Monday, December 3, 2007

Remote Alaska Town Named Cabbie Capital Of America

Aerial view of Bethel, Alaska, on the Kuskokwim River. Image Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

Remote Alaska Town Named Cabbie Capital Of America

Judged to have the most active cab drivers per capita, Bethel, Alaska, is the largest community in western Alaska and the 9th largest in the state. With a population estimated to be 5,800, Bethel currently has 93 active cab drivers to move the population around for their daily errands.

Location of Bethel within the state of Alaska - Coordinates: 60°47′32″N 161°45′21″W – Image Credit: Adapted from Wikipedia's AK borough maps by Seth Ilys.

According to Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn., Bethel’s Cabbie concentration at roughly one driver for every sixty-two residents makes it the city where cabbies are king. This, in spite of the fact the town has only 10 miles of paved road and is not connected to a highway from population zones outside of the area. The only way in or out is by boat, plane, or overland dirt track/trail.

The Great Circle Route – For the taxi drivers of Bethel Alaska, which has the greatest concentration of cab drivers in the United States, life is just one big loop (10 miles) that connects their most frequent stops. Image Credit: LAT – Digital image from Google Earth

This Excerpted from the Los Angeles Times, Column One -

America's taxi capital: Bethel, Alaska
By Tomas Alex Tizon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer - November 30, 2007

A tiny, round-faced woman stands in a field of ice, a solitary figure in the tundra, waiting for a ride. From one hand dangles several plastic grocery bags. With her free hand, she flicks a finger as if inscribing a single scratch in the air, an almost imperceptible gesture.

A taxicab appears from a cloud of mist. It is an old, white Chevy, so splattered with mud there is hardly any white to see. On the roof glows a green sign that reads "Kusko."

“Hello, dear," the driver says.

"I'd like to go home," says Lucy Daniel, folding herself in the back seat among her bags.

Daniel, 65, a Yupik Eskimo who grew up riding dog sleds and paddling seal-skin kayaks along the Bering coast, now takes a cab everywhere she goes:

To work or to church or, like this afternoon, to the general store to pick up supplies, and then back to her house. Or whenever she goes ice-fishing for pike at her favorite spot along the Kuskokwim River east of here. She tells the driver: "I need 45 minutes." At the appointed time, the driver returns to get Daniel and her gear and, typically, one or two pike as long as a small woman's leg. The fish go in the trunk.

It's because of residents like Daniel that this remote village in southwest Alaska has become the unlikely taxicab capital of the United States.
Bethel only has about 10 miles of paved roads, which means there are about nine cabdrivers per paved mile. Dirt roads, branching off the arterials, add another 20 miles. These side streets, pockmarked by pond-sized depressions, are sometimes negotiable, sometimes not.

The taxi drivers spend most of their time on the paved roads, which form a loop connecting the most popular destinations: two general stores, the post office, the hospital and the airport.

FARE VIEW: Alla Tinker is one of the 93 cabbies in Bethel, Alaska, population 5,800. Image Credit: Greg Lincoln / For The Times

"That's what I do: go in circles," says Bilal Selmani, the cabdriver who has picked up Daniel. Everyone calls him Lincoln. "Every hour, every day, every month. Round and round. Thirty years."

The taxis come in all makes and models, all colors and conditions, from brand new to barely legal. By the end of the day, they all end up looking uniformly Alaskan, that is, covered in a film of silt, slightly beat up but more or less functional.

Taxis rumble day and night, through fog and storm and minus-40 degree cold. In the process, cabdrivers weave themselves into the lives of residents to a degree unique in Alaska, or perhaps anywhere. The longtime drivers know everyone in town by face, first name or address. They know most everyone's stories.
The majority of riders are Yupik Eskimos. The taxi drivers -- most of them Albanian or Korean immigrants -- have their own tales, spanning continents and oceans but ending here, in a spot on the American frontier that most Americans have never seen or heard of.

Lincoln stops in front of a small square house in a subdivision of small square houses called Tundra Ridge. Daniel eases out, hands him seven one-dollar bills for the 5-minute drive. The flat rate is $5 per passenger in town, $7 per passenger to the outskirts.
Daniel moved to "the city" in 1971 because, she says, "there was nothing for me in Tuntutuliak."

With her five children grown and her husband gone, Daniel spends her mornings working in a school cafeteria. She never learned to drive because, she says, "big machines scare me."

In any case, she can't afford a car, and even if she could buy a junker, she can't afford to have it transported to Bethel. It would cost $2,000 to $4,000 by barge or plane.
Bethel, 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea and 400 miles west of Anchorage, is the hub for 56 Yupik villages that sprinkle the tundra like flakes of dried seaweed. A traditionally nomadic people, the Yupiks, like Daniel, began living in fixed villages such as Bethel only in the last 50 to 100 years.

