It’s a strange way to grow up, belonging everywhere and nowhere at once. I grew up with a Polish mother and Hungarian father. My parents and my sisters are the only family I have in America. During my childhood, my summers were spent in my parents’ small towns. The rest of the year was spent in Chicago, or Mountain Grove, or Columbia, or Springfield.
This means I’m good at adapting. I’m able to feel a kinship and live comfortably in just about any town, city, community. It also means that I never quite feel at home. I simultaneously feel that I belong everywhere, and that I can’t ever build a sense of belonging anywhere. Contradictory, perhaps, but that’s what it means to be human.
In May, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on my master’s project.
Besides Chicago, Washington is the closest I’ve ever felt to belonging somewhere in the States — appropriate, perhaps, since it’s the nation’s capital. It’s an international city. There are loads of residents who are similar to me, cultural mutts. When you go to a bar, you’re guaranteed to run into interesting people. Young people move to D.C. because they are passionate, because they are ambitious.
Now, the year is nearly over. I’ll graduate in less than a month. And I’m on the job hunt. I’m looking everywhere, all over the country. I’m looking back in Europe too. I must. Journalism is a tough industry, and there are only a few jobs in Washington. So maybe I’ll move away. Maybe I won’t. I’ve never done well with uncertainty, and it gives me nightmares.
Maybe that’s why I feel a sense of belonging in Washington. It’s a city of transience. People come, people leave. It’s dynamic, in flux. Quite like me.
I have no clue where I’ll be in a month. So for now, I’ll try to remember the little things that matter the most, like the view from my back porch in Capitol Hill on a late summer evening.
The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.
I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.
The door was locked. I knocked on the window.
“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.
I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.
“You’re parked around the corner?”
I got back to my hotel in one piece.
Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.
I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.
“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.
“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.
By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.
“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.
We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.
I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.
“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.
The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”
“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.
I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.
Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”
He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.
“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.
“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”
“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”
Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.
He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”
“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”
One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.
I couldn’t help myself.
“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”
“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”
On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).
“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.
“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.
“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”
Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
Today, I flew from Kansas City to Washington, D.C. First time here. What a year for firsts.
I walked up a mile-long hill with three heavy bags (while wearing heels!) to get from my metro stop to my hotel.
I met about a gazillion deadlines along the way (typing away in the airport, on the plane, at a coffeeshop, in my hotel room).
I’m here til Friday, for a conference on government and financial data in journalism. Stay tuned for stories.