Cabbie Conflict

Pema Sharpa.jpgBack 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.

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About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates and blogs at Follow her at

12 thoughts on “Cabbie Conflict

  1. Remembered your work on the project, Taz. Was amazing.

    Couldn’t believe this guy survived the attack in the head.

  2. How come the two guys didn’t switch off with the day and night shifts?

    Probably becase the other guy had a family.

    In society, when you are single after 28 people dont treat you the same.

    If you are at work and the boss has to fire some guy, the guy without a family is going to get fired over the guy with a family.

    That being said. The cab business is the shadiest thing on the planet. Most of the workers are from countires where the law will not protect your business and they operate things how they do in those countries and not here. They try to scare people out of medallions, like people are just going to hand them a $200,000 medallion if you ask them for it in a threatening manner.

  3. i can see the envy thing building up till a point where he lost control. mr sherba had everything going for him – a supportive wife, a clientele who treated him with respect, a new medallion, a chance at the american dream. mr chantyal seemed to be going the other way – a cheating wife, bums for clientele, and a vortex that was sucking him lower into society.

    and mr sherpa is quite a guy if he managed to keep his head on straight. it’s a shitty job and the profits are slim if you dont have a medallion. i talk to cabbies a fair bit – a lot of them have trouble at home and i’ve traveled twice with guys who asked me for permission to take different routes because the direct route violated restraining orders. but the one doing nights really got it rough. you get fare jumpers, muggers, smelly, puking racist s.o.b.’s and that’s not a happy place to be.

    i looked thru the pdf linked by tax. good detail although surprisingly the impact on family (pg 21) is milder than what iheard. maybe life is better on the sunshine coast than the big smoak. :-/

  4. i looked thru the pdf linked by tax. good detail although surprisingly the impact on family (pg 21) is milder than what iheard. maybe life is better on the sunshine coast than the big smoak. :-/

    Totally milder (though this is relative I think). The issues the LA taxi workers have to deal with revolve around a largely car geared suburban culture. No one really takes cabs in L.A, which is why getting clients at the airport is such a big deal (that’s where we conducted most of the interviews).

  5. Great article.

    My uncle (who basically helped raise me like a dad) drove cab for decades after immigrating to Canada with my Grandparents. It is a very hard life, with farejumpers, back problems, violent / drunk fares, long hours, etc. He has been able to move into real estate and small business ownership and is now doing well, but I remember how hard it was. Working very late shifts and all hours can be brutal, especially with a family. There is also the fact that you end up drinking after hours with other cabbie / immigrant friends which can exacerbate the other issues which can lead to more conflict at home.

    It always boggles me how many cabbies were working, highly educated professionals in their home countries – I don’t know how many doctors, engineers, etc from here would be willing to move to another country and then start over driving a cab – yet they also wouldn’t have to worry about it since a US education is not questioned.

    People forget how hard it is for someone in their 30s – 50s to start over in a new country, have their credentials not recognized, and not be able to afford to re-certify when they have a family to support. There are many who do it and they should be commended. But for the rest, working a job like a cabbie is a quick (but not easy) alternative.

  6. ugh, yes, really sad story. Obviously we do not know everything that happened between them, but what seems most perplexing yet all-too-human is the urge to kill someone else in the face of one’s own failings and frustrations.

  7. “Still, Mr. Sherpa stunned Mr. Chhantyal’s relatives when he turned up at his memorial service, cuts from the cleaver still fresh.”

    Touching and tragic indeed.

  8. Wow, when i visited NY I always made an effort to chat with cab drivers. I was amazed by how positive all of them were despite the hardships of their career. I was amazed, their stories were inspirational.

    This is a tragic story. When attending the memorial Mr. Sherpa exhibited his greatness in character, truly his act restores our faith in humanity and forgiveness. I can only hope the plight of struggling immigrants in eased, the story is the same here in Toronto.