Savvy Cabbie

Baltimore cab drivers will soon be tested on everything from customer service to the state flower to ensure riders are charmed by the city.

January 08, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

IT'S A COLD, sunny morning in Charm City, and I'm rocketing down Light Street in the back of a Yellow cab, trying to make conversation.

This is not going terribly well.

For one thing, sitar music is blaring from the rear speakers, making it difficult to hear. For another, the driver, who wears a turban and long dark beard, appears to struggle with the English language.

"Are you from India?" I ask. (Oh, yeah, I'm a regular Columbo when it comes to reading clues.) "Yes," the cabbie says.

"Been in this country long?"

"Yes."

"How long you been driving a cab?"

"Two year."

For the next few moments we ride in silence, if you don't count my muffled scream at the corner of Light and Pratt when we nearly broadside a tan Diamond cab suddenly changing lanes.

My cabbie's name, it turns out, is Harjett Singh. This year he'll be one of about 2,000 taxi drivers to undergo a new mandatory 8-hour training program on Baltimore's culture, geography, economy and history.

All this is so tourists get a good first impression of the city's cabbies, so they don't hail a cab and bark "Camden Yards" and wind up at Eastpoint Mall, or ask about Edgar Allan Poe and have the cabbie say: "The Orioles signed that guy?"

I'm guessing city fathers would also prefer cabbies not greet visitors with: "You picked a great time to visit, hon. Murder rate's down a tad" or "Welcome to Baltimore, folks. The schools? You don't wanna know."

As part of their training, cabbies will also be instructed in basic driver etiquette: Know how your passengers want to be treated, don't yak incessantly on a cell phone, don't blast the radio (or the CD player with the sitar music, I'm guessing).

Understand, this isn't because Baltimore cabbies generate any more complaints than their counterparts in New York or Philadelphia or Washington. It's a matter of simple economics: The state reaps $7.7 billion annually from the tourism industry. So it's important that anyone connected with that industry deal with visitors as efficiently as possible.

"Taxi drivers are essentially our front-line ambassadors," says Karen Glenn, spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Economic Development. "They're the first people you're going to see when you get off a plane ... or come down to visit the Inner Harbor."

In any event, on this early January morning, I am out getting my last taste of the unvarnished Baltimore cabbie, the cabbie who has not yet graduated from charm school with a minor in public relations.

As we make a right on President Street and a left on Fleet on our way to Fells Point, I ask Singh if he's heard about the new program and related test cabbies will need to take to keep or get a license. (The test will consist of some 30 questions, on which they'll need to score at least 75 percent.)

"Yes, yes," he says.

"But you haven't taken it yet, right?"

"No."

"Piece of cake," I say, although judging by his expression, the phrase does not seem to register.

Actually, if the sample exam questions faxed to The Sun by the state economic development agency is any indication, the test will be a piece of cake - at least for anyone who's lived here for more than five minutes and hasn't had an anvil land on his head recently.

Here are some honest-to-God sample questions:

True or false: To hear and to listen are the same thing.

True or false: All your passengers will be just like you.

True or false: Taxi drivers are important to the tourism industry in Baltimore and Maryland.

What was the name of America's first railroad: New York Central; B&O Railroad; Rail of America.

The capital of Maryland is: Annapolis; Baltimore; Frederick; Rockville.

The largest city in Maryland is: Annapolis; Baltimore; Frederick; Rockville.

A black-eyed Susan is: a waitress who got in a fight; the state flower; a ship.

Hoo, boy. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I don't see anyone snapping his No. 2 pencil in frustration over those questions.

And here's the thing. Despite all the prepping taxi drivers will undergo, do you know what two questions cabbies in this town are asked most frequently?

According to the Department of Business and Economic Development, they're: "Where's a good place to eat?" and "Where's a good place to go tonight?"

A few minutes later, we arrive in Fells Point and Singh lets me off at the Broadway Market.

By now, the sitar music is reaching a wailing crescendo - apparently, we are listening to the Jimi Hendrix of the sitar, and he's got his amplifier cranked to 10.

I pay the $6 fare and leave a generous tip - boy, it's amazing what a sport you can be with expense-account money. Then I wish Singh good luck on the test and check to see whether my ears are bleeding from the sitar music as he drives off.

The next cab I hail, on Broadway, is driven by a young man named Donte Antonio, a local guy who turns out to be a real firecracker.

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