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Uber, Taxis and Travel
by Joseph Patrick Meissner


I love to travel. It is not the tourist places where we stop nor the sights that intrigue me but meeting new people.

I try to talk to everyone I encounter including the people on the street, waitresses in every restaurant, and the taxi cab drivers, especially the latter. Of course, Taxis must now compete with Uber drivers for my attention. This article of mine is the scoresheet for six wonderful chance encounters in Washington, D.C. Two were Uber people, two were Taxi veterans, one was an individual from Kabul, and then there was Calvin, the street protestor. Enjoy.

Two weeks ago we went to Washington, D.C. My first major encounter was Hervicius, our cab driver transporting us from Reagan Airport to our Marriott Hotel in Georgetown. "What is your name?" I always begin with that as I settle into the front passenger seat of a vehicle. (I always claim that seat since I can see so much more out the front window, I avoid any leg cramps with my metal hips, and I can speak better to the driver beside me.)

"Hervicius." And then, based on his wonderful accented English, I interrogate on his first Homeland. Yes, yes, the beautiful accents always gives away the immigrants to America. "Where are you from?"

"Can't you tell?" he responds, "I am from Ethiopia."

"We just had an Ethiopian named 'Ambo' help us at the airport taxi curb stand," I relate. "He would not take a tip from me for his services in hailing us a cab and then helping with our luggage."

"Oh yes," says Hervicius. "That is part of their code for that airport company."

"He did give me his business card," I countered. I do plan to send a note to his boss."

"He will like that," says Hervicius. (And later I really do follow up and send Ambo's boss an email thank-you for our airport welcome.)

"Are there many Ethiopians in Washington?" I inquire.

"Oh yes," reports Hervicius. "There may be a hundred thousand of us in Washington."

"A hundred thousand?" I cannot quite believe that. "That many Ethiopians? 100,000 of them? I question that."

"It's true," Hervicius argues. "Our one time emperor, Hailie Sellasie, liked America a great deal. So he sent many people to study here. But then with all the government changes and other problems, many of us could not return home. So here we are."

"What do they all do?"

"Oh, so many of us work in the taxi business and in hotels and other service jobs. We survive."

"What about Uber?" I inquire, "Isn't that putting all the taxies out of existence?"

"It does hurt. But I do not think that business model will work in the long run. Sure they sign up a lot of drivers. But after three months everybody leaves and you start all over again. Also their drivers do not know the city like we do, even with GPS."

Of course, we did use Uber. Our first driver was named "Deacon" who set racing records as he wheeled us about in Washington traffic.

"I once was a taxi driver," he confessed, "and I still am."

Suddenly, a taxi cab driving in our direction challenges his Uber vehicle from the left driver side. We stop at a red traffic light.

"Why are you now with them?" shouts the taxi driver out his front passenger window. "I thought you were one of us."

"I am, I am," Deacon pleads. "Here is my taxi identification." Deacon holds up a large rectangular card and shows it to the other driver. The other driver laughs.

"Yes," Deacon apologizes to us, "I do both. But I cannot drive eight hours day, seven days a week," he explains.

"I use to have two jobs including one putting in HVAC equipment in buildings. That was hard work I did at night and weekends. Then I fell and hurt myself bad. My back cannot take all that climbing around and stress. Now I do the taxi when I can. I also do Uber on some days and we only have to put in a few hours and my back doesn't give me constant pain."

"Do you have any family?" I inquire.

"That's the other part. I have two boys, seven and ten. They need me and now with the Uber I have a lot of quality time with them. I can also coach the kids' sports teams. So my wife has a hard schedule as a nurse, always on call. I take care of the home. I also tell her to leave all the problems and everything at work and we can enjoy our home. I want to make the home nice for her."

"Sounds like the accident was part of God's plan for you," I joke.

"I feel much more at ease with everything. I am even enjoying our life."

Our next taxi driver turns out to be, "Marilyn Delatty." We wave her down on the far east side of the Capitol where we are stuck and need to get back to our hotel near George Washington University. She jerks to a stop and we all pile in.

"Oh," says Gia Hoa. "You are a woman. We do not get many women taxi drivers."

