Outside Ashburton Lunch, a diner in West Baltimore where cabbies gather to swap stories, the conversation veers from tales of weird passengers to those of economic survival.
The cabbies at the diner at Ashburton Street and Walbrook Avenue were talking yesterday about the increased price of gasoline caused by the crisis in the Middle East, and how that development has lessened their profits.
"When I first got into driving, I made a good buck. But I feel like I'm working for the Exxon company now, and I don't like that," said I. Martin Friedman, 49, an independent driver for the G I Veterans Taxicab Co. Inc.
Independent drivers own their own cabs.
Friedman, a cabbie for nine years -- since the days when "you could make some money" driving a cab -- said he takes home about $20 a day less than he did in the days before Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
He now works about 12 to 14 hours a day compared to the eight hours he worked when he began driving a cab and made more money.
Most of Friedman's profits now go into putting gasoline in the tank. And he holds his breath at the thought of his cab needing mechanical repairs any time soon.
"I had to pay $222 in repairs the other day for my cab," he said. "That's money that don't come too easily."
Drivers rent their cabs daily for varying fees, usually between $35 and $50. Drivers must gas up the cab and return it with a full tank.
William Cameron, 43, a driver for Diamond Cab and a cabbie for 19 years, said he has few other options to make money.
"For most of us, it's the only job we can do and a quick way to get some real money," Cameron said. "We can't stop. I've got to go with the flow. I've got to keep moving.
"The profits right now are coming out of my pocket, and that's messed up. But I still like driving."
A nationwide survey by the American Automobile Association released this week shows that gasoline prices rose 3.6 cents last week. A gallon of unleaded regular at the self-serve pump now costs an average of $1.34, according to AAA.
The price of gasoline at the end of September was 27 cents a gallon higher than it was on Aug. 1 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, according to AAA. And the price has continued to rise this week at many area gasoline stations.
The cabbies say that gasoline has to stop going up if they are to make any real profits. They say they need the price to come down to about $1 a gallon again. But they fear that's not going to occur soon.
One driver looked at the number of empty cabs on Diamond Cab's lot on Ashburton Street across from the diner and said many people are turning away from driving a cab until gasoline prices "come back to earth."
"Before it used to be the crime and fear of getting held up that most cab drivers were afraid of," he said. "Now, it's having to pay almost $1.50 a gallon for gas that mostly turns people off. Either way, you lose money."
Cabbies feel that the current cost of gas coupled with fare rates that have remained steady since 1984 make driving a cab far from desirable. The Maryland Public Service Commission has to authorize all rate increases.
"If we don't get the [rate] increase, we go under," said Friedman, adding that he nets about 70 cents for every mile he runs the cab. He said he needs at least $1 a mile to break even.
Ron Weis, who owns seven cabs at Diamond Cab and employs 12 to 14 drivers, said cabbies have complained about the higher cost of driving cabs but none has quit.
"We're concerned and we just hope this is not going to be a long, drawn-out affair," Weis said.
Some cabbies said they have noticed one good thing about the increased gas prices -- a decrease in the number of competing unlicensed cabbies known as "hacks."
"That's just one less obstacle for us to worry [about]. We've got problems with the gas prices to occupy our minds," said one driver.