Confessions of a hack

Robin Miller

November 22, 1991|By Robin Miller

IT IS a dark and stormy night. He's at the corner of Charles and 34th streets, trying to hail a cab. Every one that passes is full. The rain is soaking through his jacket, and he is muttering, "Where are all the taxis?"

A block away, on St. Paul Street, I'm heading downtown after taking three kids from Penn Station to Loyola College. I'm muttering, "Where are all the passengers?" I wonder how I'm going to pay my cab rent for the night.

In New York, where a million -- or more -- passengers take cabs every day and there are more than 10,000 cabs on the street at one time, cabbies and passengers have little trouble finding each other. New York cabbies don't expect to stay empty for more than five minutes. Conversely, New York cab riders think five minutes is a long time to wait.

In Baltimore, with 500 or 600 cabs on the street at once, it's much harder for cabbies and their customers to hook up. Downtown Baltimore is where most cabbies hang out because it's the only part of town that approaches New York in population density. Penn Station, Hopkins Hospital and a few of the commercial strips -- notably Pennsylvania Avenue and Eastern Avenue -- also draw cabs. But the main taxicab pulse is a thrumming rhythm in and out of downtown, so the best place to hail cabs is on major arteries that go there.

Uptown, St. Paul Street is obviously the best place to find a cab, especially on the blocks between 30th and 33rd streets. In East Baltimore, Madison Street is a better bet than Monument. In West Baltimore, Pratt is better than Lombard. And so on.

Even on two-way streets, the best place to hail a cab is on the side of the street that leads downtown, no matter which way you want to go. If, for example, you are at the corner of North Avenue and Wolfe Street, you want to be on the north side of North Avenue, because that lines you up with downtown traffic. Conversely, if you are at the corner of North and Rosedale, the place to be is on the south side of the street for the same reason.

Downtown, the best place to find a cab is the taxi stand on Pratt Street in front of Stouffer's Hotel. It is open to cabs from any company, and, in theory, anyone can walk up to the first cab in line and get in it.

In practice, many cabbies tend to be somewhat selective about the passengers they carry and where they go. Part of the reason is financial; if there are passengers available who look as if they will tip well, cabbies don't want to take passengers who look like "hot-money" -- that is, no tip -- people. Cabbies and waitresses hate hot-money customers because the IRS makes us pay taxes on tip money according to a set formula, even when we get stiffed.

The second reason for selectivity is fear. We have a high holdup rate, and a violent death rate much higher than that of cabbies in New York. When three teen-agers approach my cab, dressed -- and acting -- in the fashion I associate with drug dealing and other illegal activities, I am not going to let them in the car, nor will most experienced drivers.

There is a myth that carrying luggage helps you get a cab, because cabbies will think you are going to the airport. This is not true. Most likely, someone standing on a downtown corner with luggage in hand is going to Penn Station ($4) rather than BWI ($18). Besides, going to the airport is not that desirable; city cabs can't legally pick up fares there and usually return empty.

Baltimore cabbies love the endless Little Italy and Fells Point runs we get when a convention is in town. In general, Baltimore cabbies prefer tourists (who almost always tip well) over locals (who may or may not tip at all), which is why we hang around the hotels so much and rarely cruise outlying neighborhoods.

This may change. There is now a $1 charge for calling a taxicab by telephone, so it may become profitable to serve Baltimore residents again -- if they can be trained not to call two or three cab companies at once, place fake cab orders or otherwise force cabbies to run all over the place in response to radio calls without getting paid for their time and trouble.

Under the new law, we cabbies not only get $1 if we show up at your house within 30 minutes of the time of you call; we also can charge $1 if we show up and you're not there. (Actually, a $1 charge goes into the cab company's computer in your name, and you must pay it the next time you call a cab.) If the cab company owners bother to enforce this provision, cabbies will be able to take radio calls profitably, so you'll see more taxis outside of downtown.

All I want to do is earn a reasonable living without exposing myself to needless risks. I will pick almost anyone up if I'm not on call or off duty, if the customer is going somewhere I can reach legally and if the customer doesn't look downright dangerous or too ignorant to know about tipping.

Robin Miller lives in Baltimore. !

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