Common Ground

There’s no better guide to a city than cab drivers. If ever in need of directions or suggestions, neighborhoods to hang in and holiday weekends to avoid, the drivers have lived through it all. Even if there’s nothing specific to learn, cab drivers grow to be a microcosm of the city they shuttle around. Every type of inhabitant, in every situation, has found their way into the back of the car, moving from one interesting location to another. And the brevity of the relationship makes it the perfect place for a good conversation. There’s always an objective involved, the destination is the product. Try getting picked up from the airport without mentioning the arrival flight or purpose for the visit. I, for one, never need an excuse for a quick heart to heart. And if the stars align, there’s a similarly loquacious chap behind the wheel.

It just so happened that one of my drivers last weekend had a strikingly familiar accent. After five years of experience and numerous trips, I’m actively listening for a Turkish twang these days. Having spent a lot of time there lately, I couldn’t start bragging quicker. I’ve gotten to know the neighborhoods of Istanbul, enough to drop a few names beyond Taksim Square and even more, I’ve travelled elsewhere in the country. Not the usual Cappadocia, too, where I still haven’t been. I can talk about trips to Tokat, equivalent to say, Omaha, and immediately get legitimate credit. Few Westerners are visiting the country these days, but less can speak of places other than the Grand Bazaar and beaches. As a New Yorker, I know the experience. It’s frequent, though not always, that a foreigner mentions Times Square, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty. Any knowledge of Jones Beach or Roosevelt Field when I’m far from New York, and it may as well be an old friend. Most of all, I’ve loved the time I’ve spent and the people I’ve met on each trip.

My excitement at showing off and learning about this driver’s life was obvious. As with the blog, I try to keep clear of negatives in chats like this, focusing on the awesome aspects I can’t get enough of. Invariably, that goes in the direction of food and culture, a welcome topic for the jolly Uber driver. We both admit bar-b-que and jazz can’t be beat, and while I’m probably a bit generous with the compliments, he appreciates the effort.

Immediately after the ride, after yelling “tesekkurler” to the driver and walking off like a real chotch, I realized how special those moments are. I could chat all night with all types of people, catch up with friends and crack jokes until the sun rises, but showing a little appreciation for one dude’s home, for the people he grew up with and the food that he remembers, was the type of moment I live for.

Everyone loves to bond over a shared experience. The more rare the experience, the stronger the bond. There’s certainly a sense of pride in being able to talk with all sorts of people but it shouldn’t be mistaken as arrogance. Empathy brings people together. No matter how brief, similar understanding builds common ground. Once that happens, prejudice and stereotypes seem to fall the side.

I find it especially enjoyable to watch in other, more modest people. Most of the time they hold back from talking about the places they’ve travelled to or the sports team they love. But spend a minute away from home and every baseball cap becomes a cause for conversation. It makes the world feel small, or more likely, unbelievable coincidences seem possible. In the midst of craziness, whether standing on line at Disney World, or sitting in the back of a cab, a small connection can bring anyone back to a familiar place. What a surprise it is, too. As if other Cubs fans couldn’t possibly be in Italy at the same time.

The most revealing part of these connections, proving just how much we love them, is how stories and perspectives manage to change through time. Years ago, a good friend was ridiculed for growing up near farms in a random, no-name town. Then a chance encounter puts that town at the center of a conversation. Suddenly you had always wished you lived in such a place. Middle of nowhere? It always sounded so quaint! And god forbid if you’ve ever visited and can talk about the local stores.

Mostly, I’m encouraged by the numerous ways to create these moments without leaving the house. People are always looking to talk about the areas of life that mean a lot to them, not only where they grew up. For me, it’s been writing. If I stumble upon someone else who struggles to sound decent on paper I can’t help but start talking, picking their brain about methods and subject matter. It can happen with any hobby, passion, and desire. Energy invested in a cause creates a soft spot. And sure, connecting over a sports team happens a lot, but so do bonds over books, music, food, and art.

None of these areas are confined to geographic areas these days. There are people in Indonesia and Germany who love the same movies as me, even if there’s only a handful of similar movie lovers right outside my home. All the same, there are people I interact with regularly that have interests I haven’t begun to explore. Is there any better inspiration to learn? Every time I choose a new artist to listen to or movie genre to watch, a future conversation is born. What else am I looking for?

I’d be remiss not to mention the greatest conversation starter there is. Scranton? My dad’s from a quaint little nook in northeastern Pennsylvania, just outside Scranton. Clarks Summit, you know it? Manning’s Ice Cream? You lucky dog, I wish I had grown up there!