Nothing is taxing in Bill Proctor's taxi. Everything is "wonderfully nice."
Proctor, billing himself as the city's "most experienced cabdriver," serenely negotiates the Washington streets in a 1978 Diamond Cab Dodge. For 55 years he has offered not just a ride, but on request a recitation of his poetry, a grandiloquent sermonette on love or an offbeat lesson on how Washington used to be.
In 1930, when Bill Proctor first slid behind the wheel, the man called Mr. President was Herbert Hoover and Proctor's most lucrative customers were bound for bootleg houses. Decades have passed, but Proctor, 75, a relentlessly cheery man with white hair and blue eyes, insists that he has never been rattled by urban driving. Not even on the Beltway at rush hour? Not even in Georgetown on Friday night? "No, indeed," said Proctor. "Never, ever, ever. I love to drive anywhere."
The recent afternoon was balmy but showing signs of Christmas bustle. Two young women walked down P Street in Georgetown, swinging shiny red shopping bags. Tinsel glittered in the hair of a toddler waiting with her mother at a crosswalk. Brakes squealed somewhere nearby, but Proctor, who drives in a one-handed style with his left arm draped casually over the steering wheel, didn't blink as he smoothly turned a corner.
"At Christmas time, people are wonderfully nice," Proctor said, employing one of his favorite phrases. His best tip ever of the season, he recalled, came from a middle-aged man who added $30 to a $2 fare.
Proctor's first cab was a 1929 brown Chevy. Four people could ride from Wisconsin and M in Georgetown to 15th and H NE for a grand total of 20 cents.
By working 17-hour days, Proctor and his wife Harriet raised eight children on his wages. It proved to be Proctor's first and only job as an adult; he found the driving effortless and the brief, often anonymous, glimpses into other peoples' lives fascinating.
"Now this was what we called Snow's Row," Proctor said, stopping at a row of brightly trimmed town houses between 24th and 25th and I and K streets in Foggy Bottom. "That fella ran a so-called high-class place there. If congressmen came and got a little too much to drink, he had a special room to put them up to get straight. Sometimes it would be days before they got squared away."
Proctor paused as a city bus lumbered out in front of him. A bicyclist wearing a helmet dashed into the intersection, heedless of the light. Rush hour was beginning in the city.
"I never miss a rush hour," Proctor said with satisfaction.
Proctor is one of about 12,000 licensed cabdrivers in the District. By his reckoning, he has driven more years and more miles (about 5 million, he estimates) than any other driver.
Naturally, he has had a few memorable experiences behind the wheel.
In the 1930s, a woman gave birth in Proctor's cab, and in the flurry of getting to a hospital the fare was never paid. Fifteen years later, a customer listening to Proctor's account of the night exclaimed that his grandson had been born in a taxi. The two compared notes and, lo and behold, realized it was the same case. The man insisted on giving Proctor $15.
On a hot day in the summer of 1944, Proctor was driving a woman to Chevy Chase by way of Rock Creek Parkway. The woman protested the route, saying that she had had a premonition that she would see someone jump from a bridge if she ever rode through the park. Proctor assured her the ride would be over soon.
"But as we were approaching the Calvert Street bridge," he said, "I saw a man tumbling right down off the top of the bridge. He fell within about 30 feet of my cab."
The man wore a blue suit and was 37 years old, Proctor learned later. "I felt so bad. That poor woman in the back was just hysterical."
In the late 1960s, Proctor had another experience, he said, that unnerved him, but in a different way.
"One night, I picked up three fellas and I didn't know they were thugs," he said. "In my friendly way, I guess I sort of impressed them. I heard one of them say to the others, 'We've got the wrong taxi,' and in a few minutes, they all agreed to get out. I said, 'Is there something wrong?' And they said, 'Yes, we're out for blood and you're not the type of person we want to harm, so we're going to let you go.' "
In his 55 years of driving a cab, Proctor said, he has never been robbed, never suffered a serious accident and, he figures, has been stiffed for fares that all told probably amount to $1,000. "That's nothing, calculated over 55 years," he said as he turned onto Connecticut Avenue.
Rush hour was at its zenith. Cars inched along Connecticut. Up ahead, a car rear-ended another, and horns blared. Proctor didn't seem to notice any of it as he calmly recited one of his love poems, a simple perky little rhyme. Sometimes, he said, he passes out poems to customers.
Reaching into his wallet, he pulled out an old, fuzzy snapshot of his eight children when they were young. "See the little kid with the glasses?" he said. "Believe it or not, he's driving a taxi. I've got a son who's been driving a taxi for 25 years. Name's William Lloyd Proctor.
"You know, I've had relatives say to me, 'Bill, why do you drive a taxi?' And then they say to me, 'Bill, if you had it to do over again, would you drive a taxi?' So let me set the record straight. If I had my life to live over again, I'd finish my education and major in languages -- I think everybody should have command of three or four languages -- and then, I'd drive a taxi.
"They might not understand," he said placidly, as a car darted out in front of him without benefit of a signal, "but this is what I love to do."