The lottery that is cabby Cesar Machado's life starts at the LAX holding lot at 96th Street and Sepulveda Boulevard. The lot accommodates 120 cars in 13 lanes. In good times, it's nearly always empty. Incoming cabs are immediately dispatched to terminals and waiting passengers. These are not good times, so the lot is more often full.
Machado drags himself in just before noon, fighting a cough. He's had the flu for three days and would rather be home. He drives into an empty lane. Soon he's surrounded by other cars. They each pay a $2.50 access fee and then wait.
On a good day, Machado will pick up five fares, good long rides. Many more rides means he's had a lousy day--shorter fares that bring him back to circle too many times through the taxicab ordeal of LAX.
Los Angeles city regulations restrict cabbies to working the airport--their most lucrative route--no more than one out of five days. That means Machado has to squeeze half his week's income out of that one day. He'll drive 15 hours or more, until he can't see straight.
He used to feel pretty certain of making at least $400 in that day. Now, with fewer passengers, the odds get worse. One short ride can doom you.
"You get a short ride, like $10, $12, you spend almost two hours to make that $12," he says. "When this is slow, somebody can sit here an hour."
When his turn to leave the LAX holding lot comes, he whips around a corner into the line of taxis waiting to be inspected by a uniformed officer.
"It's absolutely crazy," he fumes. "Why do we have to be checked every single time?"
Cabbies once had three routes into the airport. Now they're all funneled past an annoyingly slow traffic light. And then comes the real frustration. As ordinary passenger cars zip by to his left, Machado is trapped, by airport regulation, in the former loading zone between the curb and the shuttle bus pickup island.
"You got to do 10 mph inside," he says. "You got to stop for pedestrians all the time."
It used to be that cabbies could dash straight to any terminal using a web of crisscross access roads. Now every trip requires circumnavigation of the giant, snarled horseshoe roadway.
Finally, Machado catches a few breaks. His first fare wants a ride to Dana Point--$140. He doubles back and then gets a trip to Pasadena--$70. At just 5 p.m. it's a good beginning.
Then his luck goes bad. He picks up shorter hops to Santa Monica, Westwood, Brentwood--too little time with the meter on, too much running the gauntlet at LAX.
At 11:30 he calls it off. He's made $340, not a bad day, but not what he counts on to support three children and a house in the San Fernando Valley community of Winnetka. Especially on top of the $300 a month he owes for the right to drive a Yellow Cab.
Like so many who depend on LAX for their livelihoods, he can no longer control his income. It used to be, he'd take care of extra bills by working harder. Since Sept. 11, his wife has had to go to work as a housekeeper.