In a San Francisco steak house a few years ago, I was served by a young man who was telling me how he appreciated not being treated like an idiot by a customer. He had written a novel, just passed the Actuarial bar exam, and was waiting tables while considered his options in life.
I’m terrible at small talk. I also like to assume that everyone can teach me something new.
Last night I hopped into a cab in Houston, needing to run a few errands. The driver was an African immigrant, a trait common to half the cab drivers I’ve ever met in America. “Marketplace” was playing on NPR, and I asked him to update me on the latest in the economy, AIG, Geithner et al. I’d been busy and not kept up with the news for a couple of days.
He summarized the situation, spoke about the dollar weakening, oil prices rising accordingly, the politics of the bailout, etc. In the short ride, he provided some interesting insights and I was sorry the conversation ended as we reached my destination. I asked for his phone number and told him I’d call him to see if he’s available to take me to my next stop a half hour later. He agreed, given the lack of business in downtown Houston that day. For the next 2 hours, he transported me from one place to the next, and our brief conversations between stops accumulated into a long discussion.
He told me about Cameroon, and I shared that I too was from Africa. I asked him what it would take for Africa to join the world economy in a meaningful way. He shared his thoughts and illustrated his points about Africa by telling me how he raised money for a water system for his village in Cameroon. But that morning he’d been on the phone ranting to an old schoolmate who was now the Commissioner of Water for the region. Water technicians, trained with money from his community that he had raised, were now turning off the water and extorting bribes from the people to turn it back on.
He had up-to-date knowledge of the situation in Cameroon because his wife and son are back there, where he feels that it is more affordable to support his family. He was recently laid off and fell back to cab-driving to support them.
He sends his son to a reasonably good school back in his home country – the same school he attended. He told of his childhood education and how his father reminds him of the time he cried because the math test for which he received 100% was erased from his small chalkboard by the rain on his way back home. They couldn’t afford books in those days. This was a far cry from the privileged white education I’d received in South Africa.
He eventually dropped me at a restaurant and we went our separate ways. It’s not every day that you’re driven around by an unemployed university lecturer with a graduate education in Economics.