I have been travelling to Wilmington, Delaware for the last one year for work and this travel comes to an end this week. I will say at the outset that I had no motivation to get on this project in the first place and was hoping to get out of it in a month or two. Lo and behold it took a whole year and all its four seasons. Nevertheless, it ends this week and I am looking forward to not coming to this place on a weekly basis. Over the last twelve months there are three people I met who will stay in my memory longer than the work I did here. This post is about these three people :
The taxi driver: Every Monday morning, I would take a taxi from my home to get to the Washington Union Station. Aside from a customary “good morning”, I don’t usually engage in conversations with strangers (which includes taxi drivers). However, one hot Monday morning, the taxi driver who picked me up started to ask me questions on where I was from and what I did, etc. He was a South Asian man of about average height, in his late twenties with one of those faces which can be described as cherubic. He had a general pleasant air about him. He told me that he was from Peshawar. He told me about his wife, his newly born daughter, his longing for Peshawar, his friends from his mohalla, and his general sense of alienation with America. I could tell this guy wasn’t complaining, he was just genuinely missing his people and his home town. I could also tell that he was grateful for all he had but wishes he could make his living in his hometown and be able to support his large family (which included, his parents, 3 siblings, and grandparents). I believe he must have felt that I could possibly identify with his situation, which in a way I was. He said his name is Majid and that he had a good time talking to me. After this first taxi ride, I happened to use Majid’s taxi on five more rides, on pure happenstance. The second time I was in his taxi, was about 3 months from our first meeting, and I had of course no recollection of him. He however remembered me and started the conversation with “So, still travelling to Delaware?”. He was looking at me from the rear view mirror and had that eager expectant look in his eyes, that look which conveyed – don’t-you-remember-me?. I was taken aback and he clearly saw that I was confused and had no recollection of him. He wasn’t offended, and said “Majid? Peshawar? kuch yaad aaya?”. I did, and gave a knowing smile back to him which he caught with satisfaction which I saw on his face in the rear view mirror. I asked about his daughter, we continued to talk about whatever else was happening in the world and America (the latest being the Government shutdown which has caused a drop in his ridership and hence his income). I, like Majid, have made a life of mine here in a foreign land. I, like Majid, have chosen to stay away from my people. I, like Majid, feel the disconnect with my land and sometimes feel that tug of an invisible umbilical chord. I, like Majid, and like millions more, are trying to make the best of what we are capable of in distant lands. I am glad I was able to connect with Majid.
The toll booth lady: Occasionally, instead of taking the train, I used to drive between Washington, DC and Wilmington, DE. If you have driven on the North-Eastern seaboard, you cannot escape Interstate 95 and its multiple tolls. One such crummy Monday morning, I found myself waiting my turn to pay some greens at one such toll booths on the Maryland stretch of I-95. It had been a rough past few weeks, work-wise and life-wise. Generally speaking, I am a happy person and maintain a sunny, optimistic, and a cheerful demeanor (or at least I like to think that I do). I was lost in my gloomy reverie and was gradually inching my car toward the toll booth as cars ahead of me did their paying the toll business. I had four dollar bills extending out from my left hand through the window. My turn came and I mechanically reached out in the general direction of the window where the toll booth agent was without so much as looking at the human being who was behind that window. I heard a voice “Good morning sunshine”. Needless to say, the voice and the tone was beaming with the very sunshine that she was addressing me with. I looked up hesitantly as the lady took my bills and was extending me the receipt. I saw that she was a stocky black woman with a red bow on her blue collar shirt. She was smiling ear to ear, beamed at me while handing the receipt – “Here honey, go seize the road now”. Her words and manner were infectious, and at that very moment I realized that we were both trapped inside a capsule – her in the toll booth, me inside the car – and it made me realize how the world around makes us feel is nothing but a choice we make. I found myself snapping out of my dark mood into a hopeful one as I left the toll booth and drove North.
The old lady at the Avis counter: When I did take the train to Wilmington (which was most of the times), I would rent a car from the Avis car rental at the Wilmington station. Every Monday morning, an old lady who worked the counter would hand me my keys and the rental contract. I would thank her and go on my way to the car park. She was this petite old lady, maybe in her early sixties, with a short salt and pepper haircut, Gandhi glasses, and a high pitched voice which belied her petite size. We would have the usual canned small talk whenever I approached the counter to get my car keys: “Good morning, how are you today?”, etc. Once in a while, when I would wear something new or started sporting a stubble, she would comment – ”You look quite handsome today”. Of course, that would plaster a wide smile on my face. Then early this year, I did not see her at the counter for a few months. She reappeared after a 3 month hiatus. She looked even more frail and pale, she was donning a woolen skull cap and I noticed she had no eyebrows. It was quite clear she was fighting her own war with a deadly disease. I managed to not show my reaction to her appearance on my face when I got to the counter for the first time when she came back from the break. I noticed that her movements were slower but her manner had not changed much. She still greeted me with the same wide smile and did continue to compliment me on how I looked each Monday morning. So this past week when I was about to board my train in Washington, DC, I thought that today will be probably be the last time I will see her. Her counter is directly opposite the down escalator that you have to take from the platform to the lobby. As soon she saw me on that escalator, she would get ready with the contract and the car keys even before I walked up to the counter. This past Monday, I got her a small cupcake from DC, I told her that today was the last time I am renting from her, and handed her the cupcake while thanking her. She was visibly touched and said “Thank you, but I am just doing my job. Thank you though, I do have a sweet tooth and I can’t wait to devour this cupcake”. Yes, she was just doing her job, but to me she was the only familiar face that I subconsciously waited for when I got to Wilmington. I do not want to speculate on her personal life or medical condition, all I know is she is back there behind the counter doing what her job demands of her even with whatever hardships that may or may not be going on in her life.