January 30th, 2017
I did like I always do. I greeted the passenger next to me, but had my earbuds in to ensure I wouldn’t have to engage with any more than a simple greeting and acknowledgement. (Often I don’t listen to anything; rather this is a way of making people think I am unavailable, tuned in to me and away from them.)
I was on a United flight to Detroit. I was a little annoyed that I was in a middle seat. I always request an aisle seat because I usually have to use the bathroom at least once, probably twice, on a three-hour flight, and I prefer to not have to climb over people whenever duty calls. I love sitting by the window if going to a new place, but usually opt out of that because then I have to climb over two people, not to mention I’m usually in the back of the plane and the window seat can feel claustrophobic to me.
Even though I fly quite a bit these days, it’s as if when I buy a ticket, the “system” sees I’m from Wyoming, and thinks “She is from Wyoming. She probably doesn’t get out much. Give her the back seat of the plane. She’ll be so excited to be going somewhere, she won’t mind.” This was what was going through my mind when I smiled, genuinely, at the woman next to me, seated by the window.
We were soon in the air and the flight went well. I effectively “hid” with my earbuds in, and my eyes closed behind my sunglasses. It was an uneventful flight, and I had been, thankfully, unbothered.
But following my usual protocol, as soon as we land and are taxiing to the terminal to disembark, I suddenly become more open and generous and willing to have a conversation.
Even if it’s a little selfish, I want and choose to have these conversations at the end of the flight. I like people, and am fascinated by their stories, and I value the connection that occurs between two people, and in these small but meaningful exchanges. There is something about going places, and arriving, that can make all of us more interesting – to ourselves, and to others.
As I strike up a conversation, I notice that the woman is wonderfully warm. She could be my grandma. Wait, she could be mother! When did I get so old that someone in their late 60s or early 70s causes me to think of grandmothers?
I ask her if Detroit is her final destination. She’s generous with information. She’s 72 years old and she is visiting her 49-year-old nephew who is paralyzed from the neck down. He was hit and run by a drunk driver at only age 21. He recently came down with pneumonia, and his body seems to be shutting down. As his “favorite aunt,” she was going to be with him, “and probably, to say goodbye,” she explained, with a little tremble in her voice. I told her what a wonderful person and aunt she was to be traveling to be with him. I told her I would keep her nephew, and her, in my heart and prayers and thoughts. And I would. I would think of her and her nephew several times off and on during the few days when I working and sightseeing in the Detroit area and her nephew, and picture them in a hospital together.
As we said farewell and exchanged well wishes to one another, I reflected on how glad I was for breaking my isolation/silence.
After collecting my suitcase at the baggage claim, I go outside to the curb and quickly catch a yellow cab. It’s 5 minutes, and I’m in a car, headed to Birmingham, an upscale suburb of Detroit, where my hotel and my work would be. The driver is most of the time talking to other cab drivers. It’s a pretty short trip and I manage to engage the minimal amount by looking at my phone and doing the usual – checking Facebook, emails and Instagram. Mostly, though, I use the time to look around at the sights of this area. Like I said, it’s my first time here, and I’m curious and eager and always excited to be somewhere for the first time.
I quickly dump my luggage into my hotel room, and then order a taxi in short order. This is my only free day, and I arrived early for purposes of exploring the area before my work starts the next day.
My driver is Phil. He is retired from General Motors, which is headquartered here in Detroit. When he opens my door, he is really polite. Not in a salesman, “I need to be really nice so I get 5 stars” kind of way, but in as older man, gentleman sort of way.
As a result of his genuine kindness, I made a quick decision to be generous and kind again. I am naturally this way, but when I travel, I isolate and like to be selfish and hide and enjoy my me-time – more than normal. I’m always a little disgusted with myself when I notice that I’m deciding if I’ll be open or genuine or not. Such “power” – to actively decide if I’ll be generous or not with people. I make a mental note of this – that it feels selfish. I don’t want to be selfish. I want to be generous and compassionate.
I told him it was my first time in Detroit, and “Wow, looks like a I picked a beautiful day for it.” I commented on the blue sky and warm temperatures. (It was 70 degrees and we had a cloudless sky). “I’m excited to see your area. It’s my first time,” I said.
I start asking questions. I am curious and if I’m going to be generous, I’m going to learn some stuff.
Turns out Phil had worked for General Motors, headquartered in Detroit. He worked there “for 37 years and about a month.”
