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A Washington Cab Driver's Life - 2002-03-10

English Feature #7-34702 Broadcast April 16, 2001

Hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign-born taxi drivers work in Washington, D.C. Each has a different reason for choosing to drive a cab. But all drivers share in the daily uncertainties of the taxi industry. Today on New American Voices an immigrant from Ethiopia describes the day-to-day reality of being a taxi driver in the capital.

A tall, slender man of thirty-five, Germe - who wouldn't give his last name - leans against the side of his shiny green and white taxicab in front of a six-story Holiday Inn hotel in Washington. As he waves good-bye to a departing fellow driver, he explains that when he left Ethiopia for the United States in 1989 he knew that he would have to work hard. He found that driving a taxicab gave him an opportunity to both earn a living and go to school.

"When I came here, I was happy, really, because I didn't have the expectations that I was going to get rich overnight, or something. My first plan was to go to school. This was the only job that I can have freedom and a flexible schedule to go to school and also make more money. If I need more money, I stay on the road more hours."

Germe studied psychology for two years, but then he married and turned to driving full-time. He says that his earnings as a driver for a taxicab company fluctuate from week to week.

"It depends from time to time, but if I make $100 a day, after everything, I'm happy. I'm renting a cab now, so I have to pay $190 per week plus insurance, so after all that, if I average $500 a week, something like that, I think I did good. I try not to live beyond my means, but it's kind of hard, sometimes."

Germe says much of his business comes from members of Congress, so when they go to their home districts during congressional recesses, his income drops.

"D.C. is based on Congress, when they're not here we don't have money. For two months out of the year it's nothing, it's dead. That's why I push myself a little bit harder in winter time when they are here when everything is working. Otherwise summertime, it's almost nothing."

With a wife and a five-year-old son, Germe - like most drivers - struggles to balance his job and his family.

"I work six days a week, 12-13 hours a day. I try to take Saturdays off. On my day off I try my best to spend my day with my son, and if I can with my wife. I try to use my time effectively. Sometimes I'm sitting at home, trying to spend time with my son, but my mind is wandering, that I need to be on the road to make money. So I am kind of divided in my mind."

Driving a cab has its pluses and minuses, says Germe. The money can be good, but drivers may work in dangerous neighborhoods, or have accidents, or face prejudice on the part of their customers.

"There are all kinds of people, all kinds of attitudes. And people have a lot of preconceptions about cab drivers, they stereotype you by the experience they had somewhere else. And they don't see you as… as I am. They see me though somebody else that they had experienced somewhere, and even though I try, I see they closed up, or they give you negative attitudes, and that's depressing sometimes."

Most taxi drivers in Washington are either immigrants or African-Americans. Germe finds that as an African, he doesn't really fit in with the African-American community.

"I do and I don't. Because I came from a different upbringing, different culture. Although I'm black, but my frame of mind is not, you know, it's not the same. I see things in a different light. So in some ways I have a relationship, and in some ways not."

Although life is not always easy for him, Germe says he does not regret his decision to come to America.

"Of course, I'm very glad I came here, because this is a country that promises hope in the future. And if you're determined and consistent, I think, you can make your life better."

Next week we'll talk with a chemist turned carpenter who is determined to make life in America better not only for himself, but for his people -- the gypsies, or Roma. We invite you to also visit our website.

This script is courtesy of New American Voices intern Richard Hagerman, a student of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.