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Hama Amin, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Iraq's northern Kurdish region, says he makes maybe $17,000 a year working for City Cab. It's the second-largest cab company in KC, with 125 permits, but its drivers can't wait at downtown's poshest, biggest hotels. Exiled by Yellow's exclusivity deals, drivers such as Hama Amin decamp to the airport or the Northland. They gamble that KCI's typically longer fares pay better than downtown's more numerous but cheaper trips.
Late on this Friday morning, the driveway of the Westin Crown Center, another Yellow-exclusive hotel, is chaotic. A bright-orange Oklahoma State University bus has just cleared the entryway, and dozens of visitors rush around. Hama Amin has pulled up to show a journalist around the forbidden zones, not to find a fare. But he looks tempted when a doorman flags him down. A woman staying at the hotel wants Hama Amin to pick up her friends at KCI and bring them back to the hotel.
"They don't want to take the Yellow?" he asks the doorman.
"She wants the Lincoln."
Hama Amin agrees to pick up the passengers for $50. He is planning a trip with his wife and their 2-year-old son to see Hama Amin's ailing grandmother in Iraq. He needs the money.
The doorman sees an opportunity in the arrangement, too. "Take care of me, now," he hints. Hama Amin hands him a $5 bill through the car window. More overhead.
As he waits for the customer to get cash out of the ATM, Hama Amin says his days behind the wheel are numbered. When he returns from Iraq, he wants to try a different kind of business. Maybe he'll open a Middle Eastern restaurant, he says. But first he wants to help the next generation of immigrant cabbies earn better wages.
"I'm not going to be in this business for long," he says. "We're going to have an election soon, and I'm probably not going to be their president." If the lawsuit fails, he adds, drivers will probably strike.
Cash in hand, he drives north again through tournament traffic. It takes him 15 minutes to make it two miles, to a gas station at East Sixth Street and Grand. He puts $40 in the tank. The trip to and from the airport is going to burn $15 of that gas. He slides into the driver's seat again and heads back to sunny Terminal B, where his passengers are waiting.