Gabriele Arnold, 25, spends most of her nights cruising the streets of D.C. Starting about 8, she drives into the night -- looking for fares. All of 5-feet tall and 90 pounds, Arnold's a cab driver.
One of the few women driving cabs in Washington, she has been picking up fares here for three years. She knows danger discourages many women from the field, but thinks they're turned off by more than a question of safety.
"Part of it is tradition," she says, her German accent showing. "It isn't traditionally a woman's job, but I think it also has a lot to do with women being scared, that you are out on your own. It's not as safe as being a waitress. You're completely alone out here. I know what the dangers are . . . I'm not kidding myself, but as long as you know what the dangers are, you can prevent against them."
Arnold doesn't carry a gun. Either she's been lucky, or her caution has paid off, because she's never been robbed or attacked. She has, however, had some close calls.
A young man got into her cab and asked to go across town. She had driven about two blocks when he ordered her to pull over. She recalls the incident in detail.
"He says, 'Miss, you'd better let me out here.' 'Why?' I asked. 'I wasn't going to pay you,' he said. 'I was just going to jump out of the car and duck through an alley, and I can't do that to a lady.'"
Arnold says carrying a gun in situations where tempers can flare, like being caught in traffic, being slowed down by the driver in front, leads to taking out hostilities with the gun. Instead, she relies on her savvy and other drivers.
"One time a kid just hopped in the car and said, 'Take me to Seventh and Florida. You have five minutes to get there and I'm not going to pay you.'" she remembered. "I hadn't stopped for him, he just hopped in the car. So I thought the best thing to do was to talk to him and make friends.
"I made a joke. I said, 'Is this the way you always catch cabs?' He said, 'No, but I live in a halfway house, and I have to be there by 11, or they send me back to prison.' I said, Oh great. What were you in for? He said, armed robbery. My heart was down at the bottom of my seat."
Fortunately, she passed another cab driver as she headed for the address. When she got within shouting distance, she called out to him to join her for coffee, adding that he should follow her. The fare changed his mind about any hostility, and she got him to Seventh and Florida in five minutes.
"If somebody is in my cab and they tell me to do something and I don't know whether they have a weapon, I'm a lot better off cooperating," she says. "People (at work) look out for me, and they're concerned. I've had drivers follow me, if they see me heading into a neighborhood where I shouldn't be heading late at night. And I've done the same for them. Just having someone following you, gives the passenger the idea that he can't do anything."
"151,151," squawks the two-way radio in the cab. The traffic is moving slowly down Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown this Friday night.
"The beauty of being a cab driver is that you're self-employed," Arnold says. "It's not that you make all kinds of money necessarily. It's that you can work whenever you want to."
Arnold paid $800 for her cab from Diamond, which is an association of cab fleet owners. The car is hers, and she pays weekly dues. It works like a franchise.
Heading for Booeymongers, after picking up a foursome from a campus party at American University, Arnold speeds past yellow traffic lights along Wisconsin Avenue, beating the red lights.
"I'm an aggressive driver," she says. "Driving this cab, I've gotten a speeding ticket and two warnings. I drive slightly above the speed limit, not horrendously, just weaving in and out of traffic."
She swings down to 19th and M streets NW as a number of bars are closing. At 2 or 3 a.m. there are always fares, bar patrons, bartenders and waitresses getting off work, who don't feel like waiting for a bus.
When there's no business, she says, "I listen to the radio. If there's nothing on the radio, you kind of tend to head for Georgetown or the general Dupont Circle area, including Pennsylvania Avenue and Washington Circle."
On a good night, Arnold can average $10 an hour. From that she has to pay for gas, dues and car maintenance. She has made as little as $12 during an 8-hour shift, and once, during President Carter's inauguration, $200 after 16 hours on the streets ferrying people to parties and official goings-on.
"It was my very first day on the job," she recalls. "I was just so tired I (finally) had to lock my (cab) doors. I figured, wow, cab driving is great. I thought I was rich."
Company rules prohibit cabbies from driving more than eight hours at a stretch without taking a break. However, Arnold says, many drivers, like herself, do marathon shifts of 12-15 hours, especially in summer, to make extra money.
"I try to do the same circuit," she says as she heads toward K Street NW, "Georgetown, Dupont Circle. If I've done it five times without getting a fare, I say, okay time to go home."
She loves driving at night. There's less traffic, which means she can collect $1.90 for driving from one zone to another in 10 minutes, while it might take 25 to 30 minutes normally.
"I like the zone system," she says. "I really prefer it because even if I choose to work during the day, I can pick up other fares. I can go from Dupont Circle to the train station. I don't just have to settle for that $1.90. I can pick up other people along the way that are also going to the station. You can't do that with a meter. If you've got a meter, you can only take one fare at a time. I can choose my own route, and it doesn't cost the person any more."
The police used to stop her a lot, when she first started driving.
"I noticed they were really aware of me," she says, "pulling me over, just checking to see if I'm a real cab driver or if I'm borrowing daddy's car."
Arnold was the first woman in the Diamond Association to become a full voting member. Of 450 drivers in Diamond, two are women.A survey of other Washington cab companies, shows the Diplomat Cab Service has two women drivers, Cholly's Cheery Cab has five, and an Eastern Cabs spokesman said it has only a handful. At the Yellow, Capital and Barwood taxi companies, no one would even take a guess at how many women drivers worked for them, presumably because so few do.
One advantage, Arnold finds, to being a woman cabbie, is being able to handle drunks. They sober up very quickly when they realize a woman is at the wheel, she says.
Old-school cab drivers have difficulty accepting her, Arnold says.
"When I'm around the cab lot where all the old cab drivers hang out, I still get a lot of comments," she said. "I was at the lot the other day and somebody had a fare in their cab who asked, 'Who's that lady cab driver?' And one of the old guys said, 'That's no lady cab driver. If she's a cab driver she can't be a lady.
"If I open my hood to check the oil, somebody's there right away, 'Do you know what you're doing young lady?' I still get those kind of comments. But not like, 'What's that broad doing here?' They're good-natured. They're aware of the little girl who drives a cab."