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Baltimore's taxi cab drivers come from around the world, working to make their dreams a reality in their adopted city

The Baltimore Sun

There is a certain calm before the rumble of the train, before the passengers descend, before they file into taxi after taxi.

It is during those precious moments that the line of taxi drivers outside of Penn Station on St. Paul Street stretches into a long, thin No. 2 pencil - 12, 13, even 15 taxis long.

The men from Ethiopia and Eritrea, India and Pakistan, Nigeria and Russia, gather here. Some are from rival countries, but here there are no barriers, just the shared experience of a profession with no glory.

Many met each other here, on this strip of concrete, where they shake hands and exchange words, often in a foreign language.

Some read news about their home countries, or sit in their idling cars, listening to music from faraway lands.

Others mingle. After all, this is their coffee shop, their meeting ground, the only atmospherics a concrete sidewalk, exhaust and the breeze from the cars whizzing by.

Some talk of the professions they had in their homelands. One man worked in a bank, another as a reporter.

Others talk cricket or movies or occasionally shop, like the customers that treat them well - or not so well.

There is Manjit Kairo Singh, an Indian from the northern state of Punjab who wears a turban, a sign of his Sikh faith. He doesn't mind when customers ask him where he's from, just the other assumptions.

"They asking me, 'When are you from, Afghanistan?' because I have a turban always," says the 53-year-old Glen Burnie resident. "They say, 'You Taliban?' I say, 'No, I'm from India. Sikh. We are not Muslim.' I teach them."

But Singh doesn't regret coming here. "U.S. is the best country in the world," he says. "Everything is the best."

Two men from Ethiopia and one from Nigeria, Joseph Edion, chatter near the end of the line. One motions ahead.

"The Indians are over there," he says.

Manmohan Singh Anand, 53, is standing alone. He, too, is a Sikh from Punjab. He came to the United States about five years ago and has worked as a taxi driver for four years. "I have my own taxi, so I am working like a retired person," he says.

The White Marsh resident says most of his business comes from Penn Station. He has met many fellow Sikhs who speak his native tongues, Punjabi and Hindi, here. "We have a lot of friends in this business," he says.

He doesn't talk to the Africans as much, he says. "I have no too much understanding with them," he says, explaining the communication problem.

The rumble of the train sounds. Anand must go. Taxi after taxi follows until the street is devoid of yellow.

But not for long. During peak hours, the trains come every 20 or 30 minutes, discharging a steady stream of customers.

And so, 20 minutes later, the line is back. Three, four, five and growing.

In the back, Abdul Qadeer, 55, walks out of his car and warmly greets and shakes hands with Mohammad Rafique, 54, of Dundalk.

"We are from the same country," says Rafique proudly. "Pakistan."

Rafique bought his taxi and is in the process of buying his permit, a payment he hopes to complete in 30 weeks. "I don't like to really drive a cab, but I have to until I get my business," he says.

He hopes to buy a 7-Eleven store.

Qadeer likes the independence of his job. "I like the self-employment," says the Baltimore resident.

At 3 p.m. the next day, Daniel Obasogie fields a question about his native Nigeria.

"Do you have pretty ladies in Nigeria?" a native Baltimore taxi driver asks him.

"We have pretty ladies there like here," he answers. "Pretty ladies are everywhere."

Obasogie lives nearby. He's been driving a taxi for two years. He doesn't really like it, just the flexibility.

His wife is in Nigeria. He sees her once or twice a year. And now there is the added burden of their 5-month-old daughter, whom he doesn't get to see.

He won a visa lottery in 2003 to come to Baltimore. "I wanted to come to support my family back here," he says. The family he now never sees.

He says he hopes he'll be able to become a citizen in five years and bring his wife and baby to Baltimore.

He likes that there are other Nigerians in Baltimore. But he enjoys the camaraderie from his work colleagues as well. "We talk here or at the company," he says. "We're from all over the world. ... We're all friends. But we don't have time to hang out."

An Amtrak Acela train rolls in. Bigger tippers? Not really, he says. He doesn't mind if people tip or not. Most give a buck or two.

One woman tipped him $10 when she learned about his family in Nigeria. Another, a football player whose name he can't remember, gave him $10.

He'd like to buy the permit to his taxi but doesn't have that kind of money now. So instead he dreams of his next visit to Nigeria, or the day he can bring his daughter to the United States.

The roar of engines sounds. Obasogie must go. But he'll be back. Most of them come back, making the same cycle hour after hour.

Dereje Ashagre is left alone for a few minutes. The 40-year-old North Baltimore resident was a reporter in Ethiopia, working for a radio station, newspaper and magazine.

"Yes, I miss it," he says. "Now I write diaries, some short stories."

But most of the time he spends here, ferrying passengers back and forth from Penn Station. "It's good," he says of the job. "Hopefully, my wife and two children will come this year. Hopefully, I'll become a citizen. Hopefully."


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