What Would Donald Do?
Unlike Brother Thoreau, my version of existential livin ain't cheap. Which meant it was back to rubber meetin road for me, eight-plus hours behind the wheel, from about noon until midnight, with a few pit stops in between. And as the universe would have it, my first request of the day came from Mohammed. Mohammed had simply "dropped the pin" instead of entering a physical address, so I texted Mohammed (not while driving, never while driving) to ask where exactly he was—"Motel 6," he replied. So off I went to pick up Mohammed at a Motel 6 tucked into a far north corner of Knoxville, the kind that is the last one on a long row of two-star hotels, the one at the end of the cul-de-sac, the one farthest from the Waffle House. I arrived to find a young man that, as my grandmother might say, was no bigger than a sack of potatoes, lugging two suitcases that he himself could've fit into. The way he moved around my car, his wiry frame, reminded me of a marionette, of Grover on Sesame Street. He slung his suitcases in the trunk and held up a finger, motioning to give him a minute as he ran back up to his room, for what I didn't know. There was a discarded mattress sitting out front of the Motel 6, and a man with a leathery tan smoking a cigarette, ashing into a Solo cup. He nodded, and I nodded back. Mohammed scampered down the stairs with a computer bag and a backpack, and then asked, in almost a whisper, if I would wait while he checked out. I said that I would, and noticed that our destination was another hotel, the Holiday Inn downtown. Once Mohammed was finally in and buckled, I said, "Upgradin?" He grinned the slightest of grins. "No Motel 6," he said. Of course, I knew that Mohammed wasn't from around here. He seemed so timid, almost as if he were afraid of me, or perhaps at the thought of what I might say next. Mohammed, come to find out, had arrived just last week from Saudi Arabia, an engineering student, who had traveled to the University of Tennessee for the summer—to take a course in English, both spoken and written. "I must improve at your language," he said, "we must know this language." He had been staying at the Motel 6 while trying to find an apartment closer to campus, to no avail. "I was the only one of me at Motel 6," he said. And I knew what he meant, knew more than he could've ever explained with that one line. "Awfully brave, comin all this way just for English," I said. "It will be worth it," he said. When we arrived at the Holiday Inn, I made sure to unload his luggage, ashamed now that I had been reluctant to get out of the car before. We shook hands, and I wished him the best of luck. He sheepishly bowed and smiled.
Today, I also met Ricardo, a young man from Brazil who received his master's in music (a concert violinist) from DePaul in Chicago, and who is continuing his practice at Tennessee. I took him to a residence where a small group meets to study their religion, to learn more about Judaism, not for a degree or certificate, simply to learn. I told Ricardo that I had no idea there was a Jewish population in Brazil, and he informed me that there was in fact a strong community in his hometown of São Paulo. I said that I was impressed by his dedication, to the violin (three-plus hours a day) and his faith. "The more you know," he said, although I did not know if he was referencing NBC, or if that was simply a coincidence. Completely unrelated, I also picked up a quartet of Brazilian students by the railroad tracks, across from the lake, after a day of swimming and drinking. They are taking summer courses here, in industrial engineering. I met Raymon, too, a twenty-something who is living at a Super 8 and working at AutoZone until he finds a more permanent apartment. His parents are Mexican immigrants who started in California and then relocated to Tennessee. "I followed them from LA," Raymon said, "because what have I got to lose? It's beautiful, it's quiet. Maybe this is where I finally build my life."
Sure am glad to have 'em. But I stopped short of our old sayin, "Y'all come back now, ya hear?" Cause I'm tired of makin promises I can't keep.