Prologue to Syed
I’ve gotten around 4 hours of sleep in the last 40 hours. I’m currently in Gunnison, Colorado, sitting in an empty and as-of-now clean dorm room at Western State Colorado University. I am four hours away from Denver, driving. The buildings around campus are swanky and new, the campus is open and covered in grass that is greener and nicer-looking than most grass. I’m here as part of an improv duo (I’m filling in for someone) that will be performing improv comedy each morning for middle-school-aged church camp campers. I’m glad to be working as an improviser, even if just for four days. I’ll have to remind myself that the stand-up open mics that usually consume my nights will be waiting for me in Chicago when I return. I’ve done a lot of traveling since 4:00 AM this morning, and even though I’m exhausted, I’m waiting to sleep until after our soundcheck in half an hour.
What should have been the most miserable part of my day – getting from my apartment north of Wrigleyville to Midway International Airport in Southside Chicago between midnight and sunrise – wound up being my favorite part of the last day.
I had planned on taking the Red line train to the Orange line train to the airport, which would take over an hour. In order to catch my 6:00AM flight, and get to the airport by around 4:30AM to check in, I’d have to leave my house around 3:00AM, which is barely an hour after I finished a short improv set with my friends at iO Theater (basically, it was an improv open-mic. Not a “show” or anything, but fun still). I had already planned on not sleeping until I sat on the plane. Then I learned (just in time) that the Orange line isn’t running that early, and I’d have to wait for a bus on the near South side alone at around 4:00AM to reach the airport. So, following the advice of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about avoiding the South side, I called a cab to take me to Midway directly (by the way, if you call to reserve a cab on the phone, make sure you have a spare 20 minutes, because you’re going to be on hold, even if, or especially if, you are calling at 2:45AM).
The cab arrived at 3:55AM, and I was wide awake, which at this point in my nocturnal, comedy-obsessed life is normal. I had a 30 minute ride ahead of me. Just me and the driver. And I knew it was going to cost me around 45 dollars instead of just the CTA fare, so I was determined to get my money’s worth.
I immediately started having cabby small talk with Syed (“Sigh-eed”), my driver. He’s been a cab driver for four years and he works the night shift, which he likes a lot actually. There’s less traffic, and the city is really pretty at night. He often times works 12 hour shifts in his cab. He learned that I’ve only lived in Chicago for three weeks and am from Missouri; I learned that he’s lived in Chicago for ten years and is from the southern part of India (the part with culture and history, he says). He and his wife have been back to India six times since he’s moved here, because half of his family still lives there. Soon our talk stopped being so small.
“Do you ever listen to your own music?” I asked. He had terrible pop music playing on the radio.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Yeah, what do you listen to?”
“What’s that like? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it.”
“Would you like to hear some?” He said shyly. He sounded almost embarrassed.
“Yeah I do!” I did, too.
He plugged an auxiliary cable into his phone and played some Indian music. It was really dance-y music, and all the lyrics were in Hindi. Not my jam, but better than whatever was on the radio.
“Do they play this in the clubs or something?”
“Yes. It is the music from Indian movies. That’s my favorite. You know Indian film?”
“Not really, no.”
“They have maybe five or six songs in a movie.”
Then we started talking about going to the movies.
“Movies in India,” he said, “cost 25 rupees.”
“Is that a lot?”
“25 Indian rupees…is like 75 cents.”
“What! That’s so good.”
“You will often find people sleeping through movies. They will pay just to sleep in a place that has air conditioning for three hours. Because it is so hot all the time.”
Then Syed told me that everyone comes to the movies. Poor people, rich people, awake people, sleepy and hot people. The movie theater is like India’s melting pot.
We got back onto his visits home. He wants to go back again to India in 2015. He can’t go sooner because it is too expensive.
“Three thousand round trip?” he estimated. “And then you show up and everyone expects a gift!”
The way he said it, so exasperated, took me by surprise and I laughed. For some reason he did too. “Is it a gift-giving culture there?”
“Oh yeah, you have to have something for everyone. And it has to be good. The children know what’s good. If you give them a shirt from Walmart or Target? No. They know. They want…” he struggled to come up with a name for a moment, “Abercrombie. You give them Walmart and they say no thanks. Kids expect a lot. They make a list. ‘I want Abercrombie. I want Express.’ They wont accept Walmart.”
Speaking of expensive: Syed would like to go back to school in America, but he cannot afford it yet. He was studying marketing in India while taking care of his youngest siblings, so his other siblings could come to America first. Syed could only afford his immigration to America later, but he didn’t quite finish school. He’s tried to start going to college in Chicago, but it’s been frustrating.
“Also,” he explained, “they say my economics classes do not transfer. They are not the same. I took two of them–economics. They say I have to retake them. At $1,400 a class!”
Syed still wants to major in marketing and work in advertising. He thinks he’ll eventually be able to.
He dropped me off at around 4:28 AM and we shook hands like three times. We were pals now. We reintroduced ourselves to make sure we knew the other’s name, shook hands for the last of those three times, and he handed me my bag.