A Lesson from Francisco
Since "LaRue's Grand Reveal of 2016," folks have inquired about the ultimate fate of Uber Nights, if maybe the trilogy (which you can relive in all its 10,000-word glory: Part I , Part II, Part III) has written me into a dead end. Quite the contrary, if you ask me. I'd say my story is just beginning, and that there are plenty more stories out there, just waitin to be scooped up. And while I will pump the brakes a bit on the soul-bearing, listen to my mother and smile once in a while, the people I meet have always been what drives me. Now that the matter of my heart is on the table, telling the stories of these people will be—as the Southern Bard Rick Bragg said to me after emerging from the throes of his Jerry Lee Lewis biography—as sweet as lickin ice cream. The conversations and the insights and the laughter that these people bring into my car has become my purpose, my reason to get up from the brown pleather recliner on my screened-in front porch, the one with a piece of brown duct tape on the arm, the one my grandmother gave me, hoping I'll still come down and see her once in a while.
This is an interesting time to take a turn, cause school's back in session, the campus in Knoxville crawling with scantily-clad, over-confident, genuinely happy-to-be-away-from-home young women and young men. When those kids who call me "sir" climb into my car, I often wonder if I'm the one doling out the sage advice, the aphorisms, the deep ruminations of a cynical thirty-one-year-old, or if my words go in one ear and out the other, right along with the Drake and the Gucci Mane lyrics, drowned out by that bass, it's all about that bass. I often wonder if ultimately I shouldn't be the one paying closer attention, reminded that it's all about the little things, that while the world might be so much larger than 500 or so acres of classrooms and bars and house parties and a football stadium, there are moments to be appreciated, moments that are as monumental as walking across that stage at the end. Of course, the chasm between who we were then and who we are now is simply perspective, hindsight being 20/20, in the knowing of what we know now. Yet that shouldn't cheapen the day-to-day of any part of this life, like the young man I picked up on fraternity row, whose father had made the seven-hour drive from Memphis to be with him on his 21st birthday, to be at the restaurant where he bought his first "legal" beer. Or the freshman who woke up to find that his car wasn't at his apartment complex, scrambling to request me so he could get to class on time, leaving the whereabouts of his car for later, back before he entered that vicious vortex that becomes the night before. Or the girl who loves beer but doesn't want a beer gut. Or the carful of girls who can't believe so-and-so pledged Tri-Delt, then told the Kappas that she really wanted them, and then ended up a Zeta. Or the kid who wobbled outside a concert venue, damn near toppled over as I pulled up, telling me that he'd had enough for a Wednesday night, to hell with his friends, although he sure hoped that one girl with the snaggletooth smile called him later.
I hope they savor every care-free moment, every care-free sip. I hope those six-packs and those vicious vortexes that become the night before don't wind up stealing the better years that lie ahead. I'm not their parent or their older brother, but I hope for them, cause I know the confusion that can lie ahead, once life isn't calculated in semesters. I do get a kick out of those kids, though, learn a thing or two from them, mostly staying abreast of the hip-hop scene and who might start the opener against Appalachian State at the No. 3 wide receiver spot. But I'll always be thankful for #ubernights cause of folks like Francisco, folks who emerge from the haze of a downtown Friday night and take me to sobering places, the outskirts of youthful imagination, to a reality that exists, if we are to live this life without fear of loss, without fear of regret.
"LaRRRRRRRRue," Francisco said as I arrived, windows down, rolling his R's as many folks do when they see my name, although I could hear that Francisco was practiced.
His accent wasn't thick, but it was present, present enough that I could instantly recognize it when he asked, "How is business?," creating three syllables on the last word, not two. I told him business was good, and he told me that he too was signed up to drive for Uber, although he'd done so back when he thought he was retiring. Instead, Francisco decided to continue on for the water-purification company he's worked for the last decade.
"What was life before water purification?" I asked.
"The U.S. military," Francisco said. "I arrived in Boston in December of '68, and left 3rd of December '70. I was in the U.S. military thirty years. I retired at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and then I found my new company. I was relocated here, to Tennessee."
"Cape Verde," Francisco said. "When I left, my country was still Portugal."
I glanced over at Francisco, bald now, with the gut that most men accumulate at his stage in life. But I could picture him, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, a dark-haired military cut.
"What do you do, besides Uber?" he asked.
I told Francisco of my existential crisis, my travels, both past and planned, and of my uncertainty about the next chapter.
"Do this now," he said. "This is okay now. You are still young, not very young, but still young. Because once you have children, a wife, time is not yours. Time is not yours for a very, very long time."
I asked Francisco if he was married, if he had children.
"Two children, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren," he said, his mouth widening into a smile. "I was stationed in Germany in '73. I met my wife there. We had our sons there. We've been married forty-three years. I still love her very much."
"Where are your children now?"
"One of my sons, he died, in Afghanistan in 2010," Francisco said, in his stoicism. "My other son, he was in the military also. He now resides in Midland, Texas. We see him when we can afford."
"I'm sorry about your son," I said.
Francisco nodded. We had exited the Interstate, and I nearly missed a turn off to a back road of a back road.
"That is the beauty of Knoxville," Francisco said. "It becomes country, the minute you leave the main road."
I clicked on my bright lights, and we snaked our way into his neighborhood. I wanted to inquire about his son, how he had died serving our country. I wanted to inquire about his wife, if perhaps she didn't partake in alcohol, if perhaps that's why Francisco was out alone. I wondered if perhaps those few hours after work on a Friday, those few hours to have a Scotch and a cold beer, weren't his solace. But I did not, fearful of peeling back a scab that was unnecessary to pick at on a Friday night.
I found Francisco's driveway, and he shook my hand, did not speak, the Scotch likely settling into the recesses. My bright lights were still on, and I watched Francisco, easily six feet, easily a svelte man in his prime, walk slowly to his front porch, passed a Chrysler van with "veteran" on the license plate. I thought about the fullness of his life, as he half-limped toward his front door. I thought about his loss, the absence of a person gone too soon, the chance we take by bringing a life into this world, loving a life more than our own. I wondered in that moment, sitting there with my brights on, if the fullness overcomes the sadness, if the living and the surviving outweighs the inevitable cost.
Francisco reached his door and looked into my bright lights. He squinted and he waved and he widened his mouth into a smile.