"Sure, there are some," she says in her brand of English. "I have been driving for over twenty years." She looks very maternal, even grandmotherly as she drives her cab through the Washington traffic. "Marilyn," she says as I ask her name.

"Where do you come from?" She has beautiful medium chocolate skin color and I guess she may be from the Caribbean. "From Monrovia," she emphasizes. "Bet you don't know where that is at." Another smart-aleck for a driver, I muse.

"Liberia," I give the correct answer. Give me an "A."

Joe Meissner with cab driver

Then I begin. "Have you been back to Liberia?"

"No, not too much," she answers. "Lots of problems there."

"You now have a woman president," I invite her comments. I'll show Marilyn she does not have a stupid passenger. "How is she doing?"

"Oh, she tries." Better not get too political, I retreat from that topic.

Somehow we get to discussing taxi cab drivers and how some mistreat their passengers. "There is one trick," I tell her that I have experienced. "In a strange city, the driver will take me around and around to build up the fare."

"Oh, that is an old trick. They did that to me one time long ago in New York. I just told the driver, 'Get me to the ferry.' This guy kept taking me one way and then another. 'Where we going?' I finally asked him. 'It is just this way, a little further,' he says. 'Nahhh, I don't think so, Man, you going in circles. Maybe you haven't guessed yet, but I am a taxi driver also.'"

"'Oh,' he backed down, 'You are? Well, I was just giving you a little tour. Showing you our town.' 'That's enough,' I say, 'Get me to the ferry fast.'"

She laughs a good hearty laugh at her story. By then we are back to our hotel.

That is two taxi cab drivers and one Uber driver so far. Next I meet Calvin, or rather encounter his housing accommodations. I did not meet him until the following day. I had seen his tan cardboard hut like a small defensive pill box at the corner of our Hotel avenue. It was four sided made from strong cardboard and attached to the telephone pole. It must have been six or seven feet tall and I wondered how it could survive there with police cars and police people present everywhere.

Joe Meissner tent in Washington DC

When I first saw it, there was nobody in it. Not even anyone near it. The light brown cardboard walls were covered with white sheets of paper, filled with all sorts of long printed messages. It seems that the message writer had some kind of legal case about various misdemeanors on his record and he wanted somebody to represent him in Federal Court so he could expunge these and then join the air force. But though I stood there several minutes reading all this sidewalk pleading, nobody came by.

The next morning is Sunday and we are all celebrating our military hero's scholastic triumph from the night before at George Washington University where he received an award for his article on FARC and ISIS along with his Master's Degree. We will all gather at a hotel just down the street at a huge congratulatory breakfast buffet. The others go ahead of me and I follow later, walking out the hotel and down to the corner. There is an individual inside the hut still attached to the corner pole, talking out the "windows."

"Hello," somebody says from inside the hut, "Can you spare any change?"

Little do I know that one of the family is filming my new client and they will show me the proof at the buffet table.

""Okay," I answer, reaching into my wallet to pull out a crumpled dollar bill.

As I hand it to him, I remark, "So this is your place. What is your name?"

"I am Calvin," he responds, "what is your name?"

"I am Joseph, the lawyer. Here is my card," and I hand him a crisp new business card from my wallet.

"Why are you here?" I inquire.

"I am trying to get some legal help. I want to get into the air force. But I have three misdemeanors on my record. These can only be expunged by a Federal Court."

I really am not certain about that legal analysis. Every jurisdiction has its own rules about expunging somebody's criminal record. Some are very restrictive, others more liberal. The main problem is that legal authorities, like the FBI, can usually find out somebody's criminal record even after expungement. So poor Calvin. He may find some angel lawyer, gain his expungement, only to find the Air Force still can find out about his misdemeanors and consider these on his application to enter the service.

So I leave Calvin in the bright Sunday sun and head for the hotel where everybody is enjoying a huge Sunday buffet of crispy waffles, and pan cakes dripping several syrup flavors, and eggs of all kinds, and specially-made omlets, and breads of all kinds, and much more.

"Did you meet anybody new today?" Gia Hoa asks as I enter the large Hotel dining room. This sounds like I am being set up. If I say "yes," then I must tell all about stopping for poor Calvin. If I say "No," they may expose me as a fraud.

