Shifting Gears: A 2013er Drives a Cab
Written by Bwog Staff
In lieu of a Senior Wisdom for Nashoba Santhanam, CC’13, check this out. Staff writer Naomi Cohen hops passenger seat with Nashoba, who’s driving a cab until he starts in sales and trading in the fall. Pick the May issue of The Blue and White up on campus, or, if you must, read it online.
Before stepping into the 38-story Bank of America Tower in Hong Kong to begin a career in sales and trading, Nashoba Santhanam, CC ’12, took a detour. His destination: wherever you’re headed.
Santhanam drives a yellow medallion taxi, a decision that seems to raise the eyebrows of everyone but his parents, who’ve stopped being surprised by Nashoba’s taste in “day jobs”. When other students ask about his motivation, Santhanam answers with a routine, “might as well.” He might as well explore the city before leaving; he might as well get paid for it. When asked by other cabbies, he explains that money is money. To customers, he calls it just a part-time job—if you call 12-hour night shifts part-time.
Anyone expecting a portrait of a disillusioned Ivy Leaguer, piecing together his soul in the metaphor-friendly alleys of New York, will be disappointed. Santhanam neither romanticizes the working-class mentality nor has any interest in trying out pop sociology.
“I like doing a lot of different jobs,” he says, “and it’s sort of interesting to do something different. And that’s what this is.”
Santhanam double majored in Political Science and Economics, graduating a semester early by taking six to seven classes a semester. “I felt like getting my money’s worth,” he explains.
Over the past two years, Santhanam has been one of Columbia’s more prominent voices on national politics, writing editorials about SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and speaking for Columbia’s Republican element. Last fall, he served as President of the Columbia University College Republicans, significantly raising membership and attendance rates. Early in his college career, Nashoba did Speech and Debate, but quit to make time for the Republicans. But above all, Santhanam reiterated, he kept his head in his books and an eye on finance.
“I was never super into school in the first place,” he explains. “Not in a bad way, but I’d much rather have a job that pays than pay money to do work for other people—which is sort of in my mind what school is, because you’re paying money and writing papers, and then Columbia keeps all of your intellectual property anyway.”
Santhanam has held a job down every summer since the age of 14, when he could legally work. Of a quarter Choctaw ancestry, he traveled when he was 15 to a Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma, where he found employment in a welfare office (“I despise the concept,” he adds). There, he stayed with his grandmother’s cousin, whom he met for the first time. The next summer, he worked for CUTCO Cutlery of Vector Marketing. He was quickly promoted from selling knives to hiring knife-sellers. As an 18-year-old at the height of the recession, he interviewed the anxious unemployed, most of whom were significantly older than Santhanam himself.
One thing that’s remained constant is Santhanam’s fascination with the character of different localities. He moved around a lot growing up, spending time in California, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, and Singapore, each of which contributed to his fascination with diversity. He says that sexual and racial differences are in vogue at Columbia, but he finds that they often preclude discussions of geographic, experiential, and intellectual diversity, which he’s sought out wherever he’s lived.
As a kid, Santhanam was familiar with suburban sprawl. He’s candid about the fact that Columbia stood out to him not for its academic prestige, but its urban environment—an environment that his present job takes full advantage of.
The variety and excitement that comes with driving a cab obviously has its associated risks: cabbies are targeted by muggers more than any other type of worker. But for Santhanam, “safe is boring.” He has avoided being mugged so far, but the rides are never dull. Once, a man threatened to shoot him for charging too high a fare; another leaned in close to his face and offered to “pay in other ways”; then there was the woman—whom he later realized was a prostitute—who suggested that he pick the destination and take her there. His most dangerous ride: A customer was receiving oral sex in the backseat and Santhanam had to both concentrate on not looking in the rearview mirror and not hitting potholes.
Other nights are luckier. Friendly, well-heeled customers, impressed with his conversation, have promised him free tickets to the New York Philharmonic and free food and drink in the Standard Hotel. On one run, he reconnected with a friend of his father’s from college. Driving his cab, Santhanam networks with all types. The other day he picked up the former dean of the Columbia School of Dentistry. The interface, he says, is good practice for Bank of America.
In between, there’s the mundane: a lot of Columbia graduate students leaving Butler at 2 a.m.; a lot of speeding on roundabouts; a lot of AM radio. He says he’s never been so news-savvy. He’s also never stayed seated for so long; his doctor requested that he quit to save his back. Back and kidney problems run rampant among cab drivers.
“It is a working-class job,” he reflects. “You’re hustling on the streets of New York to pick up fares, and you’re making five, ten dollars a trip over the course of a night. You could go home with very little money.” With an average profit of $200 a night, he has just enough to pay for his bills and his beer.
“I guess I do sort of fetishize grunge,” reflects Santhanam. Still, he doesn’t claim to inhabit the life of a cabbie entirely. Though he receives gruff treatment from his customers, he doesn’t have a family to support: “I have the working-class experience insofar as I’m working a working-class job.”
Santhanam made his first friend in the taxi driver community with his first encounter. When he sat down in taxi driving class, the man next to him challenged him, saying he looked “mad educated” for an aspiring taxi driver.
“If not skin tone,” Santhanam explains, “the fact that I’m wearing thick-rimmed glasses and button-down shirts probably distinguished me from most cab drivers.” He’s learned to counteract this look with an electric blue New York Knicks hat and says that his part-Indian heritage has helped him blend in.
Of the 80 other students in his taxi class, Santhanam says that two were white; there were no women. Most had thick accents, and many struggled with the English proficiency exam, which he likens to a very simplified version of the SAT reading comprehension section.
When he goes to pick up his car before every shift, he approaches the bulletproof window of “a shitty, dumpy garage” with his license and a cash bribe. Santhanam theorizes that the dispatcher grants cabs to drivers based on cash, seniority, and ethnicity. On his first four days, his dispatcher never gave him a cab.
Santhanam may not conform to widely held notions of the typical cabdriver, but neither does he match the stereotype of an aspiring trader. As much as he says his peers want to label him as a “finance drone,” Santhanam has kept this interim period spontaneous. He’ll still catch his one-way flight to Hong Kong, but before then, he has made pit stops at Bacchanal, 40s on 40, and Commencement. Cab driving is ultimately one more job for Santhanam—a chance to earn a little money while bidding a prolonged adieu to the city.