By Eva Friedlander
I believe that we all remember the poignant and touching story of Driving Miss Daisy, which was, without any doubt, one of the most successful and endearing movies, especially for the Atlanta area and the Jewish community. I see a great parallel between the movie and my own life experiences with some of the major taxi companies in Atlanta.
My story really starts approximately eight years ago when my husband, Dr. George Friedlander, was still alive, and we experienced our first real personal interaction with one of the nicest cab drivers in Atlanta. George, after he stopped driving regularly, employed cab drivers to take him to his favorite Starbucks, bookshops, and shopping centers. When he called the dispatch of one particular cab company, he specifically asked for Jonah, who became almost part of our family, since he had numerous pleasant chats with George and subsequently with me.
At this particular time, at the age of 84, I was diagnosed with a severe case of the visual impairment called macular degeneration. With great regret, I left my favorite, last car, a 1982 Volvo, standing in the driveway, and called one of the major cab companies for service. My favorite driver became Jonah, who not only was an extremely efficient driver, but also on one occasion became a lifesaver.
On that occasion, my husband called Jonah to pick him up, and Jonah arrived to find George in the driveway, lying on the ground, heavily bleeding from his eye.
“Dr. Friedlander, can I call an ambulance?” he said. “No, call my son,” George said, referring to our son, Lewis, a physician. Jonah complied with my husband’s request, and, because of his quick action and helpfulness, George was immediately taken to the emergency room at Piedmont Hospital.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of many serious health issues for George. Soon after this incident, he was admitted to a nursing home, where I visited him daily. Because of Jonah’s prompt reaction, I automatically requested him when I called for a cab, since I, too, no longer was able to drive. Our interaction became almost a daily event. We chatted while he drove me from my house to the nursing home, and I soon became quite familiar with his life.
Jonah is from Nigeria and has lived in the states for many years. Through diligence and long hours, he managed to send substantial monthly support to his family in Nigeria and modestly take care of his own personal needs. The continuing stress of work resulted in various physical ailments, causing him to stop working, because he simply didn’t have the strength to carry on with his demanding job.
When I found out from the company dispatcher that Jonah had to stop working, I realized this was probably causing him financial distress. Because I felt so indebted to him due to his kindness and loyalty to my family, I wanted to help out. On several occasions, I purchased groceries and dropped them off at his apartment.
Jonah eventually got better and resumed his work. I found out that he was feverishly putting away money because his oldest daughter in Nigeria was going to get married soon, and his dream was to be able to attend the wedding, which would obviously be costly. He was able to do this and actually stayed in his country for over two months. On his return, I continued asking for his service. He proudly showed me the photographs of the wedding (he in his native attire), his family, and his home.
Another interesting and touching experience with an Atlanta cab driver was with Vincent, also from Nigeria. He was a fine young family man, with an adoring wife and two beautiful, young children. Vincent could not stop talking about the children, and he and I started a little routine. Every time he drove me, I made it a point to stop at a supermarket and get a handful of chocolate bars or cookies for him take home to the children.
After several months of using his services, one day, to my greatest dismay, I found out from him that, on a family outing to have dinner in a cafeteria, his wife collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room. She fell into a coma and was on life support for many months. The doctor suggested that, in similar cases, recovery was hopeless, and they asked for his permission to discontinue life support. He related to me his anxiety every time he took me somewhere, and I kept encouraging him to hold off on this decision, as miracles do happen. A miracle did indeed happen. One day, his wife opened her eyes, smiled, and visibly made great efforts to talk.
At this stage, Vincent felt encouraged to take their two young children to the hospital to visit their mother. When he did so, she actually started smiling, and the continued effort seemed to give him hope for a good outcome. Unfortunately, that is not how the story ended. After several months of seeming improvement, she took a turn for the worse and passed away at a very young age.
A day after the funeral, I had a ride with him, during which he related this tragic ending. As he was driving me, tears ran down his face. When we reached my destination, I asked him to get out of the car. I embraced him and wept with him.
Vincent bravely continued his daily stressful work, all while making sure his little children were attended to by kind neighbors. He never left his house before they had eaten breakfast, dressed, and were ready for school. He made arrangements with neighbors, who helped out during the day when the children arrived home from school, enabling him to continue working on the road, since he desperately needed the income to keep his little family going.
After a while I lost touch with Vincent. His employer told me that he changed jobs but could not tell me how to reach him. I often wonder how he continued his difficult life and hope that he is able to keep his family together and provide for them the way he was determined to do.
Since then, I have had countless, interesting encounters with various cab drivers, as this is the only way I can commute. Most of these drivers come from Africa. Many of them have told me about their educational backgrounds and their former careers.
Some have worked as engineers, technicians in the oil-refinement industry, teachers, municipal workers, and other professions. Without fail, they all agree that, as hard as it is to be away from their immediate families, America is the place to make money, accumulate some savings, and nurture the hope for better education for their children and themselves. Some of them, mostly the unmarried, are taking courses and working to improve their career prospects and ways of life. Quite a few have married African-American girls born and raised in Georgia, but the majority preferred to bring their own sweethearts from their homeland.
Jonah and Vincent are just two of the many diligent, hard-working people I have encountered who have learned English and can find their way almost anywhere, even without the use of GPS. Since I am a big talker, I rarely resist the temptation to engage in small talk as I go to my chosen destinations. In most cases, I hear touching stories about long hours, hard work, and the fierce determination of these individuals to accumulate reserves, help their families in their own countries, and eventually save up enough money to go back home, buy a little land and a house, and start a normal family life.
Even though I am fast approaching 91 years of age, I continue to call people who not only deliver me to my destination, but also satisfy my ever-present interest in other peoples’ lives, efforts, and ambitions to make an honest living and work toward a more promising future.
By Eva Friedlander