Capitol Cab driver Tyrone Dodson leaned on his taxicab and wiped beads of sweats from his brow, disgustedly eyeing the empty gasoline pumps in his cab company's service bay and the 86.9-cent per gallon price for unleaded gas recorded on one pump face.
"Man," he said wearily, "I been hacking more than 10 years (and) I ain't never seen nothing like this before ."
It was the old inflation squeeze play, and last week Dodson and the more than 9,600 other licensed District cab drivers were wincing from the pinch. They were caught between rising prices, scarcity, and the fixed zone fares they can charge - and the prospect was for more of the same.
"I've got to work more than damn near 14 hours a day before I can make a profit," Dodson said. I'm trying like hell to get out of the business now, but hacking is all I've got going for me right now."
The pinch is real. Taxicab authorities say drivers, on an average, are losing $8 a day because of recent gasoline price increases.
C. E. Nwaogu, of Checker Cab, said four months ago he used to work eight hours each day. Back then, for a days' work he filled up his tank twice at $12 per fill-up. Now he pays $16 for each fill-up, and to make the same amount of money each day he must work about 12 to 14 hours.
To help head off what industry officials see as a crisis, the Taxicab Industry Group (TIG), an alliance of 11 District cab companies, has asked the city to allow drivers to add a 25-cent surcharge on all fares. At the same time, it is hoping the federal government will increase the amount of gasoline it allocates to the District for emergency needs, according to William Wright, TIG chairman.
Last month Mayor Marion Barry allocated 56,000 gallons of the city's gasoline to the cab companies because he said they were an "integral part of the District's public transportation system" and minority-operated companies were involved.
Chuck Clinton, director of the District's government energy unit, said he expects the mayor to give the companies at least another 56,000 gallons this month in view of the continuing shortage. That amount may be increased, he said, "depending on the need." And TIG feels an increase in the federal allocation would insure that cabbies continue to receive extra gas.
As for the 25-cent surcharge, the Public Service Commission has scheduled a hearing on June 19 to discuss the issue, a spokeswoman said.
Even with the "set-aside" allocation the cab companies ran out of gas several times in May. That happened because, in order for them to avoid the long lines at the commercial service stations where they usually bought their gas, more cabbies, began using the company-operated pumps.
Thus, because of the shortages at their own pumps, cab drivers are preparing for the worst in in the next few months, Wright said.
Cabbie Malvin King, a 20-year veteran of hacking, is one of those nervously eying the future. When asked if he was making a profit in the cab business nowadays, King put his left arm atop the steering wheel in his black and orange Capitol cab and shook his head dejectedly. "No, I ain't making no money," he muttered.
Would he quit hacking? "No," he replied. "Something's bound to work out . . . "Cab driving is like an old shoe. It just fits you good . . . if it has a hole in it or not."