The green Chevy station wagon pulled into the supermarket parking lot and backed up to the doorway where hospital cleaning woman Ella Washington and her two daughters stood with bulging bags of groceries cradled in their arms.
They were waiting for an unregulated taxi shuttle service, run mostly by retired men who have been hauling groceries to inner-city neighborhoods for decades and are a part of a Washington tradition. Their services may be the only dependable transportation for many low-income shoppers--most of them elderly and most of them women--who do not own cars and cannot afford regular taxi service. In Anacostia, where Washington lives, cabs are scarce and so is money.
"It's difficult to get a cab around here," she said. "You have to go all the way to the street to even try to get a cab and when you have groceries to carry, that can be a bit of a bother."
"This is a true blessing," she said, as she climbed inside Carter Skinner Jr.'s Chevrolet station wagon while he loaded her groceries into the car. When the 10-minute trip was over, Washington paid Skinner $2 and tipped him with heartfelt thanks. A regular cab trip for Washington, her two daughters and three grocery bags would cost about $4.
It was one of about 30 grocery store trips that day that Skinner, 72, and the seven men who are members of the Retired Men's Organization would make before the Safeway at 2626 Naylor Road SE closed.
Skinner's organization is a part of a little- known transportation network operated by about 30 men city-wide, according to grocery store officials and drivers.
Their business, run partly for profit and partly as a service to their neighbors, appears to be legal because they do not set rates and only seek donations, said Mel Doxie, executive director of the city's Public Service Commission.
"The city just turns its head the other way," Doxie said. "Nothing in our rules addresses that type of operation."
Safeway spokesman Larry Johnson sees value in the volunteer service.
"We don't solicit it, but we condone it," Johnson said. "It's a service that otherwise is not available. The option is available to cab companies to set up taxi stands, but they've chosen not to do that. There are many people who wouldn't have an option if it weren't for these people."
William Streeter, manager of the Naylor Road Safeway store and a former part-time cab driver for 17 years, said, "I've got nothing but praise for Skinner and his group. These guys will carry the bags right up to the customer's front door. When the money is low, people can ride on credit. The average cab driver wouldn't do that. Cabbies don't consider grocery store shoppers as choice pickings."
At the Safeway store, the lively banter of the drivers and the commotion of shoppers with bags of groceries created the appearance of a small-town marketplace. The same scene is played throughout the city at similar grocery stores.
At a Safeway at Third Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, for example, a steady stream of elderly women found rides from part-time drivers. One of the women, Edith Ray Baker, 70, a retired cook, lives about 10 blocks from the store. She pushed her cart filled with $71.40 worth of groceries toward one of the drivers.
"With heart trouble and shortness of breath, I'm not supposed to be lifting nothing heavy," Baker said.
"That's why I'm glad my buddy 'Smitty' gives me a ride home."
Some drivers say they need the shuttle service perhaps as much as the customers do.
Skinner said, "We're just old men who don't want to sit around the house all day and die from boredom. This gives us a chance to get out and continue to do something with our lives--maybe we'll live a little longer."
A retired automobile mechanic, Skinner said that the group began its transportation service six years ago. For them, it is a form of extra income and a way to stay active. Last year, the seven men grossed a little more than $1,000, Skinner said. "We're not in it for the money."
Every month they give a $70 donation to Emmanuel Baptist Church where Skinner is an active member. Most of what is left pays for gasoline and covers the cost of the upkeep of the cars they own and drive. Each man drives a station wagon.
"I enjoy carrying people home," said Dewitt Osborne, 77, a retired tractor-trailer driver. "When I carry them home, I know they got home safely."