A Smooth Ride, Straight Into Night

Eleventh Street, NW

1.

The metrorail conductor’s voice sounded like it should have been on the radio. Late night radio. It was smooth like smoke; it purred and crackled. The conductor spoke slowly, and made his announcements with a playful formality. In front of the station names he added a definite article, even when one was not called for — as if the stop were someplace famous, someplace everybody knew and had longed to arrive at. “Customers, welcome aboard the Yellow Line train,” he said, as we pulled away from the platform. “The next stop is, The Gallery Place, Chinatown.” You could almost hear him smiling over the hiss of the P.A. The conductor was an entertainer.

It was morning and I was anxious about the day ahead, but the conductor’s voice calmed my nerves. I swear it sounded like he should have been playing Wes Montgomery or Charlie Mingus over that P.A. system. It made me smile, too. We left the L’Enfant Plaza stop and rounded a gentle curve. You can always feel that curve, even though the tunnel is dark. It makes you lean just a little. The train emerged into bright sunlight. “Customers, the next stop is The Pentagon, the first stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the conductor said, in that soft, low voice. I looked out at the Potomac and saw the breeze churning up the water. The silver buildings of Rosslyn glimmered on the far side of the river.

At The Pentagon stop, he made another announcement. “This is the Yellow Line train to Huntington.” His voiced lifted at the “–ton”. Cheerfully, smoothly. “Also stopping at The Crystal City, and The Washington-Reagan National Airport.”

The train swayed as it left the platform, and later, as the doors slid open I almost forgot to get off at my stop. I wanted to ride it until we reached the terminal. I wanted to meet the conductor, ask him if he’s ever been on the radio, tell him he should be. I’d never been to Huntington.

2.

I walked from the bar and picked up the cab outside the hotel, where I always do. It’s impossible to find a cab anywhere else in that part of Virginia. But next to the hotel there is always a huddle of drivers, standing outside next to their cabs, smoking cigarettes and passing the time. They laugh and joke a lot. The drivers are all men, and they are all from Ethiopia.

I came up to the group and asked if one of them could take me into D.C. They all nodded at the one whose car was in the front of the line. There is a system, a code of the cab-drivers, and it should never be violated. One of the rules is that a cabbie will never get ahead of the line. Even if a customer approaches his cab first, the cab driver will shake his head and point you to the person at the front. That way he knows that when he is at the front of the line, he can count on getting the next fare. Cabbie karma. Capitalism of the common interest.

My driver was a slender, handsome man. Sitting in the back seat, I saw only his profile, but he had a lean, narrow face and spoke in low, gentle tones, not altogether unlike the metrorail conductor. We exchanged questions about each other’s days, and then I asked how long he’s been a driver. It was his second week.

“How do you like it?” I asked. It’s a question I’d often put to cab drivers.

“It’s alright. There’s money in it, if you’re willing to put in the hours.”

I told him I’ve heard other drivers say they sometimes drive fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours just to make enough to be able to pay the daily rent for the cab and turn a small profit. “I could never do that,” he said. “It’s too much on your body. I think 10 hours is the most I could do.”

He told me he also has a day-job, managing transportation at a hotel. “But before that I used to work at IBM, doing IT.” His voice sunk lower, and there was a long pause during which neither of us spoke. “Then I got laid off.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s alright. My wife was really happy.”

I thought I misheard him. “Was, or wasn’t?”

“She was. I used to work really big accounts, Visa, Citibank. Something would go wrong and they would call me at any time of day or night — midnight, whatever. And I would have to go and fix it. The crazy thing was, our child was 6 months old, and we had just bought a condo. And then I got laid off and my wife was happy! She said, ‘God will give you something better.'”

He laughed. “Can you believe that?”

He seemed happy, too. We drove into a tunnel, into the wash of orange streetlights, and emerged at the intersection with Constitution Avenue. I asked the cab driver where he was from, though I already had an idea.

“Ethiopia,” he said.

Ndemeneh,” I said. “Or should I say, Ndemenot?”

“No, ndemenot is only for people much older than yourself, a sign of respect.”

“I see.”

“Where did you learn Amharic?”

“From other cab drivers. I only know a few words,” I said, and rattled them off — Hello (to a male), Hello (to a female), Hello (to an elder) and Thank You.

“It’s good!” he said. “If you keep practicing, your Amharic might be better than some of the Ethiopians I know who’ve lived in the States a long time.”

We talked about family, about how it’s nice to have the people you love nearby. He had family here, in D.C., and up in Canada. Many of the other cabbies I’ve talked to are here alone, I said, with all of their family back in Addis Ababa. All the while we rode up Twelfth Street. Heading north, it’s like climbing a wave, slow undulations building and building until you reach the apex, or are stopped by a red night. The inertia you build when you hit a succession of green lights feels unstoppable.

But finally it stopped, and I got out of the cab, stepping into the humid night. “Thank you,” I said, “it’s good talking to you.”

“You too,” he said. And he wheeled off around the corner, probably all the way back to the hotel.

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