A sort of unofficial United Nations meets near the San Diego Zoo's main exit. On a narrow street shaded by palm and pepper trees, taxi drivers from Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Italy, Tunisia, Nigeria, and, occasionally, Russia, wait all day, every day, for fares. They smoke. They gossip. They joke. They brag about fares to Oceanside or to the border. Mostly, they sit idle in the shade and wait.
"Everyone here," says a Syrian driver in his 60s, "has a story."
Barbara Lupro, who heads the Metropolitan Transit Development Board's taxi administration office, says that, for immigrants, taxi driving is an "excellent introduction" to American capitalism and city government, to the American system. But if you listen closely to the gossip shared beneath the palm and pepper trees outside the zoo, you hear about graft and grift and payoffs. You hear about a system not so different from the corrupt and inefficient economies the taxi drivers thought they'd left behind them. You get the impression that these men survive in the taxi industry precisely because of, and not despite, their past experience.
What makes their stories so affecting is, as the 60-year-old Syrian put it, "almost all these men are here because of political oppression." They've already endured a lot and now, in middle age, they've had to swallow their pride. There's the economist who worked for the Shah of Iran, the Russian colonel, the Iraqi helicopter pilot who flew for the Indian government for 16 years. There are many engineers -- civil, agricultural, chemical. Here, their degrees and experience aren't worth much.
"Why are you asking us that? Is it your business? Where are you from? You wouldn't ask that to an American!"
The tall, muscular former agricultural engineer from Nigeria shouted at me and waved his arms in the air. The other drivers nodded their heads in agreement. I'd asked them what countries they were from, and my question was received less than warmly. I tried to explain that, yes, I would ask that question to an American, that all Americans ask each other that question because we all come from someplace else and that our being from someplace else is the one thing that binds us together. But my chirpy and patriotic self-defense fell on deaf ears. The drivers would hear none of it. They waved their hands at me dismissively.
"Every day, all the day, we hear that question over and over again, 'Where are you from?' They hear our accents, our bad English, and they automatically think we're stupid. They don't know that they're actually dealing with educated people. The question isn't so bad if the person who asks you is an American who knows something about the world. If you say you're from Tunisia, he knows where that is. Maybe he's been there on vacation. But most of the time the Americans who ask that question don't know anything. On Friday nights they get into my cab drunk, and they ask me where I'm from and they say, 'Go back to where you came from, you fucking Arab.' They use the question against you."
Hishem Ghali, slight, dark, good-looking, is different from the other drivers not only because he, at 35, is somewhat younger than most, or because he's Tunisian, a rarity. Ghali hasn't suffered political oppression, and he's married to an American. Of all the dozens of local drivers Ghali has met, he knows of only one or two others with American wives.
"I remember this old American guy who got into my cab, and he asked me about my wife, and I told him she was American and he said, 'Oh, you'll only be married two or three years until you can get your green card.' I was so insulted. I love my wife very much. We have two baby daughters. We work very hard to support them."
In fact, Ghali and his Santa Barbara-born wife had met in America and had gone to Tunisia to live. But adjusting to North African culture and to Arabic were difficult for Ghali's wife, and so they returned to the States.
"We have to pay $800 a month for a baby-sitter. In Tunisia, nobody has a baby-sitter. You have your mother or aunts or sisters to look after your kids. You don't pay strangers to take care of them. I sometimes wonder if we made the right decision. We pay $650 a month for our apartment. My wife works as an administrator for a limousine company. After paying $70 a day to lease my cab, after paying for gas, I make about $6 an hour. My wife and I have to work very hard to make $2000 a month. That's the way life is in America. Go. Go. Go. You can never stop."
Ghali works for Red Top Cab, which he describes as a "good and fair" company. Having driven a taxi for almost two years, he has an interesting appreciation of the city and its landmarks. He knows, for example, that Anglo drivers tend to work Sea World, Russians and Iranians, the airport. As we drive around town he shows me the Afghani drivers at the Hyatt near Seaport Village, the Somali drivers waiting outside Santa Fe Depot. Hotel Circle is heavily Iranian, but the Marriott beside the Convention Center is, like the zoo, worked by everyone.
What these different drivers seem to share is a sense that the public doesn't understand how hard they work and how potentially dangerous their work is.
"When you drive a taxi," Ghali explains, "you give your back to someone."
He has been robbed at knifepoint once. An Egyptian driver he knows has been beaten several times. Last week, a fare avoided paying a Nigerian driver by punching him in the face. What worries Ghali is that his not yet being a citizen makes him particularly vulnerable.
"All the time, people jump out of the cab to keep from paying. I had one Mexican guy jump out of my cab while it was still moving. And I'm always worried that someday one of these people is going to get hurt. They're going to get hurt jumping out of the cab. Or they might try to hurt me, and I'll have to defend myself. And who knows what they'll say? They could say it was my fault. If you are not a citizen, you can't do one little thing wrong. Not one little thing. If you do, the INS will deport you. Imagine how you would worry about that if you had two little children."