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Mourning Show

A radio show for cabdrivers lights up after a tragedy.



Mohammed Haroon's throat was cut in the wee hours of April 16, as he sat behind the wheel of his taxicab.

At Haroon's funeral, held just 12 hours after his death, 1,500 drivers packed into the Muslim Community Center on Elston, and afterward their cars formed a green, white, and yellow convoy to accompany him to his grave at Rosehill Cemetery.

That Friday night Are You Talkin' to Me?, a weekly radio show for cabbies on WSBC (1240 AM), devoted its entire hour to Haroon.

"We lost a cabdriver," host George Lutfallah began somberly.

"He was a good friend of mine," said a guest in the studio, Raja Khan, of the Chicago Professional Taxicab Drivers Association. "We'd always go to [the Near North restaurant] Zaiqa and pray together late at night. He was a good father, and I love him so....I cannot explain how this person is good, hardworking for his family and how anyone can take someone's life for nothing."

As a rule, Are You Talkin' to Me? gets two or three phone calls a show, but that night the callers were backed up like cabs at closing time outside a four o'clock bar. Fallen police and firefighters get public funerals, callers pointed out. The city takes care of their families. Cabdrivers serve the public too--in fact, the city forces them to work high-crime areas whether they want to or not--but if they take a bullet or a knife, they don't get jack.

"There's really no concern when a cabdriver is killed," one caller said bitterly. "We're told bluntly that we have to pick up anybody who flags us down, regardless of intuition."

Toward the end of the hour, Haroon's 21-year-old daughter, Maheen, called in. Haroon had been a fan of Are You Talkin' to Me?, and his entire extended family was sitting in the kitchen of his Des Plaines home, listening to the tributes.

"We just want to send out our gratitude to the other cabdrivers, to Bob, to the religious organizations, everyone setting up funds," Maheen said.

Sniffling could be heard on the air.

"I just know one thing from the bottom of my heart," said Haroon's boss, Bob General of General Cab, who was also in the studio that night. His voice was choking. "If these chairs were reversed, if Haroon was here, and if somebody needed help--a family--Haroon would be the first person to be there for them."

"Yes, he definitely would," Maheen said. "He was always looking out for other people."

The show went to a commercial after that. No one could talk.

That was the most emotional, most listened-to installment of Are You Talkin' to Me?, which went on the air in early February. Most of the shows deal with practical, pain-in-the-ass issues--parking tickets, medallions, safety shields, immigration--but even those get calls.

Cabdrivers are an aggrieved, opinionated lot, perhaps because they're three times more likely to be murdered on the job than any other occupation. As independent contractors, Chicago's 17,000 cabdrivers get no health insurance, and unlike other blue-collar workers, they have no unified voice, nor a union, although many drivers belong to one of several competing "brotherhoods." They come from dozens of countries, and they tend to eat, pray, and debate mainly with members of their own ethnic group.

Lutfallah is a native of Des Plaines who drove a cab in Chicago on weekends in the early 90s, while he was an undergrad at Illinois State University.

"As I was driving a cab, I noticed there were always people handing out flyers to cabdrivers for oil changes, etc," he says. "And I noticed cabdrivers had a lot of issues."

Lutfallah saw a profession that needed a voice--and a profession that bought a lot of car-care products. In February 2002 he began publishing the Chicago Dispatcher, a newspaper aimed exclusively at cabdrivers (he still rents a cab occasionally, "to keep a fresh perspective"). He launched Are You Talkin' to Me? as a vehicle to promote the newspaper, buying time on WSBC, a tiny station with studios on the northwest side.

The show airs from 11 to midnight on Fridays because, says Lutfallah, "that's the time they're out working. That's their bread and butter." The show is salted with sound bites from the TV show Taxi, the Harry Chapin song "Taxi," and, of course, the movie Taxi Driver. Mike's Rainbow Restaurant on Clark, a popular cabbie hangout, is a regular advertiser. So is Edgewater Beach Auto Repair.

To promote the show, Lutfallah and his cohost, Daniel Dorame, often spend Friday evenings canvassing the cab staging area at O'Hare, a giant parking lot where hundreds of drivers nap, read, and eat while waiting to be called to a terminal. The two tap on windows, announce "cabdriver radio show," and slip flyers to the drivers.

Bob Rose, who describes himself as "one of the oldest drivers out there," reads Lutfallah's newspaper and listens to his show.

"I've said publicly that the cabdrivers needed a press corps," says Rose.

After Haroon was killed, Rose read the Chicago Dispatcher and listened to Are You Talkin' to Me? because they covered the murder more extensively than the TV stations or the dailies. The show sponsored donation boxes for the Haroon family at Zaiqa and other cabbie hot spots, and on May 2 broadcast the news that a suspect had been charged in the case.

Haroon's widow listened, too--she'd been listening ever since the night Chicago's cabdrivers mourned her husband. "My husband always listened to that radio show when he came home at night," Nahid Haroon says. "We were listening just to see if there was anything about him. It showed what we were going through, because they felt the same way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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