We rushed along Michigan Avenue, dodging the tourists that milled about leisurely. I looked down at my phone, checking the license plate number of our Uber. “She said she’s in a silver car,” I told my boyfriend, scanning the road for our ride. We were cutting it close for getting to Ogilvie to catch the train that would take us to the suburbs. Finally, we found the Uber, slamming the door behind us as we breathlessly greeted our driver.
“How are y’all doing today?” she asked cheerfully. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how, but the conversation veered away from generic niceties about the weather to specifics about her Englewood neighborhood. “I like Uber because it gets me out of there,” our driver commented, her tone matter-of-fact. “You could be sitting outside on your porch for 2-3 minutes and you’ll hear gunshots.”
My jaw dropped, unsure whether this was an exaggeration. I had heard that Englewood could get ‘bad’ – but I didn’t really know what ‘bad’ meant. “Are you serious?” I asked, and our driver continued talking. “Yeah, I’m serious. They rob people, too, but I would be pissed if they robbed me because I ain’t got no money. If they want the lint from my pockets, I’d tell ’em, ‘You can have the lint.'” We laughed with her when she said that, and the mood lightened.
She continued. “You know, I love driving Uber. I get to meet all kinds of people when I drive, from all over the world, and learn stuff. It gets me out of Englewood and I get to see parts of Chicago I never even knew about, which is crazy ’cause I’ve lived here my entire life.” I nodded, appreciating that sentiment – one which I’d heard from other Uber drivers as well.
“I never even knew we had two airports in Chicago before I started driving Uber,” she declared as she turned a corner.
“WHAT?” I reacted, failing to hide my shock. As an immigrant, I’d come by way of O’Hare; the airport was literally where I’d taken my first few steps in the Chicagoland area.
“Yep,” she nodded, her face breaking out into a grin. “Like I said, I love Uber. If I ever meet the guy who started Uber, I’d just go up to him and squeeze his little nubbins.” My boyfriend chortled next to me at the mental image of Travis Kalanick having his cheeks pinched.
I mulled over that conversation for days afterwards, unable to fully digest just how different my life was from that of our Uber driver. It was more than the differences found in our skin colors, in our jobs, in our current life stages (she was a mother, she told us; “I tell all my kids they gotta be good people”). These were obvious; loud, external contrasts that already carried whole hosts of implications – right or wrong – about our lives.
It was her statement about the airports that struck me: the tiny, specific fact that so clearly delineated the vast disparity in the ways we’d both experienced this journey called life. Chicago has two airports: a fact I didn’t realize I’d learned; just one that I’d “known” for as long as I’d been here. And yet here I was, talking to someone who had been in Chicago her entire life – much longer than me – who was, until the last year, unaware of this detail that I’d never given a second thought to.
The disparity makes me feel uncomfortable; I feel guilty that I fly for leisure multiple times a year while she’s just grateful to get out of Englewood driving Uber. It makes me feel spoiled and so out-of-touch with what “reality” might mean for another human being; it makes me feel like a hypocrite about the bubble I live in while I work for an organization that serves neighborhoods like Englewood. I should be more thankful for all that I have, that I’ve experienced – but the inequality makes me judge the parts of me that has taken everything in my life for granted.
But conversations like this are the ones that push us to grow: in understanding the most nuanced details that make us so different, we forge empathy. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that we must face head-on. Despite not quite grasping how that conversation impacted me, I know that it has at least forced me to pause and reflect; and for that, I owe that Uber driver from Englewood.