Mrs. T. was a self-described, "powerful, Black, female." Mrs. T. grew up in Cabrini Green - one of the worst housing projects in Chicago. She had a stepfather; he molested her. She was sexually assaulted in an elevator. She got married; she had a child. And when her son was four years old, her husband was shot - dead. She went to work for a meat packing plant on the south side of the city. One day when she arrived at the plant, she found the doors locked: the company had been shut down, and the property was sold. Neither she nor any of the other employees had any warning.
For the first three days that it met, Mrs. T. was the instructor for the taxi class. Mrs. T. mispronounced many of the words that she used. And, from time to time, she spoke about herself and her life story rather than the course materials. But that was all right: Mrs. T. was responsible for teaching that component of the course that dealt with customer care, and diversity. She did a good job.
Mrs. T. had a smile every morning. She had a positive attitude - about herself, and the people whom she taught. Her voice was a Chicago voice; her story was a Chicago story. And when people spent eight hours a day in her classroom, barriers were broken down.
But Chicago has other voices too; and they're not all so warm and soulful.
Mr. N. walked into the taxi classroom on the fourth day, after Mrs. T. left. Mr. N. didn't describe himself in any way whatsoever, really. But a few of his personal details came out in his lecture - and in his manner too.
Mr. N. teaches the geography of the city. He's a White guy, about 69 years of age. He doesn't say the word, "place," he says, "joint." Mr. N. smiles rarely, and when he does it's usually because there is a problem of some kind. Mr. N. talks about the things that he has, and the places that he has been. Mr. N. seems to have done pretty well in life - in the manner in which most people understand doing well. Mr. N. still drives a cab from time to time; he owns cars and medallions. He comes across like an operator: he has connections; he's on the make.
City Hall has things fixed now, so that new cabbies need to score 85% on their exams in order to obtain a license. The vast majority of the questions on the City's exam deal with geography. Students are required to learn the names and addresses of several hundred hotels, hospitals, offices, and other public buildings in addition to the preferred routes between them, and the streets themselves. Mr. N. is the key to the geography.
The best of the students in the course see Mr. N. as one more obstacle to be overcome; I'm trying to learn from their example. I'm learning, but the atmosphere in the room is charged: everything feels confrontational. More than 1/3 of the students in the room have at least a bachelor's degree, if not more formal education. They're dealing with three layers of government: federal, state, and municipal, almost daily. They need to worry about U.S. Immigration, licensing by the Illinois Secretary of State, and the City of Chicago, too. They want a way - a legal way - to make money. They're willing to assume risk: they seem to have a type of spiritedness that many native-born Americans now lack. And if one way is closed to them, they will make another.