Driving his cab late at night, Tyrone O. Green ranges the streets unimpeded by traffic. Fewer cabbies compete with him for fares, and he can lay a 50-cent night surcharge on what the meter shows.
Night driving can be profitable, but the night exacts a high overhead -- fear of crime.
Green, 37, never has been assaulted in 13 years of driving with the Yellow Cab Co. But he has to think about that possibility in every passenger he picks up and in some he passes by as potentially dangerous.
Four cab drivers have been shot so far this year, more than in any other year Green can remember. Three of those drivers died. The most recent casualty was Wilbur Glascoe of Diamond Cab, who was shot in the head Oct. 7. He remains in critical but stable condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But Green said that if he were to dwell too long on the terrible statistics, he would be conceding his business opportunities to criminals. "Then they win and the public loses," he said. "Can't let them stop you from doing your job."
One recent night, Green drove as usual, through rough neighborhoods and peaceful ones, fueled by the chatter of his dispatcher and the pride of controlling his own hours and salary. He drives nights as well as days because he needs the money and because "I love it. I like the freedom. I like being my own boss."
Ray Charles, Peter Ustinov and several baseball players have taken the back seat of Green's cab over the years. Some other people have been left to look for another cab or walk. When someone hails him from a dark curbside, Green thinks about their appearance, age and the neighborhood he's in.
"A 60-year-old man in construction clothes, he's not going to bother you," Green said. "The youngster with the tennis and gold chains, I don't want to pick up four of them."
As Green explained this, a man appeared between two cars in front of a North Avenue liquor store, holding up his arm. Green slowed. "I'm sizing him up while he's sizing me up," he said. But the man suddenly dropped his arm and waved him on. Green guessed that the man saw he was young and likely to give chase to anyone who might try to run away without paying.
Green didn't want him anyway. "He had a hood over his head, you could barely see his face," Green explained, and he was standing in the middle of the block, out of the revealing glare of the streetlights. "You just get that feeling. It's just something that hits you: Don't do it."
Other rules of precaution are more obvious, less intuitive. Green might take a passenger who is stumbling with drink, but not one who is nodding along on drugs.
A drunken woman who once rode in the front seat threw up on his lap, Green said. But she paid her fare. Drunken passengers usually do, although they can inconvenience a driver, most often by falling asleep. "You've got to call the police to wake them up," Green said. "Best not to put your hands on them."
The drug-user, however, might kill for drug money, Green said. "This guy," he said, pointing to a man hunched and swinging a bag between his legs at Chester and Monument streets. "He's spaced out on drugs. I would never pick him up."
Green did stop, however, for a young man wobbling along the center line of Fayette Street. "Don't mind me, I've been drinking," the man said in a voice as harsh as an 18-wheeler in low gear. He was supposed to meet his wife at a bar on Fayette, but she had apparently stood him up. "I'm gonna kill [her] when I get home," the man said often and in variations that are unprintable.
"I got a good woman, don't get me wrong," the man said, but he knew he would have to answer at home for a $100 bet on the Pittsburgh Privates, who had just lost the National League pennant to the Cincinnati Reds.
Green chuckled along in a comforting way. After getting out at his home in Highlandtown, the man had handed over $8 for a $7.10 fare and told Green to keep the change. It was one of the few tips of the night.
Tourists usually tip, Green said, and prostitutes are almost always generous.
On a good shift, he can clear $75. Bad days can get as bad as $20 for 12 hours work.
Part of his overhead is a weekly payment toward buying the cab he drives, a 1988 Chevrolet. Before the crisis in the Mideast, he paid $20 a day to fill his tank with gasoline. Now he pays $30, or even more if he runs the air conditioner. The oil must be changed every three weeks. The car needs new brakes about every two months, he said. "Everything that you have to do to your car, you do to this cab, but a lot sooner."
Green has thought of spending even more to get a Plexiglas shield to separate the passengers in back from the driver in front. But, for now, he figures a shield would provide only a false sense of security against anyone who came around to the driver's window to rob him.
Green pointed out another driver on a corner who was motioning to his young male passenger to join him in the front seat. "You got a better chance when they're sitting next to you than sitting behind you," Green said.
His guard is up, but his courtesy is unflagging. He offers consolation and advice to the drunk, the lovelorn and depressed who unburden themselves during the ride. Whether steering tourists to the best sights in town or dropping off out-of-towners at The Block, Green is always glad to help.
He likes people. Driving a taxi, he meets all kinds, in all conditions. "You take the crime out of the cab business, this is a good job," he said. "I enjoy it."