I always call the Uber driver when they’re on their way because inevitably, I’m on the wrong side of the street or I’m bad about car brands and can’t find a Kia in a sea of Hondas. I’m in Chicago visiting customers, so this morning, I call the driver and a woman answers.
“Hi! This is Amy!’ I scream into the wind. “I’m on the corner of Michigan and Huron. Black and white sweater and a colorful scarf.”
“What?” she yells, “I didn’t hear a word you said!”
We start laughing and as I begin repeating myself, she pulls up.
“I see you! Here I come!” I don’t know why, but I love talking on the phone to someone that is watching me talking on the phone.
I hop in, holding my phone, a coffee, and a half-eaten bagel.
“Is it okay if I finish this in your car? I won’t drop crumbs. At least not on purpose.”
“Of course, honey!” She laughs. “Get in!”
I love her immediately. She confirms my name and the address of my destination. There are bright strings of Mardi Gras beads hanging from her rearview mirror, and two lollipops shoved in the handle of the side door. She has a sassy bob hairdo, and beautiful hands with pointy fingernails. Her smile is catching. I’m guessing she’s around 50.
This morning, I’m unusually calm riding to my first meeting. I never even look at my phone. I put it in my bag and go into journalist mode. I learn that she’s lived in Chicago over 20 years. She was raised in Birmingham.
“I loved growing up there,” she says. “I could just run around all day. I was safe and free.”
She tells me about growing up with her mama, but that she lived close enough to spend a lot of time with her grandmother. She wanted to be just like her grandmother, a woman she cherished.
I want to ask the question. Here I am, the white woman, asking the question.
“Growing up in Birmingham, did you ever experience the ugliness? Were you discriminated against?”
She’s answered this before. Still, I feel we’ve formed a bond and that she’s given me permission to ask. She’s willing to answer.
“My grandmother would send me to the A&P with a grocery list and money. I was nine years old. It didn’t occur to me that there was a place on the bus I was supposed to sit.”
I’m starting to cry. I tell her I don’t understand a world where people would be separated based on the color of their skin. I tell her I’m not sure that we’ve come very far at all. She nods her head, “Mmm, mmm.”
“I had to be a math whiz,” she says. “I had to know how to count my pennies so I’d come home with the right change. There was a white woman at the A&P who was very nice to me. I was only nine years old, can you believe that?”
We keep talking. I tell her about how I’m trying to better understand black history and the black experience and that I’m reading more and watching more movies and that I want to do more to impact change. That my husband and I skip the blockbuster films and go see every movie about the black experience we can see, and how sometimes we laugh about that. She laughs.
It’s this thing that we who want to be considered allies do. We want somehow to prove that we’re on the right side. I’m so clumsy about it, but I still try.
I tell her that just a day after the election, I was distraught and emailed a well-known black woman that I admired and I asked her what I could do. That her response was hard to read. That she said, “Roll up your sleeves, do the work and, most importantly, listen.” That when I read her email I felt defensive and frustrated, but that I chose to give it time, and that I’ve been trying to heed her advice ever since. That I never had the courage to reply. That I struggle with initiating conversations with my white female friends who voted for Trump because I should have done it earlier, but what could I have changed? That I know, at 44, I can’t ever understand the black experience, but that I want to be better about standing up to injustice.
“The best thing you can do is to be yourself,” she says. We’re at a stoplight and she turns around and looks right at me. She’s serious. “You are a lovely person. Just be yourself. You can’t change others.”
I listen. She tells me about her kids – “Two sets of twins and a ‘single’,” and we swap stories about our relationships. My husband’s 14 years older. Her boyfriend is 14 years younger. She took up foster parenting since her kids are older now. We talk about how caring for vulnerable children is hard, important work.
She tells me that we are different colors but that we bleed the same. We love the same. Some people just don’t understand that.
We’re pulling into the neighborhood where my customer’s office is located. I’m feeling thankful that the conversation we shared in a 15 minute car ride was so rich that my pre-meeting jitters never had a chance. We’re winding through a lovely neighborhood with gorgeous homes. She slows down.
“Look to the left,” she says. “That’s Louis Farrakhan’s home.”
“He lived there?”
“He lives there.”
I’m letting that all sink in for a minute, and we ride in silence for a few more blocks. She slows down again.
“Now,” she says softly. “Look to the right. This is why I brought you this way.”
I look to the right and see a home peering out above giant privacy trees. Metal parking gates surrounding the property. I’m stumped.
“This is the Obama home.”
For the third or maybe forth time, I’m crying again. I’m taking pictures of the privacy trees and I’m crying and saying thank you, thank you. This is the nicest thing and I never would have known this was right here if you hadn’t taken me here. This an honor, a gift. She pulls up to the end of the property so I can get a better look.
A few blocks more and there’s a beautiful park. She points out the building on the left that was owned by John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing Co., the publisher of Ebony and Jet. On the right, a Walgreen’s.
I say oh my goodness, what a neighborhood. I’ll bet the Obamas took walks in this park, and surely they bought their paper towels at that very Walgreen’s.
“And right down there, just a few blocks away, is my apartment.” she says.
“Wow! You live right here! Right by all of these places!”
“I do,” she says, smiling. “We share the same zip code.”
“You share the same zip code.”
It rattles me. For me, some things are big. They’re too big for me to express in words, though I’ll spend my life trying. I feel happy and sad all at once when she says it. I want more time to learn more from her. She is my opportunity to listen. She’s reminding me that I can’t stop listening.
A few blocks more and the ride is over. I give her my phone number, ask her to please contact me so we can keep in touch. I mean this. I mean this every time I give my phone number to a stranger. Most of the time, we don’t connect again, but this seems different.
“This was the single best Uber ride I’ve ever taken,” I said. “I am so grateful and so blessed to have met you. Thank you for being such a great ambassador for Chicago.”
We shake hands and say goodbye. I walk to my meeting, full of hope.