All day, every day, they troop out of Union Station, like fresh meat. They are out-of- towners who have just arrived here on the train.
They don't know about our bizarre taxicab system. They don't know to beware of gypsy cabdrivers. They just want to get where they're going.
Anne Hurston of Boston managed to accomplish that last task on the snowy night of Tuesday, Feb. 18. But she might as well have had a red X painted on her back. She was toting a suitcase, she was exhausted, it was 11 p.m., she was female and she was alone. A gypsy cabby knew just what to do.
He charged her the outrageous sum of $140 to take her to the Bethesda Marriott on Pooks Hill Road. That was at least three times what the ride would normally have cost. Then the man refused to surrender Anne's suitcase if she didn't come up with the dough, in cash, right then and there.
Anne had come to Washington for her father-in-law's funeral, so she was emotionally overwrought already. Add in a 10-hour train trip and a speeding cab ride through the snowy streets of Washington, and her resistance was far lower than usual.
Anne had only about $100 cash in her possession. She went inside the Marriott to get the rest. When she came back, she bargained the thieving cabby down to $120. He relinquished her bag. She escaped with all of her possessions, some of her sanity, most of her dignity -- and $20 more than she might have.
How did such a mess happen? It began when the cabby -- a "small guy" who Anne thinks was African -- approached her as she stood in a long line outside Union Station. He commented that Amtrak never calls enough cabs.
Is your red warning light at 300 watts yet?
Mine would have been, even if I'd never been here before. Amtrak doesn't call cabs to Union Station. Cabbies here (and in most other places) are independent contractors. They go where they want. They congregate at Union Station on their own.
The gypsy cabby asked where Anne was going. When she told him, he said the usual fare would double. She agreed because the hour was late.
So did a second person in the line -- a young man with skis who was going to Silver Spring. He agreed to share the cab and to let the driver drop off Anne first. The cabby never told either passenger what the doubled fare would be. They followed him to a car that was parked several blocks from Union Station.
Although 21 inches of snow had just fallen, the cabby drove "like a madman," Anne said. As she looked around, she realized that there was nothing inside or outside the cab that looked legitimate -- no visible cabdriver's license, no laminated chart of fares, no cab ID number, no dome light on the roof, no name of a cab company painted on a door.
Throughout the trip to Bethesda, the driver jabbered into a cell phone about the lines at Union Station. Maybe he was a "real" cabdriver, since he seemed to be talking to others. Or was he talking to other gypsy drivers? Or none of the above?
Anne admits that she surrendered rather meekly. When the driver demanded $140, he called that the "fair" fare. That would have elicited a snort from me, or worse. But Anne was too tired to fight.
Kimberly Lewis, attorney-adviser for the D.C. Taxicab Commission, said the gypsy cabby was right about one thing. Normal fares do double during "snow emergencies." However, Kimberly said there is "no way" even a doubled fare could have reached $140 for a run to Bethesda.
Snow or no snow, a D.C. driver can add four surcharges, Kimberly said: $1 for rush hour, $1.50 for each additional passenger, $1.50 if the cab was dispatched by radio and $2 for extra suitcases or if the driver has to carry a suitcase. These fees are never doubled during snow emergencies, Kimberly said.
What can a victim like Anne do? File a report, and quickly, Kimberly said.
A victim should file an overcharge complaint within 30 days, she said. It should include a receipt, the date and approximate time of the offense, the amount the passenger paid, the distance traveled, the start point and end point of the trip, the cabdriver's ID number (or "face" number), his cab number, the name of the cab company and the driver's name.
Three guesses how much of this information Anne has, or collected at the time. She's up a creek without a taxi. The gypsy got away with it.
If an overcharge happens to you, make sure you get as much of the above information as possible. Then file a complaint by fax to Lee Williams, chairman of the commission, at 202-889-3604. For further information about overcharge situations, call the commission's main number, 202-645-6018.
If you like morals to stories, this one has several:
* Never allow a cabby to place your bag inside a locked trunk or on the front seat beside him. You're at his mercy if you do.
* Always agree on the fare before you start a trip, especially in Washington, where cabs lack meters.
* If you don't see the name of a cab company painted on the side of a cab or a laminated license somewhere inside, don't get in, no matter how tired or pressed for time you are.
* At Union Station, there are signs explaining the cab system. Read them. Understand that the system is for your protection. If you're wondering about local customs, ask if anyone in the line is a Washingtonian. You'll get the guidance you need.
* Don't fold without a fight. Anne commented that she should have gone inside the Marriott, called the police and asked a hotel employee to come outside with her while she demanded her suitcase. She didn't do any of those. But after reading this, you would, wouldn't you?