I was in the back seat of a taxi last Thursday afternoon, riding from LaGuardia Airport to the corner of 29th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where I was to be met by my son, Brian, for a few days’ vacation in the city. I had taken similar taxi rides before on previous visits, and I looked forward to seeing his smiling face and spending time together.
Traffic was horrendous. It wasn’t time for rush hour to begin – it was a few minutes after 2:00 pm when I climbed into the taxi at the airport. My driver was a nice young man with a heavy accent, dark hair, and smiling face. From looking at his ID on the back of the seat in front of me, I deduced that he must be from a middle-eastern country, perhaps Iraq or Afghanistan. I gave him the address of Marble Collegiate Church, which was where I was meeting Brian, and sat back to enjoy the ride.
Two minutes into the ride, my comfort zone disintegrated, and I scrambled for my seat belt. This was one aggressive, and maybe, crazy driver. He weaved in and out of traffic, honking his horn every minute or so, while mumbling to himself in a language I didn’t understand. At times, it seemed to me that he was going around in circles, but in actuality, he was simply trying to find a better route to escape the snarling traffic. He got on his cell phone, talking, I assumed, to dispatch, as he tried to maneuver his way into Manhattan. He was frustrated, and impatient with the traffic situation.
Finally, we came to a dead stop. A tunnel entrance loomed ahead. About that time, Brian texted me, asking me how long until I’d be there. I asked my driver where we were, and if he could give me an approximate time of arrival. He apologized to me, saying that he didn’t know. Twenty minutes, maybe, not sure. The traffic was worse than he’d seen it in a long time. In his heavily accented English, he apologized again, with frustration evident in his voice, saying that maybe he should have gone a different way. I assured him that I understood it wasn’t his fault. My son just wanted an idea of how much longer it would be. It was taking longer than usual for me to get there from the airport.
We began to move at a snail’s pace toward the tunnel entrance. As we approached, we saw a sign indicating that the left lane of the tunnel was closed. All traffic was merging into a single lane, explaining the congestion. I commented that maybe once we got through the bottleneck, things would start moving again. He agreed. Inch by inch, we moved forward. Soon, we were inside the tunnel, and he told me that it wouldn’t be long now. But once we got fully inside, traffic stopped again.
Oh my! I began looking around me. I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel from behind me or in front of me. I began imagining every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone thriller move I had ever seen, and was beginning to think about getting out of the taxi and walking. The tunnel walls, the echoing noise, the claustrophobia were all bearing down on me. I could get out and just tell the driver to pick me up at the tunnel exit. After what seemed like an eternity, we began to move – a little. Whew!
That was when my ride really got interesting. Brian texted again, and again I asked my driver how much longer. I explained – again – that my son was meeting me where he worked.
“Where does your son work?” he asked.
I told him that it was a church.
“You’re going to a church?” he asked.
“ Yes, my son works there,” I answered, “and he will meet me on the sidewalk outside the church when we get there. That’s why he wants to know about how much longer it will be.”
My driver was interested. From out of the blue, it seemed, he asked me if I was religious. I told him that I was, and I asked him if he was religious.
“I want to be,” was his simple answer.
He then began asking me about my religious upbringing and what was the most important thing I had learned as a child about God in my church. I told him that I had learned lots of Bible stories, but the main thing I had learned was that God is love, and that Jesus taught us that we should treat others the way we wanted to be treated (the good old Golden Rule!). All the while, I was thinking, I can’t blow this. What can I say that will be the right thing?
As we crept forward, we saw that the reason for the delay in the tunnel was a stalled car. It had been moved over to the closed lane by the NYPD, allowing us to progress on our trip. Passing it, I knew it would be only a matter of minutes before I’d be getting out of the taxi. I wanted to say something that would help this young man.
He said that logic made it hard for him to believe in a God of love. His mother loved him, but she wasn’t perfect, and she made mistakes. There are bad people on earth. How can we love them? How could God be all powerful without making mistakes, like his mother did? How can God love everyone? Even the bad people? Even those who make mistakes?
I was sweating bullets, trying to help him in the few blocks and in as many minutes that we had left to travel. I grasped for the only thing I knew to say. “God is in your heart and loves you,” I told him. “God wants us to love other people as God loves.” He asked me a few more questions, which I honestly can’t remember now, I was getting so flustered, trying to say what I believed should be said in such a short amount of time.
As I got out of the taxi, and handed him the fare, I looked him in the eye and said, “Remember – listen to your heart. That’s where God is. You won’t go wrong.” He smiled at me and put his hands to his heart.
With that, he got back into his taxi and drove away, leaving me pondering this unusual taxi ride while waiting on the sidewalk for Brian to meet me.
And now, looking back, I ponder even more. About many things. About getting stuck in tunnels. About stalled cars. About terrible traffic. About meeting Brian at the church. About being in that particular taxi. About saying the right thing. About a young man’s search for God.
About listening to my heart.