One day last week, a man got into a cab in front of the Sheraton Park Hotel and asked to be taken to Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street - a distance of perhaps two blocks.
The hacker drove his passenger to Connecticut and Calvert, crossed the intersection, and said, "That will be $1.65."
The passenger was taken aback. "I didn't realize it was so close," he said. "But why are you charging me for two zones? I see by your posted chart that the first zone is only $1.10."
"That's right," the driver said, "but I couldn't stop the other side of the intersection without blocking traffic, so I had to cross the street and that took us into a second zone."
The passenger was irate and hailed a passing police car. The policeman appealed to the disputants to settle their squabble privately, but when neither was willing to accept that counsel he told the passenger of his rights: "You can pay the $1.65," he said, "and then write a letter of complaint to the Hack Office, and they'll look into it."
Later I checked with what is still called the Hack Office although it has for some time been officially named the Public Vehicles Services Division, Office of Mass Transportation. D. C. Department of Transportation. The acting chief Archer, who sometimes forgets himself and also says "Hack Office," and small wonder. His tenure goes all the way back to the days when there really was a "Hack Office" and it was under the supervision of the police.
"We haven't received the letter of complaint yet," Archer told me, "but when we do, the driver will be called in and questioned to ascertain what his defense is. Then we'll get back to the complainant and sort of remind him that there are two sides of every argument, and we'll suggest to both sides that it might be better to make peace at this level than to go on escalating the argument.
"In about 95 per cent of the cases, the dispute is settled by the driver making restitution to the passenger. In this case, the driver would pay back the 55 cents, the passenger would drop the charges, and that would be the end of it - except for the private advice we'd usually send the driver home with."
"What would that be?" I asked.
"Well," Archer said, "we'd remind him that in the 5 per cent of the cases where hackers and riders feel so strongly about their argument that they refuse to settle, we have no choice except to refer the case to the Hackers License Appeal Board. And when that happens, nobody wins.
"The hacker and the complainant have to spend hours making an appearance before the Board. They lose time from their work and probably pay more in parking fees than is involved in the dispute. So we remind the hacker that regardless of which way the Board decides, he's going to lose a lot more than the 55 cents that caused the dispute.from a practical standpoint, it's better for him to be cheated out of 55 cents than to risk losing his livelihood."
Do most of the hackers get the message? "They sure do," says Archer. "We seldom see them back here a second time. They're acutely aware that the Hackers License Appeal Board can lift their licenses for five days or five years or, for that matter, revoke them permanently. So I'd say most of our hackers are pretty well behaved. Occasionally, however, we do have to deal with a few who pull that corny bit about crossing a zone line."
"I don't understand" I said. "Isn't it true that the fare goes up 55 cents each time a cab crosses a zone line?"
"Correct," said Archer. "but zone lines cover both sides of a street. Crossing from one side to the other is no basis for charging an extra 55 cents. We do have some large buildings that cause trouble, however - buildings like George Washingtop University Hospital and the Department of State. If the zone line runs along one edge of the building to which you're going but you ask to be taken to an entrance a block away, in another zone, that's a legitimate extra charge. On the other hand we have more complicated squabbles, like the apartments on the Maryland side of Southern Avenue, up near Cafritz Hospital. Some drivers try to charge an out-of-state mileage fee when they go there."
But that's a no-no because the official address of the apartments is on Southern Avenue, which is a taxi zone boundary lreet. So a trip that actually ends in Maryland does not count as inter-state under our zone structure. Small wonder some hackers find themselves in trouble with the Appeal Board.