America’s taxi capital: Bethel, Alaska

FARE VIEW: Alla Tinker is one of the 93 cabbies in Bethel, Alaska, population 5,800.
FARE VIEW: Alla Tinker is one of the 93 cabbies in Bethel, Alaska, population 5,800.
(Greg Lincoln / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Atiny, round-faced woman stands in a field of ice, a solitary figure in the tundra, waiting for a ride. From one hand dangles several plastic grocery bags. With her free hand, she flicks a finger as if inscribing a single scratch in the air, an almost imperceptible gesture.

A taxicab appears from a cloud of mist. It is an old, white Chevy, so splattered with mud there is hardly any white to see. On the roof glows a green sign that reads “Kusko.”

“Hello, dear,” the driver says.

“I’d like to go home,” says Lucy Daniel, folding herself in the back seat among her bags.

Daniel, 65, a Yupik Eskimo who grew up riding dog sleds and paddling seal-skin kayaks along the Bering coast, now takes a cab everywhere she goes:

To work or to church or, like this afternoon, to the general store to pick up supplies, and then back to her house. Or whenever she goes ice-fishing for pike at her favorite spot along the Kuskokwim River east of here. She tells the driver: “I need 45 minutes.” At the appointed time, the driver returns to get Daniel and her gear and, typically, one or two pike as long as a small woman’s leg. The fish go in the trunk.

It’s because of residents like Daniel that this remote village in southwest Alaska has become the unlikely taxicab capital of the United States. Bethel (population 5,800), buzzes with 93 taxi drivers, or roughly one cabbie for every 62 residents. That’s by far more taxi drivers per capita than anywhere else in the country, according to Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn., the nation’s largest cab organization.

Furthermore, Bethel only has about 10 miles of paved roads, which means there are about nine cabdrivers per paved mile. Dirt roads, branching off the arterials, add another 20 miles. These side streets, pockmarked by pond-sized depressions, are sometimes negotiable, sometimes not.

The taxi drivers spend most of their time on the paved roads, which form a loop connecting the most popular destinations: two general stores, the post office, the hospital and the airport.

“That’s what I do: go in circles,” says Bilal Selmani, the cabdriver who has picked up Daniel. Everyone calls him Lincoln. “Every hour, every day, every month. Round and round. Thirty years.”

The taxis come in all makes and models, all colors and conditions, from brand new to barely legal. By the end of the day, they all end up looking uniformly Alaskan, that is, covered in a film of silt, slightly beat up but more or less functional.

Taxis rumble day and night, through fog and storm and minus-40 degree cold. In the process, cabdrivers weave themselves into the lives of residents to a degree unique in Alaska, or perhaps anywhere. The longtime drivers know everyone in town by face, first name or address. They know most everyone’s stories.

They overhear arguments and love-struck whispers, they listen to confessions and tall tales and regrets. They pick up children from school. They shuttle travelers to and from the airport. They deliver everything -- moose meat, groceries, heavy-machine parts. They chauffeur all-night revelries, wedding parties and sometimes the dead.

The majority of riders are Yupik Eskimos. The taxi drivers -- most of them Albanian or Korean immigrants -- have their own tales, spanning continents and oceans but ending here, in a spot on the American frontier that most Americans have never seen or heard of.

Lincoln stops in front of a small square house in a subdivision of small square houses called Tundra Ridge. Daniel eases out, hands him seven one-dollar bills for the 5-minute drive. The flat rate is $5 per passenger in town, $7 per passenger to the outskirts.

“Bye,” Daniel says. Like many who live in Bethel, she is originally from Tuntutuliak, a nearby Yupik village that survives on fishing and hunting. Daniel moved to “the city” in 1971 because, she says, “there was nothing for me in Tuntutuliak.”

With her five children grown and her husband gone, Daniel spends her mornings working in a school cafeteria. She never learned to drive because, she says, “big machines scare me.”

In any case, she can’t afford a car, and even if she could buy a junker, she can’t afford to have it transported to Bethel. It would cost $2,000 to $4,000 by barge or plane.

