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!"
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.
"You've got three hours of waiting, what are you going to do -- lock yourself in the car?" Malik says, smoking and pacing on the sidewalk. "People see cab drivers socializing, they say, 'They must be lazy.' It's crazy. I swear, this is the most humiliating job I've ever had in my life."
"In this job, we have to make a dollar before we make a dime for ourselves," says Samuel, a round-faced college student from Eritrea. "There's just not enough business out there for everyone."
Though Colorado regulations prohibit cab drivers from driving more than ten hours in one day, Alemshet and his friends typically spend between ten and sixteen hours behind the wheel -- doing overtime on one of the most dangerous jobs in America. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, cab drivers are sixty times more likely than the average worker to be murdered on the job. The volatile combination of late-night hours, public contact, solitary work, cash payments and calls to high-crime neighborhoods create a risk unmatched in any field but police work.
Alemshet's knowledge of the dangers comes from personal experience. Five years ago, his friend, a Moroccan Metro cabbie named Moustapha Marouf, was beaten and stomped near the University of Denver by four young men who then locked him in the trunk of his cab, where he died. The previous November, a Senegalese driver named Oumar Dia was shot by two skinheads while he waited for a bus downtown.
For Alemshet, the emotional wound from a recent loss is still very raw. On March 29, his friend and fellow Freedom driver Mesfin Gazahgn was stabbed to death in the parking lot of the Uptown apartment complex where both men lived. Nineteen-year-old Amber Torrez was arrested at the scene; she is currently awaiting trial in Denver County Jail on charges that she murdered Gazahgn as well as Denver educator John Hand.
In the cabbie community, this crime was as confusing at it was tragic. Drivers take chances every time they let a stranger into the back seat of their car, but no one would have suspected a teenage girl could commit such a violent act. For many, it rattled an already tenuous faith in their ability to gauge, and minimize, risk.
"A lot of the drivers, it messed with their minds, because you never think, 'Oh, is this little girl going to kill me?'" Alemshet says. "A lot of them started to carry something after that -- knife, gun, something. Because it makes you not want to trust. You don't know who is who. Somebody could get in, be very nice, very nice-looking like this girl, but then they are crazy. It makes everyone seem different in your mind."
At 33, Alemshet is tall, slender and dark, with closely cropped hair and a Western fashion sense: He prefers baggy hip-hop jeans and well-shined, Oxford-style shoes. Around his neck is a slender gold chain: Workie, his last name, means "gold" in Amharic. A black flashlight in his cab is the closest he comes to a weapon.
"To drive a cab, you've got to be smart," he says. "You've got to read the people. Some people, if you act strong and tough, they respect you. I once had two big guys who made me drive them around all night to deal drugs. They had guns in the car, and when it was done, they said, 'We don't want to pay you.' I just said, 'Okay, fine,' so they would get out. Most of the time it's not worth fighting over or calling the cops. You learn how to get out of situations your own way."
After Gezahgn's death, Alemshet moved to a new apartment in southeast Denver. With other members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which he attends most Sundays, he helped raise money to send his friend's body back to Ethiopia for burial. But he never considered giving up driving. For one thing, he supports his mother and other relatives in Ethiopia with money he makes on the road. And despite the dangers that people can represent in his line of work, they're still his favorite part of the job.
"Mesfin's blood was not goat blood or chicken blood. It was human blood, so you have to think about him and what happened to him," he says. "But if people get in and start talking and they are nice people, I forget about Mesfin. Because I love people, and I'm open-minded.
"I don't want to get killed, but I never even had that idea. I'm still scared sometimes, but that's part of life, and you've got to have a positive mentality. If you think about nothing but the negative, that's what you see. All your thoughts are that way. I say it's better to be nice."
At 11:30 p.m., Alemshet makes a loop around LoDo, surveying the streets. A few groups of drinkers huddle around patio tables on Market Street; other people waddle out of restaurants clutching doggie bags and car keys. He sticks to the middle lane in case anyone flags him from either side of the one-way streets, but no one does. He checks in with Freedom dispatch, but there's no relief through the radio, just dead air.
"That guy?" Alemshet says, pointing at the controls. "We haven't heard him all night."
On 15th Street between Welton and California, Alemshet's flagged by a guy with a suitcase, sticking his right arm high in the night air. A businessman in town from Minneapolis, he wants to go to the Marriott off Speer Boulevard at Zuni Street. The trip costs seven dollars. When Alemshet pulls up in front of the room, the guy gives him twelve bucks.
"Nice guy," Alemshet says. "Very nice man."
At midnight, Alemshet decides to turn his car toward his apartment. After ten hours of work, he heads home with forty dollars.
