Jennifer Williams, a young mother of two, lives in an East Baltimore neighborhood where corner stores and carry-outs are the only places to shop.
Yet Williams and other carless residents of inner-city "food deserts" are not as stranded as they might seem. They regularly shop at full-sized supermarkets miles from home by catching rides in hack cabs. "I go all the time - twice a week," she said.
Illegal and notoriously dangerous, unlicensed cabs are an unlikely ally in the search for affordable and healthful food. Yet hacks are such an accepted part of "making market" in Baltimore that some stores issue company badges to drivers.
At some stores, supermarket hacking is a highly organized enterprise, governed by the protocol of a private club whose "captain" runs the operation like a taxi stand. The hackers are not store employees, but some markets run background checks before allowing them to pick up customers out front. That puts riders at ease even as it creates a startling disconnect: Businesses are making sure people aren't criminals before letting them break the law on their property.
"We don't call them hacks, we call them courtesy drivers," said Bill Stanfield, assistant manager at Food Depot in Northeast Baltimore, which runs checks on drivers and provides them with store IDs. "All stores have what you call courtesy drivers."
Supermarket hacks have been around for decades, and riders describe them as a community service as much as cut-rate cab. For many supermarkets, hacks have become an essential link to their customer base, which explains why they turn a blind eye or explicitly endorse them by running background checks and issuing IDs.
"That lets the customer know - we're saying, 'These guys are OK,' " said Harold Waters, manager of Stop Shop & Save in Southwest Baltimore.
But background checks do nothing to make hacking legal or safe, said city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "I don't care if the grocery store gives you a red badge, you're operating an illegal cab."
Operating a hack cab is a misdemeanor, and the rider can face a charge of hitchhiking.
"When we spot them, we cite them," Guglielmi said. But that can be difficult. "It's not like they have a sign on their car, 'I'm a hack.' "
In addition to being illegal, hacking can be dangerous. The Police Department does not keep figures on violent crimes associated with hacking, but Guglielmi recalled that in August, three men were charged with gang-raping three women in separate incidents after they offered them rides.
The dangers of hacking
In June, a hack cabdriver was charged with raping a 14-year-old passenger he'd picked up back in 2000. Two hack drivers were shot and killed in separate incidents in East Baltimore over the span of four days in April.
"It carries a tremendous amount of risk," Guglielmi said.
Some city supermarkets agree. When Shoppers Food & Pharmacy opened at Mondawmin Mall in 2007, the corporate office asked General Manager Roun Perry if he needed anything. He did: a "No Hacking" sign. It remains posted out front, though store security still has to chase hackers away.
"They got telltale signs, they have their keys jingling as people come out," Perry said. "They might walk in the store, pretending to shop."
Fears of liability
Perry fears the store, which has lots of licensed cabs out front, could face liability if it endorsed hacks as some other markets have done.
"If something happens, if there's an issue with cabdrivers, you can call the cab company," Perry said. "If you leave with a hack, you're kind of on your own."
Hack drivers and riders alike say supermarket hacking is safe because the same customers and drivers see each other week after week. They make a distinction between "courtesy drivers," mostly older men who've submitted to background checks and have a store's permission to hack, and the younger "jacklegs" who just show up.
Call for the 'captain'
The courtesy drivers belong to drivers' clubs, each with its own "captain." The store won't do a background check or issue an ID unless the captain vouches for him. The captain also mediates any disputes among hackers over customers. Customers set the price for each ride, something drivers contend makes the service not only cheaper than licensed cabs but also legal. (Guglielmi said it's illegal no matter who determines the fare.)
Hackers who aren't part of the club still try to get customers at the door. They're usually shooed away, but sometimes they pick up customers before that happens.
Johnny Allen, a 69-year-old retired construction worker who hacks at Food Depot when he isn't working as a minister at Thank God for Jesus Church, looked askance at a young man who was not a regular at the store but was offering rides to shoppers one recent morning. "They've been known to take people's stuff," Allen said of the "jacklegs." If a courtesy driver tried to make off with someone's groceries, he added, "they got our name and [car] tag and everything in the store."