It was three days later when my reader called, but she was still fuming. She had returned to National Airport late on a Sunday night from a business trip to California. Using the designated cab line outside the main terminal, she tried to get a cab -- some cab, any cab -- to take her to her home in nearby Arlington. But as soon as word got out that she was going less than a mile, my reader got the cold shoulder from the assembled drivers.
The cab system at National is supposed to assure a cab for everyone, regardless of destination. In fact, that's exactly what happens most of the time, as I discovered (more on that in a minute).
But there is no way to gloss what happened to my reader (who wishes to remain anonymous). She was brushed aside by a succession of cabbies who were hoping for a big-bucks run to Fort Belvoir, Dulles Airport or, if their luck was in, Peru.
My reader was going only a few hundred yards, to her apartment near Crystal City. The trip would have run $3.50 on the meter, tops. In the cab biz, that's peanuts, especially if you've paid the mandatory $1 admission charge to wait for upwards of half an hour in the National Airport line.
So a succession of cabbies ignored the rules and refused to take my reader where she wanted to go. Nor did the dispatcher, who is paid to assure fairness, step in and insist that one of the drivers take the woman. All he did was watch silently for a couple of minutes, according to my reader. Then he said, matter-of-factly:
"Lady, no one is going to take you to Arlington tonight."
My reader was forced to take the subway -- and forced to lug 75 pounds of suitcases and briefcases for the 15 minutes it took to trudge from the escalator to her door. As she puts it, she "developed muscles I never knew I had -- and pains I never knew I could have."
Is the National Airport cab line usually so discriminatory? I decided to see for myself.
On Monday afternoon last week, I spent two hours hanging around the front of the line outside the American Airlines terminal. In that time, I overheard seven passengers tell the dispatcher that they wanted to go to Crystal City or Pentagon City. All seven were swiftly packed into cabs and sent on their way -- without delay and without any "steering" toward or away from certain cabs.
Although I saw absolutely no evidence of dispatchers' playing favorites, I did observe two cabbies who obviously thought (or hoped) that the system would work that way.
Each of these two cabbies slammed his gearshift into "park," bounded out from behind the wheel and gave a too-cheery first-name hello to the dispatcher in charge. Had a bribe changed hands between driver and dispatcher? Would the dispatcher make sure that the hello-giver got a $30 run instead of a $3.50 run?
Nothing of the sort happened. Both hello-givers were given trips to the Pentagon -- not bad runs, but not great runs, either. There was absolutely nothing in the air that suggested corruption, or special treatment.
I hope my reader's muscles have recovered by now. I also hope her feelings have recovered now that she knows she's an exception.
If there's a persistent cab-line problem at National, it may have more to do with the nature of Sunday night than with the nature of the cab dispatching system.
Yes, if I were a cabbie, I too would want to end my week on a $30 uptick, rather than on a $3.50 blah. But rules are rules, and they apply all week long. Tired travelers who just want to get home after a long flight don't deserve to be shunted, or shunned.
Your D.C. Government at work:
Thomas Palmer, of Northwest Washington, got a $50 ticket a few weeks ago for failing to display a temporary D.C. inspection sticker in his windshield. Thomas doesn't disagree with the charge. He disagrees with the eyesight, the judgment and the compassion of the person who wrote the ticket.
Until the day he got the ticket, a temporary sticker had indeed been stuck to the inside of Thomas's windshield. But that day dawned extremely hot, and after a while, the sticker peeled off.
Even so, the words from the sticker remained imprinted on the windshield, for all to see. And the sticker itself tumbled onto the dashboard, just a few inches below where it had once been stuck. There it sat, in full view of anyone who cared to stare through the glass. As Thomas puts it, "Anyone could see that the darn thing just fell on the dash."
But the ticket-writer must not have eyes. In any case, he certainly lacks that muscle in the center of the chest that goes thump-thump. Whip-whip-whip, and Thomas was given a $50 ticket.
What kind of city socks a citizen for $50 simply because it's a hot day?
This kind of city, alas.