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Second Only To the Cowboy

Roughly 900 licensed cabs cover the greater San Diego area.

Taxi at airport. One Afghani makes almost no money at all but keeps his job so that his family has a car to use. An Iranian man told me he does well enough, although he loses "about a fare a week" to runaway fare-jumpers.
  • Taxi at airport. One Afghani makes almost no money at all but keeps his job so that his family has a car to use. An Iranian man told me he does well enough, although he loses "about a fare a week" to runaway fare-jumpers.
  • Image by Joe Klein

In San Diego, airport cabbies rest at the top of the public-transportation heap. Their fares are more regular — and generally larger — than those of mere city cabbies. Plus, the airport more or less closes at 11:00 p.m., so airport cabbies get to go home to bed. Some of the city drivers told me they were compelled to work through the night sometimes, just to make their lease payments. But the average airport taxi driver almost always makes his lease and then goes home with somewhere between $50 and $200, depending on whether there's a big convention downtown or whether he can land the coveted fare to Los Angeles (a $250 pickup) or even Las Vegas (over $1000). In general, airport cabbies get to deal with more well-to-do customers — that is, with travelers who can afford vacations and plane tickets.

The airport cabbies line up in the holding lot on Harbor Island, across from the airport. Five or more rows of cabs in all colors, each row 15 or 20 cabs deep. Work comes and goes in swells, like waves riding a tide. It's a hot, slow morning. One group of gentlemen stands and talks for a full hour; later in the day, some cabbies come into the lot, then leave within minutes. Very sporadic business. For slow periods, there are only three shade trees protecting the whole sunny lot. Cabbies changing shirts in their backseats, quick plastic-spoon mac-and-cheese lunches, vending-machine snacks, and card games on car hoods. Some of the cabbies have laptops for studying, so they can "get out of this business." They tell me there are days when impromptu soccer games start up on the other end of the concrete lot.

But most of the drivers don't want to talk officially. For some, it's a language thing — they don't speak English very well — but many are reluctant to discuss the state of their jobs; it's depressing or even dangerous. Almost every cabbie who does talk, complains. Except for one jolly old fellow, who puts a perspective on things and cheerfully sings that times are tough everywhere, not just for cab drivers.

There is no union for cabbies — no organization to protect their interests, and they have no direct representation in the city council. Most of the cabbies' bosses, the folks who run Yellow Cab and other, smaller taxi companies, have never driven cabs themselves. The fate of these drivers rests in the hands of unsympathetic others.

The major governing body for taxis in San Diego is the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, which has handed down 36 pages of ordinances governing the cab companies. The County of San Diego's Department of Weights & Measures regulates the fare meters, the Sheriff's Department issues licenses, the County Regional Airport Authority and Port District have their own regulations, and for all these regulating offices (and others) there are the usual associated fees.

Finally, about three years ago, MTDB passed a petition to raise the number of cab permits in San Diego. Then September 11 happened, and MTDB got left holding the cabs -- way too many of them, it turns out. So what would they do now? Pass an opposite petition? Revoke the extra permits and maybe some of the superfluous cabs besides? Wait to see how the industry pans out?

Next to their airport brethren, the average San Diego city cab driver has it tough. They hope for calls from their dispatchers, and when they answer those calls, they hope the fares are still there to be picked up. Often, the cabbies have to pick up their fares in crowded areas, with no place to maneuver safely or park legally. All this for maybe a $10 ride across town. City cab drivers usually lease their cabs from the cab companies for prices sometimes as high as $120 per day — plus gas and insurance and all the other fees. Cab drivers work under the shadow of a real possibility that some months they may have to pay to work instead of getting paid.

Especially after 9/11, which still looms over the service industry in San Diego. Ask any restaurateur, or the folks at the convention center. We aren't flying as much anymore, we aren't traveling, and we aren't spending as much leisure money. That San Diego's just not a public-transportation town compounds the problem. No subways, limited trolleys, some buses and cabs, and hundreds of thousands of people who drive their own cars. Roughly 900 licensed cabs cover the greater San Diego area. In New York City, there are more than 12,000 Yellow Cabs alone.

And it doesn't help that most cabbies in San Diego are Russian, Iranian, Afghan, Somali, and Ethiopian, with English as their second language. And of the handful of American drivers, many are older or injured and unable to work at other jobs.

Of the nine city cabbies I interviewed, one Afghani makes almost no money at all but keeps his job so that his family has a car to use. An Iranian man told me he does well enough, although he loses "about a fare a week" to runaway fare-jumpers. An older Russian driver said he has been robbed three times, including once when he was stabbed in the head.

A very different picture from the one painted by a younger, muscular white driver, "Jamey," who told me he always makes at least $700 a week, has never lost a fare, never been robbed, works his own hours, and has a range of regular pickups in the beach area. And he's only driven his cab for a year and a half.

"I conversate with pretty much everyone who gets into my cab. I can come down to their level. And if it's real professional people, then I can speak to them on a professional level. You know, if someone gets into my cab and says, 'Hey, bro, we're going surfing, take us up here,' you know, then I can talk with them about surfing. And when you do that it's more of a personal thing. The guy's back there thinking, 'This guy's cool, I'm not going to run on him.' "

But most cabbies must not seem cool to the average cab-taking San Diegan. One recent survey by the Department of Justice found that taxi drivers suffer the third-highest rate of on-the-job violent crime, following police officers and security guards. According to The 2002 Jobs Rated Almanac, by Les Krantz, the job of taxi driver rated sixth worst on the list of common jobs in the United States, down there with lumberjack, ironworker, and commercial fisherman.

Besides stress and the attendant road rage, the average cabbie deals with long hours, no job security, no guaranteed money, difficult conditions, unfriendly customers, and rampant coworker rivalry. There are fees for a half-dozen waivers, tests, and required regulations. And if a cabbie receives too many tickets or gets in an accident, then he's out. Can't get hired. Just like that.

The image of the cab driver arguably holds a position in American pop culture second only to the cowboy — which is another one of those five or six worst jobs in America, by the way. How many movies, television shows, jazzy songs, and recent commercials can you name that were either about taxis or had characters who were taxi drivers? It makes for good metaphor. But no one actually aspires to become cab drivers, do they?

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