Umar Lee Defends Cabbies Against Ride-Share: http://youtu.be/NLWBdKcVtAw
I always say that cab drivers are like high school students in that drivers form cliques and some groups don’t like other groups. Personally, I don’t really fit into any of the main groups (immigrants, angry white men who listen to Michael Savage and flirt with right-wing extremism, surly bald-headed black guys, old-timers, etc); but here in St. Louis there is a core group of drivers that I would say I am friendly with.
Perhaps none of these drivers have I spent more time talking to and sharing thoughts with more than a guy I will just call B.
B is an interesting character. He was born and raised in the Bronx and worked in factories in New York until he graduated from City College with a degree in education and English (he would later get a graduate degree in both fields).
From there B would become a teacher in the New York City Public Schools and he married a Dominican woman who taught him to speak fluent Spanish. The couple had two or three children, I am not really sure, but somehow ended up in a divorce.
Around this time B’s sister was transferred to a job in St. Louis and B decided to give the city a try to get away from the problems with his ex. He first worked as a teacher in St. Louis; but because of the child support and alimony cuts in his check he deiced to go into the cash economy and become a cabbie.
This is when we met and we hit it off. B is a big reader and always has something around to read and we would often trade magazines and books to read in our cabs. Both of us also listen to a lot of NPR and BBC and we would often talk to each other about stuff we had heard on the radio.
When we first met B had a nicely furnished apartment in North St. Louis County, a cell phone, and was well-dressed and well-groomed. He was optimistic about life and planned to save up money and either move back to New York or out to the West Coast.
I left St. Louis for New York and when I came back B no longer lived in the apartment but was in a boarding house in North County. Some people may look down on boarding houses, not me, I have lived in them before and think they fit the needs of a lot of single males pretty well, so I didn’t look down on this move.
During this time B was writing a screenplay and I was kind of helping him with it (although he never took any of my advice) and was talking o a Jewish woman in California. The woman is a lawyer and seemed to like B from what I could tell. He also had a woman in Louisville he was talking to and I think his plan was to move to one of these places and live with the woman.
The woman in LA cut ties with B and he focused on the woman in Louisville. He bought her gifts and flew down there to spend time with her. She decided to break it off with him when he visited and he was pretty much crushed and even asked her to reimburse him for all the gifts he bought.
A little while later I left to DC for about a year to work with Imam Mahdi Bray. When I come back I see B again and this time he does not have an apartment and is not renting a room. Instead he was living in his cab and when he had a good day he rented a motel room by the airport.
B was no longer writing and his grooming was slipping; but he was very enthralled by the Presidential election and told me he would stay in the motel all day watching MSNBC and CNN coverage and would not even go to work. He seemed to stop living his life and to be living through the life of Barack Obama.
Now he told me that he planned to move back to New York or to Portland, OR after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July. That was before it came time for his license to get renewed (around $250) and he did not have the money.
He lost his job a couple of weeks ago and knowing that he was sleeping in his cab and had now lost that I wondered what happened to him. On Saturday night I found out. As I was driving up to the valet of the upscale Chase Park Plaza Hotel I heard someone yelling my name from the bus stop on the corner.
When I looked over it was B who ran towards my cab sweating and looking a mess saying “yo Umar I haven’t eaten in two days brother”. I decided to give him some pocket money and took him to Taco Bell and I asked him what he had been doing. He said he had been living in a homeless shelter but had gotten a two day “time off” because he spent too much time in the shower and was now trying to hustle up the money to get his license.
Later that night I drove by that same bus stop and I saw B again. He did not see me; because he was reading a book at the bus stop and seemed to be into it and I am sure that to all of those passing by looking his direction he was just another big homeless black man, but I knew he had a story.
A man is going to do what he is going to do. If I was him I would just get out of St. Louis and live closer to family; but there may be things I do not know. For me though, what the story of B illustrates is how a man can just slowly devolve over the course of years and then finally hit rock bottom. It also leads me to believe that there are other nameless homeless faces out there who have their won stories-maybe not so different than B.
These are tough times for us all as we are going through this recession. Tough times can become unbearable times for people whose economic woes are compounded by personal problems in their love or family lives and or drug-alcohol addiction.
The tales are legendary of Wall Street types jumping off buildings in Manhattan during the Great Depression and of others facing hard times, such as farmers in India, turning to suicide en masse.
Turning to my life and the present I came to work on Friday night and got a most unpleasant surprise. A fellow driver (a female, to be exact) had hung herself in the basement of her apartment building in the Shaw Neighborhood.
Her death was the talk among all of the drivers. Everyone wanted to know why she took that fatal step. Everyone goes through tough times; but very few actually decide to give up on life. There has to be something very wrong with the person’s spiritual state of being to take a decision to terminate the life that has been given to you by your Creator. Absent a belief in God, suicide can become a rational step for many people who believe that right and wrong, and good and evil, are not set in stone and change with time, place and a person’s situation.
Why she did it I may never know. I did not know her well. In addition to being a driver she was a part-time dispatcher and I will miss hearing her classic South St. Louis accent on the radio. Few people even know or talk about their being a South Side accent; but there is. The sound of it is hard to describe; but you will not hear it from white North Siders like myself, African-Americans from Da Lou, people with money here, or the yuppies moving into the city. It is unique and can only be found amongst the old working-class white South Side population (what most would refer to here with the derogatory term of “hoosier”). The accent is dying out with the fading white working-class population of the South Side neighborhoods from which it came and this woman was one reminder of it that I always had.