Upstream

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My daughter bounds down the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brushes past several people lined up on this cold November morning, and thrusts her right arm high in the air.

“Taxi!”

For a ten year old who’s spent most of her life in Africa, she bellows like she’s bronx-born-and-bred. She’s been practicing since we bought our airline tickets two months ago. Six days in the big apple.

“I get to be the official taxi hailer,” she announces to her brother. “You can ask for the check.”

A yellow cab careens across two lanes and pulls to a stop in front of us. My daughter turns and smiles at me then disappears into the leathery warmth of her chariot. I ignore the protests from the people behind us and pile in beside her, making room for my son. My husband, a Parisian-born chameleon, gets in front with the driver. “Hey, how you doin’?” I hear him ask.

“Cool,” my daughter whispers. “Go,” I say.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that we have just broken a major rule of New York etiquette. Upstreaming. Or stealing another person’s cab by positioning yourself ahead of them. I think about how many times I must have been the victim– and the perpetrator– of this New York taboo in the sixteen years I lived here. A frigid New Year’s Eve in the meat-packing district after too much champagne comes to mind. Two young lovers who dared to turn away for a kiss. I have no misgivings. It must be in the genes.

“Where to?” the driver asks as I reach over and turn off the small flat screen fixed to the partition–a combination of high-tech TV and ipad–streaming predictions of a cold front.  “Downtown please. We need to buy warm coats.”

I watch the street signs descend– 86th, 82nd, 79th street– relieved to be moving father and father away from the disappointed few we left behind. We are silent, lulled into a warm torpor by the heater and the moving panorama of buildings and people on the street. At a stop light, I notice the license registration of our driver. Abdou Seck.  I tap my husband on the shoulder and mouth, “He’s Senegalese!”

“Non,” he says out loud, drawing the word out in his particular french way.

“Nanga def?” I venture, with an excitement that sounds childish. How are you? Abdou searches for me in the rearview mirror.

“You speak Wolof?” he asks, his eyes full of surprise.

My husband joins in and a conversation with our Senegalese taxi driver ensues, back and forth from English to French to Wolof. The strangeness of recognition. The recognition of a stranger. We cut each other off, interrupt, impatient to uncover the thread of connection.

If I had stopped her. If we had waited for another taxi. But we didn’t. Now here we are. You’re from there, we’re from here, but we live there and you live here and we somehow found each other. We don’t have much time in this improbable paradox of home. This is life, upstream.

We explain to Abdou that we moved to Senegal seven years ago and that this is our first trip back to New York in almost ten years.

At our friend’s house, six days; my husband is an architect. We design and build houses made of earth. Really. Well, no, I write. Articles mostly. Ten and eleven. No, born in New York actually.

We discover that his family lives in M’bour, the village next to ours. Crazy, what are the chances? We toss a few names around and my husband thinks he may know his cousin, if it’s the guy who lives behind the auto garage. He tells us he arrived in the city eighteen years ago, searching for work in order to send money back home to his wife and children. They are grown now. He sees them once a year. But lately, it’s been longer. Plane tickets are expensive. Rent is expensive. He lives in Little Senegal, in West Harlem, with his cousin, in a small apartment, above a beauty salon. He hates the sound of the hair dryer and the smell of straightener. There are a few good Senegalese restaurants, authentic. We should come. He would like to go home. To his wife. We’ve reminded him of that.

He turns the meter off and drives around the block. Another few minutes, but no one knows what to say. I wonder if I’ve passed her in the fish market. Or on the street. In that little corner store where they sell the waxed fabric. We never wonder who anyone might be, until we know they matter.

Abdou pulls up in front of the Old Navy store on West 34th Street. The sidewalk is steamy with street vendors and tightly peopled.  Our goodbye is suddenly awkward and hurried, doors opening and closing against the cold. In a few days, we’ll be back in Senegal, closer to his family than any of us would like to admit. My husband pays Abdou and I reach through the front window to shake his hand. A woman draped with colorful shopping bags slips into the back seat, severing an intimacy she could never have guessed at.

“Uptown,” the woman says, “72nd and Third.” That’s all she needs to tell him, and she will be taken home. Coordinates, on a well-planned grid.

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