I touched down at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport somewhere around 7:00 New Year’s Eve 2019, the third time in recent months I’d taken this exact flight from Nashville. It always arrives at the same gate, right on time. Then I make the short five minute walk to the train, and I’ve practically arrived. The whole process has almost become automated in the way that comforts me when I travel away from home: the relative predictability, and privilege, of knowing your way around. But now I was running late, with texts wondering where I was, since the delayed flight had also spent longer in the air than usual. The subway would take too long, so I called an Uber to make it in time for my appointment — a New Year’s party, of course!
The app found me a driver, and I checked the details. His name was Onesmo, and other riders had left compliments on his “great conversation,” something I wasn’t feeling in the mood for in my agitation from spending all day in an airport with too many layers on.
Then again, I was glad to have them as we talked about the cold, the snow that had gathered on the sides of the road, and the rest that was coming. I remarked that without fail, there has been snow on the ground every time I’ve come to Chicago in my life. When he asked me where I was from, I was sure our small talk would stay small.
“Nashville,” I said. “Tennessee.”
“Oh, beautiful country down there. Very mountainous in parts. I drove all over it in my days trucking, went all over America back then… See how this 18-wheeler in front of us will speed up now, to stop that gray car, there, from overtaking him in the left lane.”
Just as he said, the truck gained speed and pulled over into a lane with more open road ahead, taking control of the small pack of traffic around it.
“Yes, I know the South, I was in Georgia for a few years when I came to America. I started a family there. Some of my children are in college there. But the rest of us are in Chicago now, and I’m going to celebrate the New Year with them if I get done with driving in time tonight.”
I asked what they were planning to do.
“They want to go see the fireworks on Navy Pier, which we may. But I want them to understand that this is all just fuss, a made-up season for spending money. As if they could not get enough out of us at Christmas, we must do it again a few days later. It’s crazy.”
This was the first time in the conversation I heard him use the at-large, enigmatic “they,” and my curiosity was piqued. I replied that something about Christmas got me down, too, and that businesses had seemed to wash their hands of it especially quickly this year — it felt like the very next day, the decorations were down and the jolly all gone. “They” felt no need to pretend anymore. Enthusiasm curbed.
These complaints encouraged Onesmo, and his speech took on a commanding tone still in step with his calm manner; this wasn’t the gravity of anger, but the wise authority that comes with time. His statements from this point on became increasingly prophetic, often beginning “this is what I have seen,” or, “this is what I have come to believe.”
“Indeed, they are getting sloppy because they are on the ropes. People are beginning to understand that corruption, exploitation, and what have you, these are not just things in Africa, where I am from. Or in Asia. It happens here, and it has been for a long time. The need to buy things that only get more expensive, while the money only disappears, is a mechanism that people will not tolerate much longer. I see it as a great clamp on society…”
Talk like this always gets my attention, and for a moment I forgot my whole day up to that point. Wherever I’d been and wherever I was going was of no consequence, because we were all going somewhere together in the 2020s, somewhere strange, new, and alive. I added my own observation that people were beginning to do more than just perceive the critical shortages in society — not just those of resources, but most importantly of opportunity.
Onesmo began to respond when his phone rang. “It’s my daughter, I better answer.” She was calling to check in before heading off to her plans for the night, a party somewhere in the city. He advised her to keep her wits about her because people can act strange on “peak” nights like this. She tried to assuage his worries by offering to call every hour, but he refused.
“Do not act right for my sake, or worry for me. Worry for yourself, and act in a way that you can be proud of.” I couldn’t help but smile, having been in the daughter’s exact position many times before with my own parents. But it also felt like an admonishment of the times we were living in, almost as if he was saying that everyone acts crazy nowadays. After all, these were “peak” times: the last day of a very long year, the end of a turbulent and unpredictable decade.
But soon I would understand that for Onesmo, these times might signify the culmination of a much longer struggle. He told me that he was only happy to discuss such serious, consequential matters as these with an Uber passenger because as a political exile, he had been made an outsider for asking the simple question: “is this really how it ought to be?”
Working as a physician on a military base in Zambia in the late 1990s, Onesmo noticed how trucks and trucks full of ore, or some kind of material extracted from the earth, were passing into the compound every day. It would make no sense to bring these in from far away, but a look at a topographical map showed no sign of a mine nearby, although their locations were almost always marked by the government in a show of transparency. In his career, he was already a skeptic: he told me another short story about receiving strict punishment for prescribing one of his patients a lower dosage than recommended of antipsychotics, even though it had positive effects. His curiosity already had a track record of besting him.
He located the mine on an unmarked road very near to the base. Under different pretexts, he was able to explore it a number of times, but never deduced what material was being extracted here; before he was able to do so, his scouting missions came to an abrupt end. As he told it, the archetypal movie “government types” arrived to put the kibosh on this, with their black suits and expensive cars. Next thing he knew, a passport was handed to him with a German visa stamped inside, his picture staring back at him and a clear message attached: don’t come back.
And he never did. He made his way to America, and made a life. Coming here with no documents, a hotel manager took a chance to hire him as a limo driver, and one thing led to another. He told me he was thinking about going back to medical school, taking the MCAT with a bunch of kids my age in the room. There was no way to secure any proof of his previous medical license in Zambia, but he had provided for himself and his family nonetheless. After everything he’d been through, he seemed to me like a good father and passionate citizen — not to mention a great conversationalist.
What’s more, I couldn’t detect the slightest hint of bitterness in this man. Like so many regular travelers, I’m so accustomed to my freedom of movement that even a delay in my one-hour flight is a disgruntling setback. Getting out of the car, I thanked him for the ride and ran up the stairs to my girlfriend’s apartment, practically electrified by what had just unfolded. As we rang in the new decade, my gratitude for a new relationship, a new city to explore, and the chance to travel for work was saturated by a new grasp on my privilege. I had taken a lot of chances in 2019: moving back to the U.S. from abroad and then seeing a girl who lived in a different city, to name a couple. But I hadn’t really needed someone to take a chance on me.
Over a month later, I was back in that apartment in Pilsen, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago with a substantial Mexican and Central American immigrant population. The community is dynamic and practically overflowing with expressions of heritage, culture, and love, from the murals that greet you on every street corner to the sweet, warm smell of the panaderias. My girlfriend had just left for work when I heard a knock on the door. Assuming she’d forgotten something and quickly returned for it, I answered without a second thought. Standing there was an ICE agent, looking for someone by a name I’d never heard.
I simply answered that no person by that name lived here, and the agent turned to walk away. My first reaction was to wonder why they didn’t press me longer, but soon I was thinking of Onesmo, and all the people of Pilsen who have created a beautiful corner of Chicago to show visitors like me what their city, and this country, ought to be about. At times like these, I wonder if people who have made America their home understand it better than those of us who take it for granted. Wherever we come from, let these stories be a call to action for us to take a chance on one another in the 2020s. We take them for ourselves every day — who knows what we might accomplish this year, this decade, and beyond by asking a fateful question: “is this how it ought to be?”
Has a random conversation on the road ever got you thinking? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!