For me, it wasn't George Floyd who opened my eyes. It was a cab driver from Senegal.
My flight arrived late and I'd already missed the shuttle bus taking passengers from Detroit Metro to Brighton. I was either going to have to call an Uber or a taxi. I'd barely taken three steps toward the taxi station outside when the nearby attendant gestured to me, "Where you headed?"
I responded and in a breath he waved a waiting cab over, tucked my bag safely into the back and opened the sliding door of the navy blue minivan for me. While it looked a little rough on the outside, the interior was cozy warm providing an immediate respite from Michigan's early March weather. I settled back into what smelled like freshly-cleaned upholstery and took out my phone to follow the route using my GPS (something I always do when traveling alone).
The driver smiled into the rear-view mirror and asked whether the music was okay. I returned his smile and nodded my response.
"And thank you for accommodating the long trip tonight, and so late too."
He chuckled at that. "Oh, 'dis is no trouble. Not long ride at all and I like driving in 'da night." His accent and choppy sentences made it clear he was not originally from the United States.
Although I was insatiably curious to find out where he was from, I didn't jump to that question first. "Well, thank you anyway. Have you been driving a cab long?"
"No, only a couple year." He pronounced the word 'year' without a discernible 'r' sound.
"I can't help but be intrigued by your accent - where are you from?"
"I live in Detroit now, but I am from Senegal."
Senegal. That rang a bell in the recesses of my brain's cortex. Wasn't it on the coast of Africa? Geography is not a strong suit of mine so I must have also seen this country's name somewhere recently, maybe even just last week. Was it mentioned in the book I'm reading? I forced myself to let it go and focused my attention again on the start of this conversation which seemed to have the potential for passing the time nicely.
"What did you do before driving a cab?" I probably seem nosy to some, but I enjoy meeting new people and he seemed comfortable enough.
"I used to drive a semi-truck."
Ah, now I understood why this drive wasn't too long or too late. This guy knew a good deal about driving long distances. "Did you enjoy that?"
"Yes, very much. Driving was good, but then it was difficult too."
"Ah, well it sure would be for me. I get really sleepy when I have to drive far and especially at night."
He shook his head at my comment and went on to explain that the problem wasn't when he was driving but when he had to stop. I didn't understand so he explained. He told me after being alone all day or night in the cab of his truck, he not only missed his family, but he just missed being around other people. Since he had to eat, he would pull into a truck stop along his route hoping it might be a place where there would be other people eating lunch or dinner. Even if he didn't know them, to be in a place where there were people, particularly families, made it a little easier. But too often his experience wasn't positive.
"You can tell when people are friendly - ya know? How they look at you. How long they look at you. Many time, it did not feel safe - so I would get the meal and eat it in my truck."
I had never considered before how that must feel. I've been traveling for years, often alone, to attend a conference, a meeting out of town, or even to run one of my road races. Never have I walked into a restaurant and felt unsafe. I suppose I've felt a little awkward being alone, especially if the place was filled with couples or families. But never unsafe. I sat quietly for a moment to process that and finally acknowledged the weight of what he had just shared with me - a stranger.
"Thank you for telling me that. It isn't something I'd ever thought about before. And, I'm sorry you experienced it. Did you find this everywhere - or was it in certain parts of the country?"
He seemed to appreciate hearing that. Maybe my comment made it clear to him that I was safe. He went on to tell me it was more prevalent in the southern parts of the country, but he did feel it everywhere. Considering he picked me up from Detroit Metro, I asked if he felt whether Detroit had improved at all - I'd been reading about the investment going on in the downtown area.
"Oh, here and there is better. Always construction." He added and I saw his smile flash at me again in the rearview mirror. Everyone seems to have a shared bonding experience when it comes to the challenges of road construction. "But still not safe at night, if you look like me. Especially with friends. This is why I drive the cab at night - it is safer than my own car."
That comment really hit me and I realized in that moment I had been blindly and blissfully living unaware of what people of color experience in their daily lives.
He shared with me how when he'd first came to Detroit from Senegal, he was the only one in a group of friends who had their driver's license and so he drove the others to their work and he told me how scared they all were when they would be stopped for no reason but because there were four black men in a car at night in Detroit.
Again, I silently processed his words as I thought of all the times I'd driven too fast or raced to beat a yellow light - two legitimate reasons to be pulled over - yet my only fear was the consequence of getting a ticket if I'd been caught.
The ride continued and we shared stories about our lives - how we are both raising our families far from home and how we both struggle in communicating with our teenagers. We both have sons who play video games more often than we'd like and we both have daughters who use social media more often than we'd like. Then I asked about Senegal.
"You know I just saw the name Senegal somewhere and I can't remember where."
He knew though. "Tuna fish."
"That's it!" It was like a song title you finally remember in the middle of the night when it has been on repeat in your head all day long.
I'd just recently read about the Starkist company overfishing the waters of Senegal, forcing local fisherman to risk fishing the waters of their neighboring countries where they could get shot! A week ago when I'd read this article, it felt an entire world away and yet now, here I was in the company of a man who grew up there. I shared my little crumb of knowledge and he immediately acknowledged its truth, explaining how it was one of the main reasons people continue to leave. Our drive went on as he told me how many families have given up trying to live the lives of their fathers and grandfathers. He told me stories of his growing up in Senegal, how his friends played together on the beaches, and his favorite time of watching his father and uncles bringing in their catch as the sun went down. I could hear the pride in his voice telling of a place he so clearly missed.
"There is nothing as beautiful as a Senegal sunset."
After greeting the family I had come to visit on this trip, just this past March, I told them about this cab ride, about this conversation, about this man I met from Senegal. I've told the story many times since and I will continue to tell it with the hopes of opening more eyes, more ears, and more minds the same way it did for me.