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.
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."
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?
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 revolucionario needs. 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."
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."
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.
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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