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On the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a war wages over a Sanyo flat-screen television. A Nigerian man flips to the Discovery Channel, where archaeologists sift for artifacts in a jungle. The voice of a wonky narrator throbs into the small room, nearly sending a young African-American man in cornrows into convulsions. "No, man!" he shouts. "We're not smart. I'm not here to get my brain stimulated."
"Don't you want to know where you're from?" asks the Nigerian.
"It's not where you from," Cornrow quips, "it's where you at."
It's just after midnight, and inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport, cab drivers from half a dozen countries are rubbing elbows in cinder-block lounges. Some doze off. In a corner, one splays out on a piece of cardboard. His green polo shirt rides up, exposing a stomach like a Jell-O dome.
Sleeping on cement, argues a cabbie I call Ray, just sucks the energy right out of you. Cardboard is a slight improvement. But unless the night is too hot, he prefers to sleep in his taxi.
Ray's cab is one of more than 100 parked in line inside the airport's taxi lot. Cabbie legend has it that the site was once an immigration prison. Many drivers still think of themselves as prisoners. They wait for hours to be dispatched to the airport terminals and sleep in their cabs to hold a place in line.
A city within a city has arisen here, tucked away just out of the eyesight of the millions of airport passengers who land on runways yards away. It is a young city of immigrants with clashing customs, a decaying city built by drunks and hustlers, an entrepreneurial city full of ethnic dives, import/export businesses and ladies of the night. It is off limits to you and me, and yet feels oddly familiar.
Welcome to Cabbieville.
Will Clayton Parkway briskly shuttles cars out of the airport and winds along well-manicured medians, past a gleaming sign that invites visitors into Houston. Three blocks away from the gate to the city is a fence line littered with weeds, discarded car batteries and packs of Kools. The brake lights of some 300 cabs flash inside like a landing strip to a more recognizable Houston, the City of Traffic.
Going to work at Cabbieville is just like commuting anywhere in the metropolis: It usually means going nowhere. Cabs here wait longer to be dispatched to the airport for passenger pickups than their counterparts in any other major U.S. city. Los Angeles cabbies wait up to 15 minutes; Houston cabbies can easily wait six hours.
The delays have transformed Cabbieville into much more than a city of cars. It is a place where many cabbies cook, shower, shave, have sex, worship, exercise, vote for local officials, pay a sort of tax and feed their pets, all while their cabs are in line. There are ghettos and alliances, strongmen and pariahs. You could call it a village. Some cabbies call it worse. "This is a slum here, man," says Shaka Zulu, who grew up in a South African shanty. "This is not good."
Cabbieville is part of the city, owned by the city and run by the city, but it's not just a slice of Houston in the physical sense. It's Houston amplified.
The main building in Cabbieville -- a long rectangle divided into converted garages -- could be a typical Houston gated community. Pass the guardhouse, park in the treeless lot and walk into any of the rooms where the drivers socialize. Like most Houstonians, cabbies need their cable television. The channels change with the neighborhood.
For the gangsta movie Back in the Day, try the billiards room. Take a seat on a stool alongside a small group of African-Americans. They control the DVD player and they're disputing the movie's ghetto cred. "You guys come out here and watch all this Hollywood bullshit," says Cornrow, who's holding two movies about Houston thugs. "I'll show you some real live gangstas. Some real live gangstas."
Walk to the other end of the building and sit on a newspaper-plastered airport bench. The gangsta on TV is now Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. "The man is a villain," a West African says. The Africans fund and control two cable lines. Sub-Saharan news too depressing? Hook a double right into the lunchroom. This TV, which blasts the echoing beats of djembe drums, is for culture.
Cross over to the other end of the room, and meet the Arabs. They have their own television, and it's airing a Lebanese weather report on the Persian Gulf. They can't figure out why I'm watching it. Then the screen flashes to a curvaceous Lebanese meteorologist in tight jeans, and they seem to decide. One man smiles at me and weighs an invisible load-- the international hand gesture for big breasts.
Not everyone is at home in Cabbieville's ethnic TV enclaves. The Latin Americans, who possess no TV of their own, are especially prone to rebellion. Some are suspected of changing the channels with hidden remotes. The only television that everyone watches harmoniously is in the back of the building. It's belting out an endless staccato of machine-gun fire. Predator 2 wreaks havoc on the screen. Blood and guts, it appears, are the great unifiers.