Recently the Sun-Times reported a City Hall crackdown on cabdrivers who refuse to pick up customers in tough neighborhoods or who pass up African American customers. “Cab driving is a tough, dangerous profession–and there are a lot of wonderful drivers out there–but the rules are there for a reason,” said Caroline Shoenberger, commissioner of consumer services.

This is a problem destined to continue as long as cabs and crime both exist. Everyone has a right to cab services, regardless of race or address. But everyone has an instinct for self-preservation, too. The law has yet to be written that can balance rights and instincts.

Shoenberger is understating things when she calls cab driving tough. One cab driver–a young father of two who was engaged to be married–has already been killed this year, and another was shot, both in robbery attempts. Two weeks ago an Evanston man was sentenced to 100 years for murdering a driver rather than paying his fare. No drivers died on the job in 1993, but six were murdered in 1992. A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health named cab driving the single most dangerous profession in the U.S.

So it’s not surprising that cabdrivers’ viewpoints on these issues differ from those of the average passenger. Before the latest crackdown, a group of Iranian cabdrivers sparred with each other on the subject over breakfast and countless cups of coffee at Chicago’s cabbie capital, Mike’s Rainbow Restaurant, 708 N. Clark. It was a frank conversation, so we’ve changed their names.

Harry: What people do not understand, when you see a cabbie in the street, it does not mean always he has to pick you up, because sometimes he wants to go to the bank, pick up his children, he’s coming to eat, he has to go to the washroom. What the hell am I supposed to do if I have to go washroom? Park my cab in the middle of nowhere and go walk there? No, you drive the cab there. Then someone writes your number down and says this cab did not stop.

Andy: You can’t tell me that there is no racism in cabdrivers. It exists.

Mark: We are not racist. We are very economy-minded people. We look at it this way: Black people go to a neighborhood you don’t want to go, you usually get out of the neighborhood fast, you don’t pick up nobody. So why should you bother with that? That doesn’t have nothing to do with racism, that has always something to do with your pocket. Now, if I see a black person in a suit and a tie, looks like a nice person, or older black lady, yes! But I’m not gonna pick up a young punk with a hood on, his hat backward. I mean, am I stupid? Would you pick him up? No, you’re not gonna pick him up. That doesn’t have nothing to do with racism. If my own brother dresses like that I won’t pick him up. I won’t! Racism is you don’t pick up any black person. Then you’re racist. If you don’t pick up any Puerto Rican, then you’re racist.

Andy: Then what do you call it?

Mark: I wanna tell you something. I was robbed. I picked up a handicapped black person on Michigan Avenue. Took him all the way–I had the wheelchair in the trunk. He paid me. I put his money with my money, I take his wheelchair out, and they’re robbing me! When I dropped him off, his buddies, they robbed me. That’s right, it was a setup!

Harry: Sometimes they take you somewhere, then block the street and rob you. They put another car in front of you so you cannot go through, on a very narrow street.

Mark: Go to 13th and Taylor. Go around that area, go to Taylor Homes. Cabrini’s good because every other car is a police car. But go to Taylor Homes!

Harry: We come from a country with no racism. When I first come here I pick up everybody. You know your meter is OK and you know you are going a nice way. A black man gets in your cab and says “Thank you very much I appreciate you stopping, you are very nice guy.” Then you go a couple more blocks and he says “How come your meter is fast? How come you didn’t get that light? Get that light. Pass that light!” It’s because they don’t have the money. You get to their house and it’s $13, all the way from downtown to 73rd Street, $13. Now, they look at it this way: I have to buy food with this money or I have to pay this cabdriver. You have to look at other people–everything has to be looked at through somebody else’s eyes. And the way I look at it–

Andy: What I try to say, all the time we say “Oh, we are not racist.” But racism exists too. I see things sometimes where there isn’t any excuse.

Mark: All I’m asking you–if you do not pick up all the blacks, you are racist? If you pick up certain blacks, and you don’t pick up other blacks, because of the person’s looks–

Andy: You have to examine–

Adam: Let me introduce a methodology to understand this. The blacks do have an image, like foreigners for example have an image. And the cabdrivers are not a separate entity from the rest of society, so we constantly confront that image. And that image is not always a positive image. You say it is economics, and that is correct too, so we are bound to make mistakes that we do not necessarily like. But in order to survive, sometimes we have to do it.

Andy: Sometimes I set a rule for myself, like if I see any kind of young person–doesn’t matter white, black–a young person. If I don’t feel comfortable, I pass. I pass.

Adam: When I first started I was constantly trying to prove to myself that I was not a racist, so I made a lot of mistakes. I’d pick up the person no one else wanted, and get the trouble. Then I got older and I realized, I didn’t want to do it. One doesn’t have to have a degree in criminology to realize that if you’re on the west side, what is the chance you pick up Jesus Christ? Zip. So do I have my own biases? Sure I do.

Andy: That’s why I say sometimes we have to recognize it, try to correct ourselves. Sometimes you act like racist, and you think you are not.

Mark: Most of our problems on the street is with educated white businessmen. Because black people, they do not expect as much. They might complain about the money, they might complain about the light, but they don’t push you to a point where you don’t want to be. The businessmen, they’ll push. “Cabdriver,” they think, “his class is lower than a limousine driver.” So he pushes you. The guy who wants to pay $25 to go to O’Hare, he’s buying you, and he knows when he says to jump you say how high, because there’s 5,400 other cabs out there. Prejudice is something that’s injected into us. Our eyes see fat people and we don’t like them. I used to be very fat–

Harry: You still are!

Adam: A couple of days ago I was listening to Mendelssohn on WFMT. A guy comes in and expects me to listen to rap. He says, “Oh, you’re listening to Tchaikovsky.” I said, “No, it’s Mendelssohn.” He said, “Oh, you shouldn’t be a cabdriver.” It’s the image–once you accept it, it doesn’t bother you anymore.

Mark: When they realize you’re educated, they say, “Why aren’t you working in your field?”

Andy: If we are racists, we have to understand why we are racist, why we are sexist.

Mark: Men in general, we are all sexist. We are all sexist because of our parents, grandparents, where we come from. More men in this country beat their wives than in Iran.

Andy: That doesn’t indicate who’s sexist or not.

Mark: Oh come on, what’s sexist? When you repress the other sex.

Andy: In Iran, women are second-class citizens.

Mark: No. In Iran, woman that works, she has a say-so economically, the same as a man does. And in other countries like Iran, women are second-class in some things, but as far as family, women are in charge.

Andy: But men are in control.

Mark: What I see is what I believe. My mother was in charge of our family.

Andy: You are trying to tell me that women here–

Mark: Over here women only control how short their skirts are.

Andy: Over there they can’t even choose their husbands, what are you talking about!

Mark: There is no freedom for women anywhere, because men in general think with their penis. You can find roosters the same way. People, we all want to be on top. And the reason we are winners as men is because we are more powerful. When a woman complains, we can beat them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Iran, U.S., it’s just the nature of men and women.