Henry Grant, a taxi driver who works two jobs, sometimes three, to provide for his wife and three children, says he doesn't want to strike. But when many of the District's cab drivers go on strike today to protest low cab fares, Grant will join them.
"I'm a businessman, and I have to make a certain amount of profit to survive," said Grant, 36, who has been a D.C. hacker for eight years. Grant owns his taxi but pays monthly dues to Capital Cab Company to use their colors and radio call service. "With these fares so low, it's hard to ear a living," he said.
As he talks, Gran cruises the rainy, dimly lit streets of Washington, listening to a dispatcher spit out destinations over the squawk of the cab radio. He turns his head slightly to broaden his peripheral vision, to eye street corners, dark store entrances, bus stops.He a hunter pursuing passengers.
"Time is money, and you're out here with certain goals playing the game of beat the clock," says Grant, a stocky man of medium height. He's still wearing the dark green work shirt from his technician's job, work grease caked under his fingernails. He started hacking right after his other job. Dinner was a quick stop at a McDonald's.
"You've got to juggle a lot of things, you have to know where to look for fares, how to take the shortest route, how to avoid getting robbed or killed and at the same time worry about the gasoline shortage," he says.
According to figures provided by the city's Department of Transportation, in insurance costs for cab drivers have risen 62.5 percent since 1975, gasoline more that 28 percent, oil 18 percent, maintenance 40 percent and the price of a new cab 34 percent.
During that same period, cab fares have risen twice - a 9.5 percent across the board increase in January and an average raise of 3.8 percent granted last month by the Public Service Commission.
"In the past two years, I've had to spend triple the amount of money just to get the same amount of fares," Grant says. "Five dollars (spent on) gasoline two years ago would generate about $35 worth of fares. Now it takes $15."
On a typical six hour shift recently, Grant spent $15.65 for unleaded gas for his 1971 V-8 Plymouth Fury. (He sais he must keep his auto because he can't afford new car payments.) Subtracting gasoline costs from the $37 he grossed in fares and tips, Grant netted $21.35, or about $3.50 an hour, the top minimum wage offered in the District.
"Maybe it's not worth it time-wise," Grant says, fingering the think stack of one- and five-dollar bills, "but this is money that I can touch now. I can spend it now, and it might help pay for this week's groceries."
At dusk, Grant drives around the city in his black cab with a thin orange stripe painted along the side, looking for night riders in the twilight haze. Before night ends, he criss-crosses the city 10 times, driving more that 45 miles.
Grant is one of an estimated 7,000 D.C. cab drivers, many of whom work two jobs to make ends meet. They are all people movers, taking their passengers from offices to home doorsteps, running people to and from countless errands. Cabbies are often tour guides, confidants and advisers. They are urban sages on four wheeles who know city streets and city life instinctively.
When Grant was a youngster, his parents left their Greenville, S.C., farm for Washington, seeking opportunities for him that they never had, Grant said.
"My first job came when I was 12 years old. I would scale fish after school at the (now closed) Garden Food Store in the 5400 block of Sheriff Road NE," Grant said. "I've had a job every since."
His teen-age years were in the Maryland suburbs, and he graduated from Fairmont Heights High school in Prince George's. Grant spent two years in the Army and nine months in Vietnam as a chemical agent specialist.
Several years ago Grant, who works full time as an air conditioner technician at St. Elizabeths Hospital to boost his income to about $25,000 yearly, bought a home in Kenmore, near Landover Mall, for $26,000. The house is worth considerably more now.
"What I want for my kids is better opportunities too, just like my father wanted for me," Grant says above the din of the car radio. "I want them to have a better education so they can make money and have a decent living."
The radio dispatcher barks a series of locations, and Grant stops talking to listen. One call was for an area that cabbies call Bellevue - South Capital Street and Southern Avenue SE. On the city's outskirts, Bellevue is one of Grant's favorite locations because it offers a bigger fare.
"The older guys don't like areas in Northeast or Southeast because of the crime and the risks," he says, passing up a poorly dressed young man who hailed him. In the past year, scores of drivers have been robbed, several shot and several killed. Cab company officials say that crime, inflation and low fares have steadilty reduced the number of city hackers.
"With the greater risks come the greater amount of money," Grant says. "There are more zones to cross in Northeast and Southeast. The zone system here is geared to favor Congress, downtown Washington and Northwest.
"But my formula is to avoid the downtown traffic, the congested areas, to concentrate out here (Southeast and Northeast) where there is less competition," Grant says.
Near two grocery stores in the Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE area, Grant spies a woman with two shopping bags and pulls the cab closer to see if she wants a ride. She doesn't.
He drives into the lot of one grocery store, finds no takers and pulls out quickly.
"Time is money," he says, looking around for fares. "Let's try the east side of Minnesota Avenue - more people wait for fares there."
Turning onto Minnesota, Grant picks up a man in his early twenties, dressed smartly in tan slacks and a sweater. The man peers into the rear cab window and says, "2618 13th Street NW?"
"Okay, get in," says Grant, turning his head to watch the man, looking at his clothes and at whether he is carrying anything in his hands and pockets. In seconds, Grant sizes up the man and determines the shortest and fastest route to 13th Street NW. Before he reaches there half an hour later, he will have picked up two others.
"A good hacker has to be a salesman to get everybody he can within a certain period of time," Grant says. "You've got to be a doctor, a psychiatrist and a mother and father sometimes.
"It's not always that easy. You've got to work during good weather, bad weather. There's no sick leave, no vacation time, no automatic check waiting for you at the end of the day.
"There's a certain amount of luck involved, a certain amount of risks, but with a formula - your own scheme of doing things - sometimes you can make some money." CAPTION: Picture, Henry Grant is joining the cabdriver's strike because "with fares so low, it's hard to make a living." By Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post