Chance Encounters, City Living


A man approaches me at the airport gate.

“Looking for a taxi? Come with me, miss. How was your trip? Can I take your bag?”

“Uhh, that’s okay.”

“Want to prove you’re big and strong, eh? Right this way.”

I’m handed off to three separate people, who seem courteous enough as they walk me to the parking lot. The final guy takes me by his van in the parking lot, but does not seem like a real cab driver.

I hobble off with my great big lug ‘o stuff to find a yellow cab. A large man with a thick accent says something about how he was supposed to have his Queens pass or something. “Uhohhh,” I say and nod, pretending to know what he’s talking about.

I share the sketchy business model I was almost swindled by. He explains how the light signal and the name-taking and the this and that all ensure that the yellow cab service maintains the safety of its patrons. He asks me how long I’ve been in New York City and gives me a concerned fatherly word of warning that I should never get in a car I haven’t ordered or that isn’t yellow. Grateful, I settle in and start to move the conversation forward, asking about his previous jobs, how long he has been in the city, and eventually, his family.

His eyes light up when he starts talking about his kids. I cock my head and squint my eyes and try to follow everything he’s saying. I know a little bit of our conversation is being lost in translation, but I try to take in what I can.

I ask what plans they have for his oldest daughter’s upcoming birthday on Christmas, knowing that she’s approaching 16, which is apparently a thing. I remember a conversation I’ve had earlier this morning, on the other side of the country in California, with a mom whose given her daughter and 10 friends a night on the town and hotel rooms for her Sweet 16.

“Ohh, she can do a lot,” he answers. “She can join the military or the Marines or the Navy or become a school teacher.” Not what I’d meant at all, but a much more endearing and admirable answer. Sweet 16’s are literally meaningless to his family of hard-workers. He starts to tell me about a training program his daughter has just enrolled in at LaGuardia airport to learn how to be a comptroller.

He tells me about the timing of his kids’ birthdays, which I eventually come to see as important to him, because they determine how quickly his kids will be eligible to enter the workforce or join programs like the Navy. He talks about the savings account system he’s set up with them, in which he gives them $50 for each good grade to put in savings, and $100 for the birthday to put into savings, and how he always pays them $5 for every $100 he borrows, which is better than paying interest on a loan from the bank.

He talks about his middle daughter, and how she’s not like his eldest — she’s more…”technical”. She helps fix things around the house and will likely become an electrician. But she has to be careful when she tries to fix things in India, because the voltage is twice as high and that could be the end. He mentions one time she was shocked and it was very serious.

His youngest boy is working hard to get good grades so he’s eligible for a good high school, and his wife works at LaGuardia. I ask if the girls pick on their brother. He says no, but they want to help with homework, which I come to understand is not encouraged. (The boy is supposed to figure it out himself, I realize.)

There’s a lag in the conversation and I think we’ve reached an end to our talk. He’s on his phone, but then passes it over to me. It’s his three kids in a photo, smiling at me — they’re arm in arm and the youngest has that shy half-smile that eighth grade boys have when they’re posing for family photos with their big sisters.

I’m moved by his aspirations, and his diligence, and his kindness, and his reserved strength. I leave the taxi and walk the steps to my new New York City apartment, grateful to be in this completely nuanced place that’s full of stories, and so glad that here, I finally feel at home.

(photo courtesy of Papaija2008/

Smiles For All