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JFK sea of cabs

From the Driver’s Seat: The Safari Becomes a Zoo, with Haitian Food

Cabs lined up for dispatch in the holding lot at JFK.

There are times when driving a cab in New York feels a lot like being on an urban safari, where I play the part of a heavily caffeinated hunter roaming the streets in a determined, sometimes desperate, search for passengers.

When I pulled into the yellow taxi holding lot at Kennedy airport yesterday, I felt like I’d left the safari and entered a zoo.

By the time I parked my cab in row 18, I was no longer a hunter, but one of hundreds of animals behind a chain-link fence watching a man in a Yankee cap roll a suitcase from taxi to taxi, selling plastic bags of spiced corn and peanuts that we were instructed not to feed to the birds.

A garbled loudspeaker barked instructions from the dispatcher’s booth, interrupting cabbies engrossed in dice and dominoes, afternoon siestas, books, and cell phone conversations. A few good drivers washed their windows and polished their fenders.

The restaurant in the holding lot at JFK. You trade the keys to your cab for the bathroom key.

Behind the restaurant in the middle of the holding lot, men took off their shoes, spread rugs on the concrete and knelt before the wall to pray. I looked for Mohammed – the cabbie I met on Monday who comes here every day – but I didn’t see him.

Inside the restaurant, drivers gathered in groups of four and five and blew off steam in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Russian, Haitian Creole, and African dialects I couldn’t place. For about 30 seconds, I was tempted to do some standing yoga to bring a little California to the mix, but I lost my nerve – I was a strange enough animal as it was.

Nick at the register. See the pain killers behind him?

I took some stares with me when I beelined it through the dining area – a series of chest-high metal tables and no chairs – to the counter, where pain killers were stacked alongside Cup o’ Noodles boxes and batteries. Beverage refrigerators hummed, and a wall-mounted menu spanned the globe with its offerings.

My Haitian meal: chicken, potato, black beans and rice for $7.

I ignored Salisbury steak, burgers and fries and looked for the biryani that Mohammed told me he usually orders when he comes here.

I found it under the “International Menu” listings, along with moussaka and a “Caribbean special”: Haitian-style chicken and a side of beans and rice that the guy behind the counter claimed was tastier than Mohammed’s meat and rice.

I took his word for it, but I didn’t expect much for my $7. What I got was a tomato and bouillon-poached leg from an apparently underfed chicken and a pie tin of black beans and rice that tasted halfway decent once I soaked them in my chicken sauce. Was it a meal worth a trip to the airport without a passenger?

Cabbies started a collection for victims of the Haiti earthquake in the dining area of the holding lot restaurant. All donations go to the Red Cross.

I didn’t think so. Neither did Joel, a Haitian cabbie who’s been driving for 24 years and who told me to go to Creole Plate (a Queens restaurant also known for numerous health code violations) or Good Taste (which doubles as an Italian-American buffet) for good, cheap Haitian food.

Joel’s recommendations were one of the things that made the trip worth it. That, and the chance to see so many cab drivers taking a break from the solitude of the safari to commune in a zoo that their passengers will probably never see.

The Holding Lot Restaurant (for yellow cabbies only)
Cargo area at JFK Airport – follow the signs to the rental cars
Open: 7 days, 5am-11pm (after 11pm it’s a takeout window and no hot food is available)

Click here to see more photos from the trip

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  1. So wait… no civvies? =(

  2. Nope – but don’t worry – you’re not missing much. If you’re determined to check it out, I could probably smuggle you in…