Endale Denboba shut off the meter of his baby blue taxicab and hurried to meet his wife for lunch at their favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Silver Spring. Her face was hopeful. "How is our luck?"
It was a Friday, typically the busiest day of the week. But today, even the laminated prayer card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on his dashboard wasn't helping.
He had crept out of their Silver Spring apartment with a Tupperware bowl of Special K at 4:30 a.m. "Don't forget to eat," his sleepy wife, Maaza, had called after him. Since then, he had made $123.50. Less if you count the $20 he spent on gas for his Grand Marquis.
He smoothed his close-shaved head. "I had one job to Dulles Airport?" he offered, as his wife's face fell.
Were Denboba a typical taxi driver, paying $100 a day to rent a cab, he would have $3.50 to show for 81/2 hours of labor. But Denboba is one of 120 drivers in Montgomery County, most of them immigrants like himself, who have borrowed from friends and family, run up credit cards and taken out personal loans to buy their own taxi medallions -- deals often sealed with a handshake at a coffee shop.
The medallion is his little piece of the American Dream, Denboba likes to say, his 401(k) plan. Yet a reform proposal by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to improve what critics call shoddy cab service would effectively reduce the value of Denboba's medallion to near zero. Montgomery County Council members, who will vote on the plan in the fall, are sympathetic. But even their remedies may cost Denboba, a driver with a clean record.
Denboba, 58, paid $45,000 for the coveted medallion in 1999. The price is far less than the record $311,111 paid at an auction in New York City in the spring. And it's well below the $200,000 required to buy a medallion in Boston, where Denboba had driven a cab for nine years. The fact that he could afford a medallion in Montgomery was the only reason he and his wife moved here.
"That's my livelihood, my future. They're destroying my life. When the communists took over my country and took away all our assets, we couldn't even own our own house," he said of his native Ethiopia. That's why we left and came to America. What is America becoming?"
A medallion -- or, in Montgomery County, a "passenger vehicle license" -- is little more than a green laminated square card conferring the right to drive a taxi. But to Denboba and others who possess it, a taxi medallion means freedom, control, and when it comes time to sell, the possibility of a financial windfall.
It's simple economics. There are 580 medallions in Montgomery, a number that hasn't changed since 1988. Barwood Taxi owns two-thirds of them. Three small companies control some. The remaining ones, traded on an unofficial secondary market, have become so sought after that they have sold for as much as $63,000.
Cabdrivers in the United States earn, on average, about $26,800 a year, less than a janitor or a cashier. But a janitor's broom doesn't appreciate exponentially in value the way a taxi medallion can.
County leaders say that's what they want to stop. "We weren't trying to create a commodity. We were trying to create a public service," said Nancy W. Kutz, who heads the county's taxi office. "There are far better ways for them to invest their money."
But Denboba has already made his choice. In 1990, he started driving a cab in Cambridge on weekends for extra cash and found he loved it. A jovial man with a deep laugh, Denboba liked his passengers. "I love to talk!" he explained.
And the hours suited him. He drove his three children to and from school, helped them with homework, then drove again after they'd gone to bed.
The schedule led to an uncommon closeness, and to the bright future he'd hoped for them: two daughters with master's degrees, a son's Harvard diploma displayed proudly in a gold frame, his scholarship to medical school.
Denboba has had much -- a textile business, a house and a Fiat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. A lavish Eastern Orthodox 10-year anniversary party for the woman he fell in love with when she was 14. And he has lost much. He escaped to the United States on Easter in 1988 with $1,000 to start anew as a convenience store cashier.
At the restaurant, he washed his lunch's residue of home -- the spicy beef gored gored, doro fitfit chicken and pancakelike injera -- off his hands. He needed a fare to the airport. Driving a cab is all about luck, he said, pulling out onto rain-spattered Georgia Avenue. He hoped his was about to turn.
On the second floor of Barwood Taxi's Kensington headquarters, owner and President H. Lee Barnes, his blue shirt sleeves rolled up, gave his weekly pep talk to new drivers. "You are in a community with extremely high expectations," he said. "Your mission should be that every customer is satisfied."
Answering every call on time, keeping the cab clean, reading a customer's mood -- all that leads to what Barnes called "moments of magic." Arguing with a customer, passing up the elderly woman at the grocery store for a big airport fare -- those were "moments of misery."
It is because there have been such moments of misery that county officials are working to overhaul taxi regulations for the first time in 16 years. The idea, officials say, is to break Barwood's hold on the market. Not surprisingly, Barnes has been leading the fight against it.
The push for reform began a few years ago, when interfaith advocacy group Action in Montgomery canvassed church members and found most were furious with cab service. Cabs showed up sometimes hours late. Or not at all.
