The Real Sartorialist Is a New York City Cabbie
Don Milton says sartorial freedom of expression is one of the best things about being an American. The 50-year-old star of Topic’s short documentary series American Hero—who was born in Bangladesh and moved to the United States 24 years ago, when he was in his 20s—may be the most stylish cabdriver in New York. One day he might walk out of his home in Queens dressed as Batman, complete with cape, or perhaps a cowboy, bolo tie and all. “When people go to into the shower, they plan their day. They might say ‘Okay, I'm going to the office,’ or ‘Okay, I'm going to meet with someone.’ But for me, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, what outfit am I going to wear today?” says Milton.
The son of a police commissioner in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, Milton says he found freedom as a teenager by watching American films and television shows on his family’s black-and-white television set. (Although his birth name is Tanvir Islam, Milton says his English name was inspired by the 17th-century poet John Milton—his father was a fan.) His home country has an established film industry of its own, but Milton says he was most inspired by the fantastical world he saw in American cinema and TV shows. “Bangladeshi culture is traditional,” he explains. “They have good films, but they are more about real life. Hollywood films are more fun.”
Milton watched everything from Little House on the Prairie to The Bionic Woman to Dallas. As Milton continued to immerse himself in American culture through TV and film, he found himself wanting to dress the part, too. A turning point for him came when his uncle took him to a secondhand clothing store to shop for American clothing. “There was very limited opportunity to buy accessories or fashionable stuff,” says Milton. “But we had a secondhand market called the Nixon Market.” (The name apparently came from the influx of donated clothes from the United States that flowed into the country in the 1970s.) That’s where Milton discovered Levi’s and Lee jeans, staples of any American wardrobe.
But it wouldn’t be until Milton watched the action movie First Blood (1982) that he really found his muse. Milton says he saw himself in John Rambo, the heroic but misunderstood protagonist played by Sylvester Stallone. “The first time I saw Rambo, I saw a strong man who never gave up,” Milton says. “That is the character that changed my life.” (And—as viewers of American Hero know—he’s never stopped trying to emulate him.)
Milton finally moved to the US in 1994, to attend college in Michigan. He completed a few semesters, then decided to visit a Bangladeshi friend in New York City. Milton claims that after he missed his return flight to Michigan after a late night out on the town, his friend persuaded him to stay: “He said, ‘Forget about that, don't go over there, man. Just stay in New York, drive a taxi, make tons of money.’” The rest is history.
Milton shops for a lot of his clothes online, and he refuses to buy vintage unless it has the original tags. (“I don't like something if it's fake. And I don't like replicas.”) These days he has little time off between shifts in his car. However, after his turn in American Hero, Milton says he’s interested in pursuing acting. And, of course, he still takes the time to cultivate his personal style. “My time is valued,” he says. “I make more money if I work more. So why not relax and go on eBay and PayPal?”