Could 2010 get any worse for taxi drivers in Miami? This summer, one cabbie was nearly killed in a deadly shooting while at least seven others were robbed at gunpoint. And in a move to protect taxi drivers, the County Board of Commissioners could soon force them to buy expensive cameras.
So what could be crappier than being broke and terrified of dying every time you go to work? Well, being homeless, for starters. Cabbies at MIA say many, perhaps dozens, among them have nowhere to sleep but their bright yellow Crown Victorias.
"I eat here, I sleep here, I brush my teeth here," says one Cuban-born taxi driver. "It's not an easy life."
He's not alone. Fellow cabbies tell tall tales of co-workers who spend so much time behind the wheel -- sleeping in the line to pick up nighttime arrivals or in a nearby waiting lot -- that they grow deformed, permanently bent to fit their black leather seats. One taxicab camper is nicknamed "the Amazon Man."
"Right now, we have many drivers who sleep in their cars," says Raymond François, an administrator for the New Vision Taxi Drivers union. "They've lost their homes due to foreclosure or can't pay their rent," he says, estimating that dozens of cabbies are living in their cars. "Where else can they go?"
Airport officials say they are unaware of any drivers living at MIA. But homeless or not, airport cabbies have a lot to complain about. One, named Luis, shows off a cell phone video of packs of rats scurrying across the parking lot at night. "There are hundreds of them living over there in the bushes," he says. "It's disgusting."
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Victor Hornes, a 51-year-old cab driver from Peru, says a $1.5 million passenger-pick-up pavilion recently built at MIA isn't helping much. "It's 105 degrees under here sometimes," he shouts over the furious clicks of dominoes and checkers slamming on bright blue picnic tables. "These mist machines haven't worked for months."
Cabbies want the county to not only maintain the pavilion but also put a cap on their leases so they don't have to choose between tiny apartments and their Crown Victorias. But Sonya Perez, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade's Consumer Services Department, says state law prevents her office from limiting lease prices.
Not all taxi drivers fault the county for their work conditions. A young cabbie named Cesar says fellow ferrymen are partly to blame for the sad state of affairs at the airport. "Some cabbies pee in plastic bottles while working; then they dump it here in the parking lot," he says. "When it rains, the whole place smells like piss."
"But how can I blame them," he says with a shrug. "It's not like they have anywhere else to go.