Cheap fares can come at a price

Transportation: People without cars or those who hate taking the bus love hacks, those who operate illegal cabs. But both customers and drivers can face risks.

March 24, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,Sun Staff

On a recent afternoon, Tara Henderson walked up to a stranger outside the Stop Shop and Save at Mondawmin Mall and asked, "You hacking?"

George Shelton nodded yes. Henderson, 21, and two friends followed him to a parked station wagon and hopped in. Ten minutes later, Shelton let them off at Wyndam Court in West Baltimore, pocketing $6.

Scenes such as that are common in Baltimore, where there's no shortage of hacks, those who operate as cabdrivers illegally, targeting areas where public transportation is lacking. Hacks probably won't be seen driving around Roland Park or Guilford, but they saturate many West and East Baltimore neighborhoods.

Hacking requires only owning a car or possessing one for a day. Experience is optional, as are a driver's license and insurance. It doesn't matter whether the car is new or badly in need of brakes, a tuneup and tires.

Some hacks are more serious than others, spending several hours a day transporting people around Baltimore. Others work a few hours here and there, often quitting after making $50 or so. Drug addicts hack, too, picking up a quick $20 for a few rocks of crack or hits of heroin.

Hacking has become more prevalent in the city in recent years, says Baltimore police Capt. Gerard Busnuk. And obvious, based on the way customers flag down drivers.

"I used to work on the streets regularly, and you never used to see it except at grocery stores," Busnuk said. "Drive up Fulton Avenue now and you'll see almost every couple or three blocks people standing with their arms up and their index finger pointing to the ground. As people go by, they'll yell out 'Hack.' It's a sort of informal, underground thing. It's a whole different world out there as far as transportation."

People without cars or those who hate taking the bus love hacks. But they're a cabdriver's nightmare because of the low fares they offer.

Police see them as a nuisance, especially because robberies, carjackings and other crimes -- committed by either customer or driver -- have been associated with hacking.

Law enforcement

A city ordinance against hacking carries a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. But there doesn't seem to be much enforcement of the law. At Mondawmin Mall, a sign forbids hacking yet it remains one of the places in the city to catch a hack.

"We get cases in court occasionally," said Laura Mullally, chief of the district court division of the state's attorney's office. "But we have to be able to prove that the driver took money to give someone a ride. We see them in court a couple of times a month."

Most of the men and women who hack aren't worried about getting caught. In a city where the number of homicides soars past 300 annually, they figure police have better things to do.

Each hack has his reasons for engaging in the business, and they operate by their own rules.

For example, Shelton, 40, says he doesn't pick up kids unaccompanied by adults. And he'll drive two men around, but not three.

He has been hacking for about four years.

"I was hanging out, doing nothing and I figured what the hell, I might as well make some money," said Shelton, a commercial plumber who works a third-shift job but spends several hours a day driving people around the city. "I use the money to take care of that gas expense and car repairs and have a few extra dollars in my pocket. This way my money from my paycheck goes into the bank."

Some hack because it's their only source of income. Edward Owens, 31, said this week that he is "between jobs" and hacks to help make ends meet.

"I just thought it was a fast way to make a couple of dollars," said Owens, who has hacked off and on for two years. He said that because of his lack of a steady income, he spends several hours a day driving around the city looking for riders.

"Hacking requires discipline, because you have to stay at it to make money at it," Owens said.

"Younger people, especially, think they can just get in your car and do what they want to do and pay what they want to pay. They think because it's not exactly legal they can pay you what they want to pay."

$3 minimum expected

Owens said the least he has been offered for a ride is $2. Most hacks expect a minimum of $3 per fare, and the average fare is about $6.

He said he doesn't consider hacking too dangerous, although he is mindful of the police when he picks up a fare.

Winston, a hack who asked that his last name not be published, learned the hard way how dangerous it can be.

He stopped to pick up two men about four years ago, and just as the car doors opened, two other men appeared and jumped into his Corsica. The men asked to be taken to Laurens and Division streets, and Winston said he nervously drove off.

"When I got them there, I felt something cold and hard behind my left ear," Winston said. "He started nudging and twisting it, and he said, 'All right, Slim. You know what to do.'"

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