My husband and I are getting ready for our annual trip from Minnesota to Florida to stay with his parents for a week. I have the task of calling for a taxi, so I look online for a taxi service in the area. I find Northwest Taxi and Limo and request a pickup for the following morning at 5 a.m.. I am assuming we'll get a taxi, so when a town car shows up, I’m slightly afraid I’ve made a mistake and this will be costly. But I hate taxis and taxi rides, so I hope for the best.
A small, smiling, middle-aged man of Middle Eastern descent gets out of the car, introduces himself and shakes our hand. He’s wearing an oversized gray Columbia parka and glasses that sit low on his nose. While he handles the luggage we climb into the back of the car and it’s spacious with nice leather seats.
(It is during these times that I feel the awkward separation between who I am as a comfortable, suburban, white woman, and who this person is as an immigrant to this country, depending on driving a cab for his livelihood.)
It is also that weird time of the day where it is too early for other people to be out and about, too early for light in the sky, and too early for my brain to be working very well. I feel a little punch drunk when we have to get up this early to catch a flight and I’m never quite sure what I’m going to say.
I ask our driver where he is from, and he tells us Iran, but he has lived in Minnesota for twenty-five years and loves it here. I ask him if he has any family here, and he says no, all of his family is back in Iran, and he is afraid at this point that if he went back to visit he would not be able to leave again. He tells us that he really doesn't want to live there anymore because of the restrictive government. But he talks again about how much he loves Minnesota. In fact, he says, he moved to Atlanta this winter and only lasted three weeks. He missed Minnesota too much and moved back.
We tell him about living in a duplex next to Iranian neighbors during the years when were newlyweds and then young parents in San Francisco. I describe the wonderful smells of Persian cooking that would drift over from their side of the duplex, and how we always hoped they would invite us over for dinner. We tell him we know all about tadiq (ta-deek), the wonderful crust of rice at the bottom of the pan that was crispy and fought over at the dinner table. He can’t believe we know about tadiq and keeps exclaiming about it. “Oh, you know about tadiq! That is so beautiful!”
Now that we have established this rapport I get up the nerve to ask him about the taxi versus limo rates, and which one we are getting. He assures us we are getting taxi rates and not to worry about it.
When we arrive at the airport he tells us to call him when we return and he will pick us up. He asks when we arrive. He says he will be waiting in the cell phone lot and to call him when we get our luggage.
While waiting for our return flight to Minneapolis, I text my friend Deb.
Me: In Tampa airport. Yay.
Me: 2:30 landing. Ready to get back to my routine. The one I complain about. hahahahahaha
Deb: Safe travels. It's frickin' snowing here.
(I should mention that the day after we left for Tampa the Twin Cities area received 15-18” of snow.)
Taxiing to the gate, I text:
Me: Back on cold, frozen land again. Where’s the sun? I need spring rolls.
We get off the plane in Minneapolis and I ask my husband, Ian, if he saved the number of the guy who picked us up. He says yes, and we make our way to the baggage area. As we walk behind a row of seats I spot our driver, at least I think it is him, sitting and waiting. I tug on my husband's sleeve and say, isn't that our guy? He looks and says yes, and stops me from going around the front of the seats to greet him until he can pull out his card and find his name. It is Masoud. I walk around the front of the chairs and cock my head to one side and smile, and indeed it is Masoud, who decided to park and come in and wait for us.
He is so happy to see us and we have a cheerful reunion. He offers to wait with us and help us with our bags. I need a restroom and a Starbucks, so I offer to get him something and he asks for a small black coffee. When I return the luggage has still not appeared so we commiserate about the 18 inches of snow that has fallen since we left. But he wants to talk about cheerier things so he asks us about our trip. I explain that my in-laws live in a senior community, so it was VERY quiet, maybe TOO quiet, but that right before we left we spent an evening, just the two of us, on the main street of downtown Sarasota, and explain how it was very European, with all the shops and restaurants open to the evening air, and people of all ages eating on the sidewalks, and music coming from the bars.
(As we are talking there is a part of my brain that is wondering what people are thinking about the three of us. Do they have a private chauffeur? Is he their employee? There is a young guy standing fairly close to us against a pillar and looking strangely at Masoud. Does he have a thing against Middle Easterners? It all feels strange, but we really like Masoud. He is instantly likeable and friendly. So we go with the flow.)
Masoud thinks that Sarasota sounds wonderful and suggests we buy a house down there and he could come and be our chauffeur. He said he had bought five Powerball tickets and they were drawing tonight, so if he won we could do that. We say that sounds great.
When I mention that we have a 21 year old son who lives in Chicago, he mentions that he is 52 and still has the mind of a child, and what can he do about that? We tell him we are both also 52, and he says, “Oh, that is so cute!” But we kid him that he is the oldest because his birthday comes in January, before ours. And he says, “That is why I am driving you!”
Now the luggage is coming off the belt and I say to Ian that I am craving spring rolls and there is only an empty frig at home. Masoud asks where we like to get spring rolls and I tell him the location of our favorite Thai restaurant. He suggests that we stop on the way home because of course we won't want to go out again tonight (it is cold and snowing-again). I hesitate but say, well, it IS on the way home, and he says, sure, sure, we will do that! You can call from the car! He really seems to want to take care of us. I’m wondering what this detour will cost us and if Ian will be mad I’m going ahead with this. We get back in the comfortable town car and I dial up our favorite Thai restaurant and put in our usual order. I offer to get Masoud something but he declines. I tell him he'll be sorry when he smells the takeout I bring back in the car.
When we pull in to the restaurant he jumps out to get my door, and again I think, jeez, this is awkward. Who am I to have a driver who gets my door?
