At any time of day, Western Avenue, near the corner of Devon, is lined with taxicabs. West Rogers Park is a Pakistani neighborhood, and driving a cab is a popular occupation among Muslims, because it allows them to stop work five times a day and pray to Mecca.
The cabs crowd Western because it’s illegal to park a taxi on a residential street. The other day, I was running up the street, and I thought of Zaheer Qureshi, who was murdered almost exactly 10 years ago, as he walked from his home to his cab.
An electronic engineer, Qureshi emigrated to the United States in 1995 to earn enough money to support his mother and his 10 brothers and sisters. Many educated people trade professional careers in India for cabs in America because the work pays better.
Three years later, he married Fatima, a bride chosen by his family. After the wedding took place in India, he brought her back to Chicago. They had a 15-month-old daughter.
Qureshi was taking night-school courses in computers. Every day, he drove his cab until five in the evening, came home for an hour's nap, then went to class. He was hoping to save enough money to earn a master's degree in electronic engineering at Loyola University or the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was the credential he needed for his dream job.
Early each day, he stopped at Bakiza Restaurant, a cabdriver hangout, for morning prayers. Even on the day he was killed, he offered his morning prayers and he read a few words of the Koran.
Since cabdrivers are not allowed to park their taxis on residential streets, Qureshi walked to a private lot at Damen and Arthur, six blocks from home, where he paid $60 a month to store his vehicle. He was on the phone with a friend, getting a traffic report. Since his daughter's birth, he often split up his shift so he could spend time with her. Normally he would have been on the road by five; now he was heading to work at nine. He got a call from his wife on the cell phone. He said, “Let me call you back.” Then he called back and said, “I’ve been shot.”
Qureshi had $170 in his pocket. The murderers didn't know, because they never looked. They panicked, and ran.
After Qureshi’s death, his fellow cabdrivers held a demonstration outside City Hall, demanding the right to park their cabs outside their homes. If Qureshi hadn’t had to walk six blocks, he wouldn’t have been ambushed by robbers who tabbed him as a cabbie carrying a wad of money.
Driving a cab is a subsistence living, so most cabdrivers can’t afford garages. They also can’t afford another vehicle, so they use their cabs to run errands and drive their families around. Yet they have to park it on a distant commercial street. Ten years after Qureshi’s murder, Chicago still hasn’t lifted the ban. Skokie, which also has a large South Asian community, banned cabs from residential streets in 2007, on the grounds that they disturbed the “aesthetics” of neighborhoods.
Former 50th Ward Ald. Berny Stone wasn’t sympathetic to the cabbies. I once saw him engage in a screaming match with cabbies who were protesting the hated ordinance. It ended with both sides screaming, “You’re despicable.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently replaced Stone with a new alderman, Debra Silverstein. Perhaps Silverstein can work out a compromise that would allow the cabdrivers to park closer to home. The city could create an exemption for cabs that also serve as a private vehicle. Or it could allow sedans, but not minvans, to park on residential streets. Cabbies already work longer hours than the rest of us, in one of the most dangerous occupations there is. Let’s save them a few minutes -- or maybe save their lives.
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