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Taxis and the Meaning of Work

Sex, violence, Allah and the American dream

This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on Aug. 5, 1996.

Step into Edward Murdock's cab and you step into a different decade. The vehicle is immaculate. Light jazz and the aroma of his English cigarettes create a soothing atmosphere. Calling cards are available in a dispenser on the dashboard. Murdock wears a tweed jacket, tie and fedora. He calls passengers sir or madam and engages them in polite conversation about politics, sports or history. If they appear busy, he remains silent. Passenger after passenger, without prompting, remarks about the service. "This is like the taxis my father used to take me to see baseball in, during the '50s," says Earl, an elderly Atlantan in Washington on business. But Murdock, who has been driving a cab for fifty-six years, doesn't consider Earl's comments a compliment. "It's really an indication of how far we've fallen," he says.

Murdock recalls his entry into the business. He points to his polished shoes and talks about standing barefoot in a bread line with his father during the Depression. "My feet were killing me," he says, drawing on his cigarette. "They were scraped and cut. Bleeding between the toes. My only pair of shoes were only worn for church." When Murdock turned 18, back in 1938, he concluded that the only way to insure his family against such destitution was to open his own business. He quit his dollar-a-day job delivering ice and became a hack. Working tirelessly, he saved a small fortune and—despite only a seventh-grade education—became the first in his family to own his own home. He paid for five of his six children to attend college. The sixth joined the army.

In the last two decades the taxi business has changed radically, from a respected profession to one so scorned that the dispatcher lingo for "driver" is "dog." Twenty years ago, Washington D.C.'s cabbies were primarily American blacks. Today, the local United Taxicab Operators Association estimates, less than 10 percent of the city's cab drivers are U.S.-born blacks, and almost all of them are middle-aged or older. Instead, as any stand-up comedian will tell you, it is immigrants—largely from south and central Asia and Africa—who pilot America's taxis.

Only thirteen years ago, a Hollywood sitcom could still depict cabbies as overwhelmingly American-born. In James L. Brooks's "Taxi," Judd Hirsch was the philosopher of the road, earning a blue-collar income and forging family-like ties with his coworkers. Many of Hirsch's fellow hacks at the Sunshine Cab Company were boy-next-door types: one moonlit at an art gallery, another was a washed-up but charming boxer, a third was a struggling actor. The only buffoonish character was the garage's sole immigrant, Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas, a mechanic who became famous for speaking in unintelligible English. But today, the all-American image is gone and the Latkas—and the Rajas, Rafiks and Mohammeds—have taken over the business.

Edward Murdock has an explanation for this. Today's poor African American youth, the largest underemployed working-age population in big cities like Washington, don't make the calculation that Murdock and his equally disadvantaged contemporaries made: that grueling work, like cab-driving, is better than no work; that even if the short-term benefits of such toil are meager, the long-term gains are worth waiting for. "If they took up driving," Murdock says of poor black youths today, "they could get out of the ghetto. It's a confusion of respect and the dignity in working hard."

Lately, the meaning of work has become central to what politicians and pundits like to call "the national conversation": in the debates over welfare, worker re-training, the rejuvenation of the afl-cio under a new leadership, or the threats of downsizing and immigration. It would appear that work—any work, since all work brings dignity and economic reward—has become an overwhelming priority throughout American society. Or almost any work. When it comes to hard work, physical work or dirty work, the attractions are no longer quite so obvious. In 1978, at the American Enterprise Institute, Jesse Jackson explained that dirty work was better than no work, since it paid in long-term benefits. But his advice has not been universally accepted, not least in his own community. Take household jobs, like maids and gardeners. It used to be that these jobs were the first rung to financial security and social acceptance. People toiled at them so they, or their children, could gain full membership in the larger community. Among poor Americans, however, this is no longer the general rule.

It is immigrants—from India, Pakistan and Ethiopia—who have filled the void. Jobs such as cab driving, they say, are the way to become American. The Washington licensing commission doesn't keep demographic information on hacks, but the Operators Association estimates more than 85 percent of all Washington drivers are foreign-born—up more than 60 percent in the past twenty-five years.

