Awoken, I glanced over at my alarm clocks. I use two because one would put me in a fitful sleep, fretful over the possibility of mechanical failure. The odds of both clocks failing simultaneously are sufficiently infinitesimal to ease my anxious mind.
Beautiful, I thought, stretching out my arms. Ten minutes before the alarm.
Like clockwork — forgive the pun — I inevitably arise minutes ahead of my alarm setting and turn off the disturbing buzzer, which blares like a deranged crow. Some ascribe this phenomenon to an "internal clock," and, if that's the explanation, mine operates to perfection.
In the next second, I utterly freaked out — Panic City.
Inexplicably, the previous night I had set the alarm for my actual pickup time at the local hotel rather than a half hour earlier. This was a brain fart of the loudest, smelliest order.
It was triage time. Obviously, I'd grab shoes and clothes, and that was about it. A shower was only for good boys and girls, not me. Ditto teeth brushing, a cup of coffee and meditation. Like a madman on a mission, I was out the door in 90 seconds flat, cranking up the taxi and speeding to the Courtyard Marriott. Realizing I was going to be five minutes late, I called my customer to calmly inform him. That's my aphorism: Never let them see you sweat.
"No problem," he said. "I'll be out in front when you get here. Thanks for letting me know."
Angus McDonald was a businessman from Ireland and new to his company, he shared with me as we got under way. He was visiting his firm's American affiliate, located in a Georgia industrial park. His job was "procurement."
I told him I wasn't sure what that meant, but he didn't look like a pimp. Angus got the joke and laughed.
"Hey, I want to thank you so much for driving me today," he said. "I'm so afraid of driving on the right side of the road, I'd be a nervous wreck when I got there."
"In Ireland they drive on the left?" I asked.
"They do, but I've only been living there three months. I'm originally from South Africa, which is also a left-driving country."
"Yes, I heard that in your voice. Certainly, no Irish brogue there," I said with a chuckle. "Have you moved permanently to Ireland, or are you there on a work stint?"
"No, we've moved permanently, my wife and I. Sadly, South Africa is going into the toilet. Corruption and crime are rife. When we turned the country over to the blacks, it was like a Mercedes Benz. And now it's a jalopy. I'm just being honest."
My ears perked up at Angus' pronunciation of "blacks": blecks. There's something about the Afrikaner accent that I find chilling. I flashed on my college years listening to the song by the late, great Gil Scott-Heron: "What's the word? / Tell me, brother, have you heard / From Johannesburg?"
"You didn't 'turn the country over to the blacks.' You, the Afrikaners, subjugated the native people for 200 years, before they rose up and achieved their democratic rights. If not for the nearly unfathomable compassion and political skill of Nelson Mandela, your country might have seen bloodshed on an unspeakable scale."
That is what I felt like saying but didn't. It would have felt good to speak those words, cathartic, but it would have been unfair to Angus. I didn't know him or the history and experience that forged his character. So instead I asked, "What did you think of Nelson Mandela?"
"Oh, that's quite a story! Believe it or not, my wife, Enid, actually knew him. This is not widely known, but when the authorities released him from the prison on Robben Island, he first spent quite a bit of time in a medical facility. And my wife was his nurse during this recovery period.
"She says he was the loveliest man she ever met. Nothing but appreciative to my wife and not bitter in the least. Which is fantastic, if you think about it. We have a handwritten letter Mr. Mandela wrote to Enid thanking her for the care she showed to him. He even mentions me in the letter, thanking me as well."
"What a brush with history that was for your wife," I said. "I've always considered Mandela the greatest statesman of the 20th century. What was your experience with apartheid, if I can ask you that?"
"Well, my parents raised us to be color-blind, so I always hated the system. In the '80s, I was in the South African navy, which was completely integrated as far as Indians and coloreds. Unfortunately, no blacks were allowed. The blacks were at the bottom of the food chain."
Angus was a kind-hearted and well-meaning man. I could now see that clearly. I wished I had more time with him to explore that whole business about "turning the country over to the blacks" and the "Mercedes and the jalopy."
People are complicated, I reflected. All of us are formed by the culture and society in which we're raised. I'm certainly no exception to that. Well into the 2000s, I was in favor of "domestic partnerships" or "civil unions" for same-sex couples but against gay marriage. Something about men and women and their essential natures — it's hard for me to even recall. Then one day, far too late in the game, I finally got woke: If marriage is about anything, it's about love. And when it comes to love, sexual orientation is entirely beside the point.
So, there's hope for everyone, including me and Angus.
We reached my customer's destination in Georgia. "You'll pick me up back here at 4:30?" he asked.
"Absolutely," I replied, thankful that an afternoon pickup wouldn't necessitate a wake-up alarm. I was still recovering from the morning's near fiasco. "On the way back, we can talk about Trevor Noah. He's from South Africa, right?"
"That is correct, sir," Angus replied, smiling at me warmly. "He's a clever man, he is."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.