My kid loves anime and also loves some friends that live in and around Baltimore. There is an anime convention in downtown Baltimore. What a perfect opportunity for friends to gather. I saved up about 2 and a half weeks pay to go last year and I am doing it again this year.
The first day there, the prior day's 12 hour shift and all the travel got the best of me. While we were waiting at the convention center for our badges I dozed off on the sidewalk. My teenager nudged me and said in a soft voice,"Dad, someone wants to talk to you, promise to be nice."
A young man with pimples who loooked barely old enough to shave handed me a coupon for free Uber rides. I looked at my mini me who looked at me and said,"You promised to be nice." I looked at the young man for a moment, grabbed the flyer, said thank you and then looked at my grinning child for a moment.
"What?" I said,"I let him live."
"I'm so proud of you, dad."
We got ourselves checked in and got our badges for the next day and started to head back to the hotel. As we were leaving the area I had parked the car I saw a line of cabs at the convention center's taxi stand. There they were, sitting, hoping for flags to make a few bucks while a billion dollar company was giving out freebies.
We got back to the hotel and grabbed some food. It was not long before I was out like a light.
The next day we got to the convention where the friends were waiting. The 4 of them wandered off into anime heaven and I shadowed from a safe distance and became a human atm. It was 10 hours and rather exhausting for me. They were all good kids and having fun and staying in safe places. So the next day I decided to loose the invisible leash and wandered about Baltimore on foot.
I got bored after a spell and saw the cabbie valet area. I saw some outside of their vehicles and realized they were muslims and it was prayer time. I waited until they were done and struck up a conversation with a few of the drivers. When I told them I was a hack from the Chicago area, some could care less, but some of the guys from Baltimore Taxi and County Cab talked to me. We swapped war stories and laughs and talked about the job. Different cities, same experiences.
There was one driver who was hard to miss. His name was Abdul. He stood well over six feet and was almost as wide as he was tall. He was from the NOI (Nation of Islam) and despite his size, as gentle a man as you could meet. He and his three kids live in a one bedroom apartment. His wife died a few years ago from kidney failure. He lives in Uptown. He grew up there. He told me how he used to be a gang banger when he was young. He told me about how proud he is of his kids and showed me their pictures on his cell phone. The oldest is about to graduate high school and she wants to go to junior college and study nursing, but she also has a lovely voice and he hopes she studies music too. The middle child was an underclassman in high school and a point guard on the team. He is flunking math, but otherwise a good kid. The baby is in 5th grade and on the chess club.
He told me how hard being a single dad is when you work 72 hours a week. He said the oldest is in the unfailr position of being a mom but he also has support from his community. Not just the NOI community, but the neighborhood.
Old men play dominoes and chess. The young men bbq and some of the women take it on themselves to ride herd on the local kids and keep them out of trouble.
Uptown is improving he told me. We got small businesses here, he told me. We got a little strip mall with a nice store to get milk and medicine (I am assuming he meant the CVS that was torched tonight). He talked about the pride he has living there, but also the fear. As a hack (cabbie) one ticket becomes three when a cop is in a mood. The gangs are recruiting and "taggin up all the nice stuff like dogs peeing on hydrants".
"I'll tell you, Patrick. You don't know what it's like. You got the man on one side cutting you off and you have criminals recruiting kids making the streets unsafe. I just want my babies to graduate and get good jobs. But the school is getting better. We have good teachers. The neighborhood is getting better and we are doing it. People are putting up nice flower pots now and shopping and working. We still do not have much, but we have hope and its us! Real companies are paying attention to us and that means real jobs and real schools and more hope."
His radio went off, there was a run near the convention center he could not turn down.
"Hey man, I gotta go. You need a ride, here is my card. As-salam Alaikum, brother cabbie."
The next day I drove about and made a trip to Uptown to see what it was like. It reminded me of the East side back home, but it was nicer. It had all the promise he spoke of and all the trappings he fears. I fell in love.
For the rest of my stay if I saw someone from County or Baltimore Taxi, it was easier to break the ice. I found many of them lived Uptown. They all felt similar.
I have no words and nothing to pontificate on the footage of what I am seeing. I need to reflect and digest because right now all I want to do is react.
I have sadness. I have fear. I have concern for 3 kids I have never met. I hope they made good choices tonight and are safe. I hope I see Abdul again.
It is no longer just my child that has friends there. I have friends there too.
We love our friends and we are concerned.