Death and Taxis

Driving a cab is the most dangerous job in America -- but it also lets immigrants move ahead. Is this a great country or what?

Alemshet Workie is under attack.

At nine o'clock this Wednesday night, at the corner of 11th Avenue and Sherman Street, unidentified ammo is hitting his taxicab. It sounds like rocks or paint-gun pellets raining down from who knows where. When one of the missiles zings in through the window and lands in Alemshet's lap, he holds it up and sniffs it.

"I've had things thrown at me before, but never this," he says, a puzzled smile on his lips. "Cherries? What a thing!"

Drive time: Alemshet Workie behind the wheel.
James Glader
Drive time: Alemshet Workie behind the wheel.
The road to freedom: Like many immigrants, Alemshet 
Workie found work driving a cab.
James Glader
The road to freedom: Like many immigrants, Alemshet Workie found work driving a cab.

Bursting out of the bushes in front of an apartment building, four or five teenage boys squeal victoriously and run inside. One raises his fist in mock menace, laughing his ass off.

"That's the best thing that I love about this country," Alemshet says, steering his cab, a white-and-lavender beater sedan, onto 11th. "You can be whatever you like to be. If you like to be cool, you can be cool. If you like to be stupid, it's easy -- you can be stupid, too."

Stupid as it was, Alemshet is oddly grateful for the cherry-bombing incident, the most eventful thing to happen all day. He's been driving since the early afternoon, and in the past four hours, he's picked up only two fares -- both short trips for little money. On the last one, he took a young guy from a pricey downtown restaurant to a Downing Street bungalow, a five-minute ride that cost four dollars. When Alemshet dropped him off, the guy tipped four bucks.

"He was a waiter, so he understood about tips," Alemshet says. "Waiters and bartenders, I always want to take them, because they are good, hardworking people like taxi drivers. Businessmen understand, too. Even if you take them just a few blocks, they take care of you. Everybody who's got to work, they know."

Alemshet's cab is a 1995 Ford with side-window spotlights that betray its beginnings as a cop cruiser. The car, which he owns, is approaching the 250,000-mile mark. Alemshet guesses that he's logged at least that many miles since he arrived in Denver a decade ago, a refugee from Ethiopia. He drove and worked as a trainer for Metro Taxi before switching to Freedom Cab a couple years ago.

The youngest of three cab companies in town, Freedom doesn't have much of a customer base, and pick-up calls to the company are rare. To make money as a Freedom driver, you've got to work the streets, especially in the middle of the week. On Mondays, early-morning runs to DIA are so reliably fruitful that some drivers sleep in their cars in order to be first in line when the cab queue opens at 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights bring a bar-time rush that usually lasts well beyond last call. But at other times, drivers have to improvise, wait, and take work when it comes.

"If you drive a cab, you don't have a life," Alemshet says. "The economy's bad, business is bad. You've got to drive all day just to get enough money to pay the cab company. You pay gas, everything. You've got to hustle all the time."

At 10:30 p.m., Alemshet pulls to the curb outside the Adam's Mark Hotel. Four taxis already crowd the cab stalls, and their drivers form a listless congregation on the sidewalk. Aside from a few couples and businessmen -- guys wearing glasses and name tags, in town for a computer programmers' convention -- the only people on the street are cabbies. On slow nights, they can wait on this corner for hours before snagging a fare. They pass the time by talking, their conversation a pastiche of voices, dialects and exotic-sounding words: In Amharic, Tigrinya, French, Arabic and English, they tell jokes, share strange stories about passengers they've picked up and commiserate over the collective lack of action. When Alemshet parks his cab, other drivers rush over to greet him; Yellow Cab drivers passing by honk their horns and wave.

"They call me the International Man, because I'm cool with everybody," he says. "I know everybody because I've been around for so long. I know the Vietnamese, the Korean. I talk to everybody -- white girls, Jamaican guys. I had one guy in my cab once who said, 'You know, I don't like black people.' I tried to make him like black people. I said, 'Look at me. I'm black. I'm talking to you. You should like people. You don't live forever.' After that, we went out and played pool. I still see him sometimes.

"Some get in my car, and right away, they say 'Where you from?'" he continues. "That happened once, I told the girl, ''m from Jamavayana.' She said, 'Well, you're a long way from home.' She didn't even realize that wasn't a real place. She didn't listen. She didn't even say hello."

Alemshet's friend, Malik, a Somalian refugee who returned to driving after being laid off from a tech job with MCI, is the only one who's snagged a fare in the past hour. He took a young couple to LoDo's Bar & Grill on Market Street, a trip that took less than ten minutes and earned him six bucks.

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