In pursuing their American dream, immigrant taxi drivers endure grueling and dangerous work—the most dangerous work in America, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Hacks often drive seventeen hours a day, six days a week, in cramped cars. Those who get stiffed by a passenger are thankful they weren't mugged; those who get mugged feel lucky they weren't killed. For decades, native-born blacks also accepted such risks in pursuit of upward mobility. Why don't they anymore?

Of all taxi systems, Washington is perhaps the best place to examine this question. With little regulation and—unlike most major cities—no cap on the number of licenses, nearly anyone can get a hack permit. Here, unlike in New York and Chicago, the shift in demographics can't be blamed on $150,000 licenses or discrimination. Turf wars between rival companies are comparatively rare and, with more business travelers and tourists arriving each year, business is brisk.

Becoming a taxi driver in Washington begins in a second-floor classroom at the University of the District of Columbia's satellite campus, a shabby room bathed in shades of green: The walls are the color of hospital scrubs, the chairs lime green, the desks a hue akin to toothpaste. The chalkboards are, of course, green. An equally tattered-looking 68-year-old black teacher presides. A dozen men, ranging in age from 25 to 65, are oblivious to one another, most of them sitting about three seats apart. "Mr. fred turner. taxicab driver's program. capitol cab #155" is written on the board.

"Welcome to cab school," Turner grumbles as he begins the routine he repeats with each new class. "Tell me who you are, where you're from, and why you want to be a taxi driver." In barely audible speech the dozen students identify seven foreign countries. Eight of the twelve have to repeat themselves to be understood. A few say they want to make more money, others want flexible hours, two want to be their own boss and one begins a complicated story about his mother before realizing he can't express the details sufficiently in English.

Turner nods without really acknowledging them. Having clocked nearly a half-century driving cabs, none of the exotic homelands is new to him. "Too bad there is no one from Sierra Leone," Turner laments in a stage whisper. "I would have given them an A for sure." He explains his cryptic comment, speaking loudly and deliberately, pausing between words like an American tourist lost abroad. "Let's be honest. You are foreign. It is a permanent condition. They will know it. If you are lucky, they will ask you where you're from," he says. "Most will just tell you to go back. Tell them you are from Sierra Leone. They're annoyed with drivers from Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Afghanistan and all the other places you're from. But Sierra Leone.... Reminisce about beautiful sand beaches with topless women."

Turner, a burly man, raises his hands above his head and does a slight hula dance in his chair, "Make it a fucking honeymoon," he recommends, as much for his own amusement as for the edification of his pupils. "They'll tip you better." During the class's bathroom break, Turner elaborates. "I want to help," he says, sympathizing with the immigrant drivers. "They'll never be respected, so their best bet is to confuse."

After the intermission, Turner begins the next subject: personal hygiene and its correlation with tips and sex. Would-be cabbies have to be taught the basics. "There are some very good people, wonderful people, who do not take baths often enough," the textbook states. "They do not use deodorant.... They fail to change their underwear." Turner makes it clear: You should not be one of these "wonderful people." He urges student drivers to play a sexy jazz station on the radio and wear cologne to get a bigger tip. "Plus, if you're not clean," he adds, "you'll never get to touch her meters."

When the students have left, Turner says he's dismayed at what's happened to the black community. Like Edward Murdock, he believes that young blacks view cab driving as shameful work. "The smartest of us," he says, "have become doctors and lawyers. The others dream of being basketball stars or something. They don't really want to work as hard as I do." The comment has an air of self-congratulation, like any grandfather-type grousing about kids these days. But it contains some truth as well.

Ethiopian-born cabbie James Smith has witnessed the change in hack demographics firsthand. Fresh out of agriculture graduate school, Smith was analyzing crops at a Virginia farm when communists seized his hometown. His mother told him to stay in America until peace was restored. Despite his graduate degree, Smith had trouble finding professional work and bounced between dishwashing and low-level airport jobs. In 1977, he got his hack license. Soon after, Smith took the English name to fit in with American-born black drivers, who at the time dominated the industry. Smith demonstrates the change by flipping on his two-way radio. Amid the fuzz, drivers' words crackle in Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic and Twi. The only English on the channels are proper nouns and new words like "Internet" and "microwave."

