Metrorail is glorious and Metrobus is wonderful, but for some trips in our fair city, a cab is the only way to fly. So I stuck out my right hand last Wednesday when it was time to attend my daughter's dance recital. A cab pulled over and I got in.
"Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue Northwest," I said, biting off the words carefully so the cabbie couldn't later claim I told him to take me to Milwaukee by way of Boston.
"Mass and Wis, you got it," the cabbie said, as if he were a hip, harassed waiter repeating my sandwich order.
"You know the way?" I asked. It wasn't as silly a question as it might sound. Half the cabbies I hail don't know which is Longworth and which is Rayburn. The other half recognize only two words: "National" and "Airport."
The cabbie whirled around in his seat. "Sir, I not only know the way, I know the fastest way. I'll bet I can get you there in eight minutes."
I calculated the odds. Here we were, three blocks from the White House, in the throes of downtown. To make the trip in eight minutes would require little traffic, no demonstrations for democracy in Slobovia, no broken-down schoolbuses and no sudden suit-shopping sprees by George Bush and his security entourage. Was this one of those days? I greatly doubted it.
After all, it was the height of lunch hour (clutter). It was the middle of tourist season (drivers would be stopping to stare). It wasn't Friday (nobody would be desperate to escape for the weekend). And it was horrendously humid (drivers would be babying their cars so the air conditioners wouldn'tquit).
I thought the guy had zero chance. But just to be sporting, I leaned over the seat and said:
"Tell you what. You make it in eight minutes and I tip you an extra buck."
I could see the driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror. They were glowing with the thrill of a challenge. "Eight minutes, you got it," he said.
"But no speeding," I said.
"Eight minutes without speeding, you got it," the driver said. Sure. Right.
We went north on 15th Street from M. Right away, we'd see what this guy was made of. Would he turn left on Mass, and commit himself to three tough traffic circles (Scott, Dupont and Sheridan) within nine blocks? Or would he go north to R and west along R to Massachusetts, thus hitting no traffic circles?
The R Street route can be as much as five minutes faster than the Mass Avenue route. Anyone who knows the first thing about downtown Washington would choose it 100 times out of 100. But this cabbie voted for Mass and the circles.
Trying not to be smug, I leaned forward and asked him why. "Mass shouldn't be too bad at this time of day," he said.
I chuckled softly to myself. Scott Circle has an extra-long light. Dupont Circle has been a parking lot since about 1963. And Sheridan Circle gets totaled anytime an embassy limo driver decides to back out into traffic, which is at least 15 times a day.
I had found yet another hopeless D.C. cabbie who didn't know the ropes. Poor sap.
The cabbie stopped at Scott Circle for the infamously long red light. "You want another buck on whether this is the last red light we hit?," he asked. There was only one way I could say yes. "You got it," I said.
The light changed. The cabbie inched forward, past apartment buildings and delivery vans and guys in Hondas with New Jersey plates. All of a sudden, Massachusetts Avenue opened up.
We whooshed around Dupont Circle. We gathered speed as we passed Anderson House and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. By the time we passed the Cosmos Club and hit Sheridan Circle, the cabbie was doing an unheard of 25 miles an hour.
Out Massachusetts, and he had pushed it up to 30. Up the hill past the Naval Observatory, and he started humming. His song? "Happy Days Are Here Again."
We pulled to a stop at Mass and Wis after seven minutes, 25 seconds and no additional red lights. "You got me," I said. "Nicely done." I handed him a $5 bill to cover the fare and the tip. Then I handed him two $1 bills.
"I didn't think you had a chance," I said.
"Time is money," the driver replied. "Anyone who's good at this job knows how to get somewhere quickly. And he knows exactly how long a trip should take."
"But why do so many D.C. cabdrivers have no idea which way is up?"
"Maybe they don't bet enough," the driver said.
I chuckled and started to get out. As I moved toward the door, I noticed something green out of the corner of my eye. It was my two $1 bills, being held in my direction by the driver.
"Give this to the camp fund," he said. "I just wanted to show you that some of us know what we're doing, and some of us care."
Best $2 bet I ever lost.