The smooth black vinyl glides against my tights as I scoot across the backseat. I don’t make it all the way directly behind the driver’s side because being cornered in any capacity makes me claustrophobic. Jonathan closes the door and looks down at a slip of paper from the hotel. Neither of us knows the name of the place yet. We just show up and do what we’re told. “Shore Inn Hotel, please,” Jonathan says. The cab flips an illegal u-turn in front of the sushi restaurant and heads back north.
I can’t see our driver save for the small 2×3 inch sliver of mirror that is visible from my vantage point. A half a pair of glasses, a bagged eye, a slightly wrinkled forehead. When he speaks, he reveals his age. The mirror reveals little.
In an effort to make immediate and polite conversation, Jonathan asks the driver how he knows all of these streets so well. Boston is indeed confusing. It is European in its inexplicably chaotic and nonsensically named and numbered streets. Roads the start and stop and turn into other names, giving up on the one that it bore only for the last block or so. This is part of the city’s charm, I suppose, but it makes it categorically navigable.
“I’ve been here 49 years, man.”
Bricks and trees of Boston slowly pass. Humid air drifts through the front window and into the backseat. It’s a perfect nearly-summer evening in a city I’ve never been before. I look up towards the front cabin as the driver waves his big baseball mitt hands in the direction of his house. “I live that way,” he says. He has the type of hands they don’t make anymore. Hands that have seen work and hard times. Hands that have had minimal interaction with keyboards and video games. Hands that look like they have done things. Not soft, but gracefully calloused.
Our driver moved to Boston from South Carolina in 1960. When asked what he thinks about Boston, assuming he must like it after so many years here, he responds with, “The city’s just fine. But the people, the people are angry people.” He’s got the voice of an elderly, Southern, African American male. Something I’ve always associated with James Earl Jones on the account of my childhood watching The Sandlot. Warm, deep, wise. I wish I had a grandpa with a voice like that but both of mine were gone too quick for me to ever know. This is probably why I have a deep-rooted obsession with adorable old men; I secretly wish I could keep them for myself.
I state that I have not been to South Carolina but I hear it is beautiful. “Yeah, it’s beautiful. But the people there are…are backwards.” The driver tells us that when he was our age he wouldn’t have been allowed to ride in the cab with us. He talks about sitting in the back of the bus and how no one really even thought twice about it because it’s all anyone ever knew. He watched things get better, then worse, then better, then worse…
He says he thinks it’s a hard time for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren growing up in this era. He muses about where all of the nice people have gone. It used to be easy to find them, he says, now it’s much harder.
“My momma always said, ‘Treat people well. Treat people the way you want to be treated.’ And momma’s always right.”
I smile and look out the window, thinking how amazing it is to be eighty years old and still so deeply impacted by your parents. How those two people stay with you forever. The lessons, the love, the stupid arguments. All of it. One day I will be eighty years old and thinking about my own parents. They’ll be gone and I will casually and automatically reminisce about them, about what they have taught me and about what I miss most about them. My mom’s garden and her chapped lips. My dad’s cowboy boots and his mechanic’s hands. I will have had children and grandchildren of my own, but I will always always always be the child of someone else. You can never get rid of that.
The driver talks about how he goes back to South Carolina two or three times a year. He takes a car. He has never traveled by plane in all his life. Last year he drove from Boston to Los Angeles. I let out a gasp of mock horror and he demurs, saying how he sees so much driving that he wouldn’t see flying. “It took my momma nine months to get here. It only took me 34 hours. I already won!”
He tells us about his trip to Texas.
“Now. I’m not a drinking man. But I went to one of those Texas bar-b-ques. Had myself a margarita. Hoo wee!”
The subject of cars comes up. He talks about his ’69 Camero. “I might be old,” he says, “But I still like the speed.”
The small stories and snippets of his life unfold as easily as when one talks about the weather. He segues seamlessly from one topic to the next. Every paragraph spoken is like a different vignette illustrating a moment in his life. He shares himself willingly and without reservation. His kindness is automatic and altruistic. He engages you in the type of conversation that is so unexpectedly true and honest that your answers have no choice but to be pale shadows of clichés in comparison.
“It seems like you’re doing good, man,” Jonathan says.
In some broken form of an explanation, the driver says, “My wife…she’s my best friend, you know. For eighty years old, I’m doing alright.” I offer that he is doing better than most of my twenty year old friends. He laughs, but I’m not lying.
Never in my life have I loved a stranger so quickly and so fondly. I still can’t see his face but his spirit is so present through all of his words. It’s in the way his big hands move through the air. It’s in the black and white Jimmy Hendrix postcard he has affixed to the sunshade with rubber bands and tucked behind pink papers. Through the way he calls Jonathan “my man” and how he calls me “princess” as I exit the car, walking back into the hotel.