The Holiday Blues
Christmas in Chicago is a feast for the eyes. The streets are ablaze with whimsical lighting arrangements and festive decor. The faint smell of cinnamon and hot cocoa wafts through the air. The citizens are excited and air is electric.
But that's only half of the story.
Head a bit west of this carefully decorated downtown and you are in a remarkably different scenario. In these parts, the streets bear no holiday charm. I spotted about two or three light up Santas. There are wide boulevards and long stretches of road with the remnants of concentrated industrial development. It basks in impoverishment and violent crime spanning decades. This area is known as Chicago’s Far West Side.
It was the weekend before Christmas and I was just north of downtown taking a break from my nightly route driving for Lyft. Getting back online I received a request from Target going into the North Lawndale area, one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the area. (You don’t know where a passenger is going until picking them up.) I dropped off the passenger with no issues, but immediately received another request just blocks away.
People in these neighborhoods use ridesharing services as often as the rest of the city, but not many drivers are willing to risk picking up passengers in the area due to discrimination, fear and/or economics.
As a driver, I’ve heard stories of other drivers getting car-jacked or passengers being aggressive and so declining the ride may have been in my best interest, but I am a curious person and I like to help people when I can. In wanting to stand out, I proceeded to the ride request turning the music down and keeping my eyes peeled.
I pulled up to a laundromat which had a gated parking lot. Three people approached me with six huge bags of clothing. It was a man, a young lady and an older woman. I was ready to drive off at any moment, but they seemed friendly enough. I still stayed in my car, keeping a lookout on my surroundings. I couldn’t keep from feeling like I was in some stakeout. My body was tense.
The man said out loud, but not to anyone in particular, “You know if this was an Uber they would have helped you with your bags.”
I looked in the rear-view mirror to see if he was talking to me. He was, and he was smiling. I made a nervous laugh and he went back into the laundromat. I thought he was going to be joining us, but he didn't.
The two women got into the car and we drove off but not before bickering over who should sit in the front seat (the back seat and trunk was full of bags.) Eventually the older woman decided to sit up front. She said, “Alright, we’re ready” and we drove off.
I’m guessing that the older woman was somewhere around her late 60s to early 70s and she was friendly; immediately telling me about her day which included getting up at six am to get her family to and from their jobs, making food, running various errands and, of course, doing the laundry. As we were driving along the boulevard the woman pointed out that the neighborhood was very much a food swamp with it’s lack of groceries and abundance of gas stations, liquor stores and fast food options. I asked if the liquor stores carried apples and she laughed, “You mean apple flavored liquor? Yeah!”
Arriving at our destination at around 11:30 pm, I pulled over to drop them off. The home was modestly sized and two stories tall, with plenty of space around it on either side. There were no Christmas lights in sight. I decided to help unload the bags, but not before scanning the area around me numerous times. I also made sure to take the key with me when, shoved into my pocket, in case anyone had any ideas about jumping in.
Out of the front door came four or five of their family members, older, younger, even a child; all helping to bring in the bags. The scene caused me to pause, thinking of my own family: my mother my grandmother, aunt, brother, and cousin...
I am first-generation born into this country. My mother is from Panama and my dad is from Mexico. My grandmother came to America with two young girls and through perseverance came to raise a family that now spans from northern California to Las Vegas, and some in New York.
But I grew up in the suburbs in a small town called Livermore, California. My mother remarried to an Air Force mechanic while serving in the Air Force herself. It's because of that I can read and write English, and why I have been privileged to a life removed from near-constant struggle.
I've never been forced to live in a small home with my entire family. To be ready to help each other even at any hour of the day. As an outsider to this city, witnessing this family in front of me, working hard every day, the grandmother pulling out all she can for the young, everyone working while the rest of the city seemed to celebrate in ignorance or neglect was something that I was in complete awe of.
The bags were all out of the car, my job was done, but I was still lost in thought when the older woman looked back at me and instructed me get out and waved her hand away forcefully saying, "Get out of here!" I snapped out of my fog and followed her command.
Starting up the car I drove off, constantly scanning my surroundings. There brightest lights in the neighborhood came from a police car speeding around the corner.