Stanley Tapscott started driving a cab in the early 1960s, when man hadn’t yet been to the moon, the Watergate was under construction and John F. Kennedy was serving out his fabled thousand days.
He’s been on the streets of Washington ever since.
“I may not be the oldest one out there, but I’m close to it,” said Tapscott, who turns 90 this month and is the city’s second-oldest cabdriver. The eldest is a year older, according to D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles records.
A single dad, former Navy Yard employee and chronic part-time cabdriver who took up the habit to help pay for his now-69-year-old daughter’s college education, Tapscott “bumped the curb,” as he puts it, through many of the signature events of the 20th century.
Tapscott, who is African American, met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a planning meeting for the March on Washington.
“I didn’t have him in the cab, though,” Tapscott said.
Tapscott drove during the D.C. riots in 1968. At 14th and Euclid streets NW, not far from the riot’s epicenter, he pleaded with a group of young people rocking his car to let him go.
“I didn’t work too much during the riot,” he said.
He once drove a vice president but couldn’t remember which one. Even the most remarkable experiences of the past five decades can be a blur.
Now, however, a career that has spanned 10 presidencies is ending, Tapscott said. Citing competition from ride-hailing services and what he characterized as the overregulation of the cab industry, he will hang up his meter and idle the cab he owns at the end of the year.
“This used to be called a business,” he said. “They’ve taken it away from me.”
Born on a farm in 1926 in Warrenton, Va., Tapscott had many adventures before he slid behind the wheel of a taxi.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941 requiring the Marines to accept black men, Tapscott joined, in 1944, doing time at a segregated base in North Carolina.
It wasn’t fun, but it earned him a Congressional Gold Medal about 70 years later.
“I got kicked in the butt many times because they didn’t like my looks,” he said.
Arriving in segregated D.C. in 1945, Tapscott took a job in the Federal Housing Administration and as a helper at the Navy Yard. Though he left the city for a few years in the early 1950s, he returned to the Navy Yard in 1955, working his way up to master foreman by the time he retired in 1981.
Although his job at the Navy Yard paid the bills, Tapscott was pulled deeper and deeper into the political quagmire surrounding the city’s thousands of taxicabs.
He started driving for Capital Cab in the 1970s, which he said was committed to giving rides to black people whom other companies would pass by.
“It doesn’t matter your color or how you’re dressed,” he said. “If you throw up your hand, it’s my job to pick you up.”
In 2000, already a septuagenarian, Tapscott was appointed to the District’s now-defunct taxicab commission by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams. On and off for 16 years, when the commission was rechristened the “Department of For-Hire Vehicles,” Tapscott stood athwart the evolution of D.C. ground transportation, yelling, “Stop!”
Remember the District’s much-reviled taxicab zones, which confused tourists and pretty much everyone else? Tapscott sued the city to stop the change to meters. He even tried to develop a zone meter that never got off the ground.
“That’s when the real change started,” Tapscott said of the switch to meters. “Ever since then, it’s been down, down, down.”
Tapscott also spoke out against regulation colors for cabs, police accused of targeting cabs for parking tickets, cabdrivers who don’t respect women and the sheer number of cabs allowed on the road — not to mention hordes of Ubers and Lyfts out there.
Jeff Schaeffer, the vice president of District cab fleet company Transco, has known Tapscott for more than 15 years. He described Tapscott as a “straightforward, industry-concerned gentleman” known for bringing different stakeholders to the table to ensure the future of the city’s cab industry.
“A lot of people bought homes and put kids through school by driving a cab,” Schaeffer said. “That has been his dream, to keep that alive and keep it going, because it’s been a lot harder now with all the new transportation options.”
In recent years, many cabdrivers have thrown their lot in with ride-hailing companies. Tapscott? No way.
“I’d be defeating myself,” he said. “Why work for a company that’s come in here taking my business?”
His customers had also changed in an era when one can order up a taxi merely by tapping a smartphone.
“Riders today are more demanding,” he said. “They have a different attitude. They want what they want when they want it.”
Ernest Chrappah, acting director of the city’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles, said in a statement that Tapscott took pride in being a D.C. cabdriver.
“He represents a time when cabdrivers took meticulous care of their vehicle and understood the value of customer service across all eight wards of the District without sophisticated technology,” Chrappah said. “However, in this new era good drivers need to be tech-savvy to meet customer expectations.”
On a recent weekday morning, business was not great, and Tapscott’s cab, a 2003 Lincoln Town Car with 152,000 miles, wasn’t sounding well.
“I think it’s the catalytic converter,” he said as a churning sound erupted from beneath the hood.
The asthmatic Lincoln is a major factor in Tapscott’s decision to quit hacking. According to D.C. taxi regulations, cabs built before 2004 were supposed to be off the road Jan. 1, 2015. Tapscott’s cab is 13 years old, and his extension is about to expire.
“I think I need to sit down and do nothing rather than waste my time,” he said.
It seemed like city streets might not miss him. Between 9 and 11:15 a.m., Tapscott, driving between Georgia Avenue NW and North Capitol Street awaiting radio calls, had just two fares. Both originated at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, and both were subsidized by a program that gives cheaper rides to residents with disabilities.
But the program that gave Tapscott the fare also took a piece of the action. Net profit on both rides, by his math: about $11. It wasn’t like the old days, when he remembered picking up multiple fares headed downtown during the morning rush.
After helping a woman with a walker into her home off 16th Street NW, near the District line with Montgomery County, Tapscott also pointed out that what he had just done was an insurance risk.
The new world order doesn’t seem to have space for a basic human gesture.
“I just like giving good service,” Tapscott said, “because I’m going to get old one day.”
Perry Stein contributed to this report.