While Smith is not ashamed of being an immigrant, he plays it down when driving. He keeps the radio's volume to a minimum and talks about his years in Washington. "You do this job because you know it's the right thing to do here," Smith says, pointing to his heart.

Jim, on the other hand—a dashing African American in his mid-30s from Anacostia—drove a cab five years ago but has since changed jobs. "I was sick of smelling all those curry people," he sneers. "It is low class." His neighbors, he says, would point and laugh when he parked his taxi outside his home. Now he drives for one of Washington's largest limousine companies, where he chauffeurs senators and diplomats, the capital's upper crust. "Now," he says of his peers, "they respect me.... If I pull up in this baby," he adds, caressing the hood with one hand and pointing at a beautiful woman with the other, "I can get that babe. Wanna see me try?" Jim shuffles up to the slinky blonde. He speaks to her. She responds. They talk some more. She nods. She walks over to the car and examines the limo's luxurious interior and wet bar. I interrupt. Would she be equally attracted to a taxi driver? I ask. "What am I on? Some TV show?" she asks, startled, and clomps away. Jim, annoyed, cuts off our interview. While Jim's alleged successes may be little more than locker-room boasting, his rationale for shunning taxis for limos is nonetheless telling. His professional calculus is external and immediate. It is what a 62-year-old black driver called the "woo quotient: How fast can you get in someone's pants?"

Another reason many young black men disdain cab-driving, according to Slippy—a 28-year-old black high-school dropout who has been a hack for one year—is the "Driving Miss Daisy mentality." In the hit off Broadway show and movie, a black chauffeur and his elderly white employer form a friendship unalterably limited by the barriers of privilege and race. "Most of my peers want to know why they should drive a lot of rich white people everywhere they want to go," Slippy says. "For generations this is the only job blacks could get, now they don't want to do it." While this resentment keeps blacks out of the drivers' seats of cabs, he says the trappings of limo driving—particularly the car and access to power--compensate.

When I press Slippy for details about this resentment, he says that other inner-city options are far more esteemed than taxi-driving. "Haven't you reporters taken economics? If you can sell something," he says slyly, "and make much, much more money and probably not get caught, and not be dissed, who wouldn't? Well, a lot of people do that equation every day. And cab driving is lot more dangerous." On a ten-hour day, Slippy grosses between $40 and $80; he says no friends respect his job. Respect for the drug dealer, however, comes not from the work itself but from what it produces: a bulging wallet, an expensive car, nice clothes and women. For Edward Murdock and the entrepreneurial immigrants in Fred Turner's class, the goal is to own their own business, to be their own boss, to find an inherent dignity in the possibilities their work affords, not in the admiration of others.

While Jim, the blonde-chasing limo driver, enjoys boasting that he is no longer driving a "hot box" cab, few immigrant cabbies would trade places with him. Taxi driving, unlike limousine chauffeuring, is for entrepreneurs. While few chauffeurs own their limos, cabs offer immigrants their own businesses--cheap. Few people have the capital to start a small shop, but many more can afford the $100 for taxi school. After they pass, the new drivers can buy a used car for several thousand dollars, or rent one for about $150 a week. This open-entry cab system has been so successful that nearly 90 percent of the city's taxis are driven by their owner. Most pay a small monthly fee to rent a large company's colors and radio dispatch services.

Everyone benefits. Drivers appreciate the low hurdle to cab ownership. Passengers like the cheapest fares in the country. According to the International Taxi Association, the average three-mile ride costs $6 in Los Angeles and $3.70 in New York, but only $2.45 in D.C. What's more, there are more cabs per capita in Washington than in any other major city. New York has 1.6 cabs for every thousand people; Washington has 12.3 per thousand.

"It's so much work, but I'm rewarded for it. It's the American dream," explains Raja Afan, a new cab driver. When the 59-year-old Pakistani moved to the United States several years ago, he took a job behind the counter at, yes, a 7-11 convenience store. "It wasn't that hard, but where was I going?" he says. Some friends brought him to taxi school, he passed the exam, and he now rents a cab. If he saves his money, Afan thinks, he'll be able to own a taxi in a year or two. On average, two days of work pays the taxi's weekly rent. After Tuesday, every fare is money he can pocket.