Three dozen cabbies crowd the tables at Axum Restaurant, a late-night Ethiopian hangout on East Colfax Avenue. They talk and watch repeats of soccer matches on TV, downing cups of potent, black-as-night coffee. In Ethiopia, coffee drinking is a ceremonial activity that binds families and communities together. But now, just after 1 a.m. on a Thursday, its function is more practical: It's keeping the cab drivers awake. In the noisy room scented with cumin, garlic and coriander, the cabbies mop up lamb stew, lentils and cabbage with spongy injera bread while trading stories about life behind the wheel.
From downtown Denver into Aurora, the same scene is playing out all along Colfax. East of Colorado Boulevard, the strip is thick with cafes, restaurants and bars that cater to Ethiopians in general and cabbies in particular. There's no shortage of drivers to keep them all in business. About 1,800 drivers currently hold licenses to operate taxis in Denver. Though the city doesn't keep track of ethnographic data, an overwhelming majority of those licensed drivers are immigrants, many of them from African countries including Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. A sizable percentage of Freedom Cab's 120 drivers hail from Ethiopia and Eritrea, a tiny northeastern African nation that gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
"In the early '70s, there were very, very few Ethiopian taxi drivers," says Tsehaye Teferra, head of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a Virginia-based national organization that helps African refugees through the resettlement process once they arrive in the United States. "Everyone would count -- 'Oh, there's one or two.' They all were students, actually, who went to school and worked part-time as taxi drivers. But now it has become a profession to many, all over the country."
In Denver, the high number of Ethiopian cabbies on the Freedom roster reflects the Ethiopian community's quiet but steady growth into one of the city's largest ethnic groups. So do the scores of dry cleaners, markets, beauty salons, banks, real estate offices and auto shops that serve an East African clientele, mom-and-pop operations distinguished by heavy black Amharic lettering on their signs and shop windows. Since the early '80s, when several hundred Ethiopian refugees came here to escape the deadly trifecta of civil war, drought and famine that killed millions in their homeland, the population has grown exponentially. It's now estimated at 5,000, making it one of the largest Ethiopian enclaves in the nation after those in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles.
"A lot of people found Denver to be a particularly inviting city," says Teferra. "The community was welcoming. There was employment, and housing -- at least at the time -- was also very affordable to many people, compared to how it was in the coastal cities. So then the word goes out that people have ventured and experimented and they say it's okay to come here. When there's already a community present, people feel good to come.
"Twenty years ago, I would say there may have been only one family from Ethiopia that had the first early liquor store in Denver," Teferra continues. "The community grows up around these role models, these gatekeepers, who are the first to take a chance. Everyone will tell you a story of how they wind up in Denver: 'My uncle, was over there, my brother...' and so on."
Alemshet Workie's gatekeeper was his older brother, Kassa, who came to Denver in the '80s and now operates a commercial shuttle service. Alemshet followed in 1994, after a stint driving a cab in Las Vegas. He was seeking the freedom he'd craved growing up in Ethiopia, when the communist government killed people for speaking out against them -- or for nothing at all. When Alemshet was seven, his father was murdered because he wouldn't cooperate with a local communist leader who wanted to take control of the family sheepskin-sales business. At eighteen, Alemshet escaped -- sleeping in trees during the day to avoid being shot from the sky by planes that cruised for exiles trying to flee the country. He made it into Sudan, where he spent four years -- living at first in a refugee camp and learning to speak Arabic -- before he was cleared to enter the U.S.
"Things are much better in Ethiopia now," Alemshet says. "You can live in a big city and have everything that you have here: Chinese food, lights on all the time. Twenty-four hours, you can get oranges, bananas. You could live your whole life in Ethiopia and never have one problem from anybody. Back then there was so much guns. Everyone was killing each other, fighting each other. I didn't want to be a military force. I had to get out before I had that mentality."
Raised in a big city in the state of Tigray, Alemshet found it easy to learn Denver's streets. As a cab driver, he was making decent money, meeting girls and hanging out in nightclubs when he wasn't working. During the mornings, he studied journalism, biology and literature at Metro State. It was a pretty good life for a young man in his twenties: He had friends everywhere, some from back home.
"I knew some and met some when I got here," he says. "For a long time, I knew everybody and everybody knew me. It was, 'You know, Alemshet, he's an uncle to so-and-so and a friend to so-and-so.' But now we're losing that a little bit, because there are so many. It's not that people don't want to stay close; it's just getting too big to keep track."
Kidane Teklu has made a living out of watching Denver's Ethiopian community grow. Once a year he publishes Ethiopian Guide, a directory of local businesses that functions as a phone book as well as a reference to help demystify some of the alien details of day-to-day Denver. Alongside ads for realtors and mortgage brokers are calendars, the Roman alphabet, lists of American holidays and tips on where to buy phone cards to call Africa. One of Teklu's advertisers is a Los Angeles-based export company that ships Western goods back home; Teklu estimates that each Ethiopian immigrant in this country supports, on average, four people in Africa.
