It was after midnight at the JFK Airport — I was not at my best.
Bleary and bruised from a day of travel, squinting under the harsh fluorescents, I craved my own bed. I looked at the taxi line; it was bananas long, moving at a glacial pace. The line expediters were yelling, the cabbies were yelling and the travelers were sad. JFK is close to nowhere and nothing. Home felt unreachable.
Suddenly appeared my unlikely savior, with a shaved dome and a compact build. Slouching against the wall, the guy hissed “Taxi?” as I passed.
In some countries, unlicensed cabbies will swarm you, and maybe try hoisting your suitcase into their car. But at U.S. airports, gypsy cabs operate in the shadows. Like pushers at the park, drivers solicit with a whisper and an eyebrow: “C’mon pal, you want it.”
The downsides, of course, are the kingly rates and the unlicensed drivers, who could also be serial killers. (Also see: Uber.) But man was I exhausted.
That is how I ended up on the Grand Central Parkway at 1 a.m., in a small black SUV. The driver handed me his card: It read “Kabary Salem, Taxi” on a soft-focus American flag backdrop. Providing a card is the type of small gesture that makes you think: “I’m safe.” Who has heard of a killer with a business card? I have — now.
“Wikipedia says I killed one guy,” Kabary said as he drove, eyes locked with mine in the rearview. “No way! It is more than this.”
You know how sometimes you’ll meet a cabbie who used to be a dentist or an architect in their home country? Well this was not quite like that. Kabary Salem — aka the Egyptian Magician — was a professional boxer until 2005. He never made it huge, but infamy trailed him. Kabary was known as “one of the dirtiest fighters of all time.”
“Wikipedia says I killed one guy,” Kabary said as he drove, eyes locked with mine in the rearview
The Egyptian Magician — enemies called him the Cairo Crackpot — staked his career on a trail of nasty headbutts. Boxing officials frequently penalized his rough play; after one sanction, Kabary broke a referee’s nose. Following his nastiest bout, 24-year-old opponent Randie Carver was sent to the hospital for brain surgery; he died that night.
My cab ride started with light discussions of New York rent and nightclubs. Then Kabary started talking about his side hustle: giving boxing lessons. “I used to be a professional boxer, you know this?” he said. I did not know that, Kabary! Lemme just give your name a quick Google search and ... oh it turns out you’ve killed men with headbutts.
Kabary was pretty blasé about the whole thing. He claimed his reputation had been exaggerated by the media, but he also admitted killing twice. Neither apologetic nor proud, Kabary’s approach was direct.
My Google discovery was alarming, but I quickly mellowed. Kabary was no hero, but I was unwilling to assume the worst either. Boxing is bloodsport, even if we muffle the violence with gloves and bylaws. It’s possible Kabary was a stone-cold psycho, but maybe his competitive drive just needed tempering. Who am I to say — I only rode in his taxi.
As a cab driver, Kabary was exceedingly solicitous, asking questions in a way that seemed genuine, even warm. And he drove me home with a quickness, something I don’t take for granted.
My only regret? I lost the selfie we took together.