By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It is a moment of triumph and defeat and, for others, a chance to scoff. A Latin American cabbie I will call Arturo looks on and clucks disapprovingly. "This airport is not going to give you a life," he admonishes. "You have to change it. You have to get a life. You are not going to get it from watching soccer."
Arturo speaks from experience. In five years, he went from working 100-hour weeks in a rented Yellow Cab to owning three taxis and taking nine weeks' vacation every year. He is a neatly shaven immigrant-success poster boy. He has no patience for sports fans, complainers and sloppy dressers. "Take a shower, clean your car, and give somebody customer service," he says.
A young African-American cabbie struts by Arturo's cab wearing a sag and a do-rag. "He's a crackhead," Arturo says, turning in his seat. "He hates white people, because the guard in jail was white or whatever. He got out of jail and now he's driving a cab."
Some Americans, however, say the jails would be put to better use detaining Latino cabbies such as Arturo. A week later, an African-American driver storms across the lot. "You ain't even supposed to be here," he yells for all to hear. "You illegal. You ain't supposed to be here, muthafuckas."
Standing nearby, a group of Africans listens silently. One immigrant suggests privately that the Americans have it backward. They were born in the richest country in the world, and they're still cab drivers? Some whites even ask him for loans. "You are in your own country," says the sharply dressed West African, who wires much of his money to his overseas family. "You are supposed to have everything."
Of course, in a place that feels culturally less like America than Africa, it's the natives who are often the outsiders. Take a seat in the lunchroom behind one of three giant checkerboards. The Africans advance each piece with a dramatic thunk! Ray once stood behind the checkers bench for an hour and studied -- they play international-style -- but he couldn't decipher the rules. Checkers is a closed society. A small sign affixed to each board says, "No Teaching."
Signs of a different sort set apart the Africans. Talismans of voodoo magic, cats that live in the taxi lot give them the creeps. The airport set out poison, but some survived. "I have seven left," says cabbie Joyce Searcy, the cat lady and one of Cabbieville's few female drivers. Cats often follow her around the parking lot. One superstitious driver was so freaked out by the spectacle that he now works at Hobby. Still, Searcy perseveres. Recently, she and other drivers miraculously rescued a kitten from a well using a bowl, twine and a lunch box. "There were four cab drivers out there," she says, "and one of them, believe it or not, was a Nigerian."
If unity always came as easily in Cabbieville, then this pettish village could well mature into a political tiger. The cabbies are pissed, saying limo and Town Car drivers steal their customers in the terminals, taxi rates have risen only slightly with cab rental rates and the cost of gas, and corrupt airport workers sell off the longest trips to the highest bidders. But what isn't clear is how they'll ever get along long enough to get organized. Cabbieville's marginal taxi association has so far drawn a handful of Africans and an armload of detractors who criticize the unelected leader, J.W. Masseh, for being an autocrat. "I say it's done an African way," says African-American cabbie Tommy Breedlove, who has seen his own taxi association start up and fizzle. "The way they want things done, I can guarantee you won't find that many Americans with them."
So instead of standing together in solidarity, the cabbies sit together in line, warily staking out slabs of cement before the parking lot's shifting metal tide.
Four thousand miles away, Shaka Zulu once rode a tide of blood. It was to be expected. Born in a Soweto slum and named after an 18th-century warrior-king, he battled apartheid with homemade knives, contraband guns and uranium. Back then, Zulu had no tolerance for the intolerant. He shot them dead. Or at least that's the legend. What's clear is that Zulu is now, hands down, the most popular man in Cabbieville.
Standing under a carport on a boiling afternoon, Zulu wears a wide-brim cowboy hat and blue jeans fashionably ripped at the knee. An African cabbie slaps his shoulder. Another hails, "The Zulu Texan!" They have all heard Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier," the song of the African Indian-fighters of the West. The role comes naturally to Zulu. "I have many, many cowboy boots," he says.
A distinguished crowd gathers. They're African graduate students and teachers, all turned taxi drivers, who still wear wonky spectacles, though maybe with flip-flops. Zulu quizzes them. "Now what has fallen apart in Things Fall Apart?" he asks about a Nigerian book. The brainy conversation bounces around and is cut off by a roaring taxi zooming by. "Look at that," says Zulu's friend Bissong. "He could kill somebody."