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Rough roads for Richmond’s cab drivers

on October 13, 2009

Lal Santokh has nothing good to say about his job.

Lal is an independent cab driver in Richmond. He named his one-taxi company after his son, Shaan. It’s pasted in big, blue letters on the door of his white Ford Crown Victoria. Lal has no dispatcher except his own cell phone, so a lot of his business comes from fares off the street. He compares his career to fighting in the Iraq War.

“I don’t know if I come home alive,” he says. “Night time, daytime, same thing. It’s very, very dangerous job.”

Still, every day, Lal and other independent taxi drivers line up at the cab stand here in front of the BART station at MacDonald Avenue and 18th Street—the end of the Richmond line. A flock of pigeons scuttles around by the cab wheels. The drivers lean on their vehicles or sit on egg crates in the median. They talk to one another and wait for business. They do a lot of waiting.

A flock of pigeons keeps the cabbies company.

A flock of pigeons keeps the cabbies company.

“People don’t make money here. We only make 30 dollars, 20 dollars per day,” Lal says. “No tip here. Never pay their tip here.”

Lal says that nine months ago, he was taking home $50 to $100 at the end of a shift. These days, he’s lucky if he covers his gas, which usually averages about $15 to $20 per shift. If it weren’t for his wife’s job at the post office, Lal says, the family wouldn’t have enough money for groceries.

Despite his low-paying and risky line of work, Lal smiles when he talks, turning to joke over his shoulder with his fellow drivers. But when Lal speaks about the hazards of his life’s work, his eyes widen and his smile slides into a frown.

Lal says he knew the driver who was shot on Sept. 23 while taking passengers from Berkeley to Richmond (Police say they have no leads in the investigation). Both cabbies emigrated from India’s Punjab region, and Lal used to work at the Arco station owned by the other man’s family. During those shifts at the gas station, Lal says he learned to tell the difference between shady customers and those who were legit. The shady people, he says, had suspicious eyes and wouldn’t pay up front.

“I know the people [who are] bad and not bad,” Lal says. “I’m careful. Otherwise the people want to try to kill me.” In five years of driving cabs, Lal says he hasn’t had a fare turn violent on him.

A trickle of midday BART riders comes out of the stairwell and into the sunlight. Lal scans the potential fares. Some of these people might hail a cab for a ride home, he says, and then go inside and lock the door without paying. Others might ask to be driven a couple of blocks to a secluded location and then rob the driver at knifepoint.

Gian Singh sits in his Star Cab car.

Gian Singh sits in his Star Cab car.

Lal calls over his friend, a towering man with a turban and an unkempt white beard whose name is Gian Singh. He is an independent cabbie who calls his taxi service Star Cab. He speaks very little English, so Lal interprets. Singh untucks his shirt from his slacks and pulls aside his suspenders to reveal a two-and-a-half-inch scar on his left side from an incident in which two passengers stabbed and robbed him.

Singh tucks his shirt back in and points to his shiny front windshield. He’s replaced it three times. The windshield was broken when passengers threw rocks and bottles into the glass after getting out of the car, the cab driver recalls.

Lal wants to get out of the taxi business for good. It’s trouble all the time, he says. He’d rather be a mechanic in a garage.

Every 20 or 30 minutes, someone approaches the taxi drivers. They all confer briefly, and then one of Lal’s buddies drives off with the passenger.

Lal stands by his car, brow furrowed, and watches the cab merge onto MacDonald and disappear down the street.

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