Dreams and Damnation, the American Dream still alive in Baltimore

There was a partition separating me from the driver in front, leaving only a small part open, no where else in the world where I had to take a taxi had I witnessed that before. It certainly made reaching forward to speak to the driver much harder, and so curious tourist that I was, I raised my camera to take a shot.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed the drivers turn to me, eyeing me up and down suspiciously, his muscles tensed a little.

“Excuse me, what is this partition for?” I asked in the most innocent, touristy way I could.

He checked me out a split second more and then relaxed, his eyes turning warm as he broke it down for me in a thick Nigerian accent ” you are not from here are you?”

“This barriers are in every taxi in Baltimore it’s to keep us safe,” he continued without waiting for an answer, “muggings and robberies are quite common and its very dangerous for taxi drivers. If they don’t hurt you, you thank God.”

“Has it happened to you before?” I asked, in a moment of thoughtlessness.

“My friend, I don’t know any taxi driver who hasn’t”

The car came to a stop at the traffic light and he cocked his head rightwards,”you see those guys on the street,” he jerked his head in the direction of a few unkempt individuals walking on the streets with hoodies over their heads, their gait unstable and curved, “those are the sort who you have to be really careful of, sometimes they just rush into the car and try to grab your money. Usually I get scared when the destination is to go to one of the hoods, especially at night.”

I found myself grabbing every slightly tighter to my possessions. “Don’t worry, I locked the door.”

The conversation moved on, what was a relatively young ethnic Chinese man be doing in Baltimore?

I inquired after him, guessing he too was not a Baltimore native, “oh I’ve been in Baltimore since 2002, where I’m from, from Nigeria.”

“I came quite old, I was in my 44 when I came,” I did a quick calculation, my cab driver was 60 years old this year, although he did not look anything like it. He looked 40 years old tops, “America is a great place to build a career, how old are you young man?” He exclaimed that I was just slightly older than his oldest son and proudly spoke of his children, “I have four sons, only one more left to graduate, he is in Vanderbilt University you know Vanderbilt?”

I did, Vanderbilt University located in Nashville, Tennessee is widely considered the Harvard of the South, a highly selective school that counts former US Vice President Al Gore, Nobel Laurette Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bain and Company William Bain and founder of Boston Consulting Group Bruce Henderson as alumni.

He continued to share how his other sons are now all over the country, his eldest currently working in Silicon Valley. “I have done what I set out to do when I came to America, I managed to give my children a better life. And I did it all by driving this,” he pointed at the wheel of his taxi.

He took up driving a taxi, a dangerous job, to give his children a better life than he had. He seemed like the story of the American Dream made real. The American Dream, the idea that the United States is the land of opportunity and anyone who hustles, puts their nose to the grindstone and works hard will be able to achieve and obtain their highest aspirations – this is the dream that has inspired generations of humanity. A dream that transcends nationality, and is the the dream of so many across national boundaries.

Much has been made across political lines about the death of the American Dream (here, here, here and here), there is an argument that American and Western European youth today are worse off than their parents and most expect their children to be worse off. Perhaps the most damning one coming perhaps from Noam Chomsky, in a documentary Requiem for the American Dream.

And yet like Mark Twain, rumours of the death of the American Dream are greatly exaggerated.

Somehow, even though the streets in Baltimore seemed hopeless, I seemed to be speaking to someone who was living proof of the American Dream. The was perhaps the most apt example. Nigerian immigrants to America are the most successful immigrant community (no, its not Asians) in the United States measured by educational attainment as well as income levels, they are essentially examples of the American Dream.

But they were not the exception, I saw people pulling themselves by the bootstraps in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Houston, people driving Uber on top of their day job to make more. Most perhaps had to do so because the salary from their main job does not pay well enough. There are clear problems that exist, wages in the United States have barely increased for decades (in real terms), while cost of living has increased dramatically, outpacing the salary most earn. Do things need to be fixed? Certainly.

Perhaps this article best explains American Dream as it is today. Many have been shut from the dream and seen the ladder of success snatched from their feed, but not all it is not dead although it is on life support. Researchers have identified the key ways to revive the dream, now its up to the politicians to implement it.

“The US is a great place to come to make a future young man, don’t make the same mistake I made. I came very late, you are young if you want to come, come now then you have the energy to fight for your future, you know what I mean. America is the country that will reward you for working hard even without knowing anyone.”

The taxi pulled into the airport just as he completed this sentence.

My sojourn in the United States was over, and I had left inspired by a man living the American Dream. A single story may not an argument make, but a story that shines brightly in the midst of seeming hopelessness makes for a moving anecdote.

As this report states: The American Dream does indeed exist; our task is to expand its reach.

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