Articles

The most trusted cabbie of Capitol Hill

Mohinder Singh

Unlike some cab drivers in Washington, Mohinder Singh is not easily riled. No matter if passengers rob him. No matter if they swear at him in a drunken stupor.

“I never fight with a customer,” he says, through a thick Indian accent. “There’s no use to fighting. If someone says, ‘You son of a bitch,’ I say ‘Thank you.’ You cannot make me mad easily.”

Born in Delhi, Singh (better known as “Mr. Singh”) came to the United States in 1974 when he was 24 by way of an older sister who was already living here. With a Bluetooth earpiece clipped to his right ear and a BlackBerry resting on the front seat, he’s as hip as they come.

But Singh, 56, clean-cut in a white oxford shirt and khakis, is no typical cabbie.

Nor has he led a predictable life, having made it through several rough patches. He spent his childhood living in a hut with his parents and six brothers and sisters, and in the late 1990s he lost his cab business.

“Living day to day, that is what we had,” he says.

In the past several years, however, Singh has hit a stride, accumulating a famous D.C. clientele that takes him to the homes of some of Washington’s political elite who include Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean (better known to Singh as “Mr. Howard,”) former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.).

He also has regular contracts with such lobbying firms as Meyers and Associates.

“I feel proud,” he says. “I feel lucky. … I feel proud dealing with these congressmen. I’m excited driving with them.

“They respect me, like I’m a human being and I’m just a cab driver. They trust me, like a friend, like a family member.”

Singh says he accumulated his clientele accidentally. One day he picked up a woman from Southeast who needed to be driven to American University. She told him how hard it was for her to get a cab. So he gave her his number, and for seven to eight months he drove her whenever she called.

“I didn’t know who she was,” he says, explaining that he later found out that she worked for the DNC. The next thing he knew, word traveled fast and Dean’s people came calling.

“When I got to the DNC, I cut out most of the frills, including the car and driver,” Dean said. “When we were looking at ways to get around, a number of folks said he was terrific, and so we hired him.”

Singh says he’s neither Republican nor Democrat when he enters the confines of his cab — a black Lincoln Town Car that smells fresh with comfortable, squishy black leather seats. Privately, however, he says he is a Democrat but cannot vote because he isn’t a U.S. citizen yet.

“I see Democrats and I become a Democrat. I see Republicans and I become a Republican,” he says, adding that in addition to Democrats he has also driven South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. “I don’t want to make anybody mad.”

He remembers driving Richards with fondness. “I see Ann one time and I said, ‘Ann, why don’t you run for president? And she said, ‘No, my time is done.’”

By month’s end, his immigration status will change. He plans to take the oath to become a U.S. citizen on May 30.

Singh didn’t intend to spend his life driving a cab, even though his father drove a cab in Delhi after fighting in World War II. In India, Singh attended college, studying physics, chemistry and math, and was on the path to becoming a teacher.

But then he had the chance to leave, “to make a better living,” and he didn’t look back. After spending a year in Germany, he went to Washington to join his sister, who became a U.S. citizen in 1974 and applied for Singh to get his green card.

Not knowing what to do, he worked as a busboy and waiter at Mr. Smith’s in Georgetown. In 1975 he realized he could earn more by driving a cab. In 1978 he got his D.C. taxicab license, and in 1986 he bought a taxicab business. Unfortunately business was difficult for Singh; in 1998 he lost it.

“Too much competition,” he says. “Too much stress. I gave it to somebody I owed money.”

Singh feels empathic toward other immigrants; he knows the trials they have to go through. Though he does not spout off politically in his cab, he has his beliefs.

“I think they should give them a chance,” he says of Congress’s current battle over illegal immigrants. “They put their life on the line when they cross the border. This country depends on immigrants.”

Singh lives with his wife, Kashmir, in Fairfax, Va.; they have three children.

He enjoys driving a cab even on the tough days, such as the one when a group of kids entered his cab and ran off without paying. Or when a drunken man tried to goad him into a fight, saying, “You see my muscles?” Singh replied, “I have no muscles. I make him happy.”

Customers always speak highly of Singh.

“He treats both me and my family with a great deal of respect and courtesy that you would not expect to receive when other individuals are driving a taxi,” says Hinojosa, who has known Singh for most of the decade that he has served in Congress. “We can’t ever feel that we are not well taken care of. What I have found is that he is a very respectable gentleman who is very prompt. ”

Napolitano, who has used Singh for the past five years, also has high praise for him. “If I’m tired and kind of snoozing, he doesn’t have the radio on,” she says. [He’s] very, very accommodating. He seems to sense what an individual’s moods are.”

The congresswoman says she can trust Singh. “I’ve had other services that forget to pick me up, and when I have to leave I have to leave. He gives great customer service. You feel comfortable. You feel safe with him.”

He also keeps confidences: “He never shares anything. He’s like a doctor. To me, my business is my business.”

Napolitano, who has repeatedly encouraged Singh to take his oath of citizenship, says Singh is precisely the type of immigrant they are discussing in Congress.

“This is the land of immigrants we talk about. It’s good to see people that are a benefit of this country. ‘Singh, have you done your citizenship yet?’ I kept reminding him that he has to. At least three times I reminded him. He’s been here so long that it should not be a hard thing for him to do.”

Dean adds, “He is incredibly courteous, and he knows every shortcut in Washington. We talk about everything, but mostly politics. He gets a big kick out of it.”

But for Singh, driving his well-known political clientele to and from the airport or around Capitol Hill, means more to him than even his clients may realize.

“In India they treat cab drivers like dirt,” he says. And then he recalls the card he received from Dean and the flowers that came from the DNC when his mother-in-law died, and he beams with pride.

He calls Dean a “big shot” politician. “I feel good driving someone of that rank,” he says. “He’s a good man, really nice man. He’s busy, always on the phone. He always introduces me. He called me his ‘personal bodyguard.’”

So does Dean ever get loud? Singh laughs, shakes his head uncomfortably and says: “I’m just busy driving my cab. No, he doesn’t get loud.”