He retired 5 years ago to care for his wife, Susan, during her second round of cancer. “She died 1.5 years ago,” he offered. “She was a wonderful woman. I know all husbands say that about their wife but truly she was an angel. I miss her badly.” He added, as a result, his two grown daughters, who live in Naples, Florida, talked him into driving for Uber. “It gets me out of my quiet and empty house and off my couch, and it’s an effort to meet and talk to people.” He then told me I’m the first Wyoming customer he’s had. Surprise surprise. 🙂
Phil delivered me to the General Motors Renaissance Center. I take a photo of the beautiful exterior of the building, and then go in, and take a quick tour on my own. It is fantastic, but my sights are set on something other than the Renaissance Center. I want to see the Detroit River, and specifically, the Detroit River Walk, which supposedly, is beautiful, especially on a perfect Fall day like this one. Plus, I think it will be weird to be looking south to see Canada…
I, kindly, interrupt a passerby in the lobby of the Center. He’s a man about my age and looks like my people, (whatever that means). I apologize for my forwardness, and ask him if he is a local, and if so, would he would be willing to answer a few questions for me?
He walks me around the winding and spectacular foyer to some back doors that lead us out to the River Walk. His name is Casey. He works for General Motors, in sales. He’s based in New York City, but used to work here at the Detroit Renaissance Center. I say I’m from Wyoming, and that this I my first time to Detroit, and that I only a few hours. “I want to see as much as can from here in three hours. I’ve got a lot of energy, and want to explore by foot,” I say.
He is generous and kind. He starts listing all kinds of insider tips, including how far to walk on the riverwalk before I should worrying about my safety – about 1.5 miles… “probably no more than that.” He highly recommends I stop in for a beer at a place called Atwater’s brewery. “Look for an old, big historic warehouse.” He also recommends a stop at the Motown Museum, and/or also the Detroit Institute of Arts. He adds, “and if you like books, and libraries (is it that obvious?!), be sure to check out Detroit Library.
Before parting ways, Casey shares that he used to live in Salt Lake City for a short time, and that he loves Jackson Hole, and that he runs marathons. He says he’d love to do more adventures and exploring in Wyoming. I give him my blog urls, and mention that I’m also an adventurer and that I have written about many great Wyoming adventures and to check out those blogs for some ideas about my backyard, the Wind River Range in Wyoming. We exchange business cards and say goodbye.
And then, I’m off. The River Walk is spectacular. Trees are adorned in golden leaves, the river is blue, and skyscrapers, are across the river, in Canada, and also behind me as I don’t waste any time putting distance between the Renaissance Center and downtown Detroit, and me.
I see the point where Casey said to leave the River Walk to find Atwater’s Brewery. It’s a big old building, all right, and as I walk around looking for the entrance, I see huge open doors and all of the brewing going on in the back. The curious, travel blogger in me can’t help myself. I walk in and grab what looks to be a pretty hip and cool guy to ask some questions. I introduce myself, and meet Kyle, a brewer. Kyle is generous and enthusiastic. Passionate about his place of employment and his craft. He lets me record a short video clip of him checking the brew and providing me with some education in the the process. He then walks me into the Brewery and insists that the person behind the bar gives me a Dirty Blonde to enjoy –Atwater’s most popular brew. I also sampled two other recommended favorites, Vanilla Java Porter and Blueberry Cobbler. I drank all that with no food. Oops. But boy, life is good! I have places to go still, though, so I head out to continue my tour.
Unfortunately, it is Monday, and it turns out that, except for the brewery, all of the attractions Casey recommended are closed on Mondays.
I continue exploring on foot nonetheless to see what might turn up. It’s all new to me so I’m eager. I walk for a very long distance before realizing I don’t feel very safe. You know that feeling you get where your hair sorta stands up on your neck? That. Things just don’t feel right. There are abandoned shops and empty lots everywhere, and nobody except for two people appear every now and again. I don’t know if it’s my wild imagination, or if it’s really cause for concern, but these two individuals, who are not together, seem to pop in and out of view sporadically. They’re not just walking down the street like I am. This feels a little too adventurous and not in a good way so I try Uber. There are no cars available for my vicinity. I try for a cab. Nothing. In fact, I can’t see any moving traffic, let alone cabs.
