A young man got on the bus today and sat down next to me. He looked worried. He seemed African. Not like Black American but like having grown up in Africa. I have no bus book currently (just finished one, will probably post about it soon), so I had been hoping for some conversation, and while I was considering saying good morning, he pointed to the top of his wrist and asked me what time it was. I dug out my cell phone and showed him it was 8:24.
He nodded, then said he had to be downtown at 9:00. I told him he had plenty of time, we’d be there in 15 minutes, maybe less.
There was a lull, during which I considered the fact that he had volunteered the information that he had to be there at 9:00. This meant, technically, that the transaction had gone beyond the strict confines of a request for the time. So I asked him which end of town he was expected at. He said Virginia (which means Virginia Street, the north and nearer end). “Oh,” said I, “we’ll be there in ten minutes. You’ll have time to take a deep breath.”
“Are you meeting friends, or is it a job?”
“Job, yes,” he said. “Interview.”
“Oh!” I said. “Are you excited?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “I hope so.”
I reflected for a moment on the fact that non-sequiturs are necessarily a phenomenon of their hearers, and wondered in what cases they might be experienced by their sayers.
“I”m a little scared,” he said, putting his hands together. “I say a lot of prayer.”
“Yes, because I don’t speak English.”
“I think you speak English very well.”
He thanked me and then insisted he doesn’t. I asked if speaking English well was a requirement of the job.
“Yes. It’s required.”
I inquired after the nature of the job, and he said it was designing work, in particular computer aided design (CAD). He told me he is versed in CAD drawing. He said he hoped he gets this job, but that right now he needs any job at all. I missed some part of his logic for a moment, but he then seemed to be apologizing for not doing manual work. He indicated his wrist (the underside this time) and said “I would do manual kinds of work but I do not have the strength.”
I asked if he had done CAD work before, and he said yes, very much, at home.
I asked where home was. Ethiopia. How long had he been here? A year and a half. I was hoping that this conversation would make some of his nervousness recede. His plan, he said, was to get a job first, then start working on his strength, maybe go to a gym. He was not a big guy, but I wondered if he had gone through a tough time physically in the past and had somehow been weakened.
“At home I speak three languages of Ethiopa,” he said.
“Yes. We have eighty-five languages in Ethiopia.”
I expressed alarum at this number. I further learned that everyone in Ethiopia learns to speak, read and write Amharic, the national language. He was keen for me to know that Ethiopian is one of the few lanugages on Earth that has its own letters and numbers, (which script Wikipedia says is called Ge’ez). He asked how many countries I thought had their own scripts. I consulted the back of my eyelids and could name the Cyrilic alphabet of Russia, and Hebrew writing, and of course Arabic, and was trying to recall whether Greek is the same alphabet the Russians use, and whether to include Sumerian and other ancient written languages, when he smiled and said, “Yes, and Ethiopian.”
I thought of the collapse of the World Trade Center, how I couldn’t name a single person among my friends, family or acquaintances who knew someone who was personally affected by that event. And that’s the worst we’ve had. I wondered if it’s even possible to come from Ethiopa and not have a heart full of sadness at the loss of friends and family to brutality and famine.
When we reached Belltown, I pulled the cord for him and told him Virginia was the next stop, then asked him his name. He called himself Moses. I told him I would say a prayer for him, something I don’t often say because it doesn’t often end up being strictly true. But my definition of prayer is broad these days. I consider that remembering a person favorably before God, or even with other humans, is a very real kind of prayer.
This is my prayer for Moses, CAD expert, knower of three Ethiopian languages.