Singh picks me up at my hotel for an early morning run to JFK. The light is dim, the streets and tollway nearly empty, but he drives with abrupt twists of his steering wheel, darting into what seem to me imaginary, short-lived openings. He tells me that he emigrated from India eleven years ago, and has been driving a cab in New York City for six. He started to notice a downturn in things long before the talking heads on television did. People traveling shorter distances. People tipping much less. And this on top of the longstanding loss of fares down to the World Trade Center. Since he rents his cab by the week and is responsible for the same payment no matter what, he explains to me, he now works roughly twelve hours a day to earn what he used to make in eight. He usually goes to bed at midnight, and gets up again at 4 a.m. The rest of the time he spends taking care of his family. His parents have been visiting from India, which was making things a little harder right now, with the extra cooking and laundry. It's almost a relief to get into his cab each morning, he says, even if things were far too quiet on the streets.
"So I guess now is not a good time to become a cab driver?" I ask him.
"No, no, actually it is. You could become one right away if you wanted to. That's the thing," he twists and darts. "Everybody complains there aren't enough cabs."
The day before I'd talked with Christie, who dressed in an elegant, all-black uniform sells handbags for up to $25,000 each at a mid-town boutique. She told me she was grateful at the moment for the women of Dubai, who still came in to shop and kept her commissions going.
She told me that she worked an unpredictable schedule: some weeks five days straight, then one day off; at other times three straight, then one off. A single mother, she woke up at six each morning, then at seven shook her fifteen-year-old son to life. (Through an older friend he'd just discovered pot, she confided, worried.) After seeing him off to school she walked and rode the subway to begin work at nine-thirty; in the afternoon treated herself to a decent lunch (her only real meal of the day); then at six-thirty rode the subway back to her Lower East Side apartment. She bought a lottery ticket once a week and dreamed of moving to California.
"What do you do when you're not working?"
"Nothing. I don't want to go out. I never do. I don't see anyone. I'm too tired. I have a gym membership but I never go. I read a lot. I'm in bed by 9:30 every night. I just take it one day at a time, trying to raise my son. I don't have time to think much. I just keep on."
At the airport, Singh takes my luggage from the trunk, nodding and quickly looking away as he pockets my tip, already eyeing the next lane opening up, exiting the dawn-red terminal. I look at my watch. Christie is just about to get up, an hour left before she has to wake her precious, only son.