I drive a radio-dispatched Yellow Cab at night. The system is not foolproof, but I have some sense that a person who calls a cab company and gives his or her name, pickup and drop-off addresses, and a telephone number is likely to be on the up and up.
But this is not always the case. A couple of years ago, a Yellow Cab driver was shot and killed by a young man who had called for a cab. There have been times when I've picked up a "radio job" and taken my fare to some dark street in Maryland, Virginia, or D.C., and for a moment, as the passenger was reaching inside his coat for what I prayed was just the money, I've experienced sheer panic. As long as I've got a stranger sitting behind me, there are only rare moments when I feel completely comfortable or safe.
I also "bump the curb"--pick up passengers who hail me from the street. This is when it really gets dicey.
How do I decide who to stop for and who to pass by? It's hard to explain, and I'm probably wrong a lot, but sometimes you just have a feeling. First of all, I try to resist the urge to relax just because someone is dressed neatly. Robbers who target cabbies probably know that neat attire raises fewer alarms than the "thug-life" look of baggy jeans, sweats, bandannas, skull caps, heavy down jackets, etc.
On the other hand, I can't afford to pick up only folks dressed in coats and ties. If I took that approach, I wouldn't get very far. I wouldn't exactly starve to death, because I also have a day job. But I would take a financial hit. That is my dilemma.
The overwhelming majority of assaults on taxi drivers in this city are perpetrated by men who look like me--African American. And because I recognize that fact, I respect a driver's right to refuse to take a job out of concern for his or her safety. But that doesn't give any driver the right to overlook an entire segment of the population.
Would that approach be easier than guessing? Yes.
Would it be safer than guessing? Yes.
But I live in the 'hood (at 19th and Minnesota Avenue SE) and believe that folks east of the Anacostia River have just as much right to taxi service as those in Foxhall or Glover Park--and maybe need it more.
So I ask myself, "What does danger look like?" Is it one, two or three young black men in Georgetown at 4 a.m. trying to go to Barry Farms or the 300 block of 37th Street SE; or to Sursum Corda or Columbia Heights or the corner of 5th and Kennedy streets NW?
I don't know. But like many other gamblers, I make most of these decisions based on my gut.
Is it danger when some black guy hails me at 2 in the morning on Benning Road, or at 58th and East Capitol streets or some other remote place in the 'hood, and I've already had a good night? I'm looking for clues: Why is this guy out here? Why didn't he call a cab? If he has a heavy suitcase or a duffle bag, I feel better, figuring no guy is going to do something if he can't run easily. But sometimes a little voice in my head says, "You've got $90 in your pocket. You don't need $100." And I go home.
I know my fear prompts that voice to speak up, but I'm not so sure that the fear is based on anything the guy on the street did or didn't do or how he was dressed. It's based on knowing what could happen.
Would I be as reluctant to stop if he were outside a downtown nightspot? To be honest, I don't think so, because more than anything, more than looking for signs of danger, I look for things that make me feel more at ease. If you drive not wanting to haul black folks, you look for danger signs. If you ride wanting to haul everyone, you look for something that increases your comfort level such as picking up a black man and a woman, or a brother with a child or packages--something that I can interpret as giving the person credibility, if you will.
The ones who scare me the most are kids, 12, 13, 14 years old. I'm reluctant to pick them up. They're at the age of initiating into gangs, they're trying to make a reputation, and they have no sense of right or wrong.
Do I think any of this is scientific? Hell, no. Do I agonize over not picking up every brother? More than you know, and more than lots of drivers and friends say I should. You see, the folks who provide taxi service to far Northeast, Anacostia and far Southeast are mainly home-grown black cab drivers: hackers like me who feel connected to the city and its people and don't feel that Washington is going to hell in a handbasket. I will pick up that little old black woman on the curb when there is probably a more lucrative fare down the block, because she is my aunt, my grandmother or the lady across the street, and I know that if I don't get her she'll likely be out there a long time.
I'm not ready to give in to the all-too-pervasive attitude that all black men are threatening and that all black neighborhoods should be avoided like the plague.
When I do, I hope I'll decide to do something besides drive a cab.
Leroy Armes, a native Washingtonian, has driven a taxi at night for six years.