On New Year's Eve 1941, a North Carolina farm boy named Arabia Pasha Cayton found a future for himself in business at an unlikely spot in the District. Standing at North Capitol and H streets, Cayton hailed a cab, told the driver he was a stranger in town and asked to be taken to Third and H NW.
What followed was a lesson in how easily money could be made in Washington, for the hack took Cayton for quite a ride, indeed.
After a 30-minute trip to various city points, the cabbie finally circled back, landed the 21-year-old farm boy three blocks from where they started and asked him to fork over a $15 fare.
"Right then," Cayton recalled, "I got the feelin' I could make some money here."
Times haven't changed all that much in the hack business. Even today there are occasional tragicomic tales of wide-eyed, unsuspecting tourists being charged as much as $25 for a lift from National Airport to city hotels.
But Arabia Pasha Cayton has changed, for he took the lesson to heart and struck back. Thirty-two years later he, along with Joseph O. Hansen, owns Blue Bird-Yellow Cab Inc., an outfit they started with a 1941 Hudson sedan. Today the Hyattsville company commands a fleet of 175 taxis and is the biggest cab service in Prince George's County.
While today's Horatio Algers are finding their fortunes in such esoteric fields as silicon microchips and petrochemicals, Cayton, Hansen and a third original partner, James E. Bell, come from a simpler era, when it mattered not so much what you knew about memory banks or formulas, but what you did with your wits and your hands.
The three country boys fought in World War II and returned to Washington after V-J Day with little work experience and no formal education beyond the sixth grade.
"It was mainly stamina and patience that got us through," said Hansen, a stout, gravel-voiced man who left his family's Michigan farm when he was 14 and headed east to find work. "The backbone of this whole operation has always been the regulars, the little people out there . . . . We aren't a rich man's outfit. We think we've been good to the common people, and they've certainly been good to us."
Blue Bird operates out of a couple of white buildings at 5334 Baltimore Ave. in Hyattsville, five miles across the District line. It's been there as long as anyone in the town of 15,000 can remember; a blue-collar fixture that has survived the decline of the Rte. 1 corridor from a once-engaging thoroughfare of mom-and-pop stores and summer inns to its present state of used-car lots, storefront churches and fast-food restaurants.
To many commuters who use Rte. 1, Hyattsville is a place to travel through, not to visit, unless that visit entails the drudgery of paying parking tickets at the branch courthouse or bailing a friend out of jail.
But the people who live there know better. To them, Hyattsville, beyond the dreary confines of Rte. 1, is a small town full of elm-shaded neighborhoods and Victorian-style houses that date so far back that a large chunk of the town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last year.
In those houses, and others in similarly historic county towns such as Riverdale, Seat Pleasant, Brentwood and Bladensburg, live machinists, printers, carpenters, government clerks and others who have used Blue Bird to get them to work, the hospital, the beauty parlor and school for years and years.
Nowhere can you get a better feel for what small-town life is like in those suburbs than in Blue Bird's radio room, a dim and dank little foxhole with walls stained a murky brown by 30 years of tobacco smoke.
There the company's telephone operator, Barbara Flaim, and Joseph (Mac) McGee, the dispatcher, talk up a storm, often greeting clients by their first names and chattering instructions to cab drivers in a jargon as arcane as NASA's. If the spirit of "Our Town" endures anywhere in the Washington suburbs, it surely does there.
"Where you going today, Carol? . . . . a sale at the mall, eh? . . . . Fine, we'll have somebody there in five minutes or so," Flaim says over the phone at one point. "Wear your overcoat. It's gonna be windy out there."
"Cue Ball, Cue Ball! Who's on the Cue Ball?" McGee barks into the radio mike, searching for the cabbie closest to the taxi stand in Queenstown. A cabbie answers back and McGee tells him to pick up a Mr. Clark at the barbershop on Rte. 419 in Riverdale and take him to Dixie's Bar and Grill.
In the radio room, a "ballgame" means a police car is waiting at a certain intersection to ticket speeders, and "Ho Jo" means someone wants a cab at the Howard Johnson's in Laurel. Seven-thousand calls pour into Blue Bird on a good day, plus another 400 at night.
Drivers, who lease Blue Bird's cabs for $33 a day and pocket all the fares they can muster, are known by numbers and nicknames such as 142, 167, Kingfish, Cisco and Jaws, the latter an old guy whose enthusiastic and high-pitched voice enters the radio room like the call of a seagull.
Paying 10 cents for every tenth of a mile, and $1 to get in, the regular riders include "Wheelchair," a handicapped fellow who follows a regular schedule of barhopping in Riverdale nearly every afternoon and has been using Blue Bird for nearly a decade.
There's "Doc," as well, an elderly Seat Pleasant physician who travels to and from Prince George's General Hospital each day, and a mysterious old woman in Brentwood known only as "Little Tip." Upon arriving at her destination--often Nina's Beauty Parlor on Rte. 450--she invariably pulls out a brown envelope containing a crisp $5 bill and hands it to the hack as "a little something extra."
"In this business, we do well depending on whoever's in power in Washington. When the Democrats come to town the money really opens up," says McGee, who has been hacking and dispatching for Blue Bird for 30 years. "Now it's pretty tight all over."
In some ways, these seem to be the twilight times for Hyattsville's Horatio Algers, Cayton and Hansen.
They and Bell started the company in 1949, when cars cost $1,200 and gasoline sold for 25 cents a gallon. At the time they were hacking for two different county cab companies and were drawn together, Hansen recalled, by a similar ambition: To own their own cabs one day and work for themselves.
They expanded from a fleet of five cabs in 1949, including Hansen's 1941 Hudson, and eventually bought up a dozen other companies that existed in the 1940s and '50s, such as Green Hornet Cab and Union Taxi.
Then, in the late '50s, they were able to stop hacking and started operating the company from the office. Cayton, 61, and Hansen, 64, said 5,000 different drivers have worked for Blue Bird in their time, including one Lawrence J. Hogan, who later became a U.S. congressman and Prince George's county executive.
A half-dozen babies have been born in Blue Bird's backseats over the years, and the owners have seen Prince George's County grow from a rural stretch of cornfields and small towns and 40,000 people to a veritable metropolis with a population of 665,000.
But Blue Bird, too, is finding it difficult to escape the effects of time. Several drivers who worked for the company most of their lives have died in recent years. Last week the third member of the original triad of farm boys, James Bell, suddenly told his partners of 30 years he wanted out. He was 63, he said, and wanted to move to Florida.
"He told me he didn't want to be the richest man in the cemetery," said Cayton. "It was a total shock. Saddest day of my life. This is a guy who's like my brother . . . . It makes you feel the years. We've got plans to turn this business over to our children, but for now we intend to carry on."
"Heck, we're still kicking. Times haven't changed so much anyway," Hansen interrupted. "Couple months ago some friends of mine flew into National and caught a D.C. cab into town. One of 'em calls me up and says, 'Joe, does it really cost fifty bucks for four guys to get from the airport to the Sheraton?' "
Arabia Pasha Cayton just shook his head and chuckled.