Stories from taking Lyft five days a week

It’s the law.

Something I was unaware of before this whole ordeal began is the fact that Massachusetts requires anyone who has suffered a seizure (or any other episode of “altered consciousness”) to surrender their driver’s license for a minimum of six months. We live 40 minutes from the hospital. So, it kinda made the whole “radiation five days a week, for six straight weeks” thing…complicated.

Thank goodness I have the most amazing colleagues on earth. You see, they rallied and chipped in to buy me more Lyft credits than I could ever imagine using. (Six months is a long time, though – I’ll be Lyfting to campus for the first six weeks of the semester!)

Lyft Rides – Unexpectedly meditative

A common way for friends to try to help out our family was to offer to provide a ride, but during radiation, my daily Lyft ride to MGH became a sort of meditative experience. I found the solitude of spacing out in the back of a stranger’s car before having the mask fix me to the beam table to be oddly therapeutic.

Weird. I’m pretty sure I’m an introvert…

On top of that, interactions with my Lyft drivers were the most diverse interactions of my daily life in a very long time. (That probably says as much about my life as is does about Lyft.) On a handful of occasions, I broke through the perfunctory small talk to have meaningful conversations. Here are a few stories from those times. (All names have been changed, mostly because I can’t actually remember their real ones.)

“Scott,” the Screenwriter

Scott was the rare white Lyft driver. He wore a Bruins cap (it was during the Stanley Cup playoffs – sorry, Boston!) and tortoise shell acetate glasses frames with the lower half clear. He listened to the Beatles. We were off to an okay start.

The discussion always starts with traffic…

Like so many Lyft rides, our small talk quickly turned to the topic of Boston drivers – specifically the “Boston left.” Scott’s wife (who grew up in the area) claims (according to Scott) that in MA driver’s education, students are actually taught to yield to left turners whenever possible. And, given the serious lack of left turn-only signals around here, I’m inclined to believe her.

…or sports

Naturally, the traffic/driving conversation led me to register my other complaints about quintessentially Bostonian behavior like sports fanaticism. Scott grew up in upstate New York where college hockey is big. He was a diehard hockey fan, but that was basically the limit of his interest in sports. Through our sports non-conversation, I learned that we both have six year-old sons who are similarly ignorant of the mechanics of an actual basketball game (after all, neither of us watches basketball). Nonetheless, they both insist they’d rather play the game than practice the skills they’re learning in their basketball “classes” (generous use of the term “class”). Six year-old logic – there’s nothing like it.

We’re both professors, though!

At some point, Scott mentioned teaching, and I asked him what he taught. Well, it turns out that Scott is an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Emerson College, but he’s starting a new gig at BU this fall. I’m not gonna lie, meeting a professor who drives Lyft in the summer had me a little shook. As an academic with a fairly stable, full-time position in a high-demand discipline (engineering), I really felt for the dude.

You get that Disney money!

Then, I found out Scott’s friend who’s an executive producer on a Disney kids’ game show in New York had just called to offer him a spot on the writing team. He’d have to move to NYC for 6 months, but I said “You go, Scott! You get that Disney money!” Just make sure they don’t pay you in “Disney Dollars.”

“Craig,” from Dorchester

Craig was a young black man who picked me up in a crossover SUV. For the first 15 minutes, it seemed like one of those rides that would consist primarily of me zoning out and staring out the window. It was totally unremarkable. I can’t even remember if we were listening to music.

Outside, things get sketchy

I do remember this, though – it was a pleasant, sunny day in early June, so we had the windows down. As we drove through the Fenway on Boylston street, both Craig and I noticed a group of a few college-aged white guys on the left side of the street yelling to two police officers across the street. The two police officers started walking quickly and shouting, apparently in pursuit of an entirely average-looking, middle-aged black man who seemed utterly unaware of the scene unfolding behind him.

Craig sizes me up

Craig stopped at a red light, his gazed fixed on his rearview mirror. “Oh shit! They just slapped cuffs on that dude! They just shoved him against a car and put him in cuffs! That’s not right. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know being police is a hard job…” Craig was clearly unsure of where I stood on police violence against people of color. I get it – I can be kind of hard to read. And, I couldn’t readily jump up in the Lyft, raise my fist and shout “Black Lives Matter!” now could I?

Of course, we couldn’t know what was going down, but I professed my agreement with Craig that shoving a person against a car and immediately cuffing him on the word of a few college boys in Red Sox hats was ill-advised at best. So, we got to talking. Actually I mostly just listened.

