uptown action
  chicago, illinois, u.s.a.

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taxi school: city of chicago

Harold Washington College
Public Chauffeur Training Program
October 2002, Class T14H
Requirements (PDF)

Pictured above are:
Bacir - Montenegro
Ajibola - Nigeria
Haro - Ecuador
Gilbert - Nigeria
Cezar - Romania
Mukaila - Nigeria
Faith - Chicago, West Side
Muhamed - Chicago, South Side
Nafeez - India
Allen - Bosnia
Edgar - Ecuador

taxi school: day one

The classroom had a big window; it was on the tenth floor of the building. I looked down at the green river: a glassy ribbon under State Street's black iron bridge. Traffic moved impatiently over land, and only slowly on the water. I had been in a bad mood because my train ran late, and the window was a nice surprise.

The faces in the room looked as I had imagined: Pakistani, Nigerian, Indian, Bosnian, Moroccan, and Ecuadorian. Everyone was rather earnest about the prospect of earning a few legal dollars - whether they intended to remain in the States or not. I'm part Syrian-Aramaean; my pockets are empty, too. And so it didn't take very long for me to develop a deep sort of sensitivity for their plight.

I think that "plight" is a good word to describe the situation: almost everyone is having a hard time finding, or keeping, full-time employment and benefits; we're about to go to, or continue, a war of some kind; and cold weather is returning to Chicago.

The taxi school is run by the City of Chicago in conjunction with the City Colleges of Chicago. They were kind enough to provide us - the students - with a number of informative texts and individual sheets of paper.

Everyone remained silent as the instructor read aloud the course requirements and policies - until she reached number nine on the list:

9. Convictions.

At that point, a number of the students raised their hands. They inquired about probation, and misdemeanors as opposed to felonies. And then one of the guys from Ecuador asked, "What about the domestic violence?" Oh, that crazy Haro: What will he say next?

A few people seem really sharp: Niyi and Mukaili had an argument with Sattar about semantics and the word "answer," and for a few minutes I thought that I was in my philosophy seminar again. Things are just a bit easier for the Nigerians than some of the other immigrants: inasmuch as Nigeria was a British colonial territory, they usually have a good command of the English language.

+ + +

Whether I succeed or fail in this endeavor - whether I live or die - is really of no consequence, in the "Big Picture." But, the fact that someone like myself is doing this is probably not a good sign. My grandparents were the ones who immigrated to this country; they were the ones who struggled out of the ghetto. I have a few degrees; I have some life experience. And I'm back where they were.

My experience, however, is different than theirs in at least one important way: for them, work and acquisition were identical to purpose; and for me, the search for meaning and purpose in life has made it very difficult to integrate myself into the economy. And I'm not alone in this, I know.

taxi school: day four

Mrs. T. was a self-described, "powerful, Black, female." Mrs. T. grew up in Cabrini Green - one of the worst housing projects in Chicago. She had a stepfather; he molested her. She was sexually assaulted in an elevator. She got married; she had a child. And when her son was four years old, her husband was shot - dead. She went to work for a meat packing plant on the south side of the city. One day when she arrived at the plant, she found the doors locked: the company had been shut down, and the property was sold. Neither she nor any of the other employees had any warning.

For the first three days that it met, Mrs. T. was the instructor for the taxi class. Mrs. T. mispronounced many of the words that she used. And, from time to time, she spoke about herself and her life story rather than the course materials. But that was all right: Mrs. T. was responsible for teaching that component of the course that dealt with customer care, and diversity. She did a good job.

Mrs. T. had a smile every morning. She had a positive attitude - about herself, and the people whom she taught. Her voice was a Chicago voice; her story was a Chicago story. And when people spent eight hours a day in her classroom, barriers were broken down.

But Chicago has other voices too; and they're not all so warm and soulful.

Mr. N. walked into the taxi classroom on the fourth day, after Mrs. T. left. Mr. N. didn't describe himself in any way whatsoever, really. But a few of his personal details came out in his lecture - and in his manner too.

Mr. N. teaches the geography of the city. He's a White guy, about 69 years of age. He doesn't say the word, "place," he says, "joint." Mr. N. smiles rarely, and when he does it's usually because there is a problem of some kind. Mr. N. talks about the things that he has, and the places that he has been. Mr. N. seems to have done pretty well in life - in the manner in which most people understand doing well. Mr. N. still drives a cab from time to time; he owns cars and medallions. He comes across like an operator: he has connections; he's on the make.

City Hall has things fixed now, so that new cabbies need to score 85% on their exams in order to obtain a license. The vast majority of the questions on the City's exam deal with geography. Students are required to learn the names and addresses of several hundred hotels, hospitals, offices, and other public buildings in addition to the preferred routes between them, and the streets themselves. Mr. N. is the key to the geography.

The best of the students in the course see Mr. N. as one more obstacle to be overcome; I'm trying to learn from their example. I'm learning, but the atmosphere in the room is charged: everything feels confrontational. More than 1/3 of the students in the room have at least a bachelor's degree, if not more formal education. They're dealing with three layers of government: federal, state, and municipal, almost daily. They need to worry about U.S. Immigration, licensing by the Illinois Secretary of State, and the City of Chicago, too. They want a way - a legal way - to make money. They're willing to assume risk: they seem to have a type of spiritedness that many native-born Americans now lack. And if one way is closed to them, they will make another.


I was too hard on Mr. N. After being on the road for a month, I concluded that he had given me the best possible advice. Not a day passed without hearing his voice in my head. And he has his own story. He does care: he cares like a drill instructor cares, and he shows his love in a like manner. Jack Nichols reminded me of the range exercises at the Police Academy. All said, he was a rock solid man - cut from 1940's vintage cloth. Sometimes, understanding is contingent upon experience. I guess that many people - especially those who were raised in the urban centers of the States - have had strange and terrible things happen to them. Talk about free will and the soul isn't very popular with my colleagues in the social sciences. Everyone handles such events differently though; I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation.

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