Once upon a time I took a cab ride in Chicago. I was 20, maybe 21, and I thought I was simply adorable.
The cab driver was an African immigrant with an accent so rich and delicious that I wanted to swim in it, or perhaps serve it on the rocks. When I grew up in DC, asking where a person was from ranked second in the top 3 Appropriate Questions to Ask Someone You Have Just Met. They would reply Borneo or Little Biddlescombe and you could say, "Ah!" Every now and then you would meet someone who was from DC, too, in which case you would see if they knew Blue, the lesbian skinhead, and work from there. In Minnesota I keep going down in flames with this question (not about Blue, about where someone grew up.) People recoil as if I have spit in their wine and they reply stiffly without moving their lips. It baffled me for years (what the hell was I doing wrong this time?) and I recently mentioned the phenomenon to my sister-in-law. She struck upon the answer, I think. In Minnesota, everyone is a Minnesotan of course. So when you ask where they are from, they assume you are asking what town/suburb/neighborhood they grew up in, each of which carries its own well-known socio-economic meaning. Thus when I blurt out "Where are you from?" I am really saying "Hi. I'm Julia. I came with Steve. Did you grow up with money?"
My cab driver did not take offense. He was from Mali, he told me. A beautiful country, did I know it? Alas no, for I had never been to Africa. "You must go!" he cried, and described a vast lake near his home.
As we talked, I smiled benignly and thought how nice it was that he was able to come to the United States and create a better life for himself and his family.
"Isn't it wonderful," I thought, "that such a great guy is able to take advantage of all these opportunities. Cab drivers do pretty well for themselves. Pretty well indeed."
"Is Chicago the first place you've lived in the US?" I asked him.
No, he had started in Georgia. Georgia? How strange.
"Did you like Georgia?" Yes, but he was very busy there and had had little time to enjoy the area.
"And what brought you to Chicago?" I was slowing my words down and speaking just a little too brightly, if you know what I mean. Lots of teeth showing.
"School," he replied. "I am going to school here."
Hand on my heart, I was almost moved to tears. An American Dream in the making - wow, oh wow. What did I think? A GED perhaps? A technical college? Maybe he was going to be a dental technician. I was always seeing late night advertisements for schools that offered short programs and guaranteed job placement upon graduation.
I beamed at him.
"And what are you studying?" If I had had a cookie I would have offered it to him.
There was a long pause. "I am finishing my doctorate in Comparative Theology at the University of Chicago."
Our eyes met in the rearview mirror. His twinkled at me.
And that, my friends, is when I shrank to the scant inch and a half I stand today. It is so hard not to be an asshole, sometimes, it really is.