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I'll Ask You Three Times, Are You OK?

Tales of Driving and Being Driven

I'll Ask You Three Times, Are You OK? by Naomi Shihab Nye
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"I am a poet," I said. "It is my destiny to do strange things."

My father gripped the wheel of his car. "I am the chauffeur for foolishness."

We said no more.

Foolhardy missions. Life-altering conversations. Gifts—given and received. Loss. Getting lost. Wisdom delivered before dawn and deep into the night. Love and kissing (not necessarily in that order). Laughter. Rides on the edge. Roses. Ghosts.

As a traveling poet and visiting teacher, Naomi Shihab Nye has spent a considerable amount of time in cars, both driving and being driven. Her observations, stories, encounters, and escapades—and the kernels of truth she gathers from them—are laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving, and unforgettable. Buckle up.

HarperCollins; June 2009
256 pages; ISBN 9780061958458
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: I'll Ask You Three Times, Are You OK?
Author: Naomi Shihab Nye

Chapter One

Fabric Thrown over the City

He says, "You could call it a shawl or a scarf—I call it a fabric—but it's thrown over the city and only a few pinholes of light get through."

"Excuse me?" This is before a cup of coffee or anything. Six-thirty A.M. on a Saturday morning in New York City and the driver, staring up out his window, is pausing at a stoplight in a yellow taxi en route to Columbia University.

His voice is butter smooth and soft. "I think about the light, how it's always been there, when the Indians were here and the old-time people and everything. And they thought their time was the real time and we think our time is the real time and no one's time is, really."

"Have you been up all night?" I say.

"No, why?"

"Just wondered."

He turns his head to the side and smiles. "I prefer morning to night. Do you?"

"Sure do. More energy."

I feel as if a certain mesmerizing fabric has been thrown over . . . our car.

There's hardly any traffic. The streets are ripe with that pre-buzz emptiness, pre-crowd, pre-everything. The streets feel like childhood, like our lives before things happen. There's so much that belongs to no one and to all of us, and mornings are rich enough to remember this.

The driver's damp blond hair rolls back in long waves. Odd how, with taxi drivers, you know the sides and backs of their heads. Somehow this feels very personal.

And he just keeps talking. "Occasionally the light seems like a strong, straight beam, and other times it's very faded and drifty. You know? There's a whole mood, the way light is. It's hard to know how a day will be when we first begin it. Like, we really don't know about today at all. Do we? We just hope. We have ideas. And we think we're wise, but we're not. We just want to be. The world is not your oyster. It is not mine, either. The world is not an oyster, period. The world is the world. Whoever said it was an oyster, do you know?"

"I do not."

"Why are you going out so early? Who are you going to see at Columbia? Smart people with big opinions?"

"Teachers at a conference."

"Oh. People you know or people you don't know?"

I have to think about it. Then I say, "After a while, everyone seems a tiny bit familiar, even if you've never met them before, don't you think?" His style is contagious.

He peers at me in the rearview mirror. "Do I seem familiar?"

"Yes, you do, sort of, but I don't know why exactly." I don't want to say James Dean. I have always missed James Dean in the world. I have caught him in shadings of a stance, a posture, an eyelid, a hand in a pocket, a tip of a head. I feel the same about Jack Kerouac. He died before I found his books. Then I started looking for him everywhere in the world. This taxi driver has James and Jack both, and he's not even standing up.

He says, "We are dreamers in a windy sky, see? Floating among buildings and schedules. All a dream. Like that ‘Row Row the Boat' song. We're rowing right now, feel it? The whole world is rowing through the sky."

I stare out the window at pretzel carts and old men in faded raincoats and women with small sacks in their hands that might be a single bagel or a single muffin and ladies walking tiny nervous dogs on leashes. The stoplights click in predictable and comforting patterns. I think of that moment before a car starts up again after idling, how well we come to know that moment as passengers or drivers, either one. We are so accustomed to anticipation, being on the brink, pitching forward.

The driver never stops talking no matter what the car is doing.

He says, nodding his head slightly, "Today you will say things you can predict and other things you could never imagine this minute. Don't reject them, let them come through when they're ready, don't think you can plan it all out. This day will never, no matter how long you live, happen again. It is exquisitely singular. It will never again be exactly repeated—ouch! Did you see? That woman dropped her bag on the sidewalk and swooped it up again, did you see that? She will never again drop her bag in exactly the same spot. Don't ever forget it. Precious, precious, precious—oh. "

"I do know," I say to him, feeling a swoon overtaking me in rhythm with his words. "I know it and I care about it. Thoughts like that have occurred to me for a long time already, but I really like hearing you say them. I mean, it is so beautiful how you say them. I wish you were talking to these teachers today, not me. Seriously, and thank you."

We're driving past a park lined with overflowing trash cans. My driver sighs, staring through the wide-open window with his left arm dangling on the outside. He says, "Isn't it amazing how much garbage accumulates from one day to the next—just through the course of the hours? I wonder sometimes how cities hide dump sites so well. You'd think there would be more of them and we would see them everywhere, wouldn't you?"


Then he says, "Look, look up! Oh, how I love that. Early sun streaks. So beautiful. If you look up right now, the fabric cracked a little."

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