A Baltimore Way of Life
"From 5 to 9, I'm rolling," he continues, picking up rides at "5, 5:10, 5:30, 6, 6:30, 7:20, 7:45 . . . and sometimes there might a be a few more in there, depending on how I'm running."
Doug's car isn't painted yellow; there's no meter mounted on the dashboard, no barrier walling off the backseat. He has no legal license to be giving anyone a ride in exchange for money. Doug is a hack.
"I hack every day," says the fortysomething father of three. For the past 17 years, he has spent part of his days picking up people who need rides, he says, "mainly to supplement my income." After finishing his rounds, Doug heads for his steady job as a warehouse worker on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. But he's hours away from clocking in. Right now, he's his own boss.
As he motors through the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, Doug remarks on how the remains of the city's nightlife will transform into a kaleidoscope of workaday rush-hour traffic over the course of these early hours.
"Everybody out here right now is either tricking, tripping, or going to work," Doug says of a stretch between Park Heights Avenue and Fulton Street. Despite the vacant looks on the people walking the streets--including the high and the drunk, whom Doug compares to the zombies in Dawn of the Dead--something feels a little different about this morning. The air is warmer as spring settles in. The winter weather has broken and his business soon will flourish. "Women do not like to stand outside when it's too hot or too cold," he notes.
This spring, in addition to driving his regular customers who call him when they want his services, Doug will boost his earnings by being on the lookout for people who stand outside, on sidewalks and street corners, motioning rapidly with one downturned index finger, indicating to passersby that they would like a ride up, down, or across town.
Doug is part of a booming economy built around people in Baltimore's African-American community who prefer to call or flag down drivers like Doug to taking public transportation or licensed taxicabs. There are no statistics on hacking, no academic studies. Yet, as anyone who travels city streets and encounters the finger-wagging hack hail knows, it is a pervasive part of life here.
It is also a somewhat controversial part. Hacking is illegal, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. And it has a reputation as a dangerous practice, for both riders and drivers. Although Baltimore Police Department spokesman Officer Troy Harris says that police records "don't have a category for occupations of homicide victims," accounts published in The Sun indicate that over the past decade as many as 13 Baltimoreans have been killed while driving hacks. And since hacking itself is illegal, many lesser crimes that might occur in the process--carjackings, robberies, assaults--likely go unreported.
Why has this dangerous and illegal activity become such a part of Baltimore culture? Most reasons given by those contacted for this story can be summed up in three words--convenience, money, and race.
Some say hacks are much more convenient for those without a car than taking the bus, subway, or light rail. Hacks take you directly to your destination, vs. a roundabout public transportation route.
Others note that hacks tend to be a few dollars cheaper than legitimate cabs. Get in a taxi and the meter starts ticking, heightening the anxiety of not knowing exactly how much your fare will be. This can be even more annoying if you only have a few dollars to spend and are afraid of running out of money. Hacks generally negotiate a flat fee up-front, and the fee is usually low compared to the typical cab fare for a similar trip.
Yet more say that hacks get a boost in business from the fact that it is often difficult for black people to catch cabs, especially in predominately black neighborhoods. When they flag cabs down, the drivers don't stop; when they call for a taxi, the cab doesn't show up. The hacks interviewed for this story say they won't pick up just anyone, but they do cater to those whom the licensed taxis sometimes drive right by.
Whatever the reasons, Doug is thankful that people need rides and are willing to pay him to provide them. After all, being a hack is the easiest moneymaking game in town--a self-owned small business, for which all you need is a working automobile, a full tank of gas, and a sense of direction.
"The judicial system says it's illegal," he says. "But I say it's doing the community a service."
Centenarian Melvin Harris may be the oldest resident of Benet House, a senior citizen's home on Millington Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, but his mind is razor sharp. Receiving guests in his room on a recent afternoon, he says that any discussion of hacking in Baltimore must be described in the context of race and its impact on black travelers back in the 1950s.
Harris, who drove a Yellow Cab (formerly Fleetway Cab) for 35 years until he retired in 1986, says, "Hacking has been for a long time. And now, anybody who's got an automobile and wants to make some money can become a hack."
Harris' friend Louis Hughes, a 60-year-old who lives in Northwest Baltimore and happens to be sitting on Harris' tattered couch on this particular afternoon, pipes up. The term "hack," he says, comes from "way back, from a pony-drawn cab where the ponies were called hackney ponies.
"I know this because I've had horses all my life," Hughes continues. "These hackney ponies stepped very fancy and were strong enough to carry a lot of people. . . . And [hackney] began to become the colloquial word 'hack.'"