Craig’s story of getting harassed

After Craig figured out it was safe, he told me about an experience driving home in his own neighborhood, Dorchester. One night with his girlfriend, he got stuck behind someone driving 10 miles per hour. He gave the standard, short-blast, “courtesy” honk (oh, bless you, Boston!). The car pulled over to the right, and as Craig passed, the driver and the passenger in the slow car flashed their badges and huge toothy grins. Next thing he knew, Craig was being pulled over. I could hear the frustration in his voice just recounting the story. I can only imagine the frustration (and probably fear) he experienced in the actual moment.

How I know what privilege looks like

And, here’s the reason I can only imagine Craig’s frustration (and fear): I have never – not once – been pulled over in Boston. And, it’s not because I’m some kind of saint. I’ve “stretched” yellows, “padded” the speed limit, and on more than one or two occasions noticed “No Turn on Red” signs a little too late. I’ve certainly never been trolled by a cop in my own neighborhood where 78% of the population is white and the average age is 45 compared to 32 in greater Boston.

Despite the sympathy I expressed for Craig and my disapproval of police abusing their power, he continued to make sure I knew he recognized being police is a hard job. Maybe this Red Sox hat I’ve started wearing to shield my irradiated skin from the sun makes me look like a cop…

We were close to the hospital, so I told Craig he could drop me at the corner instead of turning into the main MGH entrance because traffic was gnarly, and getting in and out of MGH can sometimes cost Lyft drivers an extra 10 – 15 minutes. I learned a lot from my ride with Craig that day.

Patricia, the Burundian Refugee

On a whim, I signed up for a free cancer “survivorship” conference hosted at MGH. The only problem was that it was on a Saturday morning. That meant taking time away from the family and arranging my own transportation.

One of those glorious spring days

It was early on one of those absolutely glorious late-spring mornings when Patricia arrived to pick me up: mid-70’s, clear blue sky, a serene kind of energy permeating the air. As we passed from West Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, I marveled at the morning sun poking through the leaves of the great trees in the Arnold Arboretum.

How did all these beautiful trees get here?

Patricia remarked, “I can’t believe what beautiful trees you have here. Did these trees just grow here naturally, or did someone plant them?” I had honestly never even considered this question. It’s amazing the wonders you can pass every single day without so much as blinking. “Well, this land belongs to Harvard, so I suspect at least some of the trees are intentionally curated, but I really don’t know,” I said, trying my best to answer what should have been a simple question.

The most beautiful country on earth

Patricia: “This is the most beautiful country on earth. You are so blessed to have so much natural beauty. Right here in the city, even! My country is also beautiful, but nothing like this. I mean, we have mountains, trees…”

Me: “Where are you from?”

Patricia: “Africa.”

Me: “Africa is a big continent. Where in Africa?”

Patricia: “I’m from a tiny country called Burundi. I had to leave everything behind quickly because of war. Weekends like this remind me of spending time out running or hiking in the mountains with my team back in my country. Every Sunday we would meet to do active things together.”

Me: “Your team? Are you an athlete?”

Patricia: “No, I was the head of a community organization that advocated for children’s rights. I was in charge of a team of 65 people.”

Growth Mindset

If ever there has been a payoff to talking to my Lyft drivers, this was it, and it was big. I asked Patricia if there’s a big Burundian community in Boston. She said “no.” She had chosen Boston because she had been here for international conferences and thought the city was beautiful. She also has brothers not too far away in Montreal. More importantly, she didn’t want to be among Burundians, but if she had she could have easily found them in Maine. Instead, she told me, it was important to her not to surround herself with people like her who had had the same experiences and who thought like her. How would she ever grow if she did that, she asked me.

I was utterly stunned. Can you imagine leaving your country on a moment’s notice because of war and intentionally not seeking out other ex-patriots in your newly adopted home country? Going from leading a human rights organization with 65 direct reports and attending international conferences to driving Lyft at 7am on a Saturday morning? Yeah, me neither.

So what?

I’m not even sure there’s a “so what” in all of this. After radiation ended, I just began to reflect on this crazy time in my life. These particular stories stuck with me, and I wanted to tell them.

Living with my diagnosis is a process – a process that I have the opportunity to continue to refine for the rest of my life, however long it may be (NOTE: please let it be long!!!). I guess one thing I’ve learned through this experience is how powerful being open and being willing to listen to other people’s stories can be. Like it or not (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes I hate it), we are all connected and have a lot to learn from each other.

For me, sometimes being willing to put aside my own stuff and engage feels like a risk or even vulnerability. It’s always easier to pop in my headphones, stare out the window, and listen to the most recent remix of “Old Town Road.” It’s difficult and maybe a little perverse to use the word “thankful” these days. But, I guess I am kind of thankful that this disease and all the life changes it’s brought with it have enabled me to feel more open and connected to people. Even if they’re Lyft drivers I will likely never see again.

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