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Vince Gray is telling a joke. It’s an oldie but a goodie. His audience is a half-dozen hacks in the driver’s lounge at Taxi Transportation on Benning Road NE. One cabbie is busy pounding the controls of a Ms. Pac-Man machine, one of several in the small, wood-paneled room. Another, a moonlighter who’s just finished a morning shift, dozes in the deep-cushioned plaid couch. A third has taken his first bite of a steak-and-cheese hoagie, eyed hungrily by all the rest.

“A Yellow Cab driver got a guy and drove him to New York, and he got paid. Then he met a guy in New York who wanted to go to Germany, so he took him over there, and he got paid. After he got to Germany, he was tired as hell, so he slept for two or three days. So then he was on his way back home, and two guys held up their hands.”

Gray is already laughing now. He can barely get out the rest.

“The driver stopped and said, ‘Where are you going?’

“They said, ‘Southeast.’

“He said, ‘No, I ain’t going there!’”

The punch line hits its mark, and the response is loud enough to drown out the video game and startle the napper back to Taxiland.

“He’ll go to Germany, but he won’t go to Southeast!” says Gray, doubled over.

No one is more amused than Archie Wigfall, the graying elder statesmen of this group. By now, he’s nearly choking on his hoagie. He has a funny story, too. He unbuttons his shirt to reveal a powerful build—and a scar that starts on the front of his chest, stops, and snakes over his shoulder and down his back. “It was a girl,” he says in his booming baritone. “With a straight razor and with a gown on! And the two dudes had on three-piece suits. If it hadn’t been for the guys robbing me, she probably would have slashed me to death.” The laughter erupts again. This is the sort of gallows humor that you need to survive as a D.C. cabdriver. Especially when, like Wigfall and his fellow hacks in the lounge, you ply the areas east of the Anacostia shunned by other Washington cabbies.

It happened back in ’72, but Wigfall remembers it like it was on the last shift. “I picked them up at the Masonic Temple at 10th and U [Street NW]. They were coming out of a cabaret; they were going to Northeast. When I got there, the guy sitting up front pulled out a long, thin knife and said, ‘Brother, don’t get excited—this is a robbery: Where’s your money?’ I didn’t have a chance to get afraid, because he was so cool about it. So I gave the money to him, and he handed it back to the girl, and she counted it. It wasn’t enough for her. I looked in the rearview, and I saw her hand coming down, so I put my arm up—she was aiming for the back of my neck—and the blade caught, and it stuck in my chest. And so she yanked it out of me and stuck it in again and went down my back. The guy in back realized she was slicing me, and he slapped her and dragged her out of the car. The one up front said, ‘Man, if it means anything, I’m gonna call an ambulance.’”

Wigfall nearly bled to death before help arrived, but he was back driving his cab a few weeks later. The incident taught him some valuable lessons: Female junkies can be just as dangerous as their male counterparts, no matter how well-dressed. Also, it’s crucial to always carry a decent amount of cash—what the hacks call “shirt money”—so as not to anger any robbers: “I always make sure when I come out to go hacking I’ve got at least $40.”

The only cab consortium based east of the Anacostia, Taxi Transportation includes 14 different cab companies, boasting names like Royal, Comfort, and Liberty. In Northwest, people call Yellow Cab and Diamond. In Southeast and far Northeast, they usually call Taxi Transportation and get drivers like Wigfall, who could navigate the eastern edge of town with their eyes closed.

“Other companies don’t come over here at all,” says owner Jerry Schaeffer, who runs his operation out of an old Chrysler dealership. “They don’t want to go in these areas. They stay up in Northwest. We cover the whole city, but 75 percent of our business is in Southeast and Northeast. We got more cabs, so we got the best response time. If you need a cab over here, you’re gonna call us, ’cause we’ll have it there in 10 minutes.”

Jimmie White steers his silver-and-black District cab toward another fare. It’s a ’92 Buick Roadmaster—141,000 miles on the odometer and counting. White started hacking 18 years ago as a moonlighter. Now retired from his job as a carpenter for the federal government, he drives these days mostly to stay busy. He recently returned to Taxi Transportation after a short stint with Capitol Cab, a black-owned and operated company that also does most of its business east of the Anacostia.

Around 3 p.m., White heads for a call by radio dispatch at Taxi Transportation, a service for which he pays $30 a week. Like most, White works almost exclusively from radio calls—unlike downtown cabbies, who rely on street fares, known as “bumping the curb.” In three decades as a hack, he’s been held up only once, when someone stuck a gun to his head in Congress Heights.

This afternoon’s fare is someone in the Greenway neighborhood of Northeast; he’s heading to Silver Hill, a few miles away across the District line in Prince George’s. The customer is a young man in his mid-20s, T-shirt and work boots and no small talk. After the 10-minute ride, White stops the cab in front of an apartment complex not far from Branch Avenue: $9.75. The guy hands over a 10-dollar bill and waits for his quarter change.

Driving away, White gives his expert take: “That guy probably works every day. He’s probably doing construction right near where I picked him up. And he met one of the girls who live in that building; those are big apartments in there, two or three bedrooms. And so he’ll go in there after work to see her and then go home to his wife. He probably rides a cab every day. It would take him three different buses to get over there.”

The lack of tip doesn’t bother White; he doesn’t expect any on this side of the river. After all, he points out, the way Congress set up the taxi zones, residents here pay much more to go the same distance than riders in the rest of the District. “I’m not like most cab drivers,” says White. “I’m out here to provide a service, and my service is to provide you a trip for a fare that has already been determined. Whether you tip is upon you, and if you never tip, it’s all right with me. I knew he wasn’t going to tip, and that’s another reason why cabbies like to stay downtown.”