Afan has big plans. Someday, he'd like to own a fleet of cabs. Meanwhile, though, he drives eighty-five hours a week to save. When he gets bored, tired or discouraged, he replays in his mind his vision of Afan Cab Service. He knows it may never happen and if it does, it won't be easy, but that doesn't deter him. "I want to be an American," he says. "And this is what it takes."

It's not that immigrants like Afan receive much recognition for their labors among passengers or the culture at large, but they have other, internal support systems. Intricate social networks and a heavy dependence on religion—common to immigrants in many industries—are obvious to even the most casual hack observer. Without them, the risks inherent in taxi driving might prove unbearable.

Sayed Farid, a short balding Pakistani driver, was robbed at knifepoint two years ago by a passenger who also ate Farid's lunch and dumped the hapless driver in a forest thirty miles outside Washington. Farid was back on the road the next day. He says he's lucky because he isn't Asad Alanan. Alanan, a dead ringer for Farid except that he's taller, points to his scarred ear, which was grazed by a bullet fired by a passenger annoyed that Alanan didn't have more cash on hand for him to steal. Then again, Alanan thinks he's lucky because he's not Ejay Eswan. Four months ago, a 17-year-old held a gun to Eswan's head while his girlfriend performed oral sex on the gunman. The couple then stole Eswan's money and, for kicks, locked him in his trunk. He was found fourteen hours later. Yet, believe it or not, Eswan, too, feels lucky, simply to be alive.

Like almost all offenses against cabbies, none of these crimes was reported. Since all three men were driving illegally, either in friends' or relatives' cabs, they feared getting fined or jailed themselves if they went to the police. A National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety study released in July found taxi driving the most dangerous job in America—almost four times more deadly than being a police officer. From 1990 to 1992, nearly twenty-three of every 100,000 hacks were killed on the job. That's up from fifteen in 1980s. Security guards rank less than six.

One night, around midnight, Imran—a Pakistani hack in his mid-40s—became sick of waiting in the airport's taxi pit for a delayed flight to arrive. After losing two games of chess, he got into his car and pulled out of line. The day's earnings had been lighter than he had hoped, less than $50, and a friend to whom he owed money was coming by the next morning to collect. Imran hoped to round up another couple of fares before calling it a night. Suddenly, his luck seemed to change. Passengers outside bars in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan flagged him down. They had short trips to neighboring zones, but the tipsy customers were being generous. After several runs, and well after the time he told his wife he'd be home, Imran stopped at a bank machine to withdraw the remaining cash he needed to pay his friend.

I was riding with Imran that night, and he was about to drop me off at home when a black man in his early to mid-20s hailed the taxi. It was late. The man on the corner was listening to a walkman. The cab's headlights illuminated his bright white high-tops. This is the type of fare Imran would normally refuse. But there was a pair of police cars on the neighboring corner, and Imran said he didn't want to risk getting a ticket for passing up a rider based on his race. As in many other cities, to insure against discrimination, Washington has deemed it illegal for a cabbie to pass up any customer. Imran pulled up. From the front passenger seat, I could hear the music banging through the passenger's headphones. Unable to judge the volume of his voice, the rider screamed, "Martin Luther King and V," located in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods, as his destination.

Over the next ten minutes, Imran and I became engrossed in a conversation about his children, ignoring our backseat companion. We passed the White House. Imran's son is in the third grade. Georgetown Law was on our right. The boy has a knack for math. Union Station was coming up on our left. But Imran was worried about his older daughter. Now heading toward Eastern Market. I began to ask, "What grade...."

"Pull over, cocksucker!"

" ... is she in?"

"Shut the fuck up, you motherfucker." That sentence was directed at me. I didn't notice, at first, the knife our passenger was now holding up to Imran's neck. Imran was cool and mechanical. He pulled the car over to the right and reached into his breast pocket, handing over the neatly folded bills. The mugger made Imran stop the car and throw the keys out the window. He ran off. A few minutes later Imran recovered the keys.

