Your relationship is simple: You bark orders, they obey. You often ignore and dismiss them; they continue to be at your service. To you, they are a means to an end. The only thing you really know about them is that they are your cab drivers. And they will be hundreds and hundreds of other people’s drivers, maneuvering through the streets of the District, delivering people to the next leg of their journey.
But what about the drivers? What about the drivers who speckle our streets yellow, dashing throughout the city? What’s the story behind the person in the driver’s seat?
Mates Apollon has been driving for the past six years. A native of Haiti, Apollon has spent 32 years in the District and sees his driving career as an integral part in living out the American dream.
“I came to D.C. because when you’re from another country, there’s always a curiosity in you to see what America is like,” Apollon explains. He used to work as a carpenter in Haiti, but he began to suffer from back problems after moving to America. He turned to cab driving, which allowed him to set his own schedule and learn the streets of his new home.
“I love this city. To me, D.C. is more like an international city. You see all kinds of nationalities. And when I’m here, I feel like I’m home.”
Like Apollon, other drivers didn’t expect their profession to be driving taxis. Debebe Wodere, originally from Ethiopia, has been driving in the city for about two years. For him, the reality of the U.S. economy shifted his career path.
“My profession is as an automotive technician,” Wodere explains. “I could not get a job in my field, but I have a family. I have to work hard at any job I get. So for now, it’s quite OK that I continue in this job.”
Wodere’s reluctant start in the driving profession is not unique. Tattana Malayabech, a driver since 1982, is a trained construction worker. After almost 30 years in the business, Malayabech has remained a driver for the stability of a paycheck.
“I worked in construction and kept getting laid off a lot,” Malayabech says of his job before driving. “It got to be too much — I had to pay the bills. So I had to go to driving.”
Thanks to the current economic slump, skilled and educated workers have been forced to look for jobs in any available sector. And in D.C., the taxi driver profession seems to be one of the more promising options.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Washington, D.C. metro area is ranked eighth in the nation in employment rate for cab drivers, with a solid hourly mean wage of $15.25. It’s not a bad deal, especially considering the daily influx of cash that they have at their disposal. And in this type of economic climate, cab driving is not only a smart personal financial move but also a shrewd business tactic, too.
Originally from Pakistan, Mr. Smith, who asked not to remain anonymous, works as a driver but has both a Masters in Business Administration and a master’s in strategic management. He began driving a cab after he left his shop clerk managerial position in search for a full-time job in D.C.’s financial district. Finding little hope for employment, he kept driving. Finally, his long hours driving paid off.
“One of my regular customers was an investment banker,” Smith recalls. “I would explain to him that it was my dream to join the business. He told me to get a license and to join any firm, just to get experience. I decided to go for it.”
Smith is now working as a part-time financial consultant for City Corporation, but he continues to drive to support himself.
Across the country, more and more individuals are taking to the streets like Smith. According to The New York Times, the number of licensed taxi drivers in New York has risen 10 percent since the start of the stock market decline. Sometimes, these newly minted drivers are former Wall Street refugees take a similar approach to Smith — start driving a cab to network with their high-profile, connected customers, all the while keeping copies of their resumes in the cab to hand off to prospective employers.
D.C. has currently placed a moratorium on the licensing of drivers; according to the D.C. Cab Commission website, the exam for licensing new drivers is closed indefinitely. And in a metro area where the unemployment rate has risen in the past year to 11.1 percent, drivers recognize the importance of having a steady job, even if that means remaining a cab driver — not always the most rewarding position.
“You work 12, 13 hours a day to make money with no raise,” Malayabech says. “There’s no joy in driving — you just have to pay the bills.”
Omar Omar, a veteran cab driver in the District, agrees.
“Driving is OK,” he says. “Better than nothing.”
Not everyone, though, shares this cynicism. Another local driver, Muhammad Ali, sees his driving career as a path to personal fulfillment.
