The Boundaries We Choose
I arrived in New Orleans around 10 p.m the night before I was scheduled to lead a workshop at the annual National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP) conference. I grabbed my luggage, scheduled a Lyft to drive me to my hotel, and waited for Minor, the driver who’d agreed to take me there.
No sooner had I loaded myself and my bags into Minor’s burgundy Dodge Caravan than he started venting. Minor claimed that Lyft had stolen his money earlier that day. Not just today, he said. The company kept finding new reasons to cut into his earnings. He was furious about it.
Minor grew increasingly agitated through the course of our 25-minute trip from the airport. His frustration escalated to the point he said he didn’t know what was keeping people from stealing from and hurting other people.
I asked him how long he had been driving. Eight years. He tried to start a limo company before the pandemic. Eventually he’d saved enough to buy his own Cadillac, but he didn’t renew his medallion. There was no business during the shutdowns. He wanted to buy a house, but now interest rates were astronomical. He wanted to start a business, have a family, get ahead. But, he said, at every turn, it seemed, every door that started to inch open ended up instead slammed by another boss that screwed him over, or another Lyft policy that got changed against his favor.
Minor’s frustration was palpable. Honestly, it was scary. I was a single lady arriving late at night to a city that I didn’t know, riding in a car with a man expressing a concerning level of anger and hopelessness.
Throughout the ride, I found myself vacillating between two extremes. At one, I was feeling like a tired traveler who had just taken two flights and needed to prepare for the talk I was giving the next day. Missing my toddler and husband. Feeling worried each time Minor’s voice shook with anger. Feeling like it wasn’t my job to listen to his anger. Wondering if he was venting about all of this to get a bigger tip. Wondering if I should complain to the ride-share company about how much he was badmouthing them.
At the other extreme, my mind drifted to recent instances of social violence. The shooting just the day before at the outlet mall in Texas. Jordan Neely, the young man who was put in a chokehold on the subway in NYC last week after expressing hopelessness and agitation about how his circumstances felt unsurmountable.
As I vacillated, Minor asked out loud how people do it, how do they get by in this country? Then he asked me what I do. I had to laugh.
“I’m a career counselor,” I told him.
He burst out laughing, too.
“So, what would you counsel me to do?”
I started asking him questions. One got his attention. What he would want to do if he could do anything? He talked about restarting his limo company. Then he remembered an old childhood friend who had a job driving for the Port of New Orleans. It paid surprisingly well, and Minor remembered that his friend said they were hiring. The friend had even given Minor his business card, he recalled. Where did he put it? He eased surprisingly quickly from a hopeless mindset into a resourceful one.
I’d sat down in that burgundy caravan unaware of the fork in the road its driver would lead me to. I could approach our exchange like a financial transaction (he was a service provider, and I was purchasing that service), or I could approach it as a human interaction (he was a person having a bad day and I, in that moment, had the inner resources to be kind.). I could choose to be boundaried and entitled (“this doesn’t feel safe. It’s not my job to listen to his problems.”), or to be vulnerable and open. I could disregard the boundaries against strange men who presumed default access to my attention and energy, boundaries that it had taken me until my mid-30s to develop. Instead, I chose to be giving of my trust, attention, and care, rather than defensive and picturing the worst possible outcome.
When I got out of the van, he thanked me for listening to him. He said, “You’re a special person.”
I thought about Jordan Neely. About how so many people are deep in the struggle, and how put upon so many of us feel when we encounter their struggles. I wondered how many similar potential interactions I had dodged just by being silent, by walking faster, or by crossing the street, or changing seats on the bus.
May 17, 2023