An Open Letter to My Uber Passenger

It was Friday night & you were crying. I picked you up outside a bar in the early evening. You were with your friend.

He said that I was the enemy — that I was a Muslim.

I could hear your thoughts ripple into small sobs in the back seat. They were the sounds I’ve heard as an older brother, as a lover, as a friend. They were the sounds of disappointment in a world gone awry, of the irreconcilable shift in reality, suddenly reeling from the actions of another. Your friend offered typical condolences that began as a victim-shaming, you should know better & crescendoed into at least you’re single, again, girl & it’s Friday. You didn’t laugh.

May I offer you a tissue? I asked. You smiled at me as if you were trying to understand what I had asked for a moment. Then, the reflection of this simple kindness pushed you to tears again.

Thank you. You said, taking the tissue from my hand.

Who am I: some white guy that grew up in Brownsburg, Indiana amidst an invisible privilege that I was continually encouraged to view not as a privilege of birth, but as a product of hard work, dedication, sacrifice. & Although I am grateful & proud of the successes of the generations of my family that have come before me, the privilege of my birthright came as chance alone.

My consciousness was only born into this physical world & into this particular physical body by the chance that was the inevitability of the generations that came before.

Who am I: this accidentally privileged man with an opinion? What could I possibly say that would ring more hollow, more defensive as friend, sister, you should know that I, that we, well, we aren’t all like that. Luckily, the thought dies before it reaches my lips.

He said his friend was killed in Afghanastan, you told your friend.

& who do I represent? The moral majority of race, color & creed that have shaped this country into a confused xenophic adolescent full of hormonal righteous emotions? The politicians, overwhelmingly male & white? The armed services, also overwhelmingly male & white?

He was probably a soldier, you said.

I write adolescent here to mean exactly that. We have, as a nation, spent the shaping years of a generation at war without a defined enemy or objective. We have sent our sons & daughters, our friends, our brothers & sisters overseas as the inescapable representation of our nation’s interests abroad. Color those interests as you like — world security, democratic divine right, retribution, the war on terror — the greatest danger has been the wound in the world that festers terrorism & that wound may never heal; the largest source of casualties in these years at war have been the damage to our service members’ mental health, taking a toll equally undefined on the families & friends who have seen them change.

& do not let yourself, for one moment, think that the physical injuries & deaths during these wars are being placed, by me, in a position less than esteem & solemn recognition. It is these wounds & deaths that have brought upon us a greater mental health crisis, seeking answers & justification for the costs we continue to pay.

I can understand being like that if my friend was killed.

Do you remember the lights like I do? Of course you don’t. The bombs & missiles that rose into the sky over Kuwait, the most televised event of military might in this planet’s history were for Western Civilization’s eyes.

You see, those lights for me as a child were an incomprehensible vision. A child’s mind cannot rectify the chasm between something called a Patriot Missile meant to intercept & defend a foreign people in an operation called Desert Shield. A child’s mind watching thousands & thousands of lights glaring across the sky on a television screen from the safety of a suburban school classroom cannot understand the concept of casualties, let alone see through the murk of news media to the fact that missiles fired in foreign lands stands out in stark contrast to peace.

For you, no matter where you were when they rose into the sky, those lights meant something that I will never understand. The lights continue to rise into the sky, even today.

I know that people think like that, but to say it to my face…

I remained silent.

Another passenger was picked up, a young blonde woman, giddy after her first few drinks on a Friday night. She smiled at me broadly & looked into the back seat with the same broad smile that sobered to match the Uber’s mood.

San Francisco is a place where reality begins to make sense again. I’m fond of saying that I lean left of even California, the west coast. In the Midwest, in Indiana in particular, being your grand old liberal self doesn’t do well to make connections & advance through the professional world. But here, the true capital of the left coast, lovely SF, is different. Here, you can look around on any street, in any place of the city & see diversity of skin & hair, see diversity of character & attitude, of dress, of mood, of ambition & of emotion. It is not uncommon to have two passengers speaking in different non-English languages into their phones.

But the guy I was with, he said, that’s just my friend, I don’t share his viewpoint.

& I think back to the tolerance that blankets the Midwest. Not the sort of tolerance that welcomes all creeds & colors, but the sort of tolerance for those that remain intolerant.

I don’t understand that — if he is your friend, then how can you let him say these things? How could you be friends with him?

Growing up, a Midwestern boy knows the words, often leveled at him for noncomformity, for variance from the assumed way of things. We know the words well, we have heard them again & again. & as we age, the same gruesome people who have leveled verbal & sometimes physical abuse at us for our life somehow feel it a right to seek a certain kinship with you. To assume some sort of unspoken bond where the disagreements are left behind in the spirit of continued community.

I am in utter disagreement that there is a bond between those who have expressed hateful ignorance & me. But I do not know how to tell you this. & I do not know how to tell you that I understand this probably matters very little.

I hope your night gets better, I said, feebly when we arrived to where the GPS had taken us. The blonde passenger suppressed a mis-interpretive giggle.

Thank you for the tissue, said my passenger, the Muslim. Our eyes met & held for a brief second. I shot sincerity & compassion through my eyes, tightened my lips against saying more. You smiled shyly & shut the door.

Was she really crying? The blonde asked. Yes, she was. I said.

The suppressed giggle became a laugh, the young woman not understanding that her laugh was an orphan until she looked at my face.

She was told that she was the enemy, for being Muslim. I said.

Here? She said, incredulous. The young blonde looked beseechingly at me, serious for a moment, registering that I was not making a joke. She took a breath & sat back, looked down at her hands.

That’s messed up. She said, perhaps as wordless as I was. We arrived at her stop & she got out without another word.

I looked up, adjusted my iPhone on its mount, fiddled with the volume knobs, the climate controls. When I looked up, I saw that I had stopped near Coit Tower, on a hill (mountain as we’d call it in Indiana) that overlooked the entire visible world. I put my blinkers on & got out, walked to the point the road crested over the city.

The lights here nestled against their hills, thousands & thousands of white & red & blue lights filled the basin of the world. Two lit bridges spanned across into the fog, into the darkness. The lights glimmered out in the ripples of the bay’s water, reflected brightly in domes against the fog that rolled in like smoke across a battlefield.

For the things that are in my control, for my part that I play in this world drama in its long second act, I know that an apology is merely self-serving. Feeling remorse for the way that things are & trying to express that remorse to you can only lighten the perceived burden that I feel for the accidental & contrasting privilege I have experienced in my life.

A dear friend once told me that it was time to seek sincerity & let charm fall away, that it was time to get out from under the bed. Perhaps it is past time for us all to get out from under the bed & actually act for a future we want to live in, instead of continuing to allow a wordless tolerance of the intolerant.

For you, just one of hundreds of diverse Uber passengers, I hope that the world is on a path toward finding understanding & tolerance.

-p