city of Washington and its environs is chock-a-block with
traffic. The centre of the city has, as many cities of the
world, its focal point: Addis has its Bole Road, so DC has
its 'K' Street. As any inhabitant of these cities will tell
you, it is best to avoid them at all costs - if you can.
our taxi driver, will tell you that if he had a choice, he
would have nothing to do with Washington DC at all: but the
city is his bread and butter. And that is why he gets up at
four o'clock in the morning to ply his trade.
is a very unassuming young man of thirty-five. He is the
father of two children, a girl who is all of four and a
half, and a toddler, a boy who is just two years old. His
wife of seven years has a full time job, and they have to
stretch the hours to do their work and to look after the
taxi is an ex-police cruiser, the type we all see in
Hollywood films, with lights flashing, sirens wailing, and
turning corners on two wheels with tyres smoking. It still
has the searchlight that police drivers use from inside the
car. These types of cars are behemoths by any standard in
themselves, fuel guzzlers as they are. But because of their
specially tuned engines, they are both fast and very
dependable, and they are built to last.
he is lucky in that he still can drive the car for another
two years because the city does not allow taxis for hire
that are more than seven years old on the roads. When he
bought his car two years ago, he had paid 6,000 dollars for
it: he calculates that he might have got his money back. But
two years is a long time in the taxi business, and he can
see looming threats ahead. People in his line of business
depend on a buoyant economy, but when it does flips the way
it is doing these days, he says, all one can do is to cross
fingers and hope for the best.
will have filled up with fuel the previous night. He says,
with a smile, it used to take him up to 50 dollars to fill
up: now, it is 'just' 26 dollars. He is ready for business.
Taxis have stands where they are allowed to queue with other
taxis, waiting for potential customers. This could be at
hotels, or at especially designated spaces around the city.
The city is not doing any one favours here. They charge
Mekbeb and other taxi drivers for the privilege: a whopping
175 dollars a week, whether they use the stands or not.
Mekbeb why he wanted to be up and about at the ungodly hour
of four in the morning. It has to do with traffic, he said.
You would be surprised if you knew the number of people that
want taxis at that hour. They want to go to airports, get
early to their work, or simply to go shopping at the all day
grocery stores: to pick up a bottle of milk, perhaps. Fares
are not all that great: three or four dollars here, and
sometimes ten dollars for an extra long distance. If he is
lucky, he will get the really big fare: he will be asked to
take someone to Dulles Airport, some thirty-five miles (56
kilometres) from the city. On that trip alone, he can make
53 dollars. That does not include any tips he might also
first 'shift' is between four and nine in the morning. This
break, a much needed one I should imagine, is when he sits
down with his friends, other taxi drivers, where they will
chew the cud, comparing notes and giving each other tips.
him about the money he can earn. How much might he have made
in his first shift? What would he consider to be a fair
'make' in those five hours?
stopped to think for a while: 50 dollars would be a
disappointment, he said.
explained how he comes to that calculation. He adds up all
his expenses: rent for his two bedrooms apartment; the
telephone bill; money he spends on food for the family;
expenses for keeping the taxi running at tip-top condition
(he had an outlay of 300 dollars for this month alone);
school fees…the list went on. After totting all these up
(with the help of his wife), he would simply divide the
figure by the days in the month. That would be the figure he
aims at, what he had to earn, to run so as to keep still, as
it were. Anything that his wife makes would be the icing on
he was quite adamant about, was his day of rest. He is a
practicing Catholic and his religion is all important to him
and his family. Two other days of the week are set aside for
his having to take the boy to school, Tuesday and Wednesday
at half past eight. On other days, his wife takes him. He
goes straight to work from his son's school.
back on the road by eleven o'clock. The biggest help for the
present day taxi driver must be the phone call. He keeps in
touch with his friends, and they with him, each giving tips
of where there might be business to be had. He will have had
breakfast at the favourite watering hole, and the wholesome
Ethiopian breakfast, which is a large meal in itself, will
have been washed down with endless cups of macchiato. But
this being Lenten, there is generally less eaten.
Discipline is the most operative word for the taxi driver as
Mekbeb asserted. Once he sets a routine, and there are a
handful of Ethiopian women driving taxis, he must stick to
it. That is why; he says he can look after his family. He
would have liked to have gone to school, which he did for
two years soon after he arrived in the US, but it was
impossible to continue. As much as he regrets it, he dropped
out because, he says, he had to have an income: driving a
taxi was the solution.
remembers what people back home thought of the taxi driver.
He said he too might have had the same thoughts. Never again
he said; never again. Not just because he has himself become
a taxi driver, but because he now knows what makes the
driver tick, and the driving of taxis is an honourable
make enough money to send some home to my surviving mother,
and two brothers," he said. "It night not be much, but at
least I can send them 300 dollars during the holidays. That
I could not have done before. The way things now look, I
count myself and my friends to be in a special category of
earners that are holding their own, in the most difficult of