My last week in Iowa I juggled TA duties for Dance History, prepared my apartment for a moving sale, baked, and performed. Not to mention I spent every morning at the Iowa DOT to get my driver's license. If I learned anything during my time in Iowa, it's that an impossible amount of things can be stuffed into just the 24 hours of a day. My cousin flew in at the end of that crazy week to lend a much needed hand to two girls on a dire quest to return to New York City, but not quite ready to take a moving truck on the highway. So Soula and I contracted my commercial driver's licensed cousin to drive our Penske truck east across I-80.
Standing at a stout 5'9" with his short locks neatly tucked into two braids, my cousin exuded his Baltimore swagger just standing on the sidewalk in front of the Moline airport. Fresh, in his white airs, jean shorts, purple polo and matching fitted, he immediately made himself comfortable, stretching across the back seat of Soula's silver Mazda and talked to his friends on the phone while I drove us back to Iowa City.
"Yo... What's up? Just wanted to let you know I made it... Yeah... I'm in Iowa... I'm helpin' somebody move this week... Aight... I'll talk to you later."
Gucci Mane was his blaring soundtrack in the midst of the packing, cleaning and driving that week. The explicit lyrics and heavy beat revealed a hard edge in a young man mostly softened by his apparent love for the music, wide grin and warm-hearted demeanor.
Day one of travel. Running late, but still in the 8 am hour. Headed to Chicago to pick up Soula's uncle. "I gotta be honest forreal, I kinda wanna stop in Gary, Indiana to meet up with my homeboy... It's the same distance as it is to Chicago." We obliged my cousin and decided that we'd all meet up on the road after our lunch stops in our respective cities.
Having Soula's uncle on the trip was her parents' way of making sure that we girls were safe on our big cross-country road trip. Truly along for the ride and a weekend with his sister's family in New York, he eagerly awaited our arrival to his home in the Chicago suburbs. Chatty and right to the point he questioned me: "So Sydnie, how do you know Soula?... And what did you study at Barnard?...Is that what you studied in graduate school at Iowa? ...And what are your plans once you get to New York?" I responded with my usual poise, and excitedly chatted up his daughter about her plans for her upcoming first year in undergrad.
After yummy deli sandwiches, chips and fruit for lunch out on the patio, we made a phone call to coordinate a meeting place with my cousin who'd arrived in Gary just about the same time we arrived at Soula's uncle's. We agreed to meet at the first gas station stop after crossing the border into Indiana. With our plan set, Uncle kissed his wife, teenage daughter and son good-bye to join us on our road trip.
Soula drove for a little over an hour before we pulled into the rest stop with our eye on a 16' Penske truck. We each craned our neck to look into the driver's seat, only to be disappointed when a young white man stepped out.
I texted and called. Vague answer. No answer. We waited. Uncle, the theology professor, chatted away about education, current events, his recent study abroad session to Italy. 1 hour went by. 2 hours went by. 3 hours went by! Still texting and calling. Still not getting the answers I want to read or hear.
3 and 1/2 hours go by and my cousin arrives on the passenger side of a four door, riding on the kindness of a stranger.
"The truck ran outta gas about 3 miles down the road." What?! I had already calculated how much his pay would be docked for the driving hours we missed, and now this?!
Uncle, rolling with the punches and feeling no stress at all, immediately started thinking of a plan to manage the situation. Soon Soula and I found ourselves in the back seat of the Mazda with Uncle driving and Cousin in the passenger seat talking Unc out of driving 15 extra miles down the road just for a legal turn around point on the highway.
"I can't believe you gon' drive all way down there... Nah man. I'll do it... Ain't no cops around. I'll take the chance... ," Cousin boisterously pressed.
It was an interesting moment. The two men negotiating how we would get to the other side of the road couldn't have been more opposite. Each unabashedly who he is, I'll admit I was nervous and sitting on the edge of my seat. While Soula's nerve endings spiked for fear of illegally crossing the interstate, mine were spiked for fear of a cross-cultural and cross-class collision. Sitting in the backseat of the car I didn't know what to make of them together. A 20-something black man from inner city Baltimore who drives trucks by trade, working with a middle-aged middle-class educated white man to get us to New York.
Perhaps ultimately Soula and I should have never let Cousin take his detour, but we did, which cost us crucial hours of driving time, gas and money. Even so, his irresponsibility in the presence of company made me nervous, uncomfortable. Cousin is not the polished assimilation that I have become over the past 20 years of my formal education. I skillfully navigate and adjust myself according to the company I keep, so much to the point that I don't even notice it anymore. Yet my cousin is different and I found his presence brash in the situation.
In the end it didn't matter. Uncle was cool. Cousin was cool. They switched seats, and Cousin drove us across the road, filled the truck's gas tank and we all continued merrily on our way. But for that afternoon, I could not help but worry and anger as I teetered on feeling embarrassed. What is this need I felt for him to conduct himself perfectly in the presence of my white friend and her family? Did I feel his actions were a reflection of me as a person? Or a reflection of me because we were black?
Was I being uppity? bougie? Turning my nose down on him? Why did I care so much? Why couldn't I separate the mishap from who he is as a person?
I know he meant well and after it's all said and done I love him just the same. I think my worry was ultimately eased by Soula and Uncle's worry-free disposition. But I just wonder, will I ever get to a point when I don't care what other people think? Particularly when it comes to the actions and perceptions of black people in the eyes of others?