After 30 years as a Chicago cab driver - and 27 years as a police patrolman - Mario Perez has the equivalent of a PhD in street smarts.
He knows where every shortcut and every pothole lies in the city - and has felt most of them. He's also heard an opinion on every subject, from the Cubs to Oprah, and has formulated a few of his own, including some streetwise axioms about war. "If you punch me, I'm gonna punch you back and we start a fight - that's no good," says the Puerto Rican native, jabbing his index finger at the ceiling of his orange cab.
He worries that war with Iraq will spark a bigger clash with the Arab world. "If you are angry with your wife, if you start a fight with her, you will get a pot on the head - bang!" he says. "And no dinner!" Such wisdom, and restraint, have clearly served him well: He's been married for 44 years.
As cab drivers go, Chicago's have as much gritty pragmatism and common sense as any in America. Many of them harbor a global perspective shaped by being immigrants themselves and by conversations with so many strangers. Many, too, exude a hardy patriotism forged by living in what they see as the planet's greatest land of opportunity. In an unscientific survey done from the backseat of more than a dozen taxis, their views on war with Iraq are surprisingly uniform: They oppose it.
"The war is nonsense," says Mr. Perez, who retired three years ago from being a downtown beat cop. He still gladly flashes his shiny police badge to passengers, especially to menacing ones.
Because he was raising four kids, he also worked part-time as a taxi driver. Back when he started, it cost $14 per day to lease a cab. These days he pays $91 for his 2001 sedan, which has 156,000 miles on it. And times are tough - especially with the threat of war.
In the booming 1990s, he says, he'd get at least $60 in tips each week. Now he gets $20. By going to war, he says, "They're going to make the economy worse."
Erik Maradiega agrees. He calculates the impact of war on a basic level, too. "If there is war, more people will use the bus - or walk," says the Honduran native who arrived in America in 1990. Already gas prices are high - at $1.90 per gallon in the city. And he figures they'll jump if war starts. "Plus," he adds in a sullen tone that betrays the normal view of the four seasons, "Spring is coming." Soon people will walk more and use cabs less.
Others are more visceral in their opposition, perhaps reflecting raw-edged lives before their arrival in America. "Saddam is not good for world, for his people, for anyone - but the women and children, ah, so many will be killed," says one 40-something African cabbie with a thick French accent. He asks not to be identified, saying quietly, "My story is so long."
As he cruises Michigan Avenue, past the glittering Niketown and Crate & Barrel stores, three odorizers hang from his rearview mirror. They're shaped like Christmas trees and have the American flag's stars and stripes printed on them, perhaps reflecting this driver's enthusiasm for his adopted land.
Yet he seems familiar with the devastation America's military can cause. "The B-52 doesn't know where is Saddam" - and will kill many innocents, he says. "If the B-52 knows where is Saddam, then get him," he adds. Indeed, like a number of cabbies, he suggests a tough, practical alternative to war - a surgical strike aimed at Saddam Hussein. "The CIA can do something very good," he says. "We should push them to kill him."
But Mr. Zaimi passionately disagrees with any who counsel restraint. His pre-America life puts him squarely in the hawkish camp.
"If Colin Powell was not Secretary of State, this would all be over now," says the Iranian exile slapping his steering wheel, referring to Mr. Powell's widely perceived initial resistance to military action. "We have to get rid of Saddam to get the other leaders in line."
He left Iran 19 years ago and is deeply critical of its leaders and of other Middle East governments. "They're all shaking in their boots right now." War is ugly, he admits, but it's necessary so American-like freedom can spread. "You have to sacrifice a few people to help many more."
Someday other countries will be like the US, which he calls the best place in the world." Where else, he asks, "can you get off a boat and not speak English but become a millionaire in a couple years?"
Duck into Aslam Methani's cab, and it's clear he dreams of a better day, too. A bright bouquet of red and yellow silk flowers hangs from his rearview mirror. Behind the back seat stands a neatly arranged menagerie of porcelain animals - a lion, a lamb, an elephant, a tiger. A sign in the passenger compartment reads, "Don't worry, be happy," and "If you are late, please relax, it's not the end of the world."
Perhaps all that's missing is incense (which is prohibited in Chicago cabs). He says the atmosphere has an impact on his passengers, who leave calmer than when they entered - and often give big tips.
"I hope Mr. Bush stops this war," says the Pakistani native and practicing Muslim. "God doesn't like war," he adds in a nearly meditative voice. As his interviewer exits the cab, he adds, "You shouldn't kill anybody for any reason." With that he merges off into the bustling chaos of Chicago's crowded streets.