I was born to parents who were known to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. In my family a typical exchange with the grocery store clerk might have gone something like this:
“I haven’t seen you here before. Are you new to town?”
“Yeah, I’m from Helena.”
“Oh, you’re from Helena? Well my cousin’s uncle is from a little town just outside of Helena, his name is Jimmy Jackson and his daughter is probably close to your age. Her name is Mindy.”
“Oh, I went to school with Mindy Jackson. She dated my older brother for a little while but they broke up when my brother joined the service.”
“Oh your brother’s in the military! Where’s he stationed?”
“Oh, my neighbor’s son and his wife are at the base in Germany right now. As a matter of fact, my neighbors are going to go there next month for a visit.”
This was how I was raised—and still I find it hard to refrain from asking questions when I meet someone new. “Where are you from?” And their answer—no matter where they’re from—typically causes my brain to do the mental equivalent of spinning through a Rolodex looking for some way to make a connection—even when it seems fairly absurd. “Oh you’re from Hong Kong? My husband’s cousin once visited Hong Kong. Kolkata? My daughter’s boyfriend’s dad lived there for a while and I’ve always wanted to visit.”
In Anchorage on Thursday evening I was wheeling my small suitcase down a sidewalk toward two taxicabs parked in front of the Hilton Hotel. The drivers, both men with olive skin and thick dark hair, were engaged in an animated conversation with each other and neither seemed to notice me. When I got so close that they could no longer ignore me, the one driver who looked to be a few years older than the other nudged the younger one my direction, giving up his chance for some business. Then they embraced. When the younger man turned around his eyes were watery.
“I have not seen him in ten years. The last time was in Albania,” he said as he was loading my bag into the trunk of the car. “I did not recognize him, but he recognized me.”
There was my opening to chat. I asked him what it’s like in Albania. “Beautiful,” he said. “We lived very near the beach. But there I worked eighty hours a week and even with that many hours I could not make the rent.”
I asked him more questions and he proceeded to tell me that he’d only been driving a cab for two days and he was still learning his way around Anchorage–but he was happy to have a third job. Before he landed the cab-driving job he worked at two different restaurants. “I was working fifty hours a week, and this job will add twenty more and it is above minimum wage.” He was responsible for paying the rent on a two bedroom apartment he shared with his mother and he was sending money back to Albania in hopes of bringing his brother and sister, still in their teens, to the US.
I asked him if he’d had the chance to get out of Anchorage yet. “Oh no,” he said. “Maybe in the summer I will take a day and drive down the Turnagain Highway.”
He was quiet for a few blocks and it crossed my mind that he might be making this story up about working three jobs and sending money to his siblings in Albania. It would be a good story for a cab driver to tell in order to get a bigger tip.
But then we drove past the bowling alley on the corner of Minnesota and Spenard and the young man shook his head and looked directly at me through the rear-view mirror. His dark lashes were damp again. “How is it possible that I found an old friend on the streets of Anchorage?”
For the whole ride I’d been asking him questions and he’d been answering, telling me about his life since leaving Albania, his time in Chicago, his learning to drive on icy roads. He told me about his family spread around various European countries and the United States, about his trying to make ends meet. All across town I was doing my part to connect with my Albanian cabdriver, but between the street in front of the Anchorage Hilton and the intersection of Spenard and Minnesota he’d been to Albania and back again.
It’s a long way to travel in such a short time.