Thursday, January 26, 2017

A journey in a taxi

Off-late when I arrive into Chicago I always am undecided if I have to take a taxi or an Uber ride back home. Today I was just so driven towards the taxi stand. There wasn't any one waiting for a taxi when I reached there so I jump into the first one that's available. On a normal day the airport guys would just direct me towards the taxi I need to get into but it was so unoccupied that one opened the trunk and the other was ready with the door open. Couldn't ask for more . So, the moment I get into this taxi, as usual I tell the address and pause for a moment. It was an old guy driving the taxi and he confirmed if the address was in downtown. We start our ride with the usual greetings and lead into a conversation about how his day was and then he reciprocates with how my flights was and the weather in the city I was flying in from. Then driver (Luis) begins to tell me about his family. I was abacked when he began talking about his family without notice but I  slowly started to pay attention as it tended to be interesting. I decided I would take it as a challenge to remember things he would talk and act as an active listener.

This is the reason that drove me to write this post today after a long time. So, Luis who may be in his late 60's  virtually introduces me to his family of 8, him being the youngest kid. He has roots in Puerto Rico and his brothers moved to Chicago when they were in their 20's which I believe would have been around 1950-60's and they were working in the steel industries. Most of his family moved to Chicago in the later part, actually when Luis was 5 and his mother was already separated from his Dad. Luis was so young that he had a nephew of his age. Luis's dad also had an affair with another woman in Puerto Rico and has a step brother from the other family. He painted a good picture of his childhood, of his beautiful countryside life , his childhood days when they had a cow for milk and chickens at home.  That reminiscences are very common to all immigrants and we all miss our life back at home where it's simple and close to nature than how actually things change when one moves to the US. He then goes on to describe his life in Chicago and how one of his elder brothers became rich, his businesses in New York (grocery stores, real estate) and his kids who landed in jail because of their involvement with drugs. His brother was so disappointed with his kids that he told the entire family that none of his kids would inherit his earnings, that was a little sad to hear but also helped me imagine how families break apart as one chooses to delve and live the wrong way. We slowly move on his taxi career, he tells me that the taxi licence (medallion) cost him 50,000 USD and cost 400,000 USD at one point. This brings us to the current situation how Uber and other ride sharing services have dramatically changed the landscape of transportation.  The figures in New York blew my mind as they were at 1 million at one point. Can't imagine what things technology can do, we were always told technology was meant to simplify lives but when I introspect it appears that we choose to complicate our lives by living for technology than it easing our way of lives. 

Then, the story why Uber is striving in Chicago, this was interesting as I would always hear this from many taxi drivers that it's the Mayor Emanuel's  family that encourages this business, can't comment on it unless we have something solid to verify. It seems that the Mayor is the one backing the ride sharing business and causing trouble to the taxi drivers who dream of earning money from this profession, the benefits they had in borrowing money from banks and what not, they can't avail those today because there isn't any guarantee that the borrower would be able to pay it back.
This part was interesting as we digress to talk about Mayor Daley who played a key role in Chicago's development. Luis suggested me to read a book called Boss to learn more about the contributions that Mayor Daley has made to the city.

When Luis said he was Puerto Rican, it rang a bell in my mind about a talk I heard on the radio last weekend and it was on Young Lords. He was quickly able to associate himself when I took that name and started to recall those days when the gang had an impact on the local community and crime that happened then. He told that he lost many friends of his when the group was active and the Police would crackdown the folks associated with the gang and how people died in the shootings. Luis told me interesting facts about the church that was raided and occupied by the gang to run their operations. This landmark site it seems was demolished recently and has a Walgreens store constructed at the same site. He added that Walgreens always does this and they always love to occupy such sites. Then he comments on the Puerto Rican population in Chicago and says that Mexicans currently lead the number of immigrants followed by Puerto Ricans and then come folks from Venezuela. I remember from my walking tours in the city that Polish and Italian were early immigrants that settled in the city and had run great gangs that became to be popular and one important figure one would have heard was Al Capone. I got to learn that it was also the Irish that were the first settlers in Chicago, way earlier than many other immigrants that had moved here.

We then moved on to Puerto Rico and he would tell me that he recently read a book on HISTORY OF PUERTO RICO and learnt that the country was discovered by Columbus and was part of the USA after the war between US and the Spain many years ago. Many folks in Puerto Rico had fought against the US government for their rights and wanted to be separate. He told me that many people turned into rebels and killed US senators to express their grief. That's when he mentions about Oscar Lopez Rivera. Obama recently commuted the sentence for this popular Puerto Rican nationalist who was given a life sentence for the crimes he had committed in the past. Luis told he was imprisoned sometime in the past and that was when he got access to this book that details of how the country came into existence and how US would recognize it as a state. He told me that the first governor of Puerto Rico did try his best to bring employment to the island by setting up industries but a wrong choice of having plastic and low profit making ones that didn't survive much given the pace of the economy instead should have had steel mills. The current economic situation of the country is dire and is struggling to cope up with the debt.

To digress the topic I decided to talk about the food and Puerto Rican cuisine and he said his mom was the best cook he had known in his entire life as she made savory rice and beans with pork. An interesting fact he pressed was the native folks don't depend much on sea food though they have access to abundant sea food in their vicinity. They mostly prefer rice and seasoned beans. He quickly compared it with the Mexican cuisine and told me that both taste different and Puerto Ricans cook the beans differently than Mexicans and his dishes taste better.

We did talk about President Trump early in the conversation and it was about the federal government deciding to send support to the local Chicago administration if they wouldn't be able to handle the killings and crime in the city. The city reported record number of incidents in 2016 and has become an unsafe place for residents.  I too wonder why the Obama administration paid a blind eye to the worsening situation. We also discussed about the library that Obama plans to build in Chicago.

As we were approaching the downtown he made reference to the city's landscape and how the apartments and condominiums had come into existence. He said that the real estate companies had initially built numerous sky scrapers in the city thereby increasing the taxes for the residents early in the day and pushed them out. While the city expanded they also realised it's time that they constructed apartments and open stores for people to live in the downtown. Here's the part that I didn't know, it happens that every new property needs to set aside 10% of the property for the low income community which is mostly the African american population. So, he told that there are folks that used to live on the south side of the city now get to live in beautiful homes because of this arrangement.

Well that's what I could remember from our short journey from airport to downtown but it was definitely a trip to remember. I felt as if I was talking to my grandad and had learnt a lot of interesting facts of the city I currently live in. With the changing lifestyle and preferences that we make I don't know if I'd be able to meet more people like Luis and know more things. I guess now you'd understand why I used the title "a journey in a taxi".

A short recording of our conversation is here

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