I chirped out a "Good Morning" but the cabbie only grunted. I cheerily persisted with, "How has your day been?" but the only break in the silence was a muttered demand that I pay up front. I thought, well, maybe he's had a stroke and can't talk -- until he picked up another passenger, a white male. As soon as the man sat down, the cabbie -- a middle-aged black man -- began to gush merrily on about the weather, the new administration and events in Poland. The man paid as he stepped onto the curb at trip's end. And when I complained about the cabbie's rudeness to a black woman, I discovered how truly articulate my driver could be.
"You niggers don't do nothing but shack up and kill babies. You don't work, you're lazy, you want something for nothing . . . You whores should stop cutting off your hair and you wouldn't have these (attitude) problems. Grow some hair and be feminine. Don't you know that you're an abomination?" screamed the driver at my mortified reflection in his rear-view mirror.
Every Washingtonian needs a taxi story to tell at coffee breaks, but this cab driver gave me something more than one rather extreme anecdote. He gave me a stinging lesson in local sociology, a textbook case of the still-vigorous system of black-on-black discrimination in D.C. The fact that the incident occurred two weeks ago, the day before the Public Service Commission announced a 10-cent-per-trip surcharge and the second hike in two years, added a bittersweet twist to the tale.
From city council member John Wilson to anonymous package-laden Southeast shoppers, black taxi customers are still troubled by poor service and ill treatment from an industry owned and operated largely by blacks. Stories of long waits on windy streets, watching passing caravans of empty cabs, or drivers inching down the window only to drive off when they hear an Anacostia address, are still so commonplace that listeners only ask their complaining friends the bottom-line questions: How long was the wait and how many cabs passed them by?
William Wright, chairman of the local Taxicab Industry Group, denied in a telephone interview this week that service problems persist, but many drivers on the street will admit what they do and why.
"I've been hacking 25 years," said Zack Williams, driver of his own black-and-white cab with his name emblazoned on the door, "and if you show me 10 drivers who've been robbed, I'll show you five who've been robbed by black people. During the day, I'll take a young black man to Benning Road, but if it's at night, I'll say, 'No, sir, I'm sorry,' or maybe I'll take him somewhere else. If he says he'll report me, I say go ahead, let him."
One Yellow Cab driver simply said, "You're always going to look for the best fare, you know, look for bags, somebody going to the airport, for somebody who looks like they'll be a big tipper."
That has always translated into white, well-dressed, and preferably white male, according to some single women who complain that drivers insist on "mistaking" them for prostitutes despite their briefcases and blue blazers. Hackers have always argued that trips to the city's far reaches with unkempt passengers do not compensate for the threat to the driver's safety. Moreover, the cost of gasoline, for example, has risen about 25 cents a gallon since the last rate hike two years ago. But it is an argument that most consumers reject.
"I come out of the District Building every night and I dress fairly well, and I can't get a cab and it really gets on my nerves." said council member Wilson, who last year filed a complaint against the industry with the Office of Human Rights. "Do I look like I'm going to rob somebody?"
"The crime problem is very real but that doesn't explain the whole thing," said People's Counsel Brian Lederer, who represents consumers before the Public Service Commission, but who nevertheless favored the recent rate hike.According to Lederer, the taxi industry suffers from inadequate regulatory attention because of its small size and the maverick independence of drivers who own their own cabs.
"The problem is that there isn't a good regulatory mechanism for handling rate interests and there isn't a good one for handling the public's interests. That's because other utilities force their way to the commission's calendar; from a practical point of view they're able to demand more time. There have been eight electrical cases in the last 10 years, four to five gas cases, but only three taxi cases since 1971 or 1972. The first one took four years to resolve," he said. "It's a situation where we've got to get some coherence."
It's particularly important to find a solution to taxi industry problems, said Lederer, because "over the years it's been one of the few consistent opportunities for minorities to get into small business. We don't want to forget that."
Meanwhile, the enforcement of penalties for refusing to pick up passengers or refusing to take them to where they want to go has become more lax.
"If you file a complaint it could take two years to get resolved and all that would happen would be that the license would get revoked. They're all good people (on the Hacker's Board) but it's non-effective as a deterrent," said Lederer. "And the discrimination is chronic but ephemeral. You're discriminated against for the five minutes you don't get picked up."
But as all minorities know, discrimination of any kind is eroding to the self-esteem and insulting. As Wilson, pointed out, "It doesn't allow us to function as normal people. If I can't get from a meeting on 14th Street to the District Building, then I can't functiion effectively. There are a lot of other things I'd rather think about, but it becomes more difficult every year to accept it truthfully."
That's something the Public Service Commission should try hard to address before granting another rate hike for any reason.