People reported missing flights and doctors' appointments. Blind riders were routinely refused service because drivers didn't want their guide dogs in the cabs.
"A monopoly doesn't have to respond to customer concerns, and there's no place else to go," said Mark Fraley, Action in Montgomery's executive director.
When John Hoffman, Montgomery County's first hack inspector, was hired in 2000, he found the situation appalling. "At down-county hospitals, we had patients waiting for cabs urinating on themselves," he said. "The fear was, if they left to go to the bathroom, the cab would show up and then leave."
In the past four years, he has written more than 500 citations to Barwood and its drivers. And he has revoked about 35 taxi licenses a year for bad driving. In the first six months of this year, the county received nearly 100 complaints about cab service. Three-fourths were for slow or no-show cabs -- most of them Barwood's.
Duncan proposes instituting on-time performance standards, nearly doubling the number of taxi medallions over the next few years and opening the way for out-of-county businesses to compete with Barwood. The new medallions would be issued by the county, some via lottery, for $2,500. They could not be resold.
Duncan's proposal would also prohibit current medallion holders, such as Denboba, from selling -- a restriction that would strip medallions of their value. Council members say they are likely to change that. Even so, with so many medallions available for $2,500, who would pay Denboba $45,000 for his?
But it is not so much Denboba's story that council members are listening to. It's stories like Dan Patras's.
According to police and court records, Patras, in his late sixties, arranges group tours to Greece. In March 2001, he called for a Barwood cab to take him to the airport. He first stopped by his office and left his luggage and his hat in the cab with the meter running.
When he came out 30 minutes later, the cab was gone -- so was his luggage. He eventually got to the airport in another cab but missed a connecting flight in New York and had to have a relative bring him cash to buy another ticket. He caught pneumonia in Athens, he said, and missed all his appointments.
Upon his return, he called and visited Barwood Taxi and was promised an investigation. Nothing happened. So in March, he sued Barwood. In May, he got his response: "This Defendant specifically denies ownership of the vehicle." Patras discovered that all Barwood's cabs are owned by different leasing companies -- a practice Barnes said was common for tax purposes. The county has since asked Barwood to claim ownership of all its vehicles.
Barnes said he had never heard of Patras's experience until the lawsuit was filed.
At Barwood's seminar for drivers, Barnes can set the tone, but he can't force drivers to do anything. They're not his employees. They're independent contractors. They pay their rent -- if they can. Driver turnover is about 40 percent a year, and the sea of empty blue cabs in the company parking lot attests to what Barnes calls a severe driver shortage.
Barnes, whose father started the company shortly after returning from World War II, is miffed. Barwood is known in the transportation industry as being on the cutting edge. It uses a sophisticated computer dispatch system. It had the first natural gas cabs in the country. International visitors come to see what they do, Barnes said.
On the glass wall of the lobby, Barnes displays a letter from a satisfied client. He says that out of 1.6 million taxi rides a year, 4,200 calls a day, the number of complaints is small.
"It works a thousand times a day," Barnes told the seven new drivers. "But the one time you're wrong, because of the microscope we're under here, it will cost you."
'I'll Take It'
At 3:25, the height of the Friday afternoon rush, Denboba couldn't get his computer dispatch system to work. He punched some buttons. "Please wait." He switched the machine off and on. He tried the radio. Nothing.
"I don't know what to do," he said.
Another Barwood driver rolled down his window. "Mine is also not working," he shouted. The computer showed 22 fares waiting across the county. At Barwood headquarters, demand was so high and cabs so scarce that dispatchers asked every other customer to call back in 15 minutes, Barnes would later say. Other drivers were getting calls, so Denboba's problem must have been in his own terminal, Barnes said.
At 4:11 p.m., Denboba's taxi had been empty for more than an hour, and his system was still down. A woman in a pink blouse, wiping sweat from her forehead, sank into his cab. She was going a few blocks -- a $6.10 fare. She gave him $7. "I'll take it. I'll take it," he said.
On the best of days, Denboba figures he gets seven calls from Barwood's dispatch, something he pays $100 a week for. To survive, he works from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- with a break for lunch with his wife -- six days a week, building up a network of "personals" who call his cell phone for rides, and working busy Metro and hotel stands.
But to really make it, to afford that little apartment in Rockville his wife has her eye on, to retire, to help his children with their bills -- he had hoped he could one day sell his medallion at a profit.
By 5:45 p.m., he'd earned $23.25 for the afternoon. His computer was still not functioning. It showed 13 fares waiting and no way to answer them. He'd driven 167 miles.
Denboba shut off his meter. He never did get that airport ride. "I was just dreaming," he said wearily. "Just dreaming."
Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.