Me: Yes, heading for spring rolls with our driver. Great story to tell. He’s taking us there on our way home so I don’t have to go out again. His name is Masoud.
Deb: You at spring roll-ville yet?
Me: No, why?
Deb: Where is Masoud taking you?
Me: Thai Curry House, our favorite.
Deb: Will he wait or join you?
Me: Wait while I pick up takeout. I called it in. We’re in his town car. This is a story for sure.
Deb: Better forward me his license plate #.
Me: hahahahahahahaha why? I only meet good people! Gotta pay. I’ll check in with you later, k?
Deb: Does his car say taxi on it?: Does his car say taxi on it?
At this point I show my husband the phone and he takes it from me and texts: Jihadi Taxi Co..
Leaving the restaurant with the food I decide to tell Masoud that I have been texting with my girlfriend this whole time and she is asking where he is taking us, and if his car says taxi on the side. “I think she is afraid you are kidnapping us!” We all have a good laugh over that one.
Masoud wants to know how I had found this restaurant. I have to think, and then tell him it was because I used to paint with some artists nearby and we would come here for lunch. He tells us that his sister in Iran has just called him, and his twenty-four year old niece, who is an artist, is locked in her room and won't come out. She was harassed by the Islamic Fundamentalist authorities while driving her car, because, they said, her head scarf was not pulled down far enough on her forehead. She talked back to them, and told them that this was her car, her private property, and she could do anything she wanted inside of her car. (When I hear this I become extremely alarmed about where this story is going.) They commented that she had a smart mouth on her, and what was she doing with that dog in the front seat? Didn't she know that it was illegal to have dogs out in public? She again said that this car was her private property and she could do what she wanted. So they took her dog, which she had raised since a puppy. And now she won't come out of her room.
Masoud said his sister wanted him to talk to her, and he said, "I don't know what I am going to say!"
I asked what it would take for her to leave the country. He said you had to have a "good cause." I asked what that meant and he said it meant you had a lot of money, and you could hire a good lawyer to get you through the system. He explained that not only was it difficult to get out of Iran, but it was a bigger problem to get into the United States from Iran, since the terrorist attacks. You could get in if you were sponsored, but it had to be an immediate relative like a parent or sibling. He said she is in her third year of college and excels at all her classes, but especially art, which is her major. She wants to come here to continue her studies.
I couldn't imagine how frustrating it must be for a talented twenty-four year old woman to feel so trapped. I told him to give her a message, from one artist to another. I told him to tell her that it is her art that will save her, and to never give up her art. That no matter what is happening outside, she needs her art to find peace of mind inside. He said he will tell her. He said she is selling some paintings now and says she is saving for a plane ticket to the U.S., but what was left unsaid by both of us was her slim chance of ever making that trip.
Somehow the talk turned to things happening in the world, and he said that the earth was not going to be gentle and understanding forever. That one day things would change. A long time from now, but gradually. He talked about how we are just a very tiny galaxy amongst a million other galaxies out there. I asked if he ever wanted to know, as I did, what other galaxies looked like. He said he would like to travel to Jupiter because he heard it had sixteen moons, and wouldn't it be nice to sit outside with your coffee and look up at sixteen moons? I explained that I would like to see other galaxies that had produced life forms like the earth had, but they certainly wouldn't be exactly the same, and I am curious what their worlds look like.
He said that someday we will know these things but that right now our brains aren't big enough to understand these things. I said, you mean we aren't ready to comprehend worlds beyond our own? He said, yes, you know, just like the computer. The knowledge was always there but we weren't ready to see it. So, I said, it is like when society is ready for a new concept, then we manifest it? Yes, he said.
I am reveling in this moment. I am a Midwestern white woman from the suburbs, having a metaphysical discussion with this man from Iran, and we are on exactly the same page.
As we enter our neighborhood I take a risk and decide to tell Masoud that when my girfriend asked if his car had "taxi" on the side, my husband had texted her, "Yes. Jihadi Taxi." I held my breath for a moment but he laughed really hard, saying, "jihadi taxi, hahaha." Then we talk about something else and he comes back to the joke, except this time he says, "Al Qaeda taxi," and we say, very quickly, no, no, we didn't say Al Qaeda (as if this was much, much worse), we said Jihadi Taxi. But then a moment later I say, I suppose you could call it Al Qaeda taxi too," and we all laugh, and I think, this whole conversation is so surreal but so good, and I suggest that if the friend he is in business with has his own town car then his could be Al Qaeda Taxi and Masoud‘s could be the Jihadi Taxi. He said that the next time he comes to pick us up he is going to put that on his car. I said that I would call all the neighbors out to see. (And, my husband mumbles, the next call we get is from the FBI.)
Now we are in the driveway. He oohs and aahs over our ancient dog, who comes out to greet us, saying “hello baby,“ which endears him to me even more. I tell him, Masoud, you are the best and we will always call you when we need a ride to the airport. I want to hug him but I don’t know if it is alright, so I shake his hand instead. He said it was strange, but he felt like he has known us a long time. I said, well, there are a lot of us who have known each other for a long time. He said, yes. And he was gone.
Later that night in a phone call to my Mother I was relating the story of our ride with Masoud, still high from the experience. There was silence on the other end of the line. Then she told me that warnings had been in the news lately, especially for women, to never get in a car that didn’t specifically say “taxi” on the side, because people were being driven off to unknown places and meeting horrible fates. I replied that no, I hadn’t heard about that.
The next day I meet my texting friend at the Y and it turns out she was seriously worried about my safety, having heard the same reports my mother had. She talks about how easy it is to be “courted” by people like this to carry drugs or other things. We argue about it. Whether I had been foolish. I become quite upset and confused but during my workout I decide this is more about her fear than my foolishness.
Because that’s not the world I live in. And neither does Masoud.