According to the American Hackney Horse Society, which registers horses and ponies, Hughes is right. Hackney horses were exported from England to the United States via New York starting in 1891. "It would have been those folks in the New York area that were flagging down [what they called] 'hacks' to get a ride," says Frances Bjalobok, who has been an executive secretary for the Lexington, Ky.-based, society for six years. "From there, the phrase became 'I'm going to get a hack.'"
Meanwhile, Jill Lyder, executive director of the Carriage Association of America, says, "I cannot verify that hackney horses were the only horses that drew hackney cabs. But the cab itself was called hackney cab."
"Hack" is still used as a slang term for licensed cab drivers, but in Baltimore it has taken on the particular meaning of an unlicensed cab driver. In Philadelphia, another city with an evident unlicensed cab culture, they're known as jitneys; in New York, they're called gypsy cabs. While other cities have hack equivalents, they also seem to have different views of the hacking problem.
"I don't think there's that many [jitneys] out there," says Philadelphia Police Department spokesman Cpl. Jim Pauley, who adds that hacks only come to the attention of Philadelphia police when there are robberies or thefts involved, which doesn't come up very often. But to combat gypsy cabs, the New York City Police Department organized the Surface Transportation Enforcement District nearly 10 years ago. Since the district's organization, there has been a significant decrease in gypsy cabs. "They enforce city and state traffic regulations as it pertains to operating for hire vehicles," NYPD Detective Bernard Gifford says of the district. The Baltimore Police Department does not have any equivalent department.
While Melvin Harris doesn't know anything about the etymology of the term hack or unlicensed cabs in other cities, he does know a lot about hacking in Baltimore. He was a hack himself--way back in 1937.
"A lot of people resorted to hackers way back when they couldn't ride in Yellow Cabs," he says. Harris, who notes he was one of the few black Baltimoreans who owned a car in the '30s, says, "I would take people from Al's Bar in the 700 block of Freemont Avenue. And I would take anybody anywhere for about 25 or 50 cents. That's all you could get in those days.
"But the hack business became more popular sometime in the neighborhood of the 1960s or '70s. But hacks were still scarce in those days--maybe one or two people in the whole neighborhood hacked.
"A hack's busiest season is the first of each month because everybody gets a government check," Harris continues, peering over this thick glasses with a twinkle in his eyes. "All of the checks come the first of the month. Everyone cashes their checks, pays their rent, gas, telephone bills, et cetera. And then, with what you have left, if you want to go somewhere, you go in a cab or a hack."
In fact, as Harris sees in his own assisted-living community, if people don't call their regular hacks right away, they may find themselves out of luck because of the high demand of people around the first of the month. "There are only so many [licensed] cabs in the city," he says. "And two-thirds of the cabs they used to have are now gone."
More than convenience, Harris points to race as the prime mover behind the rise and flourishing of Baltimore's hack culture.
"Before I started driving a cab, colored people couldn't get a Yellow Cab," Harris recalls. "They wouldn't pick you up in 1950, and way back before that, too."
Warming to his topic, Harris describes the plights of African-American service workers--maids, cooks, and other domestics who worked in affluent white areas of town like Roland Park and Guilford--who could only take cabs home with the influence of the white people they worked for.
"If [white] people wanted to send you home in a cab, they would call a cab, and a cab would come, but they [drivers] didn't know you were of color," he says. When the cab showed up at the address, the taxi driver, invariably white, "expected a white person to come out, but a colored person would come out. A white person came out with them, who was typically a member of the family the person of color worked for, and put them in the cab. Then, the cabbie had to take them home.
"Once [the white cab driver] got them to their destination, the service worker paid the fare and got out," Harris continues. "Then the cabbie would lock the doors and refuse to pick up anybody else in that neighborhood."
Race may be a longstanding factor, but it's not the only one. "A lot of people need this service," Shorty says. "You have seniors and people who are on welfare who need transportation."
Shorty should know. To hear him tell it, he's from the old breed of hacks--the ones who seemed to pop up outside of grocery stores in the 1980s like mushrooms after a spring rain, all asking matronly customers, "Do you need help with your bags, ma'am?"--code for "Do you need a ride home?" As such, Shorty (not his real name) doesn't endorse a newer breed of hack who, like Doug, pick up people off the street, but who, unlike Doug, are drug addicts hacking for "shot money--[quick] money used to get high."
"Guys are snatching people up," Shorty says disapprovingly of the addict hacks who he says now haunt grocery store parking lots. Trusting customers accept rides with people they don't know instead of "riding with that familiar face," he says. "And their groceries are getting taken."
To combat this problem, some city supermarkets have store-registered drivers, known as courtesy drivers, to transport patrons.
On Good Friday afternoon, four or five elderly but still mobile men sit on a bench in front of the Stop, Shop and Save at Mondawmin Mall, waiting for customers who need help with their groceries. These men are reluctant to talk to a reporter, directing all inquiries to a man wearing a black felt hat trimmed with brown leather--the Good Samaritan, aka Johnny Dow.
