Cabdriver Economics

I landed in Chicago just before 11 Friday night and took a cab over to my dad’s apartment on the northwest side. I got into a Checker cab outside the terminal. I threw my bags into the back seat and told the driver my approximate destination. He didn’t respond beyond a nod and started out.

Having driven a cab myself on and off for a couple years in the early ’80s, I take an interest in what’s happening with the drivers. One ready topic of conversation, if both driver and passenger are inclined, is the work itself. I asked my usual question: “Busy tonight?” No, it wasn’t–very slow. One thing led to another: He had started at noon. He works until midnight or 2 a.m. most days. How many days a week? “Oh, my God,” was the answer. He works every day, but just half a shift on Sunday so he can see his kids. He pays $100 a shift for the use of the cab, and another $50 for gas. “So you need to make one hundred and fifty dollars just to be at zero?” I asked. “Exactly,” the driver, whose name was Michael, answered.

I found out more: How he had come from Nigeria as an exchange student 25 years ago and wound up staying here (though he has gone back home, too). He earned a master’s in public health administraton at the University of Illinois. (If we had had longer to talk, maybe I would have found out why he had been driving a cab the last five years instead of working in the field in which he’d been educated). His stay in the United States had been affected by international politics when at one point his home government stopped paying tuition for the students it had sent abroad.

I heard more: about Muslim-Christian politics in Nigeria, about the country’s oil wealth, about the civil war in the late 1960s (the “Biafra war”) that killed millions–only this time told from the perspective of someone watching it happen in his own country.

Michael didn’t drive the exact route I would have taken, but it was worth the few extra minutes talking. We got to my dad’s at half past 11, and the fare was 30 bucks. Gladly paid. Michael bid farewell saying, “Good talking to you. You woke me up!”

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