Nancy Gompertz says she always does it, especially when she enters a cab alone at night. She checks to see if the driver has his license displayed. If he doesn't, Nancy asks to see it. Almost always, the driver complies.
But on Dec. 19, at approximately 11:35 p.m., Joseph Harkins, who drives Diamond Cab 729, did not comply without what Nancy Gompertz describes as a verbal barrage.
According to Nancy, Joseph Harkins answered her call for a radio-dispatched cab at The Psychiatric Institute of Washington, D.C., at 4460 MacArthur Blvd. NW., where Nancy works as an intake therapist. When she asked to see Harkins' license, Nancy alleges that he shouted: "You have no business asking to see my license."
Harkins loudly assailed her for implying that he was "some sort of crook," according to Nancy. Then, a couple of minutes later, he yelled at Nancy for eating in his cab when she was merely holding and rustling a yellow piece of paper, she said. All the while, Harkins was driving "erratically," Nancy charged. She acknowledges that he never used profanity or threatened her with physical violence.
Nancy could have jumped out of the cab, and she says she gave serious thought to doing so. However, she continued to her destination, a ride of about seven minutes. There, she says she handed Harkins four $1 bills to cover the $3.90 fare, jumped out as fast as she could and hurried inside her apartment house on Cathedral Avenue NW.
Nancy says she was "afraid that the incident could have led to physical violence. Every woman understands the kind of fear I was feeling." She said she wasn't and isn't trying to be heroic or vindictive. "But I couldn't let it pass," she said.
So she filed a complaint before the D.C. Taxicab Commission. The vast majority of such complaints never go to a hearing because the complainant drops charges or fails to show up for a scheduled hearing. And even if a hearing does take place, many drivers are found innocent.
However, Nancy Gompertz took time off work to haul Joseph Harkins through the full administrative procedure. A hearing was held before the commission last Wednesday at its offices on Martin Luther King Avenue SE. Harkins was fined $100 on one charge and given a warning on a second.
As Robert B. Burnett, one of the three commissioners who heard the case, said to Harkins from the bench, "with ladies in the cab, you have to be aware of the way you talk to them. You've got to remain calm."
Yet Nancy Gompertz's case appears very different to some men than it does to some women.
I recounted the facts to ten female friends and ten male friends and asked for their views. All ten women immediately took Nancy's side, and thought the verdict against Joseph Harkins was fair.
However, five of the men thought Nancy had made a mountain out of a molehill. "Is she going to go running for a hearing every time someone raises his voice at her?," one man asked. Three other men thought Joseph Harkins' sentence was unfairly harsh. Only two men thought that Nancy's pursuit of the case, and the verdict, were justified.
One of the male commissioners, William J. Wright, reflected some of the sex-linked doubt about the case when he implied from the bench that Nancy shouldn't have been concerned over the incident.
Why did she ask to see Harkins' license, Wright asked? "Because it's my legal right, and for safety reasons. I'm a woman traveling alone," Nancy replied.
But normally you're alone whenever you get into a cab, Wright noted. "He was verbally assaultive," Nancy replied. "That's not normal. I've never had a driver before who was out-and-out rude."
But why was she so suspicious of Harkins, Wright asked? After all, MacArthur Boulevard "is not what we normally think of as a bad part of town." Nancy replied that it was nearly midnight when she entered Harkins' cab, and that a woman alone is always concerned if she's by herself at that hour. "The location doesn't have anything to do with it," she said later.
In his statement to the panel, Harkins said Nancy had been "anxious and paranoid" when she entered his cab on Dec. 19. She acted in an "impolite, abrasive manner," he alleged. He acknowledged that his license wasn't visible when she got in the cab, but he denied driving erratically or being abusive. "I was at all times civil," Harkins testified.
The panel voted unanimously to cite Harkins for failure to display his license. It voted 2-to-1 to cite him for "safety." He was warned on the first charge and fined on the second.
Asked by the panel for any final pre-sentence thoughts, Nancy Gompertz returned to the theme of fear. "Yelling causes fear," she said. "Under no circumstances should that ever be allowed."
As she left the hearing, I asked Nancy if she felt vindicated. "I almost didn't go through with this," she said. "It would have been very easy just to forget about it. But if one woman is safer because of what I did, I'll be happy."