and met some of my friends who lived in LA. That day, Vida and I met in a big restaurant with a high ceiling. I was wearing my typical LA attire of shirt and shorts, and I nearly froze in the coldness of that beautiful resto.

Afterward, Vida and I went to Barnes and Noble and I bought a novel called The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and How Fiction Works by James Woods. Vida got a Grab ride for me and then when the car came we hugged and said goodbye. Inside was a black guy of around 30 years old, very quiet, and I said, “Good afternoon” to him. He looked at the mirror and a thin, quick smile broke from his lips.

“Hi, my name is Floyd. Is this your first time in the US?” he asked.

“My name is Dan. And no,” I said, “I studied here, taught for year and then I came back to my country.”

“Why?” he asked, as we swung out of the city center and began moving into the famous freeways of LA.

“Well, I had to take care of my two old parents and a sister with Down Syndrome.”

“You mean,” he said, his voice turning deeper in wonder, “you exchanged your teaching career here in the US for them?”

“Of course,” I said, “there was no question about that. Even the people at Rutgers, where I studied, asked me the same question.”

“Oh, man, you’re really sumthin’. And you’re just my second passenger today.”

“Why is that?”

Outside, the bald mountains of California stretched out under the late afternoon sun. “They avoid riding in my Grab because I’m black.”

“Oh,” I said, “you know, Floyd, I’ve lived mostly in Asia and I’m color-blind. My friend and I didn’t even look at your photo. You drive well and you’re polite.”

“Thanks, but they don’t see that. They just see my name and my photo and I have no more passengers. I just want to drive for my family.”

“How many kids do you have?”

“Just one,” and he handed me his mobile phone. The photo of his young wife and son served as his wallpaper. The wife was wearing a loose, white blouse, carrying a baby boy in checked shirt.

“You’ve a good-looking family,” I said and he beamed. Then he told me that he never took drugs and he was against the use of marijuana in California.

“Not even for medical reasons?” I asked.

“Well, maybe, But do you know that we’ve had several accidents lately because some drivers smoke that stuff while driving fast in this freeway?”

I looked around me. The cars were zipping fast, but they only stayed on their lanes and no one honked their horns, the way the drivers did in Manila.

Pretty soon we were entering the village where my sister lived. “You live in a nice place,” Floyd said.
“Oh, this belongs to my sister and her husband. I am just passing through.” I thanked him and gave him five stars, as well as a modest tip. He waved his hand in farewell and I turned to enter the house. The trees were already aflame in the gold of the California sunset.

Two weeks earlier, I had taken another cab from JFK Airport to my friend’s apartment in Queens. Our plane from Washington, D.C., had been diverted to the airport in North Carolina because of a thunderstorm. We were stranded for eight hours. The airline gave us free sandwiches and drinks, and so the Asians grabbed their food, ate, read their mobile phones. But around me were several New Yorkers beginning to lose it. The guy sitting beside me began to scream, saying he wanted to fly back to NY.

I just looked at him and then looked outside, at the branches of thunder streaking in the sky.

After eight hours we finally flew, and we arrived in New York at one A.M. There were still airport personnel leading us to the taxi stand, and I took one.

The driver was a white guy in his forties, with dirty blonde hair, and he drove like a typical Manila cab driver. He floored it when he saw the traffic sign turning orange. He never slowed down when he turned the corners. And his cab rattled over the potholes, as if it were spilling nuts and bolts along the way. Yes, there were potholes in New York City.

I was just silent and when he could not bear my stoic silence, the driver looked at me in the mirror and asked, “Where are you from?”

There was a Slavic accent in that voice, and I said, “the Philippines.”
Then he smiled. “Oh, no wonder. Another Third World refugee traveling at one AM. No wonder you’re not afraid of my driving.”

“I’m not a refugee,” I said, “I’m an English teacher.”

“Is there a difference?” he asked archly, and we both laughed.

That mellowed him down. He told me about his life as a migrant in New York City. He was a Philosophy graduate from one of the universities in the Balkans, and proved it by talking about Descartes and Merleau-Ponty and the other philosophers that we took up in Ateneo. I just listened to him in fascination. It was like a concise lecture on the history of Western philosophy, delivered by a mad driver flying on the dark streets of New York City.

Upon reaching my friend’s apartment, I paid and gave Mr. Philosopher a tip. He smiled again and said, “Good luck. I’ve never met a braver passenger,” to which I just laughed.

When I entered the apartment Sigfred asked me how was the cab ride? Finally relieved to be back in the warm cocoon of his apartment, I said, “Oh, he was an interesting man. A typical New York character.”

Sigfred was a chef and he served me excellent pork and chicken adobo and steaming white rice, and I began to eat heartily in the cold dawn, while talking about the Bread Loaf Conference, the humans of New York, and my flight back home.

American vignettes
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