No roads lead to Bethel. What Daniel calls a city is a dusty, disheveled conglomeration of shacks and warehouses in the middle of nowhere -- nowhere being the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a treeless, permanently frozen plain the size of Utah. Culturally and geologically, the delta has more in common with far-eastern Siberia than with the rest of the United States.

Bethel, 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea and 400 miles west of Anchorage, is the hub for 56 Yupik villages that sprinkle the tundra like flakes of dried seaweed. A traditionally nomadic people, the Yupiks, like Daniel, began living in fixed villages such as Bethel only in the last 50 to 100 years.

They come to Bethel to work. It’s also the primary reason outsiders come here. Bethel, the governmental and commercial center of the region, is a no-frills working town, where people draw wages in construction, freight, government administration and air travel. Then there are the taxis.

For Lincoln, the path to the American dream led from a farming town in eastern Albania, where he was born, to Connecticut and finally here. “I ask friend, ‘Where can I make money fast?’ He tells me, ‘Alaska.’ I drive eight days to Anchorage.” A friend in Anchorage told him he could make a killing driving cab in the bush.

Lincoln, 53, has been a taxi driver in Bethel since 1977. He is short and stocky, with deep-set eyes and a prominent Roman nose. When he first arrived on the tundra, he had a long, black beard. One of his earliest customers, a native, marveled: “You look like Abraham Lincoln.”

From then on, Bilal Selmani went by the name of the nation’s 16th president. Most villagers don’t know his real name.

During his first 25 years of driving taxi, Lincoln worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, nine months of the year. He would spend three months with family in Albania. Although his earnings might seem meager to many Americans, they represented a bounty for farmers in Albania. Word spread of his good fortune, and soon other Albanians trekked to Bethel to drive in circles for cash.

Between the late 1970s and early ‘90s, Albanians dominated the taxi business. Today, more than 100 townspeople claim Albanian ancestry.

Six years ago Lincoln brought his wife and two sons here. One son, Perparim, 24, drives graveyard after Lincoln finishes his day shift. When the car breaks down, Lincoln’s other son, Lumni, 27, an auto mechanic, fixes it.

After dropping off Daniel at her home, Lincoln’s workday proceeds like many others, with routine pickups and drop-offs.

He finishes an airport run, then picks up a woman and her infant daughter. The woman, in her early 20s, is crying. Lincoln helps her load the trunk with moving boxes. “It’s a happy day. I’m finally free,” says the woman, who has just broken up with her boyfriend. “Happy, happy,” she says through tears. Soon her baby starts crying too.

After picking her up at a dilapidated trailer on one side of town, Lincoln drops her off at a dilapidated mobile home on the other side. “My life can begin,” she says. Lincoln helps her with the boxes, each one labeled. Baby Clothes. Stereo & Music. Stuff.

Toward the end of his shift, Lincoln parks in front of the AC (Alaska Commercial) store, the same one where he picked up Daniel earlier in the day. It was quiet when he picked her up. Now the parking lot buzzes with people and cars. Most of the cars are taxis, and most of the drivers are Korean.

He gestures toward a couple of Koreans sharing a smoke between their cabs.

“Sixteen, 17 years ago, one or two Koreans,” Lincoln says. “Now. Look. They take over.”

“Mos-quito,” the man says.

Yun Lee, 58, is describing what he hates most about Bethel. “Snow, not bad. Cold, OK. Mos-quito, big problem.”

Lee has been driving cab here for about 1 1/2 years. Before that, he lived in Torrance for six months, and before that he had spent his entire life near Seoul. In Torrance he saw an ad in one of the Korean-language newspapers. The ad said something to the effect of Big Money, Big Adventure -- Come to Alaska!

Lee answered the ad and he has been driving loops on the tundra ever since. He has since learned that the first Korean cabdriver in Bethel started in the early 1990s.