"Always my new clients talk to me," I try to fend off their attack.

Then Gia Hoa accuses me, "Here we have a photo of you with your new client." Then she and the others show me a cell phone photo and there I am consulting with my latest client.

Later we drive by Calvin's corner and he is gone. So is his protest booth as the telephone pole is now naked. What happened to poor Calvin? Strangely enough he telephoned me at my Cleveland office two weeks later and wanted to talk with me. I was not available. He did not leave a return phone number and I shall have to await his next desperate plea for help.

After breakfast and another great time with little baby Lawrence, we shall head for the huge Mall at the Pentagon. We males wander about while the females invade all of the clothing stores, seeking bargains. Later we shall all meet at Nortstrom's. There I shall meet Sadiq who is standing at a second floor security station in Nordstrom's. I am tired and leaning against a store pole. "Are you okay?" he asks me.

"Just a little tired," I respond, "What do you do here?"

"Oh, I am in charge of all security on this floor."

"Where are you from," I ask, thinking perhaps he is from Egypt.

"I am from Afghanistan," he smiles.

"From the capital, Kabul?" I guess.

"Yes, that's right. I still have family there. We are Pushtun."

"Yes, I know 'Pushtuns.' How long are you here in the U.S.?"

"About twenty years," he smiles again.

"Do you ever go back?" I ask my important question.

"Oh yes, in 2009 I went back. I tried to recover the family lands. No luck. It takes about $250,000, in legal fees and under-the-table payments to get back $500,000."

"What's it like there?

"Lots of corruption. There are some good people in the government, but then it's all payments and influence. I decided it was no good to try to recover anything. So I return here."

"Do you know who is General Abdul Rashid Dostum is?"

"Yes, Dostom is not really a bad person. He is very likable when you meet him one on one."

"Are you a Muslim?" I charge ahead.

"Yes," he answers, "but I am a moderate."

"Assalamu alaikum," I give a standard Islamic greeting of "Peace be with you."

"Alaikum Salaam!" ("And peace upon you also!") he responds immediately. I have noticed that. When I give the greeting, even though it is obvious I am not Muslim, the immediate response of "Alaikum Salaam!" is returned. Of course, people of Jewish background give these greetings and others from the Middle East of many faiths use these. Even the Pope says in Latin, "Pax vobiscum!"

"Have you ever heard of Fethullah Gulen?"

"Who?' his face sports a quizzical look,

"Fethullah Gulen." I slowly emphasize the name.

"No, who is he?"

"He is a moderate Muslim and spiritual Imam from Turkey. He is a Muslim who believes in such ideals as moderation, brotherhood and sisterhood, tolerance, and dialogue. He inspires a movement called 'Hizmet' which means service, for helping all peoples."

"No, I never heard of him," Sadiq shakes his head.

"Well, he is the one who on September 12, 2001, you know a day after 9/11, wrote a letter for the front page of the Washingtoin Post in which he writes this line: 'No Muslim can be a terrorist and no terrorist can be a Muslim.'"

"I will have to look him up," Siddiq promises, "'Fethullah Gulen.' Let me find out more about him."

"What do you think will eventually happen in Afghanistan?" I ask the hard question for his prediction.

"I don't know. Everybody worries about what will happen when the Americans leave."

My mind runs through the television filming of families trying to get out of Sai Gon in 1975. When I first watched that, I thought the people had panicked. No, as I reviewed the TV film and heard from on-the-scene reporters, the people did not really panic. In fact, they were so patient waiting on the climbing stairs for the American helicopter to return to that building top so they could climb aboard with their families and find safety.

We Americans know so little about how others in the world struggle just to live. I too fear what will happen in Afghanistan after we Americans desert them just like we abandoned the Vietnamese. Will the Taliban be kind and gentle just like in the teachings of Fethullah Gulen?

Everybody has now arrived and it is time to leave Nordstrom's. My new friend Saddiq smiles and says he hopes we will meet again. It is picture time. I ask one of the people with us to take a photo of Sadiq and myself on my digital camera. The photo is immortal.

Joe Meissner and Siddiq

We then all depart for a party with Larry's friends at a very nice housing apartment area just outside Washington, D.C.

