Back in grad school, I worked on a report with the LA Taxi Workers Alliance interviewing cabbies about their work and living conditions. The stories that I heard were deeply human about personal lives and labor conditions. It was common to hear stories of cabbies that would lease their cabs at outrageous daily costs. Often one cab is driven by two drivers, one taking a day shift, the other the night shift, working solid 7 days a week.
The New York Times covered a tragic story, between two Nepalese taxi drivers sharing the same cab in New York City.
Each man had come from Nepal over the past decade, and attended the same taxi-training school in Jackson Heights. For a year, they had split the $1,400-per-week leasing fee on a yellow cab, Medallion 6M83, trading 12-hour shifts behind the wheel, seven days a week.
Mr. Sherpa, 28, drove days, chauffeuring strivers bound for business meetings, power lunches and auditions. Mr. Chhantyal, 30, shepherded the denizens of New York’s nightlife, the decadent and the dangerous.[nyt]
The day shift driver, Sherpa, had a happier life with a wife and baby girl at home whereas night shift driver Chhantyal had a much more depressing life. It also turned out that Sherpa had just secured a car loan that would soon make him a taxi owner and Chhantyal would become his employee.
Mr. Sherpa received Mr. Chhantyal’s usual wake-up call at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12… Typically Mr. Chhantyal, to avoid complications from one-way streets, would park and wait for Mr. Sherpa on busy Broadway, which comes to life early with cabs and service vehicles headed toward Manhattan. But on this morning, Mr. Sherpa saw that his partner had parked on deserted, residential 62nd Street. As usual, Mr. Chhantyal stepped out to give Mr. Sherpa the driver’s seat. But, strangely, he let the door close and lock. As Mr. Sherpa fished for his duplicate key, he recalled, he felt the first blow.
That September morning on a Queens sidewalk, Mr. Chhantyal finally had the upper hand, swinging the cleaver that he and his roommates used to chop vegetables. Until Mr. Sherpa, on his back, somehow managed to kick the big blade from his hands, sending it skidding under the cab.> Bleeding profusely, the day driver leaped to his feet and ran to a nearby gas station; he spent five days in the hospital, but survived. The night driver hopped back into their cab and drove three minutes to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, where he pulled over and leaped to his death in the East River. [nyt]
After all was said and done, it was found that Chhantyal had written a suicide note to his uncle that night. He was found in the river soon after and cremated.
Friends and relatives of each driver said there was never any bad blood between them. Still, Mr. Sherpa stunned Mr. Chhantyal’s relatives when he turned up at his memorial service, cuts from the cleaver still fresh.[nyt]
You can read the whole story at the New York Times. It’s well written, giving full biographies of the two drivers and their lives as immigrants in New York City. It’s a tragic story, highlighting the contrast between the positive bootstrap story and the struggle of being an immigrant. Taxi workers work hard at their living, often struggling on the day to day, and I have much respect for them. I wonder what could have been done to prevent this tragedy – maybe immigration help for Chhantyal or maybe access to mental health resources for taxi workers. Or maybe even just a positive conversation with a customer that night could have changed his mind. Maybe nothing could have been done to change the situation but I’d like to think something could have.