The Cab of a Thousand Songs (The New York Times, 7/17/05)
By Shomial Ahmad
The year after the attacks of Sept. 11 was a dark time for Osama Soliman; an Egyptian-born cabbie, he found himself overwhelmed by the silence in his taxi. Some passengers eyed him suspiciously, and one reported him to the F.B.I. because of his first name. ''Every time I went to go get the cab,'' he recalled, ''I was feeling sad.''
So Mr. Soliman, who arrived in New York in 1998, and began driving a taxi two years later, spent an enormous amount of time listening to music in his empty apartment in Astoria, Queens, hoping it would help him through a dark time. One song that cheered him was ''Pretend'' (''Pretend you're happy when you're blue. It isn't very hard to do.''), by Nat King Cole, his favorite singer, and in the months following the attacks, Mr. Soliman came to the conclusion that it might also cheer others.
''The music was like an oil to start the engine,'' said the driver, who is 33 and single and this day wore a preppy-looking white sweater, his black hair gelled back from his forehead. ''The music was breaking the ice with people.''
In spring 2002, he loaded his MP3 player with more than a thousand peppy pop songs, the artists ranging chronologically from Frank Sinatra to 50 Cent, and connected it to his car radio.
He hung a laminated, six-page spiral-bound playlist on a string that dangles in the passenger section, behind the Plexiglas partition.
If Mr. Soliman sees passengers flipping through the playlist, he will urge them to select a song, although sometimes they will ask him to make a selection that fits the mood.
Once Mr. Soliman picked up a woman who had just been evicted from her apartment on Bleecker Street. As the driver played Nat King Cole's version of ''Smile,'' she told him she was on her way to chemotherapy.
When Mr. Soliman played a nursery rhyme for a woman and her baby, she gave him $20 for a $5 fare. Indeed, he says, his tips have gone up by 30 percent since he started incorporating music into his rides. But the last page of his playlist insists: ''I don't sell or charge anything but a sincere smile!So be ready to pay!''
Although not every passenger wants the cab turned into a listening booth, Mr. Soliman has seen the music soften some hardened New York hearts.
''Usually when I'm in a cab,'' said Terry Williams, the president of a public relations firm, who recalls listening to Aretha Franklin in Mr. Soliman's cab, ''I'm working and thinking about the next thing. For me to stop what I'm doing is a rare thing.''