"These things happen," Imran said coldly on the drive back downtown. "I give them whatever they want. I just want my life." For the next hour or so, Imran and a couple of friends drink beer. This crime, like the others, would never be reported. "If I tell the cops, it'll take all day, and they'll do nothing. Then he'll have stolen two days of my pay." Crimes such as these could be financially crippling, but Imran's friends lend him money so he won't have to tell his wife. He doesn't want her to know how dangerous his job is.

The conversation among Imran and his friends turns to the legend of Kae Bang, a Korean cab- driver-turned-vigilante who is to the D.C. cab community what Stagger Lee was to the Mississippi Delta. As Kae Bang's story goes, the cab driver was, one sticky summer night, bludgeoned on the head by three brick-wielding black teenagers. Bang quickly recovered and, using his martial arts expertise, struck back at the would-be thieves, hurting them badly. Everyone knows Bang's story, or at least a version of it—in some, he is a Chinese immigrant, in others he's hit with a pipe—but no one knows how to find him. Everyone knows someone who claims to have once met him, but those leads typically turn up just more names of other people who have supposedly met Bang. Bang is not registered to drive with any taxi company. While he is listed in the Maryland suburban phonebook, messages are never returned. Eventually I found him, due mostly to luck. After hours of watching for him in a diner that he's rumored to frequent, I decided to head home. The cab I hailed was his.

Bang is Washington's most respected taxi driver. A loner, he is largely unaware of the legendary status of his fight. Years later, he still wears the beige zip-up jacket he wore that day. A stitched rip near the right shoulder is the only remaining evidence of where the brick struck him. Bang's speech sounds as if it has been dubbed. Each syllable is painfully sounded out. "There is no respect for nobody in this country. What did I do wrong to them, the robbers?"

Many drivers can't understand why muggers would be compelled to take their money. "Don't they understand I worked hard for it?" one cabbie asked me, touchingly bewildered. Among drivers, mugging isn't seen as a way for a desperate poor person to get a quick buck; it's an attack on the system. The criminals show no respect for what is theirs.

"You have to want the American dream bad, real bad," Rafik Remzan says, sitting on the hood of his car in the bowels of Washington's National Airport. Remzan and many of the other drivers in National's taxi pit—the same garage where Imran was spinning his wheels before my hair-raising adventure with him—make only airport runs. While the dead time waiting in line is high, and fares are frequently low, drivers say the risk is substantially reduced.

Just off the tarmac, under an American Airlines gate, is one of the city's least known temples. Here, in the bi-level cement garage, countless taxis are penned in for hours on end. Packed bumper to bumper, the garage sometimes looks as if it's about to burst. Yet a small plot in one corner always stays empty. Four times a day, Muslims congregate there to pray to Allah. (The garage doesn't open early enough for the dawn ritual.) Nearly every driver participates, although some, seeking privacy, pray in the backseats of their cars. Some dispatchers hold off releasing cabs to the terminal until the prayers are done. Muhammad, a 48-year-old accountant-turned-hack from Afghanistan, prays here every evening before making his overnight run. He says he can't overstate the importance of religion to the profession. Cab bumper stickers herald Allah. Taxis line up outside Muslim mosques. Icons grace nearly every dashboard.

According to Muhammad, Islam is what keeps hacks on the road. "The world gives us nothing. It spits on us," Muhammad says. "But we find honor in God. He tells us to work, and that is enough." Muhammad describes the disparate nationalities and ages of drivers as evidence of Islam's power to unite. "These people come from nations that hate each other, like Ethiopia and Eritrea. But here they are one, in the service of God. Our common language is religion." Religion also allows the drivers to find a higher purpose in their work. It justifies delaying their gratification.

When I spoke with the elusive Kae Bang, I asked him his plans for the future. For such a legendary figure, they are surprisingly mundane—not all too different from Edward Murdock's. He says he plans to return to South Korea when his daughter finishes college. He meticulously saves his money so she can afford law school and become a "real American professional."

Bang is pained by the embarrassment his daughter feels about his job. On her college application, she did not fill in the blank asking her father's occupation. "She'll go to Harvard Laws, and then I go home. In Korea, I will not be an animal." In the meantime, says the devout Baptist, he's relying on God to keep him alive.

This article was originally published in The New Republic in August, 1996.