As I See It: Daniel, Part II
August 17, 2009 Victor Rozek
There are now 6.3 million people receiving unemployment benefits, the vast majority engaged in a desperate race to find work before the benefits run out. For many, like Daniel, with a family and a mortgage, at best unemployment offers a tenuous lifeline, easily stretched to breakpoint by the expenses of day-to-day survival. But having lost his home and family, maintaining his unemployment eligibility became even more of an imperative for Daniel.
What work he could find paid far less than his IT job and offered no benefits, but would strip him of his unemployment check. So Daniel entered the underground economy, took whatever work he could find that paid cash, and forwarded the unemployment check to his wife and kids. In the first two months after becoming homeless, he worked in a car wash, rode around in a motorized cage scooping golf balls on a driving range, and bussed and washed dishes in a grimy diner.
Which is where he met Yousaf.
Three years prior, Yousaf arrived in the United States with a plan. He would work hard, save every dime, then buy a used car and a hack’s license. And for a while things went according to plan. Yousaf drove his gypsy cab 12 hours a day, six days a week, and dreamed of saving enough money to return to his country, build a modest home, marry his childhood sweetheart, and take care of his aging parents. Most days he took his breakfast at the diner that was close to the tenement in which he lived, and in Daniel he found a kindred spirit: a man like himself, wishing to earn enough money to support his family.
But the law of entropy interfered. Yousaf’s car gave out. Its engine sputtered, lost power, and the car rolled to the side of the road followed by a Vesuvian exhalation of black smoke. The tow truck driver, taking one look at the car, demanded to be paid in cash. He towed what was left of Yousaf’s dream to a garage where the mechanic told him it was probably not worth repairing, at which point the tow truck driver graciously offered to haul it to the scrap yard–for cash, of course.
The next day Yousaf was having coffee at the diner, lamenting his misfortune, when Daniel had an idea he thought could benefit them both. “You’re a man with a permit and no cab; I have a car, but no permit.” he told Yousaf. “How about we split the hours and the expenses, and you let me sleep in your apartment when I’m not driving, since you’ll be driving my bedroom?”
It took but little time to work out the details, and four days later Daniel was queued up at the airport, with Easy Ride Cab Co. scrolled on the side of his car. As the weeks went by, Daniel started feeling more optimistic. After months of homelessness and heavy drinking, he finally had stability and a routine. He determined to cut back on the booze, and gradually started to feel better about himself. His identity as a provider had been shattered, but he was rebuilding it, and as each day passed, small doses of confidence infected his self loathing. Though he was yet unable to face his family, one evening he sat in an Internet café, steeled his nerve, and composed a rambling apology to his wife and kids for the way he believed he had failed them.
About a month after he began driving, Daniel was flagged down by a slender black man with the saddest eyes he had ever seen. They transformed the otherwise smooth young face into a mask of perpetual sorrow; as if a separate being lived inside his body and peered out through the facade of normalcy. They drove in silence for a time until the man leaned over the back of Daniel’s seat, pointed to the picture Daniel kept on his dashboard, and asked in accented English: “Is that your family?”
Daniel nodded, and the man smiled sadly and answered, “Then you are truly fortunate.” Daniel exhaled slowly and was about to return to his own thoughts, but there was something about the stranger that invited candidness, as if those eyes had peered into the darkness and emerged beyond judgment to a place of compassion and understanding.
“No,” he said, “they’re gone.” He briefly explained the company closure that had left him unemployed; his unsuccessful search for work; his son’s injury, the medical bills, the resulting loss of his house, his descent into the bottle, and the dissolution of his marriage. Daniel had not intended to say so much, but under the stranger’s knowing eyes, it spilled out like water breaching a dam. He was about to apologize for his lack of discretion when his passenger said: “Then they are not gone. They are,” he searched for a word, “misplaced.”
Daniel felt his throat constrict and his eyes burn. He desperately wanted his life back. But he felt he had ruined the lives of those he loved, and could not ask them to come back. Besides, what would they come back to?
“I don’t think my wife will forgive me,” he said. And then Daniel added something he had not planned on saying. “And I don’t know if I can forgive myself.” Daniel could feel his face redden and instantly regretted saying it.
“Ah,” nodded the man, as if acknowledging a truth they shared, “then perhaps I can help.” He waited until Daniel glanced at him in the mirror and held his eyes. “I have had to learn a great deal about self forgiveness, my friend. I am Hutu.”
The man settled himself in the seat, took several deep breaths, and began speaking.
“My name is Milton and I am from Rwanda. I was 22 when my country descended into madness. We are a tribal people, with tribal passions which have frequently found violent expression. In 1994, for 100 days, a wave of slaughter engulfed my country. Eight hundred thousand, perhaps a million–no one knows–of my fellow countrymen were hacked and beaten to death. Their only sin was being Tutsi. Mobs of Hutus armed with machetes roamed the streets looking for victims. Women, children, no one was spared. Not even moderate Hutus who tried to stop it.
“My parents were educated and I was brought up not to be bound by tribal mores. Although I am Hutu, I married a Tutsi woman. When the mob came for her she stood embracing my daughter, I was told, and would not let go even as they fell under many blows.” He paused, not breathing for a long time, lost in distant memories. “I was in Zaire when it began, visiting a friend.”
Then he took a labored breath and continued. “You see, like you I believed that I had failed my family. I did not speak out, did not raise my hand, was not there to protect them. I lived many years with my guilt, ashamed for myself, ashamed for my people. I returned to a broken country with broken families. People who had committed and survived unspeakable horrors, and lost the ability to respond to the most basic requirements of life. For many years I did not care what happened to them or to me. But there were others who suffered great losses and gradually we found each other and learned to forgive.”
“We wanted to do something, anything, so as not to feel such helplessness and despair. A few of us formed a small charitable organization, distributed what food and clothing we could obtain. But the need was so great. The life expectancy is 47 years for a child born in my country. Food, clothing, medicine, housing, education, we needed everything. So we began contacting philanthropic organizations and asking for grants. Over the years our program grew, we built schools, clinics, we refused no one. I am here now to beg for more money. They will, I think, give it to us, but they have many requirements including a careful accounting of what is given and where it goes, and we do not keep such good records. Our records are papers in boxes, they demand computers.”
Daniel pulled the cab to the curb and stopped, turning so that he could face Milton. He felt a jolt of aliveness and hope he had not felt since losing his job. He looked at the ancient, knowing eyes and spoke too rapidly, like a child on Christmas morning: “Are you saying you need a distribution system that would track the packaging, warehousing, and movement of your inventory; link your suppliers to distribution channels; keep track of who gets what, that sort of thing?”
“Yes.” Milton nodded slowly.
“Distribution, that’s what I do. That’s what I know, inside and out. That’s what I did before the plant shut down.”
Milton looked at Daniel for a long time, as if deciding something, his piercing eyes searching Daniel’s face. After a long silence he brightened, and for the first time smiled showing white, even teeth.
“Would your family like to go to Africa?” he said.
Six weeks later, Yousaf received a small package in the mail. In it, he found a letter and a picture of a smiling Daniel with his wife and kids, standing in what appeared to be an African village. He also found a set of keys and the title to Daniel’s car.