By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Cabbies, like Houstonians, also seem united in the idea that watching TV is no good without a heaping plate of food. The nation's fattest city has nothing on Cabbieville, where a potbelly is almost trendy. Try carne guisada and watermelon from Walter's truck, or a steaming loaf of fufu from Taste of Africa. Just give space to the hungry drivers standing in line. Some of them are so impatient for their food that they literally roar. When a Nigerian with a giant lump on his head yells "Arrrrgh!" even his own people stay away. Another cabbie likes to invoke spirits. "Haiti people!" he bellows. "Voodoo people!"
Religion here is a force to be reckoned with. Houston built Lakewood Church; Cabbieville built Christ Stadium. The ambitious project eventually could replace the old Cabbieville church, which was in a converted gravel storage bunker. It sported a pulpit and a cross. An identical building housed a mosque. Both were bulldozed a year ago by the airport. Officials worried that all of the other denominations -- "the Baptists, the Methodists" -- would demand space too, an airport supervisor said. The uprooted penitents now worship within the confines of two different parking spaces under a carport. Christ Stadium has yet to be transformed for a higher purpose than basketball. But the evangelicals can dream of expanding onto the court. "Let Him guide you, let Him be your pilot," the pastor yelled over the drone of engines during a recent sermon, "and He will not disappoint you."
Still, most of Cabbieville's graces go to the lords of business. Conditions are fertile for import/export concerns, run via cell phone and laptop computer. One driver ships used Porsche engines to Nigeria. Another has imported African masks and shrunken heads. Despite the airport's policing attempts, hookers also do well, especially in the winter months, when drivers are richer and less sweaty, cabbies say.
Thanks to sheer opportunity, Cabbieville grows notwithstanding its hodgepodge infrastructure. The main building formerly housed lawn maintenance equipment, an airport spokesman says. (He denied it was ever an immigration prison.) The three toilets and two showers that presumably served a handful of tractor drivers now service 300 cabbies. It's a frequently flooded, always moldy bonanza for cockroaches. The rest of the joint is simply nasty. The driver-run billiards club, which charges a $20 lifetime membership, is the best escape from the chicken bones and soda cans that litter the lounges. But it floods. In Cabbieville, as in Houston, there is no salvation from storms or lack of planning.
Fortunately, the chaos barely registers for most drivers; they're too busy making money. Or losing it. In a garage next to Christ Stadium, Ethiopians and Somalians who have escaped political violence press their good luck around four smoky gin tables. Of course, the stakes aren't as high as Enron's. But drivers sometimes give up their place in line all the same, just to play out a pot.
Spending the night in Cabbieville might be doable, I've decided. I'm dressed like a cabbie, in dirty jeans, a T-shirt and an ancient pair of Chucks. I've been here for six hours and it's 1:30 a.m. But the nearby buzz of prop planes is giving me a headache. My eyes sting. The taxi queue is frozen and the bathroom is out of soap. I'm flagging.
The minutes creep by. At 2 a.m., airport officials suddenly show up. Of all things, they've decided to paint stripes on the parking lot. Groggy cabbies strip blankets and newspapers off their windshields and crank their engines. I've neglected my Cabbieville passport: the cab. As the entire lot moves, I park in front of a TV in a lounge, hoping no one will notice.
A driver walks in pushing a round belly and squints at me. Above him hangs a poster advertising the conga drummers of Afrikfest. "Another white boy around here," he says, scratching his stubbly chin. "That's very unusual. Very, very unusual." Ray is also white; he invites me to his cab.
Sliding open the door of his Astro van, he sits next to me in the backseat. "White boy. Very strange," he mumbles. But he has resolved to show me the ropes, including the proper airport cab setup: He pops The Medallion into a battery-powered DVD player, leans back on a pillow, strikes up a Marlboro red and grabs a Dasani bottle full of vodka.
With all the Nigerians around, Cabbieville is a stressful place, he says. Relaxation is crucial.
We're quietly watching Jackie Chan drop-kick kidnappers when Ray suddenly lets out a guttural yell.
He pummels the cab window.
I jump and throw myself at the door.
But he's only waving down another cabbie. "Hey," he says, snapping his fingers and scrunching his brow. "Don't tell me. . .5555?" Ray remembers the driver's cab number before his name. I'll call him Vince. "Look what I found, a white boy," Ray tells him.
Ray has grabbed Vince, who is African-American, to back him up. The Nigerians are too damn loud, Vince declares. They are so loud, Ray says, that once he dreamed he was one of them. When he woke up, he was muttering habu dabu babu. And don't get him started about the food from Taste of Africa. He won't eat it, especially not the cow foot soup, which the Africans eat with their hands. Ray pulls out a bag of sporks that he gives out to them in his self-appointed role as silverware missionary. He claims he has won converts. "They are the cleanest people in the word," he says. "So they say."