Sulaiman Conteh hangs a string of brown beads on his rearview mirror for his Muslim prayers. Joseph Battle has a card with Psalm 18:2 next to his taxi driver's license. Bahram Rajabzadeh gives thanks to God when he arrives home safely.
It's hard to find someone in the taxi business who's not a bit religious, District cabbies say. It's easy to see why.
On Wednesday, a cabdriver was killed at East Capitol Street and Anacostia Road NE by a passenger who fled. On Thursday, a cabdriver waiting at a red light in the 3500 block of Georgia Avenue NW was struck by a bullet.
In November, a driver was stabbed to death, and another was stabbed and robbed that month. In August, a driver was paralyzed after being shot in the head during an apparent robbery attempt.
Driving a cab has been called the riskiest job in America, with an occupational homicide rate higher than that of police officers, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Beyond the headlines, ask nearly any cabdriver whether he's been a victim and you'll likely hear a harrowing tale.
Cruising through Dupont Circle, Rajabzadeh pulls out an ashtray cluttered with things left behind by strangers: receipts, coins--and two small bullets. About three years ago, he said, five teenagers came up to his cab around 1 a.m. on a Friday. One pulled out a gun and fired several shots as Rajabzadeh's blue World Cab Co. station wagon sped away.
"God came," said Rajabzadeh, 52, a gaunt man with red-rimmed eyes. "God helped me. One of these bullets could have been in my head. Who knows?"
The Iranian immigrant said he can't stop driving a cab: He has a wife and three children.
Battle, 54 and a cabdriver for 31 years, usually works during the day, when fares are mostly workers downtown, and doesn't stay out much later than 9 p.m. Still, he said he was robbed four years ago by a man who approached him for a ride at a gas station near New Jersey and Rhode Island avenues NW.
"Name a job that doesn't have danger," he shrugged, as he sat outside the Madison Hotel. "That doorman right there: His job has danger. Anybody walking up to him, he doesn't know anything about them."
Being a cabdriver, he said, isn't all bad: "I can be on the way to the grocery store and make money. How many people have a job like that?"
Just the same, the card is always nearby with Psalm 18:2: "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold."
At the bus terminal on First Street NE, cabbies stand just inside the entrance, talking football, drinking coffee and scanning for potential fares.
A 40-year-old driver in a gray sweat shirt said he trusts customers at the bus station more than random people hailing a taxi off the street. A 77-year-old driver who gave only his first name, Roy, disagreed: He worries that some passengers are ex-prisoners who have just received their freedom and a ticket back home.
Roy and his friend, a fellow driver named John, 70, observed the bus crowd and said they'd rather risk being fined by police for avoiding a customer than be robbed or killed. Roy and John prefer riders who are neatly dressed. Women are less likely to rob and kill than men.
John motioned to a young man in baggy jeans and head scarf as someone cabbies might avoid if they saw other fares instead.
Does he feel bad about stereotyping people? Sure, because his two sons, who are also young black males, have problems getting rides, too. But many "young people are disrespectful," he said. "You don't want trouble."
Sulaiman Conteh said he has trouble getting a ride even though he's a cabdriver. At least five times, he said, his red Diplomat Cab Co. car has broken down and taxis have whizzed past him as he tried to flag a ride. He said he suspects that it's because he's a black man. He has resorted to holding out his taxi license so people won't think he's a robber.
"I was a little bit mad, but I understand, I understand," said Conteh, 36, an immigrant from Sierra Leone who likes being his own boss. He's been driving for eight years.
He said he sometimes will pass up giving rides to men who wear baggy clothes--"the gangster dress"--especially those who want to be taken to neighborhoods that he thinks are high-crime areas.
He said he's been robbed twice. One used a knife, he said, and the other threatened him with a gun to the back of his head. He never filed a police report and just considered the incidents a part of the job.
"What can you do?" he said. "It's like you're wasting your time if you go to the police. They will never do a follow-up. What can they do?"
Conteh drove through downtown around 9 one recent night, wishing aloud that Congress was back in session so he could get more fares. He saw a man in a business suit waiting outside the Capital Hilton, a fare he called a "a good one."
Conteh took the man to Cleveland Park and headed back downtown. Rhythm and blues played on his radio, and each time he hit a pothole, his prayer beads jumped.
CAPTION: Lawrence D. Bradley waits for passengers at Union Station. One D.C. cabdriver was killed and one wounded last week.