Talking with Strangers: Monroe

When did Uber turn into the new elevator ride? Awkwardly sitting in silence, awaiting your destination.

And even more so with Uber Pool, where you share your ride with another passenger heading in the same direction, while consciously trying to look like you’re unconsciously ignoring the other person.

This time my Uber pulled up with a passenger already in the front seat and as the three of us journeyed on together I became fascinated with our driver. His aggressive driving had a rhythm to it. A quick acceleration, two to three taps on the brakes, an open palm slam against the steering wheel in frustration, and then a heavy sigh to end the sequence before beginning all over again.

I’ve experienced this frenzied style of driving in other countries, but it specifically reminded me of the theatrical aggression of drivers in Ghana, so I began to wonder about his story. He was an older man, perhaps in his early 50’s, and from his accent and dark black skin I knew he was African but there were no clues as to which country.

If it was just us two in the car I would have struck up conversation immediately. But the big, jock-like guy with the oversized gym bag in the front seat who didn’t say a word when I got in the car had already created a stifled environment for the ride.

Intimidated, I held my silence.

For the first ten minutes I thought about how odd it was to be so close to other people and yet not say a word. Even more uncomfortable was not interacting with a person although they’re doing you a favor like chauffeuring you to your destination.

But the precedent of we’re not talking and now its been too long of not talking that talking would actually be weird had been set so I tried to abide. I checked emails, reviewed my calendar for the next day, and began scrolling my list of podcast episodes to zone out to for the remainder of the ride.

But as we drove and our driver boldly sped through intersections, honking at every car as if it was inarguably his right of way, memories of Ghana’s chaotic streets came back to me.

Ironically while I was in Ghana I had nightly, long conversations with Ghanians and those talks became an unplanned, deep exploration for me into the country’s history, culture, politics, economy, and more. I felt those conversations were invitations for me to hear their stories and learn about their lives.

So I changed my mind. We were going to talk.

I waited for an in, and the next time our driver darted through a light I knew I was going for it.

“You’re such a good city driver” I announced.

He laughed, and the passenger in front said nothing. I waited for a response then followed up with, “You’re a better driver than most people here. Have you always lived here?”

“I’m from Liberia.” He said proudly.

“I’ve never been to Liberia, but I’d like to go someday, the closest I’ve been was Ghana and I loved it there” I revealed. His eyes lit up and we were off.

His name was Monroe, and he moved here from Liberia in 1979. When he was ten years old, his Dad told him “In life you fall, and it doesn’t matter if you fall, you just have to fight hard to get up” He said that changed his life, that he always knew he could do anything as long as he fought hard and never gave up.

So he studied, he worked, he went to school, he got his college degree, and then he went on to get his MBA. He loved to help people and he was business savvy so he started to help other people prepare business plans, and showed them how to get loans from banks to start their business. He started consulting in 2001 and in a very short time grew his company to a team of four. I complimented him on such a feat and asked what he attributed it to. He replied “Its not just about telling people what to do. To be a good consultant, you have to be a good listener, a good observer, and a good analyst.”

In 2007 the financial crisis hit. Banks stopped giving out loans, and his consulting business came to a halt. He became a professor to teach about microenterprise and microlending until things turned around.

I asked him what his plans were now that the economy is recovering. Proudly he said he was working on a new idea; a security guard company that provides affordable security services to small businesses. Every day he spends five to six hours in the library, working on his business plan to get all the details in order, and he drives Uber just one or two days a week to bring in extra income.

The more he shared his idea with me, the quicker he talked, and his excitement grew. By the time we got to my destination, he was smiling and laughing and making an effort to turn around to face me as often as he could while still driving.

Before I got out of the car I invited him to The Shift, and told him about the marketing and social media classes we have that could help him when he’s ready to launch. He eagerly nodded yes and then said “thank you for listening.” I remember thinking he had very kind eyes.

As someone thats always on the go, I know conversations in transit rarely carry on past their destination, so I don’t know if I’ll ever see Monroe again. I’m just glad I said something. We could have spent 20 minutes in silence. But instead, we didn’t.