George Asare hardly stops smiling as he cruises through downtown Manhattan, looking for passengers. He's been driving a New York City cab for years, so he's used to the up and down nature of the business.
"Sometimes, you know, as soon as you drop [someone] off, somebody's at the corner, and you pick up," he says.
Today, however, business is a little slow.
"This morning when I came in, I drove for almost about two, getting to two hours, before I pick up my first fare," he reports.
It's around noon on a breezy spring day. Asare will work until the late evening. Taxi drivers like him get to set their own hours. He says that's one reason so many Ghanaians get into this work. Many drivers take classes in their free time, trying to get more professional training. Many were doctors and engineers in Ghana. Asare says higher education will give them more opportunities, since most hope to return home one day and open their own businesses or enjoy their retirement.
"I would say the majority of the people have the same idea of, 'Hey listen, let me come to America, take advantage of the opportunities here, work very hard, build something home, get an education, and then see if one day, one day I can go home and retire back home.'"
He says the immigrants expect it will take many years, perhaps over a decade, but picking up customers in New York City lets them invest in their future.
All kinds of customers
Suddenly, he notices a man on the corner putting his hand in the air, signaling he needs a cab. Asare pulls over, and the man gets in.
"Fourteenth and Second, please," he says, and they head off. At 14th Street and Second Avenue, the man gets out and gives Asare a few dollar bills.
But not all trips go so smoothly.
Asare recalls one lady he drove all the way out to the airport who tried to pay using the credit card machine that's now in the backseat of city taxis.
"When we got there, she ran her credit card through, and the reception was bad, so I couldn't process the credit card," he recalls. "And she said, 'Oh, driver. OK, don't worry. Just give me your address. I'm gonna send you the money.' It's almost about three weeks now, three weeks," he says, with a tone of disgust, "She hasn't sent me the money."
Customers who don't pay the fare or complain about their driving are just one annoyance taxi drivers like Asare have to deal with every day. They say the police give them traffic tickets they don't deserve, and New Yorkers look down on them because they drive a taxi. Like a lot of immigrants, many left their entire family behind to come here. And although it's not an easy life, they choose this path because it's the easiest, quickest way to make a living.
"The name of the game is to make money"
Edward Owusu is from Eastern Ghana and has been driving a New York cab, on and off, for 15 years. Before that, he worked as a security guard, a custodian and at a nursing home.
"We got to send money home every time to our parents, you know, siblings, you know, nieces and nephews. And so, whatever job you can get in order to [pay your bills], you gotta do it. You gotta keep trying," he explains, adding, "The name of the game is to make money."
Most drivers send a lot of money home to their families and save some here as part of their nest egg. The benefits that draw many Ghanaians to this job, like the independence and flexibility, can also work against them. Most are self-employed, and paying for their own health insurance is too expensive, so the drivers don't have much to rely on if something happens to them. That's where the Ghanaian Taxi Drivers Association comes in.
A sense of home away from home
Right now, they're taking care of business at their monthly meeting. The association was formed a few years ago to promote the welfare of Ghanaian taxi drivers. Anyone in the New York area who fits that description can join by paying a fee and a few hundred dollars annual membership. In exchange, Edward Owusu explains, they get help with business costs and compensation if something happens to them or their family.
"When you get sick for two weeks, they give you $500. It's not much, but at least it helps. For a month, they give you the $1,000. I think all of that, it's great to join this association. I think it's a great thing."
In addition to financial support, they get a community. In fact, Owusu says it's kind of like a Ghanaian proverb.
"If you take one stick, and you want to break it, it's easier to break. But then if you have 50 of those sticks, I don't think you and I can break it."
In other words: There's strength in numbers.
The taxi drivers also try to help their community back home. Last year they raised money for hospital supplies in Ghana. But, as long-time cabbie Charles Anokye points out, helping each other is just what Ghanaians do.
"It's our culture. It's part of our culture. That we get ourselves together in case of any emergency, we help ourselves."