The next day, we must leave for the airport. I and Greg spend a nice but too short Monday morning viewing all the exhibits at the huge American Indian Museum in the Smithsonian Complex. It would take all day to see the four floors of exhibits but we only have an hour or so. I have been here before. This museum inspires me with many thoughts and the exhibits encourage me with our Native American litigation against the racist trademark of Chief Wahoo. It also provides ideas for an Asian and Vietnamese museum which Gia Hoa wants to open in Cleveland.

I pick up a new truth at the Indian Museum. It is a Native American Indian speaker on a movie who says, "In their treaties, the white men made many promises. But they kept only one promise--they promised to take our lands."

So Greg and I race back to the hotel. Our luggage is ready and the ladies are in charge to get us moving. They call Uber. Six minutes later a beautiful large Black SUV comes down the street and pulls into the hotel space. It is so clean with not a mark or scratch on its pure deep black surfaces.

A gentleman hops out from the driver's seat. He is wearing a crisp new fedora and a nice brown suit. "I always dress this way," he seems to be responding to our secret thoughts. He helps us put our bags in the back and then we take our seats. I seize my front passenger seat.

"What's your name?" I am eager to begin the interrogation.

"McCauley. William McCauley." I half expect him to say, "Sir William McCauley."

"Where are you from originally?" I have noted his very precise high-Deutsch pronounciation.

"Sierre Leone," he intones.

"When did you come here?"

"Many years ago!"

"Have you gone back?" "Last time I was back was 1992."

He pauses a few second. "There was so much bad going on, so much killing."

I can remember all the films from there about the diamond trading and the armies of ten year olds, all carrying their AK-47's which stand taller than these youthful soldiers. "Wasn't that the times of the children soldiers," I ask Mr. McCauley. "They were carrying their Ak-47's and smiling."

"Yes, people using them. This was all built on tribalism, on the remnants of that idea. If you belong to one tribal group then you back your tribesperson and kill the outsiders. The tribal leader may be a bad man, but the people are not literate and they must believe in somebody. So the bad man becomes the ruler and all his tribe must follow him.

"What are the main tribes?" I march into the forest.

"The biggest is the Time," Mr. McCauley teaches me

"What tribe are you?" I ask.

"I am no tribe. I was part of those who returned from overseas many years ago. Our ancestors had been taken in the days of the British trade in slaves and our ancestors could be sold anywhere, the Caribbean, America, anywhere even into England.

We then review the history of the British trade in slaves and the outlawing of the trade. There were whole ships of slaves stopped and sent back to Africa. The British navy would patrol the sea routes, capture the slave ships, and then send them back. But these people were not really accepted in Africa. So they wandered about and some even wound up in England with their offspring as free Blacks. "Later we would try to come back to Sierre Leone and find a place. That is how my family got back, but then later we came to America."

"Have you been driving a cab for long?"

"Oh yes, over thirty years."

"But this is an Uber cab?"

"Well, that is a long story," Mr. McCauley begins his epic story. "I was a cab driver and taxi owner for many years. I even became head of the cab owners association here in Washington. I saw what was going to happen. I testified before Washington City Council before Uber got here. There were 6,000 cab owners. We tried to unite them all and get them enrolled. I would take out bundles of membership forms. Oh, the others would take them. 'Yes, sir, yes sir, I will fill one out. I will pass this to the others I know." But there were few who returned. We only had 600 members. I tried to get benefits for them. For example, you must have a very clean cab. That is what passengers look for. Cleanliness! So as their president, I worked out a deal with the wash stands.

"A cab driver would pay only $50 a month, and he could get his car washed and cleaned, even if every day But they did not take advantage of this. Then came Uber and now it all changed. We had competition, stiff competition which it was hard to match. I had spent my own money, getting forms and literature printed at my expense. I could not keep that going, especially with so little support from them. So I joined Uber. Now I can work when I want. All day or a few hours, I am in charge."

We are now driving up to the airport doors. Mr. McCauley stops his beautiful van and hops out. Soon we have our luggage. I reach out to shake Mr. McCauley's hand. "Nice to meet you," he says.

"Good to meet you and hear all your stories. I expect to hear of you again."

Good people, good memories, and I say a prayer for all of them, especially Calvin.

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