Temesgen Tessema says he has heard it all while driving a taxi for eight years, the whining and cursing and shouting over slog-slow traffic, the air conditioning and fare zones.

Then there are the problem passengers.

Like the drunk who got sick all over the back of his head rest. And the guy who asked if he could have sex with his female companion while Tessema drove. "They treat us like we're servants," he said of his customers. "No one respects us."

Yesterday was different. Tessema's otherwise brooding mug brightened as he pulled up to the Hotel Helix, and discovered a gauntlet of perky faces standing in the cold, ready to serve him coffee and donuts, and thank him for his work.

"Amazing," he said, blinking with disbelief.

Served up at nearly two dozen hotels across the city, the caffeine and sweets were the DC Hospitality Alliance's way of acknowledging the cabbies, an often-vilified staple of urban life who spend countless hours enduring lousy weather and potholes, as well as passengers howling when they miss a green light.

As they sipped their coffees, the drivers said they enjoyed the recognition and that they generally feel appreciated by the public. But they were more than capable of recounting the passengers who had slammed doors, walked out on fares, or robbed them.

"The guy kicked in the lens on my rear light," said Teiko Kweifio, 44, a driver for 13 years, pointing at his bumper as he recalled a passenger who was upset over a fare. "It was unbelievable. I called the cops and it took two hours for them to come."

Kweifio stopped at the Helix, the boutique hotel off Logan Circle, where general manager Nick Gregory invited him and other drivers to play a Wheel of Fortune-style game, with prizes ranging from a gallon of wiper fluid to a free night at the hotel.

"C'mon, take a spin," Gregory implored, as his colleagues, holding trays of donuts, stepped into the roadway to flag down cabbies.

Kweifio won a Magic Eight Ball game, which he regarded with something less than excitement, while another driver, Bertram Barton Sr., 64, walked away with the free room, a suite that goes for $429 a night. "My daughter would be proud," he beamed, before stepping into the lobby, which was decorated with blinking lights, a white Christmas tree and a pink painted wall. After a moment of consideration, he said he may end up giving her the prize.

"I haven't stayed in a hotel in 20 or 30 years," he said.

A cabbie since 1963, Barton said the job has not changed much over the years. There has always been traffic and crime. And cabbies, he said, have never had a particularly high opinion of each other, as they zigzag through traffic, trying to get passengers. "If you're a cab driver, you don't like cab drivers," he said.

Some passengers are more charitable. Russell Gordon, 40, a Rockville television producer, said he relies on taxis to zip around and said he appreciates that drivers don't engage him in conversation. "I can spend the time talking on the phone, and they get me places," he said after stepping from a cab at the Washington Convention Center.

Cliff Gibbons, 55, a lobbyist from in McLean, acknowledged that cabbies deliver him where he needs to go, mostly between the U.S. Capitol and his office at the Willard Hotel. But as someone who has taken taxis in cities such as New York, Mexico City and London, he said he feels quite comfortable pronouncing the District's cabs as "the worst in the world."

"They're jalopies; there's no standard of maintenance," Gibbons said, adding that he has arrived at meetings in the summer "looking like I've just been in the pool with my clothes on" because his taxi lacked air-conditioning.

But Gibbons doesn't blame the drivers as much as the fare system, which he said prevents them from earning a decent living: "I'm sympathetic."

If drivers appreciated the donuts and coffee, it was soon forgotten for more pressing concerns. "I don't need love, I need money," said Baire Russom, 55, as he dropped off a passenger outside the Capitol. "I need to pay my rent."

Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.

ME-Cabbies Date: 12-01-05 Photographer: Susan Biddle /TWP Neg#175154 Location: Washington, DC Summary: Taxi cab appreciation day at Hotel Helix 1430 Rhode Island Ave NW. Cab drivers were given coffee, doughnuts and had a chance to spin a wheel to win prizes. Here cab driver Hashi Mohamud, originally from Somalia, now living in Sterling, VA watches the wheel after giving it a spin hoping he would win a free night at the hotel. It did, and he won one free night at the hotel. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Thu Dec 1 17:15:04 2005