Today is Thanksgiving in the US. It’s a holiday with dubious origins but still celebrated by enough people in New York that a lot of shops are closed and people who work in offices usually take at least two days off work.
My friends Chris and Cathy invited me to their house for Thanksgiving meal. This is the fourth time I’ve spent the holiday in New York and the second time I’ve been over to their house to celebrate. Chris makes a turducken, amazing mac & cheese, sweet potato that he infuses with LSD or something (coconut milk and Sriracha) to make it taste extraordinary, a dirty rice and, this year, potatoes cooked in goose fat. We drink wine and tell stories and plead with the children to play nicely.
I like the idea of the holiday. Taking a moment to think about what is good in one’s life might help put the complaints that hound us daily aside for a while.
I caught a taxi to their house in Brooklyn. Sometimes I enjoy talking to taxi drivers and I’ll usually let them make the first mood. I hate when people talk to me when I’m working but I’ll give them a couple of hints that I’m friendly to let them know the opportunity for a chat is there.
My guy today was originally from Rwanda. He’s been in New York for five years and he loves it here. He said that as long as someone isn’t lazy they can make a living here. He told me this story.
In Rwanda someone might make three dollars a day. Nobody owns a car unless they are super wealthy or in politics. The two often coincide. Most transport is by foot. A few people are lucky enough to have a bicycle. When he arrived in the USA he had never driven a car before.
He worked as a cleaner for a while and then got a job as a bicycle delivery guy. That’s how he learnt all the streets. He couldn’t believe his fortune when he was earning $200 a week.
He shares a place in the Bronx with several other people. So many of them share the house that he only has to pay about $150 per month in rent. They eat together and look at the most economical way to do so. Large sacks of rice and whole chickens bought in "three-fer" specials keep them sustained for a long time. They waste nothing. Everything is used.
When Rwanda was in civil war, he applied for refugee status. This, he told me, with no emotion. It was a matter of fact that Rwanda was a bad place and a terrible place for the poor, which included him.
The emotion came when he started telling me about the refugee camp in Nairobi where he spent 18 months. The conditions were appalling. He said something about going to the toilet and getting then people getting sick and dying. I chose to connect my own dots rather than ask details. The dots weren’t pretty.
In the refugee camp he was forced to wear the same clothes every day. The only time he was provided a change of clothes was when a UN official was due to arrive. Someone taught the refugees songs with synchronised clapping to entertain the UN officials and the camp was cleaned up.
Clean clothes, clean camp and singing refugees: The UN officials never saw the true nature of the camp.
My taxi driver thinks very little of the UN. He yelled and flicked his hand towards the passenger-side window, telling me that Kofi Annan is not a great man and that the Africans who go to the UN do so with little concern for their home but great concern for the guaranteed several years of money and entitlements.
After 18 months he arrived in the USA and was, along with fellow refugees, put into a hotel in Connecticut. There, in the hotel room, were food and beverages for them to enjoy at their will. They didn’t touch them until one of the people in charge asked if they were sick and maybe that’s why they weren’t eating.
The assumption was the food wasn’t for them. Even when told they could eat what they wanted, they disbelieved. When it was made absolutely clear that there would be no retribution for eating the food, joy came into their lives. He said the word "meat" with such delight that it made me slightly embarrassed for how much I take for granted.
When he was working in bicycle delivery, a friend told him that driving a taxi was a much better job. They taught him to drive. He said he couldn’t believe how easy it was. "This was the gas and this was the brake, and you go."
Through that series of events I arrived at Chris and Cathy’s house, aware that it’s important to remember how I got to wherever I am, to make me thankful for what is available to me now.