Back in the District, White heads down Good Hope Road SE toward the heart of Anacostia. He nods toward a high-rise condominium: “We do a lot of business in that building,” he says. Then comes a radio call for Bangor Street SE. He turns left, passes the Frederick Douglass house, and cruises up a hill into a block of brick row houses. At a door appears a woman in a tight red outfit: She walks to the cab, followed by a man in jeans who gets in the other side. The couple is headed to 13th and N Streets NW. “Nine ninety,” says White. The couple pays up front, waiting for their change. “She thinks she looks better than she really does,” White says after they get out.

As rush hour hits its peak, there’s another dispatcher call. A woman at the Washington Hospital Center needs a ride to Marshall Heights in far Northeast. White takes a swig from his half-gallon Thermos of diet ginger ale. Back across the river.

On the wall outside Schaeffer’s office at Taxi Transportation, near a wooden Star of David, hangs a large sign that reads: “All taxicab drivers must pick up all passengers regardless of race, sex, religion, and destination.”

This isn’t simply a motto. It’s the law—though it remains well nigh unenforceable. But for Schaeffer and his drivers, obeying the edict is as much about finances as it is about the freedom to ride. The area so feared for its crime is still the least served by Metro: There is a huge market of people who need cabs every day: commuters, the elderly, those without cars of their own. “It’s good money,” says Schaeffer. “We have no more shootings than any other cab company.”

Yet few would dispute that it tends to be tougher work on Mississippi Avenue SE than Connecticut Avenue NW, and that’s not just because east of the river’s spread-out, low-lying geography makes rides longer and streetside fares rarer. The question on downtown cabbies’ minds—just why the Taxi Transportation hacks do it—brings a complicated answer that has a little to do with familiarity, a little to do with good business, and a lot to do with habit.

Nearly all of Vince Gray’s business is east of the river. Most of his customers are regulars; many are seniors and the disabled, who use vouchers, which some cab companies refuse to accept. To him, they’re almost like family. A former grocery-store manager, Gray hacks because he got hooked on it: It’s a job without a boss and a perfect gig for a guy who likes to talk. When a customer gets in his cab, Gray offers his signature greeting: “Fasten your seat belt, ’cause this jet’s getting ready to take off.” The pay is better than it’s been in years, and so is business: “What we do is really based on economics, not charity,” he says.

And yet even as Gray makes a living off the east-of-the-river citizens whom other cabbies—by virtue of ignorance or stereotype—choose to ignore, he’s not above some fare-profiling of his own. “If they’re going to Southeast, and they are brothers with their damn pants hanging down, that ain’t nothing but trouble,” he says.

Still, there’s never enough trouble to make Gray and other longtime hacks quit. These are their neighborhoods, after all, where they were born and raised. Foreign-born cabbies line up at the Mayflower to ferry moneyed visitors around Washington, the capital. Gray and the others serve D.C., the hometown, for people struggling to make ends meet. “I don’t expect a tip from my community,” he says. War stories notwithstanding, the only hassles they get most of the time are verbal, and the most common offense is “sweating the fare,” when customers get away without paying.

George Brooks has been hacking in Southeast for 30 years. He works the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift in neighborhoods that don’t need the cover of darkness to be considered dangerous. The graveyard shift is the way he broke in back when he was a bricklayer by day and needed an extra job at night. “I don’t lay brick now, and this is my only support,” he says. “I don’t have insurance or any of that.”

But it’s more than economic necessity that drives Brooks on. This is his beat, and he’s possessive about it. Let the crowd of lemmings cover downtown and the airports: “I ain’t been to Dulles in six years,” he says. A native of Barry Farms, he is a short, stubby man who says no neighborhood or back alley can cow him. After midnight, all the empty streets of Anacostia belong to him and a handful of other hacks—and that’s the way he likes it. “I grew up here, and you’ve got to live over here to understand,” he says. “Sure, it’s a high-crime area, but you live here, so it doesn’t affect you as much as it does the person living over on Wisconsin Avenue and reading about it.”

“There’s no safe way to drive a cab,” Brooks says. “The only rule of a cabdriver is to stay alert, to be aware of his surroundings. You can’t look at a person and judge him. You can’t look at this person and say, ‘Oh, this is a bad guy,’ or ‘This is a good guy.’ If I’m hacking, and I got a call on the radio and you hail a cab, I don’t bother with you. But if I’m not on call and you hail your hand up, I’m going to stop.”

Four years ago, Brooks had a fare he’ll never forget: “I had a guy with his baby boy in his arms. I carried him over to Evans Road SE….One o’clock in the morning. We pulled up there and three boys are sitting on the curb. I told him what the fare was, he told me, ‘Wait a minute,’ and he got out of the car, went over there and set his baby down, and he came back and stuck me up. They put a rifle up to me and told me to give them the money. They took the shirt money—$26—and the guy kept telling me he was going to shoot me, so we get to wrestling over the rifle. The rifle goes off; they snatch it back and go running on down the hill. I sat out there for three hours waiting on the police. Our worst enemy is the police.”

Yet he was back on the streets the next night—amid the regular fares and familiar streets. Ultimately, the robbery was just one of those times when Brooks reverted to his old credo for whenever someone rotten has taken a ride in his cab: “Dag, I’m sorry I picked you up.” CP