Muhammad Al-Qaabil has been driving a cab in D.C. for 46 years, so he knows something about picking up passengers — like, when you pick someone up, it’s best to go where they actually are.
So he laughed last Tuesday when a passenger in his DC Yellow Cab shared a story of woe. He had called one afternoon for a Lyft ride from 101 Constitution Ave. NW. Not seeing the car after a while, the man called the driver, who said he was there, waiting — on Second Street NW.
“This is where the GPS sent me,” the driver told him.
Where would you go to pick up someone at 101 Constitution, the passenger asked Al-Qaabil.
“101 Constitution,” he said.
At a time when many ride-share and cab drivers mindlessly go where the GPS says, Al-Qaabil is a throwback to a time when cabbies knew their way around, down to the precise address.
Technology has, as ride-share company executives would say, disrupted the work of picking people up and taking them places — but some veteran drivers still rely on the GPS that’s in their own heads, Al-Qaabil said.
One day a couple months ago, his dispatcher called saying he’d sent three drivers to pick someone up, but none could find the address.
“You know where this is?” the dispatcher asked him.
Al-Qaabil said, “Sure,” and went to get the passenger.
“The address is in an alley. You wouldn’t know unless you knew," he said. "It’s just experience from being out here.”
He started driving a cab in D.C. in 1973, carrying a map and the Yellow Pages in his vehicle, and accumulating knowledge from there.
At 66, he now mostly works in the Yellow Cab office in Northeast D.C. as a dispatcher. But he still drives a couple hours a day, six days a week — to get extra cash to retire. “I’ve got a little more debt to pay off first,” he said.
The work of dispatching taxis has changed too, he said. Dispatchers used to radio cabs in the area of a call when someone called for a ride. Then, one by one, cabbies nearby would radio their locations, and the dispatcher would send the closest one.
“The computer does all that now in seconds," Al-Qaabil said.
But there’s still a place for an old hand who knows the city. Last Tuesday, while Al-Qaabil was dispatching, a call came in for a cab. Whoever took the call entered the 4500 block of C Street NW into the system, “which doesn’t exist,” Al-Qaabil said.
This confused the computer, he said, “so the job was just sitting there.” He knew of the 4500 block on C Street SW, so he overrode the computer and sent the cab there.
“There’s still a need for dispatchers,” he said. “Computers haven’t learned everything.”
Last Tuesday, Al-Qaabil’s cab’s computer sent him to the 3200 block of Banneker Drive NE. As only a D.C. native of a certain age would know, there had been a juvenile detention facility called the National Training School for Boys in the city’s Fort Lincoln neighborhood until 1968. Al-Qaabil remembered one of the streets near there was Banneker Drive.
There are other little tricks even most natives don’t know, he said.
“On Georgia Avenue, I know that around Randolph [Street Northwest], the streets have two syllables. Then you go up a couple of blocks you get three-syllable names like Buchanan,” he said.
And indeed, according to an explanation by the civic group Greater Greater Washington, once D.C.’s lettered streets run through “W,” the subsequent streets’ names run in alphabetical order and have two syllables, like Bryant followed by College. After the alphabet is exhausted again, three-syllable names start.
Al-Qaabil does use GPS at times.
"There are so many new streets and new developments that don’t follow the policy anymore,” he said. “They put in a one-syllable word in with the three-syllable words.”
Technology can he helpful, but it can also make things less colorful. Al-Qaabil says he once knew a cab driver who spent time in prison for robbing a bank. When he got out, he visited a cemetery and borrowed the name of someone born around the same time.
“All the information he needed to get a birth certificate was on the death certificate,” Al-Qaabil said. “He drove a cab for 25 years on a dead man’s name.”
Asked if that could happen today, he scoffed, “Nah. I don’t think that would happen now with the technology, man.”