Country of origin: Somalia
Past jobs: Tow truck operator, security guard, warehouseman
“I don’t want my picture taken. People die trying to be famous. I don’t want to be famous.”
“You ask has this country been good to me? I met my wife here. All of our five children were born here. I do pretty good. Hey, you want a bagel? I’ll make you a nice bagel. You want it toasted? Sure? OK. You want cream cheese or jelly?”
Cream cheese, please.
‘You want cream cheese on both sides, or cream cheese on one side, and jelly on the other side?”
I’m gonna go with cream cheese on both sides.
“You want me to toast it? I got a toaster.”
Yes, please. That would be great.
We met there on the sidewalk beside a colossal food warehouse just below the Mason-Dixon Line. He was trying to figure out the lay of the land — whether the cops would get him if he was parked facing East on a westbound lane, like me and a few other trucks in front of us. We talked a couple minutes, then he walked on to find the guard house. On his way back to his truck, he invited me to eat with him.
“Do you have food? I have food. Are you hungry?”
A quick mental inventory of the Great Value chicken noodle soup and the flavorless store-bought tomato that was to be my dinner piqued my interest. He was just an old reefer hand, like me, out there shuffling around, trying to make the best of it. Moreover, he seemed like a man who enjoyed a conversation with a complete stranger. I bit. Then wound up asking him for an interview.
“You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.” — G.K. Chesterton
“I was owner-operator from the beginning. 2018 was my first year. Money was not an issue. This truck [pointing to a white Volvo]. This truck is 2010. I bought from the dealer. I pay $10,000, then I put $10,000 more fixing it.
“This truck is mine. We pay cash. We don’t like banks. Ten guys [from Somalia] will give one guy a hundred each a week until he has enough. Then [when he gets his truck] he pays back $500 a week. We don’t charge interest. All the time, we ask, ‘How do we survive this country?’ In Somalia, your house is your house. Your car is your car. We do not like banks.
“If I make $40,000 one month, I don’t go buy a Cadillac. I drive a 2007 Honda. It runs good. ELDs are difficult. You can’t park nowhere. You have to drive, and then you’re in violation.
“I keep my life happy. If you complain, no one will listen. [Laughs.]”
Halfway through the interview, my pen runs out of ink, and I suppress the urge to curse. He climbs up in his truck and returns, handing me a pen. ”Keep it.”
Thanks, I say.
He points toward the sky: “Everything is coming from there. He [God] told me, ‘Don’t do drugs.’ Do you believe in God?”
“What is your name?”
“Then you say to whatever god you pray, I don’t care if you are Christian, Hindu, Jew — I believe my religion is the true one, but it don’t make no difference. You say: ‘My name is Paul. Can you give me the right direction?’”
Despite being just a year behind me in age, Mowliid could easily pass for a man 20 years my junior. He has a wiry frame and a regal bearing, topped off with a salt-and-pepper goatee.
“I play soccer. I go to the gym. I’m a survivor. Going down the road, I listen to the Koran on Youtube, and talk to my family and friends on the phone. For us, music is a sin. I don’t listen to music.”
He would have to be wrapping things up soon. Nightfall was approaching, and he would be adjourning for evening prayers.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Thanks for the bagel.”
“No problem. Just pass it on to the next guy.”
Four days later, as I pitched the store-bought tomato I never could bring myself to eat, I thought of the movie “Gran Torino,” the moment where Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, has an epiphany concerning his Hmong neighbors: “I’ve got more in common with these g—s than my own spoiled-rotten family.”
”Then I thought of Mowliid, my new Somali trucker friend and downright oracle of the diesel driver’s code — Just pass it on to the next guy. It’s him and those like him who will, for the next generations, inherit the guide’s role through a big piece of this trucking business, ultimately.
For me, until then, it’s just “My name is Paul. Can you give me the right direction?”