They come to Bethel to work. It's also the primary reason outsiders come here. Bethel, the governmental and commercial center of the region, is a no-frills working town, where people draw wages in construction, freight, government administration and air travel. Then there are the taxis.

For Lincoln, the path to the American dream led from a farming town in eastern Albania, where he was born, to Connecticut and finally here. "I ask friend, 'Where can I make money fast?' He tells me, 'Alaska.' I drive eight days to Anchorage." A friend in Anchorage told him he could make a killing driving cab in the bush.

Lincoln, 53, has been a taxi driver in Bethel since 1977. He is short and stocky, with deep-set eyes and a prominent Roman nose. When he first arrived on the tundra, he had a long, black beard. One of his earliest customers, a native, marveled: "You look like Abraham Lincoln."

From then on, Bilal Selmani went by the name of the nation's 16th president. Most villagers don't know his real name.

During his first 25 years of driving taxi, Lincoln worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, nine months of the year. He would spend three months with family in Albania. Although his earnings might seem meager to many Americans, they represented a bounty for farmers in Albania. Word spread of his good fortune, and soon other Albanians trekked to Bethel to drive in circles for cash.

Between the late 1970s and early '90s, Albanians dominated the taxi business. Today, more than 100 townspeople claim Albanian ancestry.
Toward the end of his shift, Lincoln parks in front of the AC (Alaska Commercial) store, the same one where he picked up Daniel earlier in the day. It was quiet when he picked her up. Now the parking lot buzzes with people and cars. Most of the cars are taxis, and most of the drivers are Korean.

He gestures toward a couple of Koreans sharing a smoke between their cabs.

"Sixteen, 17 years ago, one or two Koreans," Lincoln says. "Now. Look. They take over."

"Mos-quito," the man says.

Yun Lee, 58, is describing what he hates most about Bethel. "Snow, not bad. Cold, OK. Mos-quito, big problem."

Lee has been driving cab here for about 1 1/2 years. Before that, he lived in Torrance for six months, and before that he had spent his entire life near Seoul. In Torrance he saw an ad in one of the Korean-language newspapers. The ad said something to the effect of Big Money, Big Adventure -- Come to Alaska!

Lee answered the ad and he has been driving loops on the tundra ever since. He has since learned that the first Korean cabdriver in Bethel started in the early 1990s.

Now Korean immigrants, who number between 100 and 130, own four of the five cab companies and all but three of Bethel's 12 restaurants. They're also buying up hotels and small businesses. The only video-rental store is Korean-owned.

Lee lives in a small apartment with other Korean cabbies. He works seven days a week. Work and sleep make up the totality of his existence.
Getting stiffed is part of the job. It happens once or twice a month, Lee says. Fortunately the village is small enough that sooner or later Lee will run into the two again, and he will ask for his fare. It's not like he can afford to give rides away.

After paying his overhead -- gas, dispatcher fees, insurance -- he is lucky to make $200 a day. In a place like Bethel, where consumer goods can cost double what they are worth in the Lower 48, a couple of hundred dollars doesn't go very far.

But the Koreans here are famous for scrimping and saving, and after a few years of driving, many take their cash and go home, though a few stay and invest in a business.
There are 16 female cabdrivers in town, most of them Koreans with limited English skills.

CABBIE: Alla Tinker, a lifelong Bethel, Alaska, area resident, is one of the few Yupik taxi drivers in town. The mother of two wants nothing more than to get out: “One more year of this. Then I’m gone.” Image Credit: Greg Lincoln / For The Times

Which is just as well, says Alla Tinker, because they don't want to understand much of what their male customers say.
"I've had guys pay me to drive them around town all night just so they could hang out with me.

"What can I say? They're men."

The Koreans and Albanians tolerate each other. Still, the Albanians envy the Koreans for their success and their seeming aloofness. The Koreans tend to stay among themselves. The Albanians can be clannish too.

The Yupiks, who have publicly welcomed each group, privately grumble about both: the Koreans for being curt, the Albanians blustery.

Tinker hears it from all sides. She is one of the few Yupik taxi drivers in the village. She is friends with all the Albanian drivers, but the company she drives for is owned by a Korean.
"One more year of this," she says. "Then I'm gone."

Her plan is to drive as many hours as she can, save as much money as possible, and then move to Anchorage, a real city, with tall buildings and universities and restaurants and movie theaters.

But more than anything else, she says, she is looking forward to getting in a car, stepping hard on the gas and driving, for once not in an endless loop, but straight, past the city limits, past everything familiar, to wherever the road leads.
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