First, let me be clear that it’s likely I wasn’t in any danger. The two people who popped in and out of sight were probably not criminals and simply taking different, less direct routes than I was. But it didn’t matter because my intuition was not letting it go. I worried about my irresponsibility and remember the boys and my responsibilities. With not many options, and in a place that is unfamiliar to me, I text Casey. I apologize for bothering him but explain that I’m feeling a little lost and uncomfortable and hoping he might be able to offer me quick advice. He responds right away and asks for my location. I share my location, adding “there’s just a bunch of deserted buildings, and I can’t find an Uber car anywhere.” He told me, in so many words, to be careful and gave me a nearby address for a corner of two streets that is about 3 blocks from where I was at. He instructed me to walk there directly, and to text him as soon as I got there, and then try for an Uber, assuring me he would be on standby.
I call people like Casey “trail angels.” They are individuals who appear as if out of nowhere right when you need help and then show you the way. (I run into these angels frequently in my travels.) I did as Casey suggested, and located and requested an Uber ride. I texted Casey to assure him I had made it to the location, and that an Uber would be there in a minute or two. Relieved and feeling no longer lost, I thanked Casey with all of my heart. I wished him well and told him to look me up if he ever gets out to Wyoming, and that I will help him when he’s in my neck of the woods.
A minute later, just in time to prevent me from launching into the wrath of Shelli self criticism, the Uber driver arrives. He is Richard. I start in with my friendly nature and start asking questions.
I have learned that people love to be seen and heard. I think one of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to ask them questions and then to listen to them. Most of us are terrible listeners, and most of us are not interested enough to care to be curious and to ask questions.
I learn that he’s a pretty famous (not his words, he is modest) gospel singer in a group called Faithfully Four. (He has played for the Clarkston (?) Sisters, and some other well known gospel and blues bands. He’s not online, but he tells me to please be sure to watch for him in a year or so. He plans to get online.
He is very humble. Everything that he’s proud of I have to work to get. He talks enthusiastically about his 3 grown daughters. He used to work for Chrysler. He transported vehicles for them. He worked 12 hours a day and made $2,100 a week. He gave it all up so he could sing and have a positive impact on people and “spread the good word of the Lord” and also be home to help his wife get kids fed in the evenings and ready for the school in the mornings.
We are about a block away from my hotel when he mentions that he is a triplet, and his brothers are Tom and Harry, “so we’re Tom, Dick and Harry.” I ask, “Seriously?!” “Yes, that’s right. I swear to God. We’re Tom, Dick and Harry. So there you go,” he says with an ear-to-ear grin.
We arrive in front of my hotel in Birmingham. I thank him for the ride and the conversation, and promise that I’ll check out his music and be pulling for him. As he closed my door for me, he remarked, “young lady, you are my first-ever Wyoming customer.” I smile, and respond saying, “Wonderful. And would you believe that you’re not the first to tell me that today?” We both chuckle.
In just one day, despite traveling and exploring alone, I had made so many meaningful connections. Each of the people, and our encounters, had made my day richer, and worth remembering. I loved seeing the Renaissance Center, the views along the River Walk, drinking the delicious beer at the brewery, and seeing sights in Detroit. But mostly, I loved the experience of these encounters with the people I met along the way.
I listen to tons of podcasts and read several books in a given year. These are a tremendous source of knowledge and inspiration for me. I am grateful for, and better because of them. But I grow weary of the fact that I only get to hear interviews and conversations with people who have made millions or started and sold big-name companies, or who have written at least one book, usually a New York Times bestseller. As if you only have something of value or inspiration to warrant our time and attention if you’ve written a book or if you’ve started some major corporation.
In other words, if you haven’t done these things, you are basically a nobody.
This is a problem for me. These “nobodies,” including the ones referenced above that I met during my travels to Detroit, inspire me to no end.
Tim Ferriss, on his fantastic podcast (which is one of my favorites), often asks his guests, “When you think of success, who comes to mind?” I love that question, because most of us, if we were to consider our answer to this question, would find that very often it’s not someone who is, or was, well-known or famous.
As for me, I am more inspired by simple, ordinary, regular – “normal” – people who are daring enough to turn their ordinary life into a life that, for them, is extraordinary. These are people who could become famous by writing books or starting corporations, but who instead may choose to live in a community where he or she can get to know his/her neighbors, to help one another, to pick up their kids from school, and to live what, for them, is an extraordinary life.
These ordinary people are my people. And I want to hear their stories.