A Trio of Detroit Cabdrivers Takes a Christmas Eve Gamble

By John Kelly
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It was Christmas Eve, and the Gambler's luck had run out. He'd been placing his bets at the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit, but fate had been unkind, the way fate often is. The Gambler went to the train station to catch the Amtrak back to Washington. And there Lady Luck slapped him in the face once again: The rails were an icy mess, and the trains were canceled.

Five hundred miles from home on Christmas Eve. How would he get to his family?

He would take a taxi.

The Cabdiver's phone rang while he was finishing some last-minute Christmas shopping. It was his friend, a Jamaican cabbie named Erroll Paisley. Erroll had a proposition: A man wanted a lift from Detroit to Washington, and he was willing to pay $1,600 for it. Half of it would be the Cabdriver's if he'd split the driving. Of course I'll do it, said the Cabdriver, James Mathenia.

"Some days you may make $20. Some days you may owe," James told me yesterday. "You lease a cab for $75. You pay for your own gas. Anything over that is yours."

Sometimes there's not much over that. Ten trips to the laundromat at four bucks a pop doesn't add up to much. But a big fare -- the thing all cabbies dream of -- that's a different story.

"It's a game of chance; it's a game of luck," James said. ". . . If you break even, you're fine. If you bring home $800, you're right, especially on Christmas Eve."

On a big fare, you make sure you get paid ahead of time. That's what James had always done, on trips to Columbus and Cincinnati and Chicago. There was just one problem: The Gambler didn't have $1,600 on him.

He said he was good for it, though. He owned a restaurant and would collect the money once in Washington. James felt uneasy, but Erroll didn't want to mess up the deal, so he didn't push it. Plus, the Gambler's luggage was in the trunk, a bit of collateral.

Checker Cab No. 3662 left Detroit about 6 p.m., James at the wheel of the Crown Victoria dressed in three layers of long underwear. Erroll was next to him, and the Gambler was in the back with James's wife, Sylvia, also a Cabdriver.

James hit it off with his fare. A Hmong Vietnamese, the Gambler talked about how his father had been in a POW camp. James, who teaches media production at a charter school in Detroit and raps under the name D.J. Heaven, talked about the Hmong students he had had in his classes, how shy they had been at first but how he had drawn them out by sticking them in front of a TV camera.

And the Gambler talked about gambling. It was his only outlet, he said, the thing that kept him sane. In fact, the plan was for him to return to Detroit after replenishing his funds in Washington. "I want to go back and get the money I lost," James said he told them. James thought to himself: "You may get some money, but you won't get that money."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company