About halfway through my ride with Hossam from Spanish Harlem to Midtown, I asked him what inspired him to leave Egypt.
“I hate it,” he said.
“What do you hate about it?” I said.
“Why is that important?” he said, “What does that have to do with Taxi Gourmet?”
I explained that while I was definitely interested in his favorite thing to eat, I also wanted to hear his story, to learn about what had led him to the driver’s seat.
“But if you don’t want to talk about that stuff, it’s OK,” I said, “We can just talk about food if you want.”
He stared down 2nd Avenue for a few seconds, changed his grip on the steering wheel and turned to me as he explained that lack of freedom, political corruption, and lack of opportunity were what led him to leave his family in Alexandria and try his luck in New York in 1999.
Despite his perfect English and his computer programming skills, he could only find work as a driver delivering clothes. He took computer classes on the side, earning certifications in A++ and some other program I’d never heard of.
When he finally got up the nerve to look for jobs in his field, the recession hit. That’s when he started driving a cab. Five years later, he’s still at it seven days a week.
According to Hossam, “There’s nothing good about being a cab driver. The TLC [Taxi & Limousine Commission] is giving licenses to an increasing number of drivers, which leads to abuse of drivers from garages. They increase their prices, and we make less money. I used to make $700-800 a week. Now I make $450-500.”
“I would love to get anything if I can get out of this [job],” he added.
I understood where he was coming from. $500 for a week’s work – especially in a job as mind-melting as driving a cab – does not a living wage make in New York City.
The food portion of our journey was the only part that didn’t depress me.
Once Hossam got talking about the falafel he eats on duty (at a recently opened place called “Cheap” on 2nd Ave. and St. Mark’s Place), he almost cracked a smile.
And when he told me about the couscous platter at Little Morocco on Steinway St. in Astoria, which comes with lamb and vegetables, costs $10 and is only served on Fridays, I made no effort to hide my excitement.
Tomorrow at lunch time, this is where I’ll be:
2439 Steinway Street – Astoria, NY
Tel. (718) 204-8118
Note: If you want to come and share the couscous, Hossam advises you to get there early – the place gets increasingly crowded as the day progresses.