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Empty Cab Theory

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As Lehman Brothers went under, Waraich’s earnings kept dropping along with the S&P 500. To compensate, he stopped taking a day off between seven-day leases. “It’s hard without a break,” he says. “That’s why a lot of cabdrivers have physical problems. You’re sitting in the cab ten or eleven hours, then after that you’re sitting in the bus.” He himself has struggled with diabetes, hepatitis C, atherosclerosis. Three weeks into his new schedule, he decided to stay home on Thursday, October 2, to honor Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. He planned to go to the mosque and have a special meal with his family. But after dropping off his cab late the night before, he collapsed while walking to Port Authority. He wound up in St. Luke’s, where they opened two clogged arteries with balloon angioplasty.

Three days later, back behind the wheel, Waraich found business even worse. Tips were down by half or more—a far cry from the boom year of 2004, when he was everyone’s “buddy” and one sleek-suited man tossed him $40 for a $2.90 fare. He could gauge the worst market days by his passengers’ mood. When they climbed in cranky and brusque, and yelled or whined into their cell phones, he knew he’d be lucky to get an extra dollar. If traffic was slow, they grumbled at each 40-cent meter drop. On October 6, after the Dow greeted the federal bailout with a 367-point tumble and the fixed-income market seized up, he had an uneventful ride with a middle-aged business type. Upon exiting, the man slammed the door so hard, Waraich says, “I was thinking the glass would be broken.” He feels for his Wall Street customers and doesn’t blame the bankers for the crisis. In trying times, he says, there is “always a story behind the story. If someone is angry and upset, there is a reason.”

The day after that, as the market fell another 508 points and Iceland teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, Waraich netted only $35 after six hours, his worst day ever. He found himself driving faster, more aggressively, trying to catch up—but what was the point? There were no passengers. At 11 p.m., for the first time he could remember, he knocked off in the middle of a shift.

“I don’t think this economic crisis will end very soon,” Waraich says. He doesn’t trust the looming inauguration to make a difference, whichever way it goes. All he can do, he says, is show up for his next shift, “work hard and trust in God, and hope that this day will be better than yesterday.”


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