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In an Airport Taxi, Fear and Suspicion Ride Along With the Driver

<i> Reich lives in Los Angeles</i>

It was late on a Wednesday night and there were two men sitting in my back seat in the dark as I drove north on La Brea. I had worried when I picked them up. Two young males. Late night. Flagging a cab on the corner of San Vicente and La Brea. Factors that normally constitute a red flag in my book.

The kicker was their destination: round trip to 6th and Alvarado. A drug run nine times out of 10. But I had already let them in and we were on our way. I needed one more fare to make my night, and, well, sometimes I do get too suspicious for my own good.

I am the night driver of United Independent cab No. 110. I got into the above situation about 1 1/2 years ago after driving a cab in Los Angeles for three years. Luckily my worst fears did not come true as I drove these passengers to the drug-infested area east of Alvarado and back to a motel across the street from where I picked them up.

Like most cab drivers and their families, my wife and I took the news hard about Ami Fhima, the 31-year-old cab driver murdered in Inglewood on Saturday night after picking up two men at the airport.

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Few cab drivers I know have escaped the terrifying feeling of some stranger sitting behind you in the dark. I didn’t know Ami Fhima, but I can imagine what happened at the taxi stand at the airport where he waited for his fare. I’ve worked the airport frequently and am all too familiar with the system there. Just like Ami, I was forced to make a decision one time about two suspicious-looking passengers at the airport.

Every evening before I hit the streets of Los Angeles, I pray: God, keep me safe. Bless me with long fares. Allow me to remain kind and understanding.

And before I turn on the dispatch radio I add a final request:

God, grant me the peace of mind to deal with whatever comes up.

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Before I drove cab No. 110, I drove another United Independent cab with a bulletproof partition separating me from my passengers. But it cut down on most conversation. Instead of using it, I try to be discriminating about who I pick up. I suppose I lose a hefty portion of profits, but I’d rather remain in control than take the chance. Besides, I get plenty of flakes, abusive drunks, hotheads and others who slip by my defenses.

Once a young drunk man whose friend put him in my cab in Marina del Rey took a slow roundhouse punch at me (and missed) because I had told him to put his hands back from over the seat.

I was waiting in line one night at the Century Plaza Hotel cab stand, expecting the normal polite guest going to a local restaurant. The doorman whistled. Up jaunted a young man in a white T-shirt and worn blue jeans with a huge tatoo on his forearm. He was going to Cahuenga and Yucca. Jimmy was his name. Without much prompting, he told me in his Ohio twang how a young businesswoman drove up to his spot on Santa Monica Boulevard, leaned out the window and called him over. Jimmy wiggled his finger, showing me exactly how she did it. “You want some pocket change,” Jimmy quoted her. Four hundred dollars, it turned out, he said, including his return fare.

We drove to an old apartment building off Cahuenga and Yucca. He ducked in for a minute. Then we drove back along Santa Monica Boulevard. He told me he stashed his belongings near this spot before he jumped in with the woman.

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We stopped about Genessee. “Turn off your lights,” he said. I turned off the lights. He picked up something in the space between two buildings. It was not an overnight bag or knapsack as I expected. He admitted that he’d retrieved his “dart"--a hypodermic needle.

To be truthful, I don’t have a lot of cab stories. I pick people up, and the next minute they’re gone, vanished into the changing cityscape. I’m the chauffeur for the older couple in formal wear leaving the Shubert to return across the street to the Century Plaza. I’m the go-between for the feuding couple recently separated when she sends his clothes and other belongings back to him via yours truly. Much of the time I am the social worker for the widowed old ladies of Fairfax Avenue returning from the supermarkets or doctors’ offices with taxi coupons. (The elderly are provided with $24 in taxi subsidies a month.) I am the driver for a lonely prime-time television soap producer who hops from one South Bay club to the next on Friday nights as I wait outside with the meter running.

Because I ply the relatively safe areas of town, I’m not too concerned about ill-intentioned individuals, although I come in contact with them from time to time. Cab driving has brought me face-to-face with my prejudices, which are in essence fears, and good for absolutely nothing. Flaky and harmful people cross all economic strata and racial lines. Instead of relying on prejudices, I’ve tried to develop and respect instincts for disturbed people and mental cases.

Sometimes my instincts will be wrong, or what I think are my instincts are actually prejudices. Many times I refuse a fare or pass by people on the street flagging me down. I’ll never know how many of them were decent and honest people. But as one of the weekend dispatchers says, “If it don’t feel right, don’t do it.”

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A Deep Breath

No matter what, whenever I get flagged down, I make sure my doors and windows are locked, take a deep breath, and check it out.

The airport is a little different. The city’s Department of Transportation and the management company it contracts to enforce its rules there both want to let us know that they are the bosses. I don’t quarrel with their need to manage the cabs at the airport. LAX has long been a nasty place to pick up a cab, especially for passengers going only a short distance. Cab drivers used to come to fists over long fares. In this respect, the DOT has cleaned things up.

The cab drivers wait in the holding lot about an hour or more until they are dispatched to a designated stand among 10 different locations by the baggage areas around the U-shaped lower arrival level. The drivers are received at each stand by a starter in uniform who is employed by the contracted company, Airport Taxi Management. The starter ushers the passengers as they arrive from the baggage area into the next cab in line.

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I can imagine Ami Fhima waiting there at the United Airlines stand. I’ve done it myself a hundred times. One time I was waiting there, hoping for a good fare, something that would make my long wait worthwhile. But I know I’ve got to swallow the short ones as well. The starter is used to complaints and hip to tricks by disgruntled drivers.

So I was sitting there waiting in my cab and the cab in front pulled off with three Japanese men in suits, probably going downtown to the New Otani Hotel or the Hilton. And now I was next in line. Two young men approached wearing tennis shoes and jogging suits. I noticed they were not carrying any luggage.

A Gap in Thinking

The starter handed the dispatch ticket that describes the airport surcharge and average rates to one of the men. My eyes met the starter’s. He knew what I was thinking. Well, sort of. And I knew what he was thinking--that I’d better not make a fuss. Or maybe he was thinking, “good luck.” There was a definite gap between my thinking and his.

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One gap is the sanctity of the cab driver’s right to refuse a fare, no matter what the DOT says. Neither the starter, nor ATM, nor the DOT nor their commissioners work the streets and have to drive my cab with two strangers in the back seat in the dark.

I don’t know exactly what Ami was thinking or how close his experience was to mine. But I do know that he had a choice. He could have refused to take those two strange men. No cab driver I know wouldn’t get suspicious of two men going to Inglewood from the airport without luggage.

Paid the Consequences

In my case, I refused. The consequences? I was immediately taken out of line and required to wait until an Airport Taxi Management supervisor arrived. He listened to our stories. And then he wrote me up for refusing to pick up passengers. I lost my place in line, which amounted to about three hours of my shift shot. And I was required to appear at a hearing.

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At the hearing several weeks later I was admonished by another ATM supervisor and told in the manner of a father scolding his son to admit my wrong and the matter would be dropped. I held to the cab driver’s right of refusal. I was told the matter would be handed over to the DOT, but it was lost and forgotten forever somewhere in the recesses of the inner sanctum of City Hall.

I don’t have answers for changes at the airport to help protect the cab driver. All I can say is that I’m very sad. My heart reaches out for Ami Fhima and his family. But also for all the cab drivers who have to make a choice and size up people based on feelings, feelings affected by the things some people do to others, like what they did to Ami.


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