Written by Peter Greenberg, and originally published in “Celebrated Living,” an American Airlines magazine, Spring 2016
The Art of Conversation
Never let a good opportunity to shoot the breeze pass you by
Today, every time I go to Egypt, I’m not a visitor but an extended family member. And all because I jumped into a random cab — and had a conversation.
Perhaps the most important thing about travel is that it inevitably forces you — or encourages you — to have a conversation.
I learned the art of conversation from an early age, watching my mother.
She engaged everyone, everywhere. She taught me that it was more important to be interested than interesting. Growing up in New York, there were seven daily newspapers in the city, and the rule in our family was that you couldn’t come to the dinner table unless you had read them and found something “interesting to add to the conversation.” Because it’s not just the conversation itself, but where it leads you.
One of my most interesting — and unexpected — conversations happened in a New York City yellow cab. It was a Friday afternoon in 1998 and I was running late. It was 4:30 p.m. and I hadn’t even left Manhattan for my 6 p.m. flight. I ran out of the hotel and jumped in a cab. “Need to go to JFK right away,” I said. And, as a New Yorker, I insisted on telling the driver how to get there. “Go up Madison Avenue to 96th Street, then head to the FDR Drive, then the Triborough Bridge to the Grand Central to the Van Wyck … ”
“What time is your flight?” he interrupted. I told him and he turned and smiled at me. “Your way will never get you there on time. I will take you a better way.” Another thing about being a New Yorker is you argue with cab drivers. “Look,” I said. “I live here.” He smiled again. “Tell you what — I take you my way and if you’re not there in 21 minutes, the ride is free.” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
He proceeded to take me on streets I had never seen and down alleyways I had never known existed. He calmly talked with me about politics, sports and various global crises as we barreled down side streets, paralleling avenues choked with cars in rush-hour traffic. And then, miraculously, 20 minutes later, we pulled up to the terminal. “So,” he laughed. “What do you think?”
I asked him his name. William. He was from Alexandria, Egypt, and he owned his own cab. “William,” I said, “how would you like to be my driver every time I’m in New York?” He wrote down his name, his cab number and his cell number. And that, as Humphrey Bogart once said, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
For the next seven years, I would call William every week I came to New York. He drove my colleagues. He drove my mother. On the few days he couldn’t drive me, his cousin took the wheel.
William and I spent hours in that cab talking about life, the world, our families, the Yankees, the Mets, and, of course, I learned about those side streets and alleyways that made up Queens and other boroughs. And then one day, William made me another offer I couldn’t refuse. “You know my cousin, who sometimes drives you?” he asked. “He is getting married in three months and we would like to invite you to the wedding.”
Two weeks before the wedding he reminded me of the event. “You’re coming, right?” And he handed me the printed invitation. The wedding was in Alexandria, Egypt.
Two weeks later, I was there. In New York, William was a cab driver. In Alexandria, he was an idol. The elaborate Egyptian Coptic wedding started in King Farouk’s former palace on the Mediterranean and lasted until 3 a.m. We sang. I danced. I met William’s entire family.