In L.A., they say every waiter is a really an actor waiting for his or her break. In St. Louis, not every cab driver has his own theater company, a stand-up comedy spiel, and a screenplay that has this angle that’s too good to talk about just yet.
Martin Sophia, a 33-year-old Kenyan immigrant driving a St. Louis County Cab, is all that—and he’s got a karaoke cab, too.
Sophia prefers to call his St. Louis County Cab merely “Martin’s cab.” Yet as his customers attest, it's much more than a tricked-out minivan with a meter: There’s an incredibly powerful, bone-shaking surround-sound system, a karaoke-style screen that drops down with lyrics scrolled in time to the music, a microphone, and LED lights that flash in synch with the beat. Martin’s Cab also has its own Facebook page, and customers have posted strings of photos of their cab rides on Instagram.
But that’s not what Sophia wants to talk about. He’s directing and acting in a Neil Simon play at the Regional Arts Commission this weekend, and he’s trolling for an audience. Sophia started acting when he was about 10 in his native Kenya, and from all appearances he hasn’t stopped since, in or out of his cab.
As he drives down Forest Park Parkway on a Saturday night, going under Kingshighway on his way to pick up a fare at The Dubliner, he moans about the fate of theater on two continents, if not the world. “Theater in Kenya is hard," he says. "In some ways, it’s the same in St. Louis. People don’t want to pay to see independent—or another way of putting it—amateur theater,” Sophia says. “That’s why we put it at 15 bucks a ticket, though people will pay 40 or 50 bucks to see something at the Fox.”
This is the fourth play that Sophia has produced, directed, and acted in as part of his troupe, Martin’s Entertainment. The previous plays over the past two years included It Wasn’t I, Butterflies Are Free, and Up and Running. For each production, his casting call has invited all comers, making it clear that prior experience wasn't necessary.
Even when he’s driving his cab and passengers are booming out vocals in the back, theater never strays far from his consciousness as he fields calls from potential customers. He’ll sometimes give pick-up preference—he has many calls—to those who've attended his productions.
In other words, Sophia has cross-pollination purposes stemming from his many cultural and commercial pursuits. If you're a steady customer and attend his plays, Sophia will remember you when he gets three calls at once on a weekend night.
A typical en masse call came around 10 p.m. Saturday from Washington University. Sophia was expecting it. “This is when it gets crazy,” he said in hopeful tone. He got to a dorm off Forsyth, and a slew of dressed-up coeds piled in the back. As they headed to Harry’s downtown, they gave a full-throated treatment of "We Can’t Stop" by Miley Cyrus. They didn’t.
The only slight wrinkle occurred as they piled out at Harry’s, which had a line out the door. Martin kiddingly moaned about being paid with a credit card for a $30 tab. Cash is king, and one of the students knew that as she apologized and tacked on a $2 tip. “Next time I’ll get you cash,” she said. “Yell at my parents.”
Not all of Sophia’s passengers want to sing, but he tries to coax them. A few weeks ago, a couple in their 80s at first declined, but then ended up singing Frank Sinatra tunes. Some people sing well, but Sophia enjoys the others more. “Most people pretend they know how to sing,” he says. Ever-popular song requests, he says, include “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler and “I Want You Back” by 'N Sync.
If the song runs longer than the ride, Sophia admits, the meter's still running as the back-seat Caruso finishes the song. But he’s not totally mercenary: Regular customers—of whom there are many—often get breaks on the fare.
Some customers call Sophia to sing while on wheels; some call when they just need a ride. Two prototypical riders included 24-year-old Becki Davidson and 26-year-old Cameron Crews, both Anheuser-Busch employees who live in the Central West End. Sophia picked them up Saturday night and took them to Jazz at the Bistro in Grand Center, where they discovered the concert was sold out while Sophia waited for them.
On an earlier night, Davidson said she was on a girls night out in which she and her friends indulged in cab karaoke. She recalled other friends who've posted a string of photos on Instagram that chronicled a series of singing-cab fares. “Martin’s cab is the best,” she said, making it clear that she called him on purpose.
Sophia made it to this point by taking an usual path. He came to St. Louis when he was 23. He had an uncle in Dallas, but he wanted to make it on his own, he says. Sophia began by working at a dry cleaners, then FedEx, UPS, and as a driver for Scholastic Book Fair, driving a cab on the side. Eventually, he decided driving a cab for way more than 40 hours a week was the way to go.
Talk to Sophia about being an immigrant and why he’s here, and you’ll hear him give a description of his life and goals that would make Rush Limbaugh blush. “America tells you, ‘Hey, you want to work. Go ahead,'” says Sophia. “‘You want to make a little money, go ahead.’ You have that opportunity, regardless of who you are. I realize most people don’t get that, even in the U.S., for whatever reason.”
Unlike most theoretical views of immigrants and refugees, Sophia personally knows of new Americans who've undergone horrific experiences in Africa that drove them to America. His childhood was not exactly reminiscent of the Waltons, though it wasn't horrific either. What he's done—and advises others to do—is to start over. “It has a lot to do with attitude, and the ability to forgive and forget," he says. "Fine. I didn’t have a very good life. But it could have been worse.
“I was not a refugee,” he adds. “I have friends who have seen what no 15-year-old should see, or anyone of any age. What I usually say is, ‘That happened, and you can’t change that. If you dwell on it, it’s just going to eat you up. You have to forget about it—literally, forget about it.'”
Not everyone has adjusted to America the way that Sophia has. He encounters bitter refugees who are, for whatever reason, not happy with being in America. When he meets a refugee who's an example of this drift, he is blunt. “I tell him, ‘Dude, you got here. You have a place to call home now. This is your country. You may not agree with all they say here, but you have something that others in your country don’t have—a home here,'” Sophia says. “You have to appreciate that.”
Sophia, who was married in April, credits his mother with emphasizing proper appearance, taking care of yourself, and having the right attitude. With his father not around and with two younger sisters, Sophia was the man of the house. His mother, who he's going back to visit in a few months, pushed him to be a better person. “My mom was high-maintenance,” Sophia says. “My interpretation of high-maintenance is that you know what you want, and you have some idea on how to get it. There is nothing wrong with being high-maintenance.”
By that definition, Sophia has followed in his mother’s footsteps. He keeps a calendar at home to track his cab-driving hours, rehearsal times, and other pursuits, including being a referee in the Makana Memorial youth soccer league at Cherokee Park. His wife has trouble tracking him.
During his one brush with stand-up comedy, Sophia came up with 60 minutes of material without anything vulgar and profane, and he did it in part to draw a crowd to a friend’s restaurant, Flaco’s Cocina in University City.
Sophia is a big believer in “what goes around comes around,” both in a karmic and commercial sense. His passengers show up in his audience, and vice versa. He’s an opportunity omnivore.
He admits that when people from his cab show up at his plays, it’s his biggest buzz. “When someone comes to the play and says it’s good, after all that hard work, it’s like it’s your baby. This is it. Wow.”
As for that screenplay? He’s got a great idea, but he won’t discuss it.
For the passengers in Martin’s Cab, the ride is a only a small part of the trip. The same goes for the driver.