I had just dropped off a customer at the hospital when a woman signaled to me and approached my cab. Her traditional African garb — she was wearing one of those gorgeous multicolored print dresses — suggested she was a relatively recent arrival to America.
Before Uber arrived in Burlington some three years ago — aka "the good old days" — getting hailed like this by random pedestrians was a daily occurrence for us local taxi drivers. But, as Uber has gobbled up greater and greater market share, what was once commonplace has become a rarity. Am I bitter about this? Just a teeny bit.
"Sir, could you take me to a Walmart and perhaps wait while I do some clothes shopping and then return me to the hospital?" requested the woman. Her deep brown eyes were kind and bright, though I sensed she was frazzled.
"Sure, get in," I replied. "You can sit right in the front."
As we left the hospital grounds, I voiced a suggestion. "I can take you to Walmart, but that's quite a ways out of town. There's a big clothing store called Kohl's just about a mile from here, if that'll work for you. The cab fare will certainly be less, and I think they have a decent selection of stuff."
"Oh, thank you, sir. That would be great."
"No problem," I said. "And please call me Jernigan. What's your name?"
"My name is Mercy."
"That's a beautiful name. Do you have someone being treated at the hospital?"
"Yes, my husband has cracked ribs and a collapsed lung. He may have to stay in the hospital for a few days. We first went to the hospital in Massena, and they said we needed to transfer to Burlington. So my husband and I drove here yesterday, but without any extra clothes."
"Was your husband in an accident?"
"Yes, we were visiting our families in Zambia, our first trip back since we moved here in 2014. Noah was playing with some of the little ones and fell down a short stairway. We didn't know how bad the injury was until we got back to New York."
"So, you drove here all the way from upstate New York with Noah in that condition? Not to mention the plane ride back from Africa?"
"Yes, and he did all the driving, because I don't drive! The hospital in Massena wanted to send us by ambulance, but Noah is quite stubborn."
We came up on the Williston Road/East Avenue intersection. It was seriously backed up this afternoon due to the UVM students returning for the fall semester and moving into the dorms.
Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, I said to myself with that dichotomous combination of affection and exasperation that many of us Burlingtonians feel about the college kids.
"Do you and your husband live and work in the North Country?" I asked.
"Yes, Noah is a lab technician. I work at a nursing home just doing cleaning."
"Hey, nothing wrong with that. It's great you got work."
"I know, but my job conditions are terrible. My boss is horrible to me, really racist. But we need the income, so I stick it out. Many nights I'd cry myself to sleep. Noah would help me a lot, but it's hard. I'm taking classes to get a nursing degree, but that's going to take years."
We reached University Mall, and I found a parking space in front of Kohl's. "Don't rush, Mercy," I said. "I'll be right here when you get out."
I watched Mercy enter the store and sat down on the grassy parking lot median to lean against a scrawny tree. I contemplated the journey undertaken by Mercy and Noah, and what it must take to leave everything you know — your family, your home, your country — on the far-from-certain hope of a better life in America. What courage, I thought. I don't know if I would have it in me.
I thought about Mercy's boss and visualized strangling him. But, in the next moment, I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
It's so easy, so human, to react to hate and anger with reciprocal hate and anger. But to do so, to succumb, doesn't change a thing; in fact, it only fuels the fire. And this got me thinking about our present political moment, so fraught and polarized. For sure, I mused, it's going to take a lot of love to change the trajectory of our country and planet. Boatloads.
Knowing that thoughts matter, I pried my hands from the throat of Mercy's boss and transmitted a message of love. To be honest, I did so with some reluctance, but I'm a great believer in fake it 'til you make it.
After about 25 minutes, Mercy emerged with a shopping bag. She looked like she had perked up considerably.
"Thank you, Jernigan," she said with a shy smile. "I was able to find everything I need."
"Good to hear it," I said.
On the way back to the hospital, I said, "By the way, your English is really excellent. How many other languages do you speak?"
"Including all the tribal languages?" she asked.
"Well, then, let me think," she replied, and began to count on her fingers, ticking off the list to herself. "So, I can say I'm fluent in 11," she reported.
"Holy smokes, Mercy!" I said. "That is brilliant."
"It's not so uncommon for a Zambian, actually," she explained. She was being modest and gracious, which appeared to be her default mode. "How about you? How many other languages do you speak?"
"Me?" I said, laughing incredulously. "Mercy, I can barely speak English!"
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.