"It used to be a surprise to walk out on Colfax and see someone. You'd say, 'Look, there's Ethiopians!'" Teklu says. "Now, as the numbers increase, it's not such a surprise. You see a taxi driver, people at the airport, but there's also parties and restaurants, and you'll be happy to go there and know there are other people from Ethiopia.
"Americans are learning the Ethiopian face, too," he adds, "especially those people who are interested in outsiders. Some people are very interested in getting to know other people. I've met people who've told me new things about Ethiopia that I didn't know."
Teklu counts nearly 300 Ethiopian- and Eritrean-owned businesses in Denver and Aurora, partly because of abundant space and fairly inexpensive rent along Colfax. Many of them are liquor stores. "A liquor store can work in happy times and sad," he explains. "A drink you can drink in good times or bad. The bank knows that." Over the past decade, he's seen more immigrants graduating from the remedial jobs and service positions they found when they arrived and moving into the business world, though that's slowed some in a tough economy.
"In the Clinton era, you could apply for two jobs today -- both of them would call you before you even get home," Teklu says. "Now you can apply for anything you want and none of them will call you. There's competition for everything, and it's hard for everyone to get a job. That makes it even harder for the Ethiopian. They used to train you; now they might just pass you over.
"But America, it is the land of opportunity, and it's exactly the same for Ethiopians living in America as it is for others," he adds optimistically. "At least you can think freely. Most of the people here, at some point, they all go to school. And if you can be a very good student, you can do anything without limit. Be anything you want. Start a business. That is the final dream -- to be a professional, with the help of God."
For Alemshet, the dream began with driving. He hopes it doesn't die with driving. Over the past couple of years, the job has gotten harder. The cab companies have raised the fees that drivers must pay them each week. Some customers have turned hostile toward dark-skinned people, who sound to them like the terrorists they hear about on TV. The space allocated for taxis at the airport has gotten tighter, which means that on most afternoons, it can take four hours to move up through the crammed queue for a fare. Other regulations at DIA have become more strict, too, with drivers ticketed for minor traffic infractions. And there's no limit on the number of cab drivers who can take to the road in Denver, which means a glut of taxis have filled the streets. The combination has compelled Alemshet to take an activist's approach to his job: Last year, he joined ProTAXI, a quasi-union formed to advocate for better working conditions for drivers (see "The Meter's Running,"). But he's not sure that will do any good.
"My brother has children who were born in this country, and they love Ethiopia, and they love America," he says. "I don't ever tell them that I'm starting not to believe in America. Because I want to. I have a nice time in this country, I swear to God. But I don't want to be worried for the rest of my life. Am I gonna make enough money? Am I going to get older, have some children and have some fun? I get tired of the stress.
"You always hustle, never rest," he continues. "So many taxi drivers make accidents because they never sleep. I'm tired all the time. I used to enjoy my life -- go to clubs, make friends. Now look at this: I'm getting a gray hair. It's the taxi doing it."
Several years ago, Alemshet dropped out of Metro in order to work longer hours and send more money to his family in Ethiopia. Last year he enrolled in computer-programming classes at Emily Griffith Opportunity School, but he's still years away from a degree. There just isn't time for much besides driving. He's got to always be out there, scrapping for work in a field crowded with so many others -- most of them immigrants who, like him, are hoping to steer themselves to a better life.
"A lot of people come here and they just start to drive the taxi, because it's easy to get a job," he says. "I don't get mad at the other drivers, because they are my brothers. But if there were a limitation on the number of drivers, I would make enough money to help that young brother. I would take care of him, help him go to school.
"If it is a choice between these Africans having a job and not having a job, I say, 'Keep driving -- we'll share,'" he adds. "That's the way it is between us. Even if I don't have anything, I'm going to give some of it to you."
So many hours behind the wheel take their toll on Alemshet's physique as well as his psyche. On Friday at 11 p.m., he's sitting on a round yellow pillow -- which resembles a giant urinal cake or a perverse, inflatable Life Saver -- and making his tenth tour of LoDo in three hours. It's been raining steadily since 9 p.m., and the streets are a wet, kinetic painting: Colorful tail-light comets streak from cabs and buses that crowd the one-ways, cop lights spin in time to music blaring out of nightclubs.
Everywhere you look, there are taxicabs. On weekend nights, LoDo is fertile ground, made so almost entirely by alcohol.
"Tonight, I know, everybody be drunk," Alemshet says. "Every week, same thing. Drunk, drunk, drunk. I don't mind the drunk, but I won't pick them up if they're too bad. You can tell by the way they walk. They yell at you, refuse to pay. They waste my time.
