Globe Series on Cab Drivers a Troubling Reminder of How Tough Some People Have It

Friday, April 5, 2013

Back in February, 1999, at the end of what I thought was a long, hard day at work, I walked to the Haymarket Station on the T and got on the one-eleven bus to Woodlawn.
Woodlawn is the stop at the end of the route, a turn-around.  It’s in Everett but is close to where the borders of Everett, Revere and Chelsea converge.
I grew up not far from there, in a small house on a hill in Revere.  Some of the older folks used to call it Hungry Hill.  That’s the kind of name you’ll find in a lot of towns: Hungry Hill.
I was going to my mother’s house to spend the night. 
My mother was 83 years old at the time.  She had lost much of her sight to macular degeneration and was declining physically at an alarming pace, although her mind was nearly as sharp as it ever was, which was very sharp. Someone had to be with her to keep her safe, so my brothers and I took turns spending the night there.
Looking back, I think those nights (and mornings) did more for us than for her.
The Woodlawn bus was over-crowded.  People filled every seat and jammed the aisle, shoulder to shoulder.  Some passengers, me included, were barely able to reach a seatback or an overhead bar to keep from falling as the bus lurched from the station, its engine roaring.
At the first stop, just over the North Washington Street Bridge in Charlestown, several people got off.  We who were standing immediately rearranged ourselves in the altered space of the aisle, as if obeying an instinct.
I wound up next to a seat occupied by a young man who appeared to be in his late-twenties.  He had a stocky, powerful build and a large, round, amiable face.  He was wearing a blue woolen hat with a soiled visor and the clothes of a laborer. 
This gentleman sprang to his feet, smiled and offered me his seat with a snappy hand gesture.  I think he said something in Spanish, but I’m not sure.  I smiled and shook my head. “Please. No,” I said.  “Sit down, please. Please.” 
He just stood there, grinning.  It felt like we were on the verge of a politeness showdown, but at last he resumed his seat.
A man offers a man a seat.  My first thought was, I must look a lot older than I am.  I was 48.  Then I thought his reaction may have had something to do with the social hierarchy of his homeland.  I was dressed up, wearing a starched white shirt and tie, and carrying a leather briefcase.  In the village he came from, maybe you were expected to make way for someone in authority?
Whatever the reason, his gesture caused me to take a good look around at the people I was travelling with.  Was I sticking out, I wondered.
Almost everyone appeared to be a newcomer to our shores and a minimum-wage worker.  From their clothes and the things they carried, I inferred they were custodians, garbage haulers, kitchen helpers, truck loaders, hospital orderlies, busboys, warehouse go-fers, chambermaids, nursing home aides, and the like.  Many were slumped in their seats.  Some were nodding off. They all looked tired and beat. 
As the bus came down off the Mystic River Bridge and started to weave its way through Chelsea, one or two people got off at every stop on Broadway and on Washington Avenue.  I’d keep them in my sights for a few seconds as they headed down the side streets, which were lined with old, multi-family homes.  My father was born in a three-decker on a side street in Chelsea in November of 1911.
I remember thinking: I’m glad I don’t have to do what they have to do every day.
In the inexplicable way that memories and images come to mind involuntarily, I found myself thinking of the Woodlawn bus earlier this week as I read the Boston Globe Spotlight series on the exploitation of cab drivers, “Driven to the Edge.”  You can find it at
Like the desperate cabbies whose stories the Globe recounted, many of the folks who ride that bus -- and others like it throughout metro Boston -- have few choices.  They have to take difficult, undesirable, low-paying and occasionally dangerous jobs.  They’re likely new to this country, have no advanced skills and little command of English.  If they didn’t work those crummy jobs, they wouldn’t survive.
I don’t often take a cab, and when I do, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the person who drives it.  Before “Driven to the Edge,” I didn’t realize the guy taking me to the airport is probably just scraping by, and that he goes without job benefits and workplace protections most of us take for granted.
I guess I really don’t want to know how bad life is for many of the folks I see in Boston every day.  I don’t want to dwell on the class structures erected by the engines of our free economy.
It was a relief, then, to learn that Boston Mayor Tom Menino announced Monday his intention to conduct a “sweeping review” of how cab companies are regulated and disciplined.  “We have real problems (with cab companies), and I’m concerned about it.  We’re not going to tolerate this nonsense,” the Globe quoted Menino as saying.
Few things in life are more heartening than a politician setting off to right an obvious wrong.  I like it when our leaders put some salve on the conscience of the public.

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