I always talk to cab drivers, in part because my father was one. If they are black and from the Caribbean, I survey their ID cards and mull over their French-sounding names before cautiously asking, “Haitian?”
Mostly there’s no need to ask. Haitian cab drivers often have their radios tuned to Haitian music, religious, or political programs, if a Creole CD is not playing.
Sometimes the driver turns around to have a look at me before continuing the conversation.
“You Haitian, too?” he asks, for mostly they are men.
“Obviously,” I reply. “Ou tou wè sa.”
I let them decide if we should proceed in English or in Creole. They always choose Creole. Sometimes they’re surprised that my Creole is any good.
“How old were you when you came from Haiti?” they ask.
“Twelve,” I say.
“How old are you now?”
When I add the three decades that have passed since I was twelve they’re a bit more astonished.
“Did your parents always speak to you in Creole?” they ask.
“Always,” I respond.
Sometimes we get into a mutual lament over Haitian youth who stop speaking Creole as soon as they come to the United States, preferring instead to answer their Creole-speaking parents in English. I confess to having plenty of young relatives like that. But it’s not their fault, we concede. They’re up against strong forces of place and time, a mosaic of cultures other than their own that demand immediate absorption. Maybe they feel they have to forge ahead or be left behind.
These discussions are never over by the time we reach our destination. There’s always more to say, other subjects to crack. Perhaps we’ll talk longer another time, we say.
When we do speak longer—Haitian and non-Haitian drivers alike—we often slip into politics. Mostly we agree. Coup d’etats are a bad thing. Democratically elected governments should be given a chance to succeed. Women should have the same rights as men. The poor always suffer the most—no matter what. Always.
Sometimes we disagree and I become nervous, for suddenly we’re on opposite sides of a heated debate, each trying to get in a word edgewise, while my new pal grows more and more irate. Every now and then I back off. “I see your point. That’s an interesting way of looking at things. I can see where you’re coming from.
I recently acquiesced to a Nigerian female cab driver (a truly rare encounter).
Me: “I can see where you’re coming from.”
Her: “Of course,” she said. “We’re not that much different. We all—well, most of us—have two feet and one heart.”
Sometimes we avoid worldly subjects and talk about things closer to home: weather, traffic, insurance rates, another cabbie murdered the night before, my father.
I tell them that my father too drove a cab, for over twenty five years, until his death from lung disease.
“So I know what this is like,” I say.
“No you don’t,” an aspiring Russian poet once replied. “Only, he, your father, knew what it was really like.”
Sometimes I attempt to draw my father’s experience and theirs closer. I ask how many children they have. “Be careful,” I advise. “Keep your partition up. You never know.”
One cold winter night, while heading back to my mother’s after a late movie, when I got into a cab I quickly realized from the driver’s accent and music choices that he was Haitian. He had seemed somewhat hesitant to pick me up and even more reluctant to drive me after I told him my mother's address in East Flatbush, a mostly Carribean section of Brooklyn. But after looking me over, and observing me blow hot breath into my frozen hands, he decided to take me on one condition: that I pay first. It was the kind of thing my father would never do, no matter how much it might have protected him. On the other end of such a transaction was a person’s dignity. With no other cab in sight, I didn’t storm off but simply asked, “Why?”
“You might run,” he said in a sad deep voice.
“Why would I do that?”
“Leaving our homelands does good things to us, but also very bad things,” he cryptically replied.
I paid him up front and made a conscious choice to remain quiet for the rest of the ride. But somehow having the money transaction out of the way had warmed him and made him downright talkative. He told me the story of a woman who kept getting robbed by a masked thief in the elevator of the apartment building where she lived. One day she decided to carry some red paint, which she threw in her robber’s face. The woman was stunned when the thief removed the mask and revealed that it was in fact her own daughter.
I had heard different versions of that story from my father. A young man had led some school pals to five thousand dollars his mother was hiding in her mattress and in a struggle for the money the mother had been shot. A father had killed his only daughter when she and her friends had carried out a break-in at the family’s furniture shop. These were the cautionary tales of what our new homeland could turn us into, stories sworn to be true by every person who recited them and passed them along, as if tellers had been eyewitnesses, present in the bedroom, in the furniture shop, in the elevator, at the wake. These stories were meant to illustrate a fragment of what we had lost in migrating, but they also illustrated what we had gained: new narratives, touching and frightening both.
Whenever I hear these types of stories, I feel the same sense of sadness and awe I often feel during these sought-after taxicab conversations with my father's former colleagues, fellow urban nomads, reciters, and ambient voyagers. Whether crossing real or imaginary borders, speeding across bridges that feel like the edge of the world, I realize that I am always looking for others with whom to share a common and fragile grasp on “home.” For even as we craft these nascent mythologies, masked as cautionary tales, most of us still remain—as my Nigerian friend told me—owners of one fragile heart.
Edwidge Danticat is a novelist and essayist. Her most recent book is Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2010), a collection of essays. She has also edited two anthologies of writings on Haiti, one of which, Haiti Noir (2010), was reviewed in sx salon 3. Danticat received a MacArthur fellowship in 2009.