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Feature

By Rohina Phadnis

Cabbie and the City: A profile of a South Asian taxi cab driver

New York City is a whirr of bustling businessmen talking on their cell phones, gawking tourists craning their necks to take pictures, and hordes of cars trying to jam through the crowded streets. Amid those crowded streets, thousands of yellow taxi cabs dart through the maze of Manhattan.

Much like New Yorkers themselves, the drivers behind the wheels of these cabs come from every corner of the globe. South Asia is home to many of these cab drivers. Through taxi cab strikes and a post-September 11th world, taxi cab drivers have faced adversity and obstacles in their new homeland, all in turn for a better future for themselves and their families.

Photo by Rohina Phadnis


Mohammad Tasleem Khan, forty-six, has navigated the streets of New York City for almost ten years and has been an active member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) since 1998.

However, Khan’s story, like many others, starts off miles away from New York. Khan is from Lahore, Pakistan. In his home country, he earned an associate’s degree in chemical engineering from the College of Technology. He came to America in 1990 because of financial reasons. Khan left behind his wife and three daughters, who are now ages twenty-one, twenty and sixteen. Though his wife and daughters spent some time with him in the United States, they decided to go back to Pakistan, and continue to live there today.

At first, Khan lived in Edison, NJ with his cousin, who worked at a local Burger King. Living in a suburban community, he felt lonely because everyone was inside their houses by 5 p.m. and no one stayed out to chat. In Edison, he worked at a local store. When the store closed, Khan was forced to find a new job. Driving a taxi presented itself as the new option, but was not his favorite.

“I was afraid because I never drove in Pakistan,’ Khan says about first learning to drive in America.

At first, he drove about sixty to seventy hours a week. Khan leased a car on a daily and then weekly basis from a garage.

Now, Khan starts his day mid-morning and usually does not come home until about 12 or 1 a.m. He earns all the profits from the meter, minus expenses for mechanical repairs, gas and the leasing fees.

Khan’s job supports not only himself in America, but his family in Pakistan as well. In addition to supporting his wife and children, he also sends money home to help out members of his extended family. A few years ago, Khan’s elder brother died, and now his paycheck must stretch to take care of his nieces and nephews as well. At times, his paycheck supports up to fifteen members of his family ranging from his eighty-three year old father to his nieces and nephews.

Khan says that sometimes you must “sacrifice yourself for their better education.” He plans to stay in America until his nieces and nephews grow up and support themselves.

Over the last ten years, Khan has seen both the good and bad side of the industry. Primarily, he has faced difficulties after Sept. 11th and strained relations with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the agency which handles the 12,187 taxi cabs in the city.

“About seventy-five percent, when they get in, look at your ID first,” Khan says about the customers after Sept. 11th who immediately want to know the driver’s name.

Also, he has received some comments such as “Go back to your country.”

“Ninety-five percent of the people think that we’re some kind of slaves or something,” Khan says, adding that some customers talk to drivers as if they were their servants.

While ignorant customers pose a problem, the TLC is also a difficult body to work with.

“They don’t want to listen,” he explains about some of the TLC officials. He says they draw their own conclusions based on what they observe and immediately assume it was the driver’s fault.

Khan recounts how a routine stop by an undercover TLC officer led to the suspension of his license. In November 1999, an undercover TLC officer hailed Khan down. When the officer told Khan where he wanted to go, Khan explained that he was not familiar with the exact address so as they approached the area he would have to ask for directions. Khan then suggested it might be better for the customer to take another cab so he would not have to waste his time while Khan asked for directions. The officer then took that to mean Khan had refused him service. The TLC suspended his license for nine months. Khan then enlisted the help of Bhairavi Desai, founder of the NYTWA, to fight the suspension. They took the case to court, where they eventually won.

In 1998, the NYTWA, which now has over 6,000 members, banded together for the first time in years to make their voices heard against proposed restrictions on the industry.

“This time we had to get up,” Khan commented on the need to the strike.

Khan devotes most of his spare time to building unity and membership for the NYTWA. He says that the area airports are a great place to drum up support for the organization. There is usually a long line of taxi cabs waiting for the steady stream of passengers. If he drives a customer to John F. Kennedy or LaGuardia Airport, he stays at the airport and spends some time there talking to other taxi cab drivers about the organization. Sometimes, he can reach about 200 to 300 drivers at a time.

Currently, he lives in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn with his twenty year-old daughter, who came to the U.S. for medical reasons in 2002.

Although Khan likes the flexible hours of driving a taxi, his focus still seems to be miles away.

“If I get a good job, I’d go now,” Khan remarks about returning to Pakistan. Until then, he will continue what he has been doing for over ten years.

Since 2002, he has owned his own taxi and drives it about sixty hours a week. Khan says the autonomy of being a taxi cab driver is a positive of the job and a possible reason why it attracts so many South Asians.

“It’s in my own hands,” Khan says. He can create his own hours and usually works five days a week.




Rohina Phadnis is a fourth-year journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park.


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