Empty Cab Theory

Pervaiz Waraich driving in Manhattan.Photo: Christopher Anderson

Pervaiz Waraich is cruising lower Manhattan, stuck in the worst dry spell of his seventeen years as a yellow-cab driver. After starting his twelve-hour shift an hour early, at 4 p.m., he has grossed just $22 in 90 prime-time minutes. He’s seen pedestrians on the streets, and a number of cars for hire, but the one group has no use for the other. No one is hailing.

“I believe that you came to me from God,” he says, happy to find a fare at last at a taxi stand on Water and Fulton. Waraich is a silver-haired man in professorial spectacles and neat business attire: powder-blue dress shirt, black sweater vest, crisp khakis. Though he’s lived nearly half of his 53 years here, he still sounds of his native Pakistan: liltingly inflected and slightly formal, as befits a college graduate with a degree in economics.

“Whenever I came here, I used to pick up a fare right away,” Waraich says, nodding at the Goldman Sachs headquarters at 85 Broad, that circa-1983 monument to the era of the investment bank. “It was the best area.” In the evening rush, the place would crawl with brokers headed uptown to their bull-market condos or, via Grand Central Terminal, their bonus-bloated Westport manses. Now whole brigades of golden boys are gone, and the survivors have apparently discovered mass transit. We turn east on Wall Street, past two limos loitering by the Deutsche Bank building, then south on Water—the same circle that Waraich traced twice, fruitlessly, just before I materialized. A constellation of medallion numbers whiz around us, alit and ignored. “You see the guy in front of me is empty,” he points out. “The guy coming from the other way, he’s empty; that guy is empty; another empty.”

As we merge onto the FDR Drive, yet another vacant taxi speeds by on our right. Waraich almost shudders in empathy; he’s made the same defeated trip himself, two or three times a week. “It’s awful,” he says. “That means he got no fare and he decided to go to midtown. He’s burning gas for nothing.” Cabbies make their money north and south. They count on fares from downtown to midtown (or farther) and back again, in a continuous loop. But now their money flow has been broken; it’s the roadside version of a liquidity crunch. “You lose heart, and you go back to midtown,” Waraich says. “If you don’t get a fare there either, you get so upset. It can put you in depression.”

One year ago, Waraich brought home up to a thousand dollars for a 60-plus-hour week to his wife and his college-bound daughter. This fall, his net income has plunged roughly a third, or about as much as the average large-blend mutual fund. (According to Bill Lindauer, campaigns coordinator for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the typical lease driver is down 20 to 30 percent.) Like his rent and utility bills in Old Bridge, New Jersey, Waraich’s business expenses are fixed: the $775 for a seven-day lease of a medallion and Crown Victoria from a big fleet on Tenth Avenue; the $40 per shift it costs him for gas, even with oil prices easing; the $17.50 for each round-trip bus from home. He has no investments, no 401(k), but the crash is killing him too.

Waraich believes in the theory that his job is a barometer for the broader economy: “You can see from taxi business if it’s good or not.” Immediately after 9/11, the cabbies endured a period when much of downtown was either off-limits or uninhabited. But within two years, Waraich’s income bounced back to normal. “This crisis, I would say it’s more than 9/11,” he says. “If the offices are closing, the businesses are closing, people are losing their jobs, and nobody is coming to Wall Street, who are we to pick up?”

He saw the first signs of a slowdown this summer, when he made a run down Fifth Avenue, from FAO Schwarz to 42nd Street, without a single fare—something that had never happened to him before. He began working fuller shifts on weekends, which meant a 5:30 a.m. bus back to New Jersey. He sacrificed the one great pleasure of his workdays, his mid-shift meal at a Pakistani restaurant on East 28th Street, which he likes for the grilled chicken tikka and fresh-baked naan and the lively conversation with his countrymen drivers. “I can’t afford to take the time off,” he says, holding up a sad plastic bag with a kebab sandwich. “I lose the money for the 40 minutes, plus I have to spend $10 over there.”

By September, Waraich was feeling nostalgic for the time when Wall Streeters would fight for his cab, cursing and shoving. “Now we’re fighting each other to pick up the fare,” he says. There are 13,237 yellow cabs in New York, 1,500 more than twelve years ago, and the drivers have mouths to feed. Waraich regularly finds himself cut off by a rival swerving in from an outside lane. One day, on East 52nd Street, he saw a livery pull over for a pickup and get its front fender slammed by a poaching yellow cab. The crash went to illustrate a truism: that an empty taxi is more dangerous than a full one.

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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Empty Cab Theory