Another Wednesday morning in the world

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.”

He smiled.

“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.”

“You’re nervous?”

“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.

“Three dialects?”

“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.


7 Responses to “Another Wednesday morning in the world”

  1. 1 Kip September 2, 2009 at 14:44

    And I, too, have now said a prayer for Moses.

  2. 2 Marni September 2, 2009 at 17:05

    Wow. I really hope he gets that job. Good luck Moses. Thanks for sharing this, Matthew.

  3. 3 Louis Chirillo September 3, 2009 at 03:03

    Sending positive vibes to Moses from across the Americas. Matt, you’re a wonderful story teller.

  4. 4 Ben September 5, 2009 at 08:49

    Dear Brother:

    Actually, you do have some contact across the miles with 9/11. It completely changed my life as a fireman, and I know several if not many firemen who either were there, or lost someone there. Most recently, in July, I sat on a curbside in Maine, with a Captain from New York. When I say “Captain” I do not refer to the same rank as my own, even though they are the same. This man is a legend among firemen and I did not feel worthy to be sitting on the same bit of cement as he. But he was drunk, he was feeling his cups, and I had stayed close to him to see him home to the hotel. He is a very large, bigger than life man. No one would have bothered him, except that the police in that town were not fireman friendly. So I sat there with him at 2 am, patiently waiting for him to tire. The Bagpiper next to us passed out, and the Captain looked at him dissappointedly, wanting the piper to play another tune. He then turned to me and asked my opinion of his whiskey, which was strictly Irish. I took a gulp, (I’m not a teetotaler persay (sp?).,and he beamed at me as if I was his own son. He leaned across the cement and said, “I love you boyo! I love you!” I wanted ask him about 9/11. But I dared not, he isn’t one to talk about it. But he is nearly 60 years old, so he knew many, many of those who died. Anything I could say would be meaningless. So I just sat with him instead, because he only thinks about it when he’s drunk.

  5. 5 Jeni September 6, 2009 at 11:28

    Joelle would love this…I hope she reads it. Thanks for taking time and being kind to Moses. Can’t even begin to imagine the things some societies and cultures have had to bear, and then to come here and somehow find a way to unify those two worlds…almost unimaginable.

  6. 6 scott September 6, 2009 at 14:39

    Hey Matt
    I had a very similar experience the other day with an Indian student who was about my age and looked lost on the SPU campus. He asked me to direct him (which happens to me at least 4 times a day at my job) towards a street I was unfamiliar with so I just told him good luck and left. Apparently he was looking for the Google headquarters, and after I ran to a computer and googled it (ironically), I found out he was on the wrong side of the canal. So I ran after him and helped him with directions. It was also his first day on the job, and he was in a rush. I told him he was going to get rich and to remember humble literature majors like myself. He smiled but I’m not sure he knew what I was talking about. Hope he got there in time. Kinda funny we had such similar experiences.

  7. 7 jstwndrng September 7, 2009 at 15:37

    Just back from three windy days the beach. Jeni, sorry, your comment got snagged by the filter for some reason. Yes, I thought of Joelle, how she would have loved talking to Moses.

    Ben, yes, as soon as I wrote this I thought, well, Le Pompier might know several; I should have specified “my non-first-response friends, family or acquaintances”.

    Scott, glad you caught up with the guy, and that you’re so handy with that web thingy. You may have had a profound effect on that guy’s life. And may your breathless good deed come back around ten-fold. Yes, odd, a week of people from the eastern hemisphere being at anxious career-defining moments.

    Kip, Marni, Louis, I’m always grateful to see your names here. Your persistent refusal to leave this blog unread is a continuing support.

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