Cabbieville

Inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport lies a city populated by drivers who sleep all night in their cabs to keep their place in line

Ray hates Nigerians, even though his best friend, who's visiting family on the Dark Continent, is Nigerian.

Ray and Vince hate each other too, in a Fast Eddie Felson vs. Minnesota Fats kind of way. "You play pool like a woman," Ray taunts. Vince says he's never even seen Ray pick up a stick. "He's scared," he says. With that, the game's on.

The cavernous entrance to a garage leads us into the Cabbieville billiards club. Large metal fans spin like propellers. There's a swimsuit pinup and a poster seeking the family of a Nigerian who's dead. Beneath a hand-scrawled sign that proclaims, "No Gambling," Vince says he wants four games for $5. Ray says how about one for $20?

A Cabbieville carport serves as a makeshift mosque, 
and also houses a weekly church service.
Daniel Kramer
A Cabbieville carport serves as a makeshift mosque, and also houses a weekly church service.
Joyce Searcy, shown with her cat, Trouble, wishes the 
cabbies could overcome their cultural differences and 
band together to demand better working conditions.
Daniel Kramer
Joyce Searcy, shown with her cat, Trouble, wishes the cabbies could overcome their cultural differences and band together to demand better working conditions.

Bank shots crisscross the felt. In less than five minutes, Ray pockets the eight ball. Vince backs out on the bet, but it's no big deal. The only time cabbies really get mad at each other, Vince has said, is when someone cuts in line in the parking lot. "You can break any rule out here except for one," he says. "Don't be a scooper."

It's 3:30 a.m., and I'll need to be scooped off the floor if I don't find a place to sleep. Ray leads me into a room crammed with computers, a chattering television and a sink and mirror. There are four gashed benches salvaged from an airport passenger terminal. Some cabbies sleep on them, but the armrests make splaying out difficult. Ray prefers the loft.

The loft isn't really a loft, but it'll do. An L-shaped set of boards nailed to the steps of an abandoned staircase, it creates a flat, elevated place for slumber. For a pillow, Ray suggests I rest my neck on a Dasani bottle. "They're better chilled," he adds.

As he climbs onto the platform to demonstrate bottle-sleeping in the fetal position, I notice the seat of his blue jeans is brown.

He sits up. "I will let you in on a little secret," he says. "A lot of these drivers are homeless."


I've begun visiting Cabbieville almost daily. Everybody wants to introduce me to a homeless cabbie. Cabbieville's overworked proletariat needs a voice, the cabbies say. Ray says he isn't homeless, but he knows people who are. Shaka Zulu, the South African, calls a homeless African driver; maybe we'll meet the next day. A supposedly homeless Guatemalan is convinced by another driver to invite me into his taxi.

But the homeless are busy. Ray's contacts fail. The African backs out. And chubby Ciro, the Guatemalan, smiles and says he'll talk later.

The next week, just after sunrise, I spot his car. "CHE CAB" is emblazoned in white block letters on the door. He's asleep inside. His fingers barely clasp a stack of business cards. I wake him, and he tells me to come back in an hour. I go away. I return. Ciro is organizing his trunk. There are towels, pill bottles, a toothbrush and a box of Sun laundry detergent, everything a revolucionarioneeds. He's about to leave. But he reluctantly sits down with me in his backseat.

Has he always slept here?

He ignores the question. Coming back to it later, he says he sleeps and showers three times a week in a friend's mobile home or at his ex-wife's house.

Ciro is emphatic that he is not homeless.

But other cabbies, he says, "They live in this place."

They monopolize the televisions and refuse to watch quality programming. "They need to watch the good stuff," he says, pulling out a DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries. "Movies like this."


Ciro has a point. One hot afternoon, televisions in two lounges are, in fact, fomenting an uprising -- but it's an internecine conflict of soccer hooligans. A towering Morocco partisan leaps at a stocky Nigerian. He yanks the surly cabbie's arm into the air, trying to force him to do a wave for the Atlas Lions. The Nigerian cracks a brief smile. Yet when the Moroccan tries it again, he snarls and cocks his other fist. Soccer matches are powder kegs. The West Africans cheer the Super Eagles as the Moroccans mockingly snipe: "Fufu! Fufu!"

Cultural tensions in Cabbieville often seem like ticking car bombs. Crammed 24/7, elbow to elbow, in a building no bigger than a large house, the groups and subgroups constantly find new reasons to sneer at, mistrust or envy one another.

As the soccer taunts heat up, a North African cabbie calls for unity. "Watch your language," he scolds. "It's all Africa." This prompts an uproar of jeers. "No more Afritopia!" a bald man chants. The Arabs laugh, but not for long. A West African in a tunic and cell-phone scabbard turns to face the crowd. "North Africa is Africa? No way," he shouts. "I am from the west side."

Nigeria scores. The room goes berserk. Men climb onto the armrests of the airport benches. They pound the walls. They shout "Allah Akbar!" -- "God is great!" The game ends in a rout and the Nigerians spill into the parking lot, shaking their fists at the sky. One of them confronts an Arab. "Man, we whipped your ass," he says. "All of this Arab Africa? We whipped your ass."

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