Last of three parts
This story was reported by the Globe Spotlight Team, reporters Bob Hohler, Marcella Bombardieri, Jonathan Saltzman and editor Thomas Farragher. It was written by Hohler and Farragher.
The crime-scene photos loop like a stubborn nightmare in a hushed classroom at a Boston police station in Charlestown.
There is blood —a cabbie’s blood, spattered about the interior of the Boston taxi he operated until early one morning in March 2012.
The cabbie’s fate is a mystery to the 20 men who sit shoulder to shoulder before the projection board. Most are immigrants, refugees, masters of many tongues, none of them English
It is opening night of the Boston police hackney carriage driver training class. Each gaze is fixed on the flickering crime scene images: a bleak corner of the South End where the cabbie, a 51-year-old married father, was stabbed nine times, stripped of his night’s earnings, and left for dead.
The men have waited months for a chance to become taxi drivers. They will spend five nights training for a licensing exam. And if they pass — many fail because of their limited English— they will learn the rest, in the garages and on the streets, the hard way.
As a Globe reporter discovered over eight nights as a licensed Boston cabbie and throughout a nine-month Spotlight Team investigation, the city’s newest taxi drivers join thousands already navigating through two Bostons: a luminous city of gleaming towers and vast opportunity whose workers and visitors they shuttle about daily, and the city’s struggling underclass, of which most of them are a part.
Laboring 12 to 24 hours a day as independent contractors, without job protections or benefits, they will endure shifts of public service and private indignities, outsized risk and systemic exploitation.
Many will be cheated by their taxi owners and customers. They will confront hazards more potent than potholes: violent crime, distracted and impaired drivers, and their own debilitating fatigue.
At 3 a.m., in the grip of winter at the taxi pool at Logan International Airport, Boston’s newest cabbies will find overworked drivers asleep in their cabs, two hours after the last incoming flight and two hours before the morning’s first arrival.
They will see faces of discouragement: Some drivers have come to believe supporting themselves requires turning the taxis they lease into their homes.
“You’re married to the cab,’’ said Ramon Calvo, who spent countless nights sleeping at Logan in his 22 years as a Boston cabbie. “You need to keep working to survive.’’
Among those waiting for work in the predawn gloaming is a 36-year-old Moroccan immigrant who worries about providing for himself and his diabetic wife, pregnant with their second child.
Two years ago, Said Elqanoun was diagnosed with acute renal failure. Independent contractors have no sick leave. So between his four-hour dialysis treatments, which he receives three days a week, Elqanoun drives on. After 13 years as a Boston cabdriver, earning about $30,000 a year before taxes, he remains so financially distressed that he has accepted government aid — health care, food stamps, and some disability funds — as a US citizen.
“I never wanted to go to the government for help, never,’’ Elqanoun said. “But I had to. We needed it.’’
What he urgently needs now is a new kidney. And while he endures a long wait for a donor, Elqanoun often begins his work days at 4 a.m., napping at Logan before the morning’s first flight.
“Being a cabdriver,’’ he said, “means that if you’re not turning the wheel, you’re not making a living.’’
New to the business
Most of the students in the training class are Haitians, Moroccans, Somalis, and Eastern Europeans. Some have waited nine months to begin training because of the high demand for Boston hackney licenses among immigrants who lack the language skills to qualify for many jobs but night cleaner, busboy, or dishwasher.
Only two class members speak with American accents: a retired Boston police officer and a Spotlight Team reporter. The former cop wants extra income. The reporter wants a driver’s side view of Boston’s taxi industry.
Before his stint behind the wheel ends, the reporter will see what it means to be cheated by a taxi company and his passengers. And he will survive a harrowing crash — a not-uncommon occupational hazard — after a motorist runs a red light near Copley Square. The collision will send the reporter and his passengers to the hospital and destroy the taxicab.
But in a city where cabbies are sometimes caricatured as greedy, surly, and thoughtless, there are moments, too, of humanity. The first voice the taxi’s occupants hear after their crash in the reflection of the Hancock Tower belongs to a faceless stranger, who inquires in accented English: “I am a cabdriver. What can I do to help you?’’Continued...