"Penn Station," I told the cab driver. The young, heavy-set man peered at me through his sunglasses and motioned me to get in.
"I've got to get to JFK airport by 2:30PM. You think I'll be able to get there via LIRR or should I cab it all the way?" I ask him, as I get comfortable in the back seat. "Hmmm. You should be okay. Yeah, you'll make it. It will be much cheaper to take the train," he replied in a mild South Asian accent.
"Thanks," I told him. Given his engaging nature, we naturally started a conversation, which went from the weather and quickly veered into the struggles of a cab driver's life. "How long have you been driving cabs?" "Three years." "You like it?" "It's really hard work. Not all people are so nice. I get tired, but what can you do? You have to pay the bills." "I hear you."
Like most New York cab drivers, he accelerated constantly and braked often, zoomed through red lights, almost nicked a couple of cars and still, never broke a sweat. :)
"What do you do?" he asked curiously. "I help a nonprofit organization trying to bring some goodness in the world," I responded. "Do they pay you well?" "Well, no but I get by. I don't have many material things in life, the IRS would consider me poor, but you know, I've realized that I don't need all that to keep me happy. If I die tomorrow, I want to go out knowing that I've made a few people smile."
The young cab driver, perhaps in his late thirties, looked back through the sliding glass as if extending his hand for a hand shake -- "Man, it is nice to meet you. It is really nice to meet you." Although we were strangers, both of us felt deeply connected as human beings. And by now, 7 minutes into our ride, we were on a first-name basis. He even spelled his name for me: H-a-k-e-e-m.
Hakeem and I talked a bit about simple acts of generosity, the power of a pay-it-forward mindset and how that can promote trust and connection in our communities. He understood the idea, but it seemed very abstract and foreign to him, so I gave him the example of a Berkeley restaurant I knew about: "So, you walk into this restaurant and you get a meal without paying for it. Then your check says $0.00 -- someone before you has paid for your meal, and you can pay-forward for the person after you. You pay whatever you want for someone you don't know." "So who comes to this restaurant?" "It's not like a soup-kitchen for the homeless; it's a place where everyone comes in." "Wow, really? That is something."
Our conversation was one of those lively, happy conversations. We were both laughing it up and sharing stories, when he turns to me and says, "Can I keep in touch with you? I want to help. I want to be associated with this." Perhaps it broke protocol for a cab driver to ask for the business card of his customer, but Hakeem and I felt like old friends. "Sure thing, buddy." We traded email addresses as he informed me that he has a laptop at home from which he can check emails once every couple of days.
"You know what you could do, Hakeem," I suggested in a conspiring tone. "You could give free ride to people every so often, and see how they respond. Imagine the dinner conversation that they will have with their family that night." "Wow. Yeah. I will do it. Every week, I can give away a $5 cab ride." After a reflective pause, he added, "Man, I'm moved."
We arrived at Penn Station. "$14.15" was the total. I gave him $15, and was looking through my wallet for more when he immediately planted a dollar bill into my hands and insisted that I don't tip him -- "No, no. Please, please." It was 15 cents from a cabbie, but in his heart, Hakeem was giving me a free ride and I was blessed to receive it.
As I was heading out, I turn to him and say, "Hakeem, you know how we talked about this pay-it-forward idea; well, here's a $20. Whenever you feel like it, you give a ride to people and tell them that someone before them has paid for their fare. See what happens." Hearing this, Hakeem was visibly moved. "Really? Are you sure?" "Absolutely." "I will give them your email address too." "No, no. This is not about you or I. Ask them to just pay it forward. And here, give them this card," I said as I handed him a couple of Smile Cards.
Standing on the streets, I looked in through the back window and said, "Alright, my friend, be well." Almost speechless, he repeated one last time: "Man, I'm moved." So was I.