Each day's goal of $300 keeps taxi on the street

Independent cabby works long hours to stay independent

maryland scenes

November 23, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Gangsta Granny's getting no love. No signal 10s, no flags, no regulars. In plain English: No customers and no money. Now the sleepy scene outside the Doubletree Hotel in North Baltimore seems to promise more of the same.

"Nothing's moving," she says with a weary sigh, edging onto University Parkway. It's just after 10 in the morning, but Lucy Davis, aka Gangsta Granny, has been on the job six hours already. So far it is shaping up as a so-so day, maybe worse.

For cabbies like her, that's life nowadays. The bad economy hurts. People have less money in their pockets, so they are more likely to take the bus, walk, bum rides or just stay home.

"A lot of people are losing their jobs, and that's going to us," Davis says from behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius emblazoned with "Checker Cab." "They aren't going to work anymore. Oh man."

That means Davis must work longer and harder. Sunday should be her one day of rest, but too often this 59-year-old widow is out bouncing along the ragged streets of Baltimore.

Unlike cabbies who own their cars and taxi permits, she rents from Veolia Transportation, which owns Yellow, Checker and Sun cabs and represents half of Baltimore City's fleet of 1,151 taxis. The company provides the car, maintenance and insurance. Davis pays $620 a week and buys her gas.

At least she gets 50 miles per gallon in the Prius. And gas is back under $2 a gallon. Even so, she counts on making $200 or $300 a day.

"If it's out there to make," she hastens to add, turning onto Falls Road en route to her next destination, the Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys.

Not that Davis is complaining. She enjoys her job and being her own boss. As a cabby, she gets to play boat captain and bartender, shuttling folks around while engaging them on matters silly and serious.

She listens to women griping about boyfriends. She told a nurse who was "unfortunately" headed to work that she was blessed to have a job helping others. She has gotten tips from an arborist who was in town for a convention.

Alas, the Radisson at Cross Keys is dead. No hotel guests need a ride, but Davis decides to wait.

She began driving a cab eight years ago after losing her job. Over the years she had worked at Continental Can and Schaefer Brewing until each shut down. In 2000, her brother suggested driving a cab. Nobody could downsize her then. Nor, it turns out, could anyone cow her.

One day early on, some men at the taxi garage hassled her about driving a cab. You should be home with your husband, they said. This is America, she shot back; women do whatever they want.

Word spread. Lucy Davis takes nobody's guff. She's a gray-haired Gangsta Granny.

Mostly the nickname seems about as apt as Slim does for a fat guy. She laughs with a girlish giggle, worries about the health of the deer that glanced off her car. She doesn't drink and goes to bed by 7. She has become a motherly mentor for new cabbies.

And her careful driving calls to mind, well, a granny.

She also exhibits a patience some might call grandmotherly despite the frequent downtime. Radio traffic reports and music keep her company; Queen Latifah is in the CD player now.

At 11, having spent a self-imposed half-hour waiting, she pulls away from Cross Keys, bound for Penn Station. The computer in her cab has beeped a few times. There's a "signal 10" - a call for service - for Mercy Hospital. But that and the other jobs are too far away. She can try to grab them if a colleague isn't "booked in" to that zone or otherwise on the call. But since people tend to call several cab companies, another taxi would probably beat her if she tried.

Heading south, she hopes to get a "flag" - cabby speak for someone hailing a taxi - despite her safety concerns. Safety is one reason she prefers North Baltimore, though downtown often gets busier.

You never know with flags, she says. She's never been robbed, "thank God," and she drives encased in a thick plastic protective shell. Only once has anyone run off without paying. He was a big guy, but the fare wasn't: $3.50. She laughed it off and drove away.

No flags are waving this morning, and soon she's at the train station. She has time for just one job before picking up a regular in Towson. That job pays $40 a couple of times a week. The regulars save her. Before dawn each morning she drives two women to work for a total of $55.

But so far she's not halfway to her $200 minimum, so here she sits on St. Paul Street, 25 deep in the taxi line. She greets Louis Wells, a fellow cabby who considers her a mentor. Whenever he forgets how to get somewhere, he calls her.

For 26 minutes she inches forward until Bartley Holder climbs into the Prius. He's in from Silver Spring for an eye exam at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As she drives, a conversation ensues.

"Right now I'm looking for work," he says. "I'm in accounting."

"You're between jobs then?"

"That's a nice way to put it."

"Make it sound good, huh?" she replies with a chuckle. A minute later she offers this advice: "Don't give up. You can keep on going!"

The fare is $8.40. He hands her $9 and disappears.

Without looking for another fare, she steers for Towson and Bob Rappaport, who's 80 and volunteers with photography students at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

In the five years she has driven Rappaport, they have become close friends. They know about each other's families, pets, political views. He calls her Luce, she calls him Rapp.

"All right, Luce," he says, climbing out of the Prius outside his Cross Keys home.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he says. "Regular time."

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