First there was a three-course lunch with wine and then there were shiny brass plaques. For seven District cabdrivers, it was what they called a unique event: someone was saying thank you to them.
The Westin Hotel, one of several expensive new hotels in the city's West End, honored the drivers for their courteous service and clean cabs at a luncheon. They were selected by the hotel's doorman, Leon O'Neal.
"This is a real important event," said Donald Harrington, a 25-year veteran. "Everyone seems to believe we are nothing but bad. Well, this is recognition that some of us do a good job."
The unusual awards ceremony follows on years of deteriorating cab service brought on by hundreds of illegal drivers who have taken to the streets to compete with licensed cabbies. The flood of complaints about rude drivers who overcharged for rides led the District government to reorganize the city's cab office and to launch a crackdown on the unlicensed hackers.
Heather Freeman, public relations chief for the hotel, said the awards ceremony resulted from a discussion she had with O'Neal.
"I had just had a bad experience with a cabdriver and I complained to Leon that there were nothing but bad cabdrivers in Washington," she said. "He said I was wrong and he knew some good ones. I said find them and we will give them an award."
The honored drivers ranged in hacking experience from Harry Aiken, with 36 years, to Manoochehr Shirzad and Terry Combos, each with four years.
Aiken, who said he is an "original Washingtonian," was identified by O'Neal as driving the "cleanest cab in Washington."
Aiken said, "I clean the cab because I like it that way. I won't want to be in a dirty car. My customers treat me and my cab with respect because it is so clean."
Shirzad, who fled Iran just before the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, said he drives a cab because that is the only work he could find in this country.
"I worked for 26 years for a TV network," he said. "But I come here and there is no work for me in TV. Quite frankly it is not what I want to do, but I treat it as my profession. I do it correctly and I do it well."
For Combos, hacking was a second career after retiring from the Greyhound Bus Co. where he was a driver.
Combos, unlike the other drivers, said he had been robbed several times while hacking and the experience has made him careful about which passengers he picks up and how late he works at night.
During the lunch, drivers traded stories about being treated to expensive meals by friendly customers and about the experience of getting a 10-cent tip.
"I say thank you no matter how small the tip," said Harrington. "Sometimes that is all people have and sometimes they are so distracted they don't know what they handed you."
Tipping hotel doormen in exchange for $40 trips to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports is common around town, the drivers said. But they distinguish between those doormen who ask for a tip, usually $5, and those who they tip by choice.
They said O'Neal does not expect to be tipped.
"But we are all in the service industry," Aiken said.
"If it has been a good fare for me, I will share some of the money with Leon," he said.
The hotel also honored cabdrivers Shahpouri Demehri, Huseyin Chabuk and Ata Alai.