A transportation professional obliges me with his views on musicians, Lebanese food, and the trials of moving from one place to another.
I had not expected how naturally the taxi-hailing gesture would return to me. Apparently living in New York City did teach me something.
“Do you take cards?” I ask him, as we leave O’Hare in the distance.
“No,” he says, somewhat indignantly.
“Oh.” I can’t be bothered by this inconvenience. I’m on my way to a swank hotel, and a wedding on the North Shore, and I feel like one of those entitled rich people I’ve always been fascinated by. Joan Didion says Americans love wealth primarily for the independence of will it grants. In my case, the ability to ride in whatever cab I want, even if it means a fee for getting the cash to pay for it.
“Didn’t you stand in the line?” he asks me incredulously.
“No,” I said. “What line?”
“The line outside.” He explains more what he means, but his accent is thick; I think I hear the word “ATM” and “baggage.”
“No,” I tell him carelessly. “This is my first time in Chicago. What should I do while I’m here?”
“First time in Chicago and you didn’t stand in the line?”
I look out the window. We’re passing the airport outskirts neighbors, that look like the set of a rags-to-riches movie. They call to mind the outskirts of Philadelphia. I see an advertisement for the Chicago Polish festival. We pass a strip mall with one lit sign that says “Mantrap Nails.” The window is open; warm night air dries the sweat from my forehead.
As we come within photo distance of the city lights, I scoot across the seat to the opposite window.
“Where you staying again?” he asks.
“Swissôtel, on Wacker Drive,” I tell him.
“You leave your luggage at the airport, or something?”
“No. This is all I brought. I carried everything on.”
“You carry that on?”
“Yes, they let you bring one carry-on and one personal item.”
“Oh. That’s why you don’t have to stand in the line.” The resolution of this conundrum makes him more cheerful. “Your first time in Chicago, so what do you like to do? Like sports, like shopping, like movies…”
“I like music,” I tell him.
“Oh, you like music! Well, then…” He flicks the radio dial; the warm air of the car is suffused with the sultry vocal stylings of Rihanna.
“What you do for a living?” he asks me. “You a singer?”
“No,” I say, “I’m a writer.”
“A writer! You write for newspaper?”
“No, for magazines, sometimes,” I say. “I like to write about music, though.”
“Oh. High or sober?” he asks.
“They high or sober, musicians, when you write about them?”
“Both,” I say, for no reason. But it makes him laugh pretty hard. “Usually they’re sober when I talk to them.”
He laughs even harder. “Because they know if they high, you going to write about it and say they high.”
“That’s right,” I say. “Have you lived in Chicago a long time?”
“Yes. Long time. 20 years.”
“Where are you from, before that?”
“Middle East,” he says. “Little country.” He pauses a long time, as if deciding whether I’m worthy of a secret. “You know Lebanon?”
“Oh, sure,” I say. “I love their food.”
This brings a big smile to his face. He’s an older man, and so fat he nearly overflows the driver’s seat. “Yes, very good food,” he says.
“How old were you when you left Lebanon?” I ask. “Twenty?”
“Yes!” He looks back at me, for the first time. “How you know that?”
I attempt to produce a wise-sounding laugh. “Do you miss it?” I ask.
“Yes, I miss.” He shrugs philosophically.
“Do you have family there?”
“Oh, yes, much family.”
We pull up to the Swissôtel driveway. A valet comes to open the door. I ask for an ATM, and he says there’s one down in the basement. My driver seems content with waiting, having resolved the issue of how I could have missed standing in the line. I come back in a moment with money; he’s holding a credit card machine.
“See, I have machine…” He gestures helplessly at it. “But it’s broken. The tape is stuck. I have to fix…”
“That’s okay,” I say, hoping $5 is a respectable tip for the distance we’ve come. “Thank you.”