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

Apparently, so could Zulu. When asked, he does a brief tribal dance, sings the South African national anthem in Zulu and regales us with stories.

It all started in Soweto. In elementary school, he would run from police, who were trying to beat him for speaking English. He would turn as he fled and yell in half-Boer, "Guten Morgen, my ass!"

Everyone laughs. But Zulu is getting serious. As a young adult, he saw peaceful protesters jailed or killed. He went underground. He sneaked into Namibia wearing a swastika and the uniform of a dead soldier and smuggled back Cuban and Libyan arms. The South African border patrol was fair game. "We killed just about all of them," he says.

This lounge, with its sink and TV, is a full-time home to 
many drivers, cabbies say.
Daniel Kramer
This lounge, with its sink and TV, is a full-time home to many drivers, cabbies say.
For insiders only: Signs on the international 
checkerboards say, "No Teaching."
Daniel Kramer
For insiders only: Signs on the international checkerboards say, "No Teaching."

The police then targeted Zulu. They shot him in the leg (he later shows me the scar), but nabbed him years later. He fashioned a makeshift dagger in prison, stabbed a guard in the belly and broke out. Over the years, he says, he killed more than 100 people. His last major operation targeted ten houses in Port Elizabeth inhabited by families of military leaders. His comrades slammed the houses with Coke-bottle bombs full of nails and uranium, he says. He spared the surviving women. To the men, he recalls, "I don't say nothing." He levels an imaginary gun. "Ju. Ju. Ju."

Zulu's aim might have been sharp back then, but these days, his memory isn't. In conversations over following weeks, he pins widely differing years to the same events. He's off by more than a decade on the date of the well-reported murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Bantu Biko, who he claims was his best friend. "I'm not good with dates," he says. But if Zulu is really just a bard and a drifter, it scarcely matters to his fellow cabbies. He's their action hero.

"Shaka Zulu!" the men call out across the sweltering lot, the clogged cab line and the piles of trash. Zulu waves back and tucks the goodwill into his belt. This is the kind of ammunition that he knows how to use.

For roughly three months, Zulu has been planning to become the first Cabbieville mayor of sorts. He's campaigning to put the presidency of the African-dominated taxi association up for a vote, possibly ousting the current leader. Every driver in Cabbieville would have the chance to weigh in. He would run things differently, he says. Zulu, the Schwarzenegger-like scourge of white Boers, wants to unite the warring factions of Cabbieville.

"You have to think about banding together," he tells the drivers. But they're scared, he adds, so they need a tough guy with a plan. In America, "you cannot force anybody to do anything," he says. "But you have got to find a way to interest them."

Besides running on his own charisma, Zulu is campaigning on the creation of a Cabbieville United Nations. He'll appoint a leader for each ethnic group, and differences will be hammered out. He'll be the perfect secretary-general, a man from a country that has healed its divisions and has no tolerance for hustlers. In South Africa, "not the majority of people are crooks," he says confidently. "And if you are a crook, we will catch you."


By late July, I've spent so much time with cab drivers that I'm beginning to feel like one. The complaints and the squalor are stressing me out. I, too, want the drivers to live better. And I think I've found a way to make it happen. I've called Behzad Bitaraf, the manager of a very different Cabbieville at Los Angeles International Airport. Bitaraf doesn't speak much English, but he does speak Cabbie. He can't believe Houston's drivers wait six hours. "That's ridiculous," he says. "Total not accepted."

Bitaraf's Cabbieville is all work and no lollygagging. His employees at LAX assign each cab one of five numbers. Each number is allowed to run airport trips each month for only six days. But, oh, what days. Cabbies take dozens of lucrative trips, make hundreds of dollars and then do whatever they want for the rest of the month. It's like a Dell computer factory: low inventory, high turnover. "We don't need them, we don't call them," he says. "The name of game is quick, fast dispatch system."

I suggest the idea to drivers. "We need to give it a try," Zulu says. But others worry that a more efficient taxi lot would be a victim of its own success. Drivers from all over the city would suddenly sign up to work at the airport. And then the citizens of Cabbieville would have to try to recoup their divvied-up revenues by trolling the barren streets, says J.W. Masseh of the taxi association. Sprawling Houston makes Los Angeles look like a city of cab-hailing New Yorkers, he says.

Still, the real threat of the "quick, fast dispatch system" might be less obvious. The complaints, trash and ethnic scuffles can be misleading. Many of the drivers appear to like Cabbieville, despite its occasional dysfunctions. If it ever got really organized, its fragile society, with all its temporary alliances and cobbled-together pleasures, might fall apart in their hands.

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