(This article is reprinted from The Huffington Post, where I’m now blogging.)
The day before Thanksgiving, I stood in a long line at LaGuardia Airport waiting for a taxi. I’d flown to New York to spend the holiday with my family. The couple just ahead of me was finally sent to a taxi, but they quickly returned.
The woman began to shout at the dispatcher. “That driver doesn’t know where we’re going. We’re not riding with her. We have to make a connection.”
Behind her, a frazzled female cabbie was waving her arms and yelling in a thick Russian accent. “I didn’t refuse to take them. I know where we’re going. They didn’t give me a minute to think.”
“We’re not going with her,” the woman said, more loudly than before. “Get us another cab.”
The dispatcher turned to me and asked, “Where are you going?”
His eyes were stony.
“Brooklyn,” I said.
“Go with her.” He pointed to the female cabbie. My heart sunk. She was still waving her arms and trying to be heard above the woman, who was still insisting that they needed another cab.
“I didn’t refuse them,” she yelled over her shoulder as she led me to her cab. “I didn’t refuse.”
I considered going back to the dispatcher to ask for another cab. But before I could, the cabbie grabbed my luggage, stuffed it into her trunk, and slammed down the lid.
She took a few steps in the direction of the dispatcher and yelled again, “I didn’t refuse them.”
The dispatcher waved his arms at her like he was shooing a dog. His face was expressionless.
“Okay,” I said to her firmly. “Please just forget about it. It’s over. I’m with you now.”
She turned to me. Her face was contorted with anguish. “I can get in trouble if I refuse a fare. I didn’t refuse them.”
We got in the cab. She was still muttering about it as we pulled into the heavy traffic. “I can get in trouble. I didn’t refuse them.”
This woman is clearly crazy, I thought. This ride is going to be miserable. She’ll get us in an accident if this continues. I fastened my seat belt and tried to reason with her.
“Well,” I said. “There’s nothing you can do, now. At this point, all you can do is forget it.”
She ignored me and continued to mutter. I contemplated asking her to pull over so I could get out. But we were already on the expressway, in heavy traffic in an area I wasn’t familiar with. I’d just have to hope for the best and see if I could get her to calm down.
“I understand,” I said in the soft, soothing voice I use with upset clients. “But there is nothing you can do right now.”
I might as well have been talking to a wall. Her muttering continued.
I spied a lanyard printed with the words “Albany Law School” hanging from her rearview mirror. I asked her who went to law school.
Her voice softened. “My son. He just passed the bar last week.”
“Wow! Congratulations, Momma,” I said, relieved that I’d distracted her.
For the rest of the ride, we talked. As we did, she relaxed. I learned that she’d emigrated 35 years ago and had driven a cab ever since. Her husband left her when her son was 2 and she raised the boy by herself. We even talked about the incident at the airport and how much pride she took in maintaining a complaint-free record.
I relaxed, too, and observed her impressive driving through the clogged streets. She was by far the most skilled driver I’d been with on that ride I’ve taken dozens of times.
My dislike of her turned to admiration. That same dogged determination with the dispatcher was surely the same quality that had gotten her through what had to be impossibly tough odds–a single immigrant woman with a young child, enduring an arduous job, never giving up.
I recalled my own tough years as a single mother. It was so hard there were times I didn’t know how I could continue. Except that I had two kids, so there was no choice — I had to continue. Yet I was a lawyer with advantages I was sure she could only dream of — a decent income, a comfortable home, household help.
And right before my eyes, this woman transformed from an unpleasant, perseverating crazy person, to a courageous, tenacious champion. I was transformed too. My anxiety about riding with her had vanished. I was relaxed, happy to have met her, and grateful that my trip was off to such an auspicious start.
At the end of the ride, she jumped out of the cab and took my luggage to the sidewalk right in front of my daughter’s apartment. No other cab driver had ever done that for me — they typically just dumped my bags onto the street and took off. I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a generous tip.
The lesson for me was one I continue to experience over and over — the power of social connection is phenomenally transformative, even in brief interludes with strangers. When we can drop our assumptions about others, when we take the time to get to know them, they nearly always magically transform into amazing people.
Social connections transform us, as well. They’re one of the most simple, direct, and important ways we can lift our spirits, improve our physical and mental health, and lengthen our lives. Even a fleeting connection like the one I shared with this cab driver can be powerful.
So as the holidays unfold, and as we shop, travel, and prepare to deck the halls and celebrate, chances are we’ll find ourselves in the company of an unpleasant, frazzled crazy person. If so, perhaps you can find a way to engage with them and connect. You might find, like I did, a wonderful surprise waiting for you both.