The Waiting Game

THERE IS A Tupperware line for the microwave oven and the Muslims are on the floor in the corner near the pay phones, at their afternoon prayers. Somewhere beyond the gray sprawl to the east is Mecca. On Jenny Jones today the subject is "Frumpy-to-Sexy Makeovers."

From the overflowing tables near the entrance, there is a seemingly endless squall of laughter. "Believe me," a Nigerian says quietly, "the people here, when they dream, it is not about driving a cab."

It's midafternoon at the Post Road Holding Area, a Metropolitan Airports Commission Landside Operations facility. That's the typically ridiculous official name for the place out near the airport where all day every day hundreds of cabs log in for the slow, very orderly procession to terminal curbside. Drivers licensed to work the airport scan their way into the parking lot and get their cab numbers in the computer line for the trip to the airport. Then they wait and watch the monitors. Most airport drivers spend an average of 10 to 15 percent of their time actually on the road, and the rest is spent waiting, often two to three hours between trips. At Post Road they can wait out in their cars in the lot, or they can hang out inside the cafeteria/meeting area slapped onto the backside of an expanded SuperAmerica.

The image of the cab driver has been a broad stereotype going all the way back to Dickens's coachmen, undergoing constant, wholesale transformations through the years. These days there's no getting around it: The cab driver is more than likely an immigrant, often as not a refugee. Still, the only guys out at Post Road who really look like cabdrivers are the occasional Americans who fit the stereotypes of earlier generations--the big-bellied, wind-breakered, pomaded, Old Spiced, old-school characters, or the slouched, long-haired underground cartoonist-juggler-musician cab drivers.

Paul Cavitt fits the latter category pretty well, and also provides a fine demonstration of the limitations of stereotypes. A cab driver for 22 years, his business cards nonetheless read: "Mandolinist and Storyteller." Cab driving? "It's a trade I know," Cavitt shrugs. Like most of the other drivers at Post Road, he works 12-16 hour days and prefers to avoid the inner city. "If a passenger's coming out of the airport they've already been through metal detectors," he says, "so there's no worry about guns." Cavitt's noticed the changes in the past decade and doesn't have any problems with the influx of drivers from all over the world.

"Twenty-two years ago there were maybe a few European immigrants driving cab here," he says. "But the majority of the drivers were American-born. These days we're the minority. But I'll tell you what, this group out here now is a lot better behaved, and a whole lot better educated than the mostly American group of predominantly dropouts or losers that was out here 20 years ago."

It is staggering, the number of nationalities gathered in that back room at Post Road. For many of the newcomers their lifeline is the Hudson's map book and the cultural companionship they find here. There are Coleman coolers full of native dishes; photographs and foreign newspapers and magazines make their way around tables. Letters are written home. There are intensely competitive chess and backgammon tournaments, cards and checkers. There is a bookcase against the wall, half-full: The Book
of Mormon, Mormon histories and commentaries, biographies of Mormon leaders, E.M. Forster's A Room With a View, and Frank Slaughter's Code Five.

There are Africans with degrees from the Sorbonne, lawyers, engineers, college professors, a doctor from Yugoslavia. They are hanging people in Nigeria. There is civil war all over the world. Mohamed Osman has come from Somalia, where he was a member of the national basketball team. "Do you know Hakeem Olajuwon?" he asks. "I taught him to play basketball." This is a believable claim. Osman is tall, soft-spoken, and immaculately dressed, a monster at chess. He is driving a cab. He smiles and shrugs. "I love coming to this place," he says. "I like the job. There's no one bothering you to assimilate. I'm free to pray here, to keep my religion and culture."

Another African chips in: "Hard as it is for some Americans to believe, there are still people coming to America not because they are looking for a handout, but because they still believe in its promises and ideals."

Given the nature of its business and the traffic it generates, Post Road manages a surprisingly harmonious atmosphere. Disputes are settled quickly. The place functions almost like a United Nations without parliamentary inhibitions. And virtually everyone with any seniority agrees that Sam Ackos is the senior diplomat and elder statesman. Ackos came from Athens in 1950 and has been driving cab at the airport for almost 40 years. He is 64 years old, and the social life he has known in America has been "right here on these premises. I have many friends here, Greeks, but also many others." Ackos knows better than anyone what he calls "our game," and how easy it is to get trapped in the cab life's illusions of independence, the long days, and constant expenses.

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