News & Politics

First Person: Cabbie’s Girl

The next cab driver you meet could be someone like my dad—a man who came to America with dreams and whose family is proud of him.

“Is this how he imagined his life in America when he left India?” the author asks of her father, Paul Chawla.

In the summer, my father drives his taxicab with the windows rolled down. Air conditioning never quite cools his giant Crown Victoria on our hourlong morning commute from Dale City into DC, where we both work.

He no longer asks—as he sometimes did when I lived in dormitories as a George Washington University student—if I’d prefer to be dropped off a block from my dorm or sit in the back seat to look like a regular passenger. He knows I’ll sit beside him.

I almost always nap on those rides, and when I open my eyes, he’s laughing. He imitates how my head bobbles from side to side, like his defective windshield wipers, as I doze.

Sometimes my brother hitches a ride with us, and I sit in the back. Slouched low, I press my knees against the zone maps on the back of my father’s seat. The rearview mirror slices his face. Deep creases dig into his forehead, and white hairs outnumber black in his thinning beard and eyebrows.

His eyes droop low, melting into his cheeks. Is it boredom that weighs him down? Is this how he imagined his life in America when he left India 30 years ago?

He says he’s grown to like the life of a cab driver. He sets his own hours and has no manager to report to—flexibility that allowed my parents to raise us without the help of a babysitter. He decides when to take a break and when to eat lunch—tightly sealed Tupperware full of Indian curry leftovers that I pack for him each morning.

He says he meets fascinating people. From members of Congress to scientists to tourists, he chats with his customers with no hint that English is his third language after Punjabi and Hindi. He navigates the streets with ease, just as he zigzagged the alleys of New Delhi.

Growing up, I trusted that he was content with his job. Now I wonder.

As DC transitions from a zone to a meter system, newspapers are full of rants against cab drivers, claiming that for years the zone system made it easy to overcharge passengers. But when radio hosts blast “smelly cabbies” and request that they “take a shower” and “learn some English,” my blood boils.

I think of the night my dad was taken to a dark alley with a gun to his chest. Forcing him out of the car, one man held the weapon against him while a second man threw his keys into a bush. Then they ran away with his money, leaving him to fumble in the dark. My dad, like other cab drivers he knows, did not report the incident. “Who will care about another mugged cab driver?” he says.

I think of the drunks who have refused to pay him and the college kids who have thrown up out the window. I think of the endless circles my dad threads through the city in the August heat—those days when DC empties for vacation. I wonder how many times he’s been called a terrorist and why he never cries.

I know my father’s childhood dreams of America were lost here as he pursued “the American dream.” Though he came here with street smarts, he also had a keen business sense. Driving a taxi was a backup plan if his business ideas didn’t take off. But backup turned into reality as mortgages and children crowded his life.

Still, he smiles every morning when he drops me off at my dream job. As I hurry to the door, I turn and wave. Without him, I’d be lost in this city.