Karl Bright picked me up at home last week in a brand new black Cadillac.
Bright is a limousine driver and also the owner of his company, Transportation Initiative of Norwood. But he had not been doing much driving.
We were heading to the airport at a time when just about no one else was, and I had asked him to take a circuitous route to get there. Bright steered his vehicle slowly down Massachusetts Avenue in Boston; the road was eerily vacant, as most Bostonians were confined indoors by the novel coronavirus.
“It takes me back to the [Marathon] bombing,” said Bright, glancing at his passenger in the rear-view mirror. “Remember, everybody sheltered in place? This is exactly how it was. This is scary, but it's real.”
That reality is devastating the bottom line of his small company. Though it was mid-afternoon, Bright said I was his only passenger so far that day. The absence of people on the streets reflects the absence of customers traveling anywhere, whether by foot, plane or limousine.
“I used to do a lot of business with clients who come into town and want to go to the Patriots games or different games in different venues,” said Bright. “Some of them came into town and they’d call up because they want to go to the museum or to the symphony. All of that's pretty much dried up.”
Bright is originally from the West African nation of Sierra Leone. He worked for years as a network engineer, but said he always dreamed of setting up his own limo service, which he did a decade ago. Before the onset of the pandemic, Bright said he and the other drivers working for him generated revenues of $5,000 - $6,000 a week. He had regular clients and only drove trips that had been booked in advance.
“I used to have some other people that I put to work — independent contractors — at the peak of my business, I'd have a lot. I couldn't do it all myself," he said. "That's all pretty much evaporated.”
As the economy has ground to a halt, and airport traffic has slowed to a trickle, the people who make their living driving passengers around the area have been idled. Thousands of chauffeurs have joined the waves of the newly unemployed in Massachusetts. Bright said he plans to apply for a small business loan as part of the new $2.2 trillion economic rescue package, and if worse comes to worst, he will also apply for unemployment benefits.
A 2014 study found that about fifty percent of limousine drivers, like Bright, were born outside of the United States. But Bright said that fact has also given him a different perspective on the tragedy we are all living at this moment.
He comes from a country that has seen pandemics before. Sierra Leone has been ravaged by civil war and Ebola, a deadly virus that took nearly 4,000 lives over two years from 2014 to 2016. In Boston’s tight knit African community, where fates and histories intertwine, many lost family and relatives as Ebola swept across Africa. It is something Bright said he thinks about often, especially as coronavirus devastates American communities, where citizens have no experience with a health emergency on this scale and the fear that comes with it.
Bright finds it ironic but he also found a comforting similarity. Like courageous health professionals in the United States now, people in Sierra Leone also put their lives on the line to stop the spread of Ebola.
“I lost a good friend I went to school with," he said. "And I lost him because he was actually trying to help other Sierra Leonians. That's how he got infected. He died being a human being. You know, he gave his life for others.”
As we idled at a red light in the corridor near Boston Medical Center — derisively known as Methadone Mile — a man wrapped in rags tapped on the driver’s side window. To my surprise, despite the city's fear of coronavirus, Bright rolled it down.
“Can you buy me something to eat, please brother?” the stranger implored.
Bright handed him some money through the open window.
Bright explained later that the virus may show us how much we depend on and need each other.
“This has the potential of showing us that we are more linked together globally than we know. We should now be cognizant of the fact that we are our brother's keeper.”
Minutes later, Bright steered his brand-new Cadillac toward the departure area of Logan Airport, yet another portrait of still-life in Boston. Traveling back and forth there used to represent a significant part of Bright’s business, now wiped out by the economic turn of events with no end in sight.
“And it worries me if this thing goes six months. Of course, if there is no business, I'll be home. Not just wasting my gas. But at the end of it all, I will be in business,” said Bright defiantly.
But as he drove off, he did not know when there would be another paying passenger in the back seat.