“I started driving while I was a student at the University of Maryland,” he explains. “I then went on to work in the corporate world and for local government, and I supplement that work with driving when I’m in times of transition or money is tight.”
But for Ali, driving offers more than just financial stability while changing career paths: It provides him the flexibility for the kind of self-enrichment that 9-to-5 jobs rarely allow.
“I can make great speeches. I know how to get my point across — I’m university educated!” Ali says. “But what I am trying right now to do is become a better writer, specifically, a more persuasive writer. I’ve never had to write in my corporate jobs, so with lack of practice, I’ve lost my confidence. With the flexibility of driving, though, I can try to fulfill this dream — I’m actually off to the Georgetown library right now!”
Many drivers often say the silver lining of the job lies in the intriguing conversations they have with customers.
“I give them my ear,” Wodere says with a chuckle. “As long as my attention can remain on the road, I enjoy the conversations. I can really get a lot from these discussions.”
Smith shares this same outlook.
“Driving a cab gives me an opportunity to experience culture,” he explains. “It shows me what it is truly like to livehere.”
Jennifer Sclafani, a linguistics professor currently teaching a course called “Cross Cultural Communication,” agrees from an academic standpoint that conversations between taxi drivers and customers can teach one a great deal about society’s habits and language.
“Overhearing people interacting in a different culture is a great way to learn a bit about the culture, especially when you have the opportunity to observe people over a long period of time,” Sclafani explains. “During that time, you can start to see patterns in peoples’ interactional styles. Cab drivers are of course in this position, since they are in close proximity with [mostly] Americans on a daily basis.”
Cab conversation doesn’t only reveal the nuances of culture; it can also aid in the apprehension of the culture’s associated language, too.
“Through direct experience with the target culture, the best way to learn about the other culture is by making mistakes with the language or being culturally inappropriate,” Sclafani says.
Smith has found that there is a simple test to gauge whether the passenger, upon entry, will be game for small talk or if the customer would rather keep the ride silent.
“Some people are great communicators; they can talk to anyone,” he says. “Some people just don’t want to talk. When a driver asks, ‘How was your day?’ you can usually tell by their response what kind of customer they’ll be.”
Inevitably, the customers can sometimes be unfriendly and grumpy.
“Most of the time they just complain,” Malayabech says. “They just sit in the back and yell, ‘Hey, I’m in a hurry! Get me there!'”
Other times, customers may focus that attention back on the drivers.
“Customers always ask me where I’m from, how long I’ve been driving, other questions about my life,” recalls Jimmy Nagash, a D.C. driver for five years, recalls. “But I don’t mind, I like sharing my story withthem.”
And once in a while, human kindness and consideration perseveres, and a real connection is made between the driver and customer. For Colleen Quinn (SFS ’13), a friendly conversation with her driver led to them both exploring the ins and outs of the District.
“The first time I had ever taken a cab was from Union Station to Georgetown for GAAP weekend my senior year of high school,” Quinn explains. “My driver gave me a mini-tour of the city, pointing out all of the institutions we passed, trying to explain the layout of the city to me and explaining why he lovedD.C. As he dropped me off, he wished me luck in my decision and reminded me of the importance of getting a good education.”
Quinn believes that this conversation shaped her attitude toward cab drivers she has encountered since.
“They have a rough job,” she says. “They spend their entire day on the road, chauffeuring customers — no matter how obnoxious or inconsiderate they are — around the city. A lot of times, these drivers just want someone to listen to them as they talk about themselves. And just as often, they like to learn about the prospects of the random girl who will sit in the back seat for 15 minutes. Even though the actual person sitting in the driver’s seat has a tendency to fade to the background as we focus on our destination, I try to always remember that cab drivers have valuable insight to offer.”
Apollon finds passion in his job through this symbiotic relationship that customers and drivers can often attain.
“Driving is something that makes you grow as a person,” he says with a smile. “You come to the streets everyday, and you get to experience life. You meet people with knowledge and people without knowledge. And that makes you learn — not just about the city but about yourself.”