Transit Strike Diary: Day 1

“I thought I would be rich in America, but I am not,” said Malik, my companion during the ninety-minute trip from Williamsburg to Park Slope earlier tonight. In the first evening rush hour of the transit strike, we crawled through bumper-to-bumper traffic as I tried to make my way to a 7:00 tutoring appointment. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes we sat in companionable silence and sometimes we carried on two separate cell phone converstaions in two different languages.

Malik is from Pakistan. He has three daughters and a wife in Valley Stream, Long Island. “My wife no work,” said Malik. “So I work all the time.” Malik drives his cab fourteen hours a day Monday through Thursday and twenty hours Friday and Saturday. He has pain in his lower back from driving his cab 96 hours a week and his chiropractor just sent him to get an MRI. He’s been in America for twenty years and it’s been very, very hard. But, Malik said, he loves America, though, loves it very much.

As Malik and I sat snarled in traffic on the BQE, I contemplated for one particularly long, motionless quarter-hour an enormous banner tacked to the side of a building advertising the new H3 from Hummer. The H3 is a smaller, daintier Hummer with a fuel economy of 15 miles per gallon in the city and 18 miles per gallon on the highway. I contemplated just how many people there were on this particular highway, people who were usually in transit unseen beneath the earth, just how many people were dependent on the labor, also unseen, of transit workers to go between Points A and B (and C through Z) on a daily, safe basis. I contemplated Malik, who I realized was about my father’s age, and noticed that he looked remarkably like my father. He was driving the car, like my father usually did. He was stuck in New York traffic, as we often were. He was patient and resigned, but also tired and frustrated. I could see his right ear, right cheek and right eye, a view I associate with my father almost as much as his face when viewed from head-on. Just as it had on many car trips, my view drifted from the world outside the car window to the world inside, trying to decipher from the right ear, right cheek and right eye of the driver his facial expression and mood.

Malik worked to support his daughters in Long Island as my father had worked to support us. Malik drove through traffic to bring them and me to and fro as my father will drive through traffic tomorrow to pick my brother up at college for the last time. Malik expected to be rich in America. Perhaps he did not expect to work so much, or drive so much, or drive so much for so long as his work. But as I looked past Malik, father of three, resident of Long Island, expatriate of Pakistan, through the windshield at the looming image of the new Hummer H3, I wondered if he just did not understand that in America, fathers are expected to work and to drive, or in his case, do both at the same time.

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