Behind the man behind the wheel

Meet Joe. Joe is one of thousands of taxicab drivers in the D.C. area. He has salt-and-pepper hair, a friendly smile and drives the streets of Washington when it turns dark, looking for people in need of a ride. You may know him, and if you don’t, then chances are you have met someone like him.

I first met Joe, originally Yusef, last week when I called him to arrange an appointment for a ride along in his taxicab. He had once given my roommate a ride, then scribbled his number on the back of a receipt telling her to call him personally if she was ever in need of a lift. I took the number and arranged a date, which Joe was more than happy to do.

We agreed to meet on a Thursday night when the city would be lively. I asked him if I could come along on his night shift to see what happens on an average night.

At first, Joe did not understand my proposition. Apparently, he had never had any visitors. He offered to give me a tour of D.C., but I explained that would be unnecessary.

“I just want to ride along while you do your regular route. You know, like any other night,” I said.

“Regular things?” Joe was a bit surprised by the request. “Okay, we can do regular things,” he agreed. I hopped into the front seat of his Bell Cab, buckled up and we left my Foggy Bottom apartment headed toward Dupont Circle.

Joe immigrated to the United States from Iran nearly 29 years ago in search of higher education. He liked Washington, D.C. because it was a big, international city and settled here immediately. He thought Washington was unique, though in many ways, he explained, it reminded him of Tehran.

Having been a cab driver for over 15 years, Joe knows D.C. As we skated along the surprisingly empty streets of downtown, he pointed out all the buildings that have changed dramatically since he started driving.

“That used to be a movie theater,” he said pointing to an office building. “All of these buildings, they used to be short.”

It sounded as though he was reminiscing about fond memories, so I asked him which he liked better – the older, low-rise buildings, or the newer, larger buildings.

“It is development,” he said. “You can’t not like it.”

As we drove past Old Ebbitt Grill, Joe spotted a man standing on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I hadn’t noticed him. He was young, probably in his mid-20s, and nicely dressed.

“Where are you going?” Joe asked out the window in a Middle-Eastern accent. The young man looked confused by my presence in the and gave me one of those, “is it okay if I get into the cab” motions. I nodded yes.

The young man told Joe he was going to Hotel Monaco, gave the address, and Joe waved him into the cab. It had been a half hour since I had been riding with Joe, and this was his first fare.

The three of us rode uptown, at first in complete silence. Joe and I had been talking non-stop since I started the ride along, but as soon as there was a fare, the conversation ceased.

I think my presence baffled the new passenger. He did not understand why I was there and didn’t know if he should talk to me or to Joe or make a call on his cell phone to avoid confrontation altogether.

Joe drove for what seemed like a long time. Since we had started, I had been busy talking to him and had not noticed his driving habits. He was patient and relaxed and casually coasted through any yellow light he encountered.

“How much do I owe you, sir?” the young man asked as the cab rolled to the corner of 7th and F streets, the site of Hotel Monaco.

The fare was $5.50. The man paid with a twenty-dollar bill and asked for $12 in return. Joe pulled out a surprisingly large wad of bills and sifted through the mess to find the right change.

I asked Joe if people are usually quiet, but he assured me that most are friendly and talkative.

“Most people ask where I am from, and maybe 10 percent know,” Joe said. “It is good when people ask, and many young people have some knowledge of the area.” He explained that people know more about the region because it is always in the news, and he appreciates this understanding. “A lot of people say ‘welcome’ at the end of the conversation, but they don’t understand that I have been here for almost 30 years,” he said laughing. “Sometimes people think I’m Italian.”

I asked Joe if he had ever come across any discrimination because of his nationality, especially after September 11. Joe was quick to dispel any rumors and assured me he had not experienced anything like that.

“I am more from Washington than I am from Iran,” Joe said. “I have been here more than half of my life.”

Joe continued driving toward Adams Morgan, where there were more people in the streets. On the way, we spotted a woman flagging a taxicab, and Joe pulled up along side of her.

“Where are you going?” Joe called out.

“Stadium Armory,” she said. “Navy Yard.” Joe shrugged this woman off and waved his hand as if to say, “Nah, I don’t feel like taking you there.” I thought he would be willing to accept any fare, but Joe moved on without a second thought.

“I am going in the opposite direction,” Joe said. “The fares are better up this way.”

Joe explained that he usually picks up around 10 to 12 passengers on a weekend night over the course of a six-hour shift. He works as an independent cab driver, paying commission to the cab company. He does not have a boss barking orders over an intercom, but Joe is responsible for gas, keeping the car clean and for any repairs or accidents. He does not receive a base wage, so he profits from tips only.

Joe had found another fare in Adams Morgan – another young professional type. Only a few blocks later, Joe stopped the cab and told the man he owed $5.50 – the same amount paid by the first passenger even though this was a much shorter journey. Joe dragged out a clipboard and a stack of papers and started to carefully write down some information.

“This,” he gestured, “is a taxicab manifest.” He wrote down the numbers as he explained them to me. “We write down every fare we get, where and what time we got them, where we took them and how much they paid,” he said slowly to me, as he concentrated on the report.

D.C.’s zone-based fare system is somewhat unique to the city, and Joe said it confuses many passengers, leaving them questioning the legitimacy of the fee.

“To me it doesn’t make a difference. The meter is more understandable because it’s fair – it’s a combination of time and distance … Some (cab drivers) are making a bad reputation for others,” said Joe, referring to the tendency to inflate fares.

“Sometimes, people ask me if they can go from one point to another for only five dollars,” Joe said. “If they look like good people, I tell them to come in. Not often, but every once and a while. I understand if people cannot tip all the time. Mostly, people do tip well.”

We had exhausted the fares in Adams Morgan, so we headed back toward Foggy Bottom. It was late enough that students would start heading out for the night, and Joe might have more success there.

As we headed toward campus, Joe commented on how much GW had grown since he went there.

“Since you went there?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure,” Joe said. “I got my master’s from GW. I finished almost 15 years ago.” My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. “I majored in E/E” he said. I had no idea to what he was referring.

“E/E,” he said. “Electrical engineering. D.C. used to have the most educated taxicab drivers.” He said many immigrants would come to the District for education, driving cabs on the side. Now many drivers settle here solely to be cab drivers.

Moments later, when another cab passed ours, Joe grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t look now, but you see this driver here?” He pointed to a Washington Flyer cab. “This man has his PhD. I know him. He is also from Iran.”

I must admit, I was a bit astonished. Joe is friendly and laid-back, easy to pass off as a recent immigrant who is driving taxicabs in order to scrape by. But the opposite is true.

Everyday, Joe spends time in his yard working on his garden. Then, he cooks dinner for his wife, and they eat together before he heads for the night shift.

“I want to be healthy. I don’t want too much pressure,” Joe said. “I can be a millionaire, but if somebody is going to bother me, then it is not worth it.”

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