"Sometimes I shine my lights on them," he adds, fingering the cop spotlight outside his window. "Just to give myself a laugh."
At a cab stand outside the Denver ChopHouse, Alemshet picks up a guy and a girl who aren't sure where they want to go. She wants to meet friends at Herman's Hideaway on South Broadway for one last drink before bed; he wants to go to bed, too -- at her place. The dampness of the air and the booze in their skin combine to make the car smell like a dive bar in a greenhouse.
"Driver, as you can see, obviously, we're loaded," she says, guiding Alemshet down Speer toward the club. At Broadway, she changes the plan and directs him to her apartment off Colorado Boulevard.
"You can come over, okay, but, we're just going to sleep, okay?" she says to the guy, who's laid his head on her naked shoulder. "Just sleep. On the futon."
After the couple gets out, Alemshet shakes his head as he pulls away.
"The girls, I swear, they get more drunk than the guys," he says. "A drunk white woman does whatever she feels -- take off top, try to touch you. They go crazy. She don't know that guy; now he's in her house. I see a lot of women lose their personality and do these crazy things."
Alemshet's cell phone rings through the darkness of the cab. On busy nights, he's on the phone a lot -- sharing tips with other drivers on hot and cold spots in the city, making jokes. Sometimes inexperienced drivers will call him for directions. Others seek his advice on whether or not it's worth going to work.
"I tell them, 'I can't tell you if it's good or bad out here tonight. You just do what you feel,'" he says. "If you feel it will be good to come out, come out. If you want to stay home and drink some wine, drink some wine. In this job, you've got to learn to listen to yourself."
As Alemshet simultaneously steers the cab and wipes condensation from his windshield -- the defroster isn't working, and neither is the dispatch radio -- he talks loudly to a friend in Arabic, holding the phone in front of him like a walkie-talkie.
"That was a funny Somalian guy," he explains after the call ends. "One time, I drove some guy for hours. At the end, he get out of the car, didn't pay me but left a large package in the back. I opened it up and looked inside. I didn't know what it was at first, but I read the box: It was a plastic pussy! The receipt was still there, so I took it back to the store and got thirty bucks for it. That was the first time I ever got paid like that! So now, every time I talk to this friend, he asks me, 'So, how's that plastic pussy?'"
Since he's in the neighborhood, Alemshet makes a stop at Gentlemen's Quarters, an all-nude bar just east of Colorado. The place is packed, and it's usually a good bet for a fare and a decent tip. After ten minutes, a man in a baseball cap stumbles up to the cab and climbs inside.
"So, did you have a nice time, my friend?" Alemshet asks him.
"Man, I swear this is only about a once-every-six-months thing for me," he says, a little embarrassed. "But, yeah, it was a buddy's party. I got in free. Whatever."
The cab goes quiet for the rest of the ride. Alemshet drops the guy off on a dark residential street near DU, not far from where Moustapha Marouf was killed in 1999.
"Sometimes a guy like that will tell you everything," he says. "Men are always so confused about women. They ask me for advice: Do you think this girl likes me? Should I call her? Sometimes I'll help them. I say, 'No. Don't call for two weeks.' Woman is like shadow. If you follow, you'll never catch. If you go away, she'll come after you."
Tonight has been a good night for Alemshet. By 1 a.m., he's made a hundred bucks. If he gets lucky and snags some fares from the closing-time crowds -- people stumbling out of East Colfax dives, gay bars along Broadway, chichi Cherry Creek clubs -- he'll scrape up another fifty or so. The way he sees it, that's not a bad haul, even if it takes all night.
"If I could do this business more, it would be okay," he says, checking in with dispatch to see if the radio is back on line. "You just never know what's going to happen. Some nights busy, you're happy, the customer's happy, everything is great. Thank you, God. Other nights, you just get mad and nothing happens. I would never let on to a customer, but on nights like that, I just want to explode."
On Broadway, just south of the Mayan Theater, a pair of women in cleavage shirts wave their arms wildly and jump up and down as Alemshet pulls to the curb. Like every other person Alemshet has picked up tonight, they're hammered: Sprawling into the back seat, they explain that they're standing on the street because they were kicked out of a bar for being rowdy.
"Where you from?" asks one of the girls, searching Alemshet's face in the rear-view mirror. "You've got an accent; I'm trying to place it."
"I'm from Jamavayana," he says, smiling.
"There's no such place," the woman says, leaning up against the partition that separates her from the driver. Her friend frames Alemshet in the viewfinder of her camera.
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"Okay, well, why don't you tell me where you're from?" he asks.
A flash of white light fills the cab as the woman's friend snaps a photo.
"I'm from the East Coast, originally," she says, thinking it over. "But I've been here so long, I guess I'm just from...here."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," says Alemshet. "I'm from here, too."