Smile Politely

Abdul and Jet Cab

Abdul Rebhi came to the United States from Algeria about ten years ago seeking adventure and challenge. Earlier this year, he was looking for a way to earn extra money outside of his regular nine to five job as a physical therapy aide. So, he started his own taxi service, which he named Jet Cab.

He got the idea from a friend who also has his own taxi business. Abdul worked for his friend driving for a few months learning the ropes before starting out on his own. Since then, he has been moonlighting and working weekends with his fledgling business — which is basically him and his van — for around four months now. He drives people all over C-U and spends a lot of time looking for fares at the Illinois Terminal, the airport, and around the bars in downtown Champaign and campus at closing time.

Abdul said that for him, starting a cab service was a relatively cheap way to have his own business. He got his taxi license through the City of Urbana — who license cabs and limousines in both Urbana and Champaign — by paying some fees and passing both a background check and a vehicle inspection. He bought signs for his van and had business cards printed. Then he went out looking for people to drive around.

Recently, I rode along with Abdul one Saturday night during the rush when the bars were closing, and it was enough for me to see that driving a cab in C-U is not an easy job — you’re dealing with traffic and drunk people, you have to know how to find fares, and all that is just for starters. Cab drivers also run the risk of getting robbed — after all, as Abdul pointed out, you never know who is getting into your cab.

Abdul is able to roll with it all, though. I asked him a few questions about his work.

Smile Politely: What do you like about the job?

Abdul Rebhi: What I like is that I’m my own boss; I work for myself. You work the hours that are comfortable for you — so you can go to school, for example. You can arrange your hours. Plus, if you are tired and you want to go home, you can go home. There’s no mandatory overtime.

SP: What do you not like about the job?

Rebhi: What I don’t like is that you don’t have a paycheck. When you’re getting a paycheck, you know how much you’re going to get. When you’re driving a cab, you don’t know how much you’re going to make. Especially in the summer time when the students leave, it’s very slow. That’s the only thing I don’t like — you don’t know. You can’t plan. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down.

SP: What was the biggest surprise?

Rebhi: The biggest surprise for me is that I discovered that Champaign-Urbana is much bigger than I thought. Some places, if I didn’t drive a cab, I would never know they are there. I also learned there are many international people here — especially students. You think only places like Chicago have so many people from other countries, but there are many here. Which is good.

SP: Tell me about the money…

Rebhi: If it’s a good night, I make about $100 after I subtract gas. Maybe I made $130, $140, but I spent $30 or $40 on gas. That’s usually for working between eight and twelve hours. But it’s on and off. It’s not like you’re in a factory. Sometimes I’ll wait a half an hour at the Illinois Terminal for a customer, sometimes two hours. It depends. The rush hour is between about one a.m. and three a.m. — on the weekends. But on a weekday I’ll just go to the terminal or to the airport and wait there. I might get someone. I might not. It averages to about ten dollars an hour.

SP: Have you had any interesting conversations with customers?

Rebhi: Usually I talk with the customers when they come from the airport. We’ll talk about why they are here. If it’s their first time here, I let them know about Champaign-Urbana, what we have here. Many times they are here for conferences at the UI. This is another thing that surprised me — how many international conferences they have here at the UI. If they’re from another state — say Arizona — I will ask them about that state. We exchange information.

SP: Do you still work with your friend who got you into cab driving?

Rebhi: Now I work for myself, but if I need his help for an address, I will call him. I don’t like to use GPS because I don’t want to be dependent on it. What if I don’t have it for some reason — what would I do? I only use GPS if the address is very far away.

SP: Do you ever get lost?

Rebhi: Yes, many times. Especially when I go out into the subdivisions near Staley Road. The customer will tell me where to go going in, but coming back I’ll get lost driving out. But I learn. When you spend ten minutes looking for the exit you learn.

SP: How do you get along with the other cab drivers out on the road?

Rebhi: Mostly I get along with everyone; we are friends. We meet at the terminal. We meet at the airport. We talk. We tell stories about what happens to us. A few drivers I don’t get along with. There are just three or four that I don’t get along with — I’m sociable and easygoing. But, I noticed the other drivers don’t get along with them either.

SP: Do you have a strategy for dealing with drunk customers?

Rebhi: I don’t argue with them. Because the more you argue the worse it gets. If you argue with a drunk guy, you will never win.

I’ve had customers cuss at me for no reason. They might tell me to roll down the window, but they do it in a bad way. They might get mad because there’s no music in the cab. But I never have music in the cab unless the customer asks for it. This is my rule — because I want to show respect for the customer. Because maybe they want to talk on the phone, maybe they don’t like music, so I always have the radio off unless they ask.

It’s hard to work with drunk people, but I am used to them.

SP: What makes someone a great cab driver?

Rebhi: Respect. When you respect the client. If you say to client you will be there in twenty minutes, you need to be there. If you cannot, you need to send someone else. And the prices too. You cannot change prices depending on who the customer is. They need to be the same for everyone. You need to be consistent and you need to be nice. You chose to do this job, so you need to be nice.

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