Now Korean immigrants, who number between 100 and 130, own four of the five cab companies and all but three of Bethel’s 12 restaurants. They’re also buying up hotels and small businesses. The only video-rental store is Korean-owned.

Lee lives in a small apartment with other Korean cabbies. He works seven days a week. Work and sleep make up the totality of his existence.

Lee looks younger than his age, with smooth skin, a square jaw and a natural expression that seems to exude mirth. He is learning English from cassette tapes he listens to during much of his 12-hour shift. Today he is learning about outdoor gear. “Umbrella,” the tape says. “Rubber boots.” “Raincoat.” Lee mimics the words.

Outside the post office, he stops for two men. He turns the volume down. The men appear to be in their mid- to late-20sand they seem strangely sullen. “Sub shop,” one says.

The men hop in and the smell of liquor immediately fills the cab. The two pass a bottle between them. They snicker.

Lee pulls up to the sub shop, and the two men exit out of opposite doors and walk swiftly away. By the time Lee gets out of his cab, they’re running. “Excuse me!” he yells in vain. Lee sinks into his seat, jaw set hard, and he turns the volume way up: “Snow shoes.” “Parka.” “Mittens.”

Getting stiffed is part of the job. It happens once or twice a month, Lee says. Fortunately the village is small enough that sooner or later Lee will run into the two again, and he will ask for his fare. It’s not like he can afford to give rides away.

After paying his overhead -- gas, dispatcher fees, insurance -- he is lucky to make $200 a day. In a place like Bethel, where consumer goods can cost double what they are worth in the Lower 48, a couple of hundred dollars doesn’t go very far.

But the Koreans here are famous for scrimping and saving, and after a few years of driving, many take their cash and go home, though a few stay and invest in a business.

The best restaurant in town, the VIP, serves Korean and American cuisine. It was opened a few years ago by a Korean woman, another immigrant who drove a cab for years.

There are 16 female cabdrivers in town, most of them Koreans with limited English skills.

Which is just as well, says Alla Tinker, because they don’t want to understand much of what their male customers say.

“The men, when they’ve been drinking, will come on to you,” says Tinker, 35.

“I’ve had guys pay me to drive them around town all night just so they could hang out with me.

“What can I say? They’re men.”

The Koreans and Albanians tolerate each other. Still, the Albanians envy the Koreans for their success and their seeming aloofness. The Koreans tend to stay among themselves. The Albanians can be clannish too.

The Yupiks, who have publicly welcomed each group, privately grumble about both: the Koreans for being curt, the Albanians blustery.

Tinker hears it from all sides. She is one of the few Yupik taxi drivers in the village. She is friends with all the Albanian drivers, but the company she drives for is owned by a Korean.

“They cut each other up, but they’re not openly hostile,” Tinker says one afternoon as snow falls. Bethel is never prettier than after fresh snow. Tinker plows through town in her taxi, cruising for fares. “It doesn’t look like the rest of America, but it’s America here. Everybody’s just trying to make money.”

At the Larsen Subdivision, she picks up an elderly Yupik woman, Esther Green.

“Hi there!” Tinker says warmly.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” Green says. Green was Tinker’s kindergarten teacher. It had been months since Tinker last gave Green a ride. “How have you been?”

The women speak in Yupik, laughing and exchanging news. Tinker stays connected to the community by talking with passengers. She also gets to share the goings-on in her life.

A single mother with two teenage daughters, Tinker has recently moved in with her mother to save money.

Tinker was born and raised in the Bethel area, and she wants nothing more than to get out. She says so to Green, who acts as if she has heard it before.

“OK then, bye-bye!” Green says, climbing out of the taxi.

But Tinker continues with her line of thought.

“One more year of this,” she says. “Then I’m gone.”

Her plan is to drive as many hours as she can, save as much money as possible, and then move to Anchorage, a real city, with tall buildings and universities and restaurants and movie theaters.

But more than anything else, she says, she is looking forward to getting in a car, stepping hard on the gas and driving, for once not in an endless loop, but straight, past the city limits, past everything familiar, to wherever the road leads.