Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't Hail Me, I'll Hail You

Look, don't think me unsympathetic. I realize that cabbies up here in DC are between a rock and a hard place, but sometimes I just can't help but think that every single one of them is a maniac! And only part of that assessment is based on the fact that 4 out of 6 heart attacks in the District are caused by a taxi almost killing someone. When I heard about that cracked out lady driving through a street festival down in Southeast, I figured someone had just hailed a cab from more than 4 feet from the curb. In DC, that usually means that every taxi in sight (because every single one is it's own company) rushes to get you (even if that means driving through a plaza). I think if you hailed one when your plane landed at National, there'd be a line waiting for you to deplane right there on the tarmac.

I'm not sure what has driven them to the lengths they go. Perhaps it's being second only to West Virginians in the number of times they serve as the butt of jokes; perhaps it's Mayor Fenty and his kooky idea to get rid of the zone system in favor of a meter system. I mean, I know that the District is being revolutionary with this idea of "meters," and all, but there's no need to freak out and go all luddite on us. It's time for DC to be on the cutting edge, dontcha think? Here's the perfect chance too; as far as I know only a few other cities have converted to meters, for instance, every other city on earth!

Anyway, the practice which boggles me the most is the practice here whereby cabbies treat every person who isn't pushing a shopping cart full of his or her life possessions as a fare. Not a potential fare, but as a fare. If you set foot outside of a building anywhere within 50 miles of the Capitol, you will be swarmed by cabbies. They are more persistent here than the homeless people outside of MARTA stations.

I've never been the type to attract honks just for the pleasure of using the sidewalk, but DC cabbies are not to be outdone. I'm talking about the relatively common practice wherein DC cabbies hail fares. President Kennedy once derided Washington as a city "of southern efficiency and northern charm," and this taxi harassment seems to evoke this idea of Washington as a place where the normal rules of engagement are suspended. You see, in most cities when you want a cab, you walk to the curb and shout 'TAXI!' Here, you just stand around until one honks at you, then you get in.

This process, of course, leads to lots of false positives for the cabbies, though. Perhaps it's their eagerness to beat out their brothers in yellow, but they seem to have no discretion. For instance, just yesterday I saw a cabbie hail a guy waiting on a street corner for the walk signal. I also saw a person taking the trash out yesterday hailed.

This leads me to wonder how cabbies cope with complicated situations. Do they hail waiters in sidewalk cafes? Do they drive around in cemeteries honking at funerals? What about hookers? I can imagine that would be a bit touchy (whose meter is running then?) I'm honestly surprised that more "Express" hawkers don't end up being thrown bodily into a taxi by some overzealous driver eager for a nice tip.

They are even omnipresent at that most American of institutions, the mall. And no, I don't mean the one with monuments, I mean the one with kiosks and canned music. The mall across the street from my apartment has a constant parade of taxis. They drive along the front of the mall, turn around and repeat as necessary. Why? Not only does everyone drive to the mall, but there's also a Metro station right across the street.

Personally, I think that the real reason that there are so many traffic circles in DC is so that the Taxis have a place to queue up without stopping driving. Oh, and they're great places for the taxis to show that they all have a little bit of Italy in their veins: Somehow they can cut across four lanes and a median from the Mass Ave express lanes on Dupont Circle to P Street with a honk and only leave a few traumatized tourists from South Carolina and Nebraska in their wake (as if driving in DC wasn't traumatic enough already).

I've never set foot in a cab, and I don't plan to either. In this city, there's really no excuse to skip out on transit, and Washington is really very walkable. So I'll say this to the cabbies: even if I pause to tie my shoe, read the Post headline, or photograph something, don't hail me, I'll hail you.

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