Michael, my Uber driver from Ethiopia

I’m a big fan of Uber. It’s convenient, keeps me from having to talk on the phone to anyone, makes payment simple. I also like talking to the drivers, learning why and how they became a driver, and get some locals’ insight into the place I’m visiting.

A few months ago, when I was in Orlando for a conference, I needed a ride from the airport to my hotel, so I called an Uber and met one of the most interesting drivers to date.

(At Orlando airport, they only allow you to be picked up by Uber Black, which I didn’t know until I arrived, and as it was a work trip I knew I could expense it, so I didn’t mind.)

My driver called me to let me know he’d be there in a few minutes, and upon arriving loaded my bag into the car before holding the door open for me. Very fancy!

We had a solid half hour drive ahead of us and I always find it awkward to NOT  talk to the person driving me somewhere (one of the reasons I prefer Uber to cabs), so I started asking my usual questions — how long have you been driving, do you like it, how long have you lived here, etc. — and what emerged was a beautiful story of immigrants finding their American dream.

Michael, originally from Ethiopia, has been living in Orlando since the mid-80s, and has been driving for Uber for several years. He loves it, loves getting to meet people from all over the world and introduce them to the American city he calls home, and he loves the flexibility of the job. Not that he needs to be home with the kids, anymore, as they are both grown.

His 23 year old daughter is off in law school in Virginia, working her butt off to be the best. His 29 year old son, though, still cant figure out what he wants to be when he grows up but is spending nearly $1000 a month on his apartment just because he doesnt want to live at home… even though he lives 5 minutes away and comes home all the time for dinner and laundry anyway.

Michael shakes his head, laughing as he tells me all this. His son is aimless, his daughter focused. “Boys,” he says, with a shrug.

I ask how he ended up in Orlando, a place he loves. He and his wife have been married for 32 years. They met in South Sudan in the early 80s, traveled through Saudi Arabia together, and after getting married, ended up in Oklahoma City where his wife’s brother was working as a doctor. The brother said they’d love OKC, that they should come stay with him a while so they could find work and a house and officially emigrate to the US.

Michael and his wife moved to OKC, and lived with her brother for 9 months. They found good jobs, liked the people (though not the winters; Michael shudders at the thought of snow), and were happy to be in America, but something didn’t quite feel right. So after 9 months of hardwork, they decided to take a little vacation, and off they went to Orlando, to do the Disney thing for 10 days.

After just a few days in Orlando, they fell in love. It was 1984, the sun was hot, the parks were crowded, but Michael and his wife knew this is where they should move. They extended their vacation by a few extra days to start house-hunting. The only problem was no bank would give them a loan; they had no references and no credit to speak of. But they had the money and knew getting work wouldn’t be hard (she’s a nurse). They just had to get someone to vouch for them.

This is where Michael’s story blew my mind:

He opened up a yellow pages (literally) and scanned through the names until he found an Ethiopian last name. “They’re very obvious,” he says. He called the first number he came across, and when the person picked up the phone, Michael spoke in their language and said the words, “I need help.” He proceeded to explain the situation – no references, no credit, no friends, but they wanted to move to O-town very badly – and after just a few minutes of speaking on the phone, the stranger on the other end said, “I’ll help you, no problem.”

The next day, the stranger with the familiar last name met Michael at the bank and cosigned a house loan with them. Michael called his wife’s brother and told him, “You can keep OKC, we’ve living in Florida now.” And they haven’t looked back since.

To this day, the stranger on the other end of the phone is a good friend of Michael’s, their kids having grown up together, their families gathering often for dinner or pool parties.