"Need a ride, miss?" Dow asks of a woman scurrying out of the store burdened with packages, but she apparently has transportation. Taking his seat again, he says he got his nickname because of what courtesy drivers do to differentiate themselves from other forms of transportation.
"We don't hack," Dow says. "We are courtesy drivers for the market." As patrons exit the store doubled up with packages full of fixin's for Easter dinner, he adds that "taxi drivers don't deal with people's bags. We take people's bags up flights of stairs--sometimes all the way up to their apartments on the 11th or 15th floor."
Dow knows the difference between the various professions firsthand. He says he drove a licensed cab in Baltimore for 15 years before turning to hacking. He also says he was pulled over for hacking often enough to tire of it, and became a courtesy driver in 1990, an affiliation he says makes him legitimate.
Stop, Shop and Save manager Larry Irving, who has been with the local grocery chain for 26 years, says, "We have always had courtesy drivers." He says that at his store customers can feel some assurance because he keeps a record of each courtesy driver's license and each driver undergoes a background check by a company called Central Security. Irving says he feels some assurance himself, knowing that the courtesy drivers are there, especially considering the alternatives. "If I see a regular customer get into an unfamiliar car, I try to get the tag number," he says.
Ultimately, Irving says, the courtesy driver system is just a practical response to a fact of life. "There's always going to be hacking here in Baltimore," he says. "It used to be in certain areas--now it's all over the city." The store's courtesy drivers, he maintains, "do a lot of real good service for the customers."
But how does that service translate into dollars for courtesy drivers? Pressed for an average fare, Dow says he takes people 10 or 15 blocks for $4 or so but that rates aren't set. It's usually whatever amount of money that the customer can pay.
"Every supermarket in Baltimore City--Giant, Safeway, Save-A-Lot--has courtesy drivers," Dow says. "If people can't get courtesy drivers, they go to another market."
With that, his train of thought is broken as a woman in a motorized cart drives up with her son. Dow is to take her son up the street as she rides her cart. And with a nod, he is back on the case.
An informal poll of area groceries reveals that several Stop, Shop and Save and Save-a-Lot locations have courtesy drivers. The Giant and Safeway groceries contacted, located in predominantly white neighborhoods, do not. Despite the above-board nature of courtesy drivers at the stores that have them, a call to Baltimore Police reveals that they are illegal too. "They are not licensed and they are not paid by the [grocery]--they are paid by the customer," Officer Harris says. "[Courtesy drivers] are a violation like hacking. It's the same thing."
It would appear that courtesy drivers would partially put hacks like Doug out of business, or at least diminish their earnings. Not true, Doug says--there is plenty of money for him. Enough to put himself in harm's way daily.
While Doug says he has no fear about letting people into his car that he doesn't know, he is not oblivious to the dangers: He was robbed once back in 1988 when he picked up two men late at night. He says he finds safety in working with the same client base over the years, and when he picks up customers off the street, he picks up mostly women. Sometimes he says this is problematic because a woman may try to get more out of him. "Can you take me across town for $4?" he laughs, remembering past requests.
Like every other salesperson in the city, Doug carries business cards featuring his phone number. While handing them out means more business, he doesn't "give cards to everybody," he says. "I try to judge people's character."
Doug says he can earn anywhere from $30 to $60 a day during the week, and can make $100 between 5 a.m. and noon on Saturdays. The high side of his estimated weekly earnings is $400, the low side $250--money he says he uses as pocket change, to buy groceries or gas, or for the occasional splurge.
"I just took everybody in the family to the circus, and that cost me $230 for front-row tickets," Doug says. "And with the snacks I bought them, that was most of my hacking money for the week."
Four hundred dollars a week translates to $20,800 per year and, over 17 years, a total of $353,600. That's a lot of trips to the circus.
Hacks aren't just for old ladies with groceries. Case in point: Brent Hale, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in electrical engineering at Morgan State University. "I've taken a hack a lot of times," he says while relaxing in Morgan State's canteen. "I don't like catching the bus, so I just catch the hack."
Rather than memorizing the phone number of a particular hack when he needs a ride to school or to his job at the Red Cross on Wabash Avenue, Hale says, "I just go to the street and hail a hack. Somebody will stop. A lot of times, it's either crackheads or old people.
"My mother asks me if I'm ever worried about my safety," he continues. "But crackheads are only concerned about getting their high." Plus, Hale says that a lot of the hacks who pick him up--older, high, or otherwise--are good for a little en-route entertainment: "Some of the hacks are crazy and funny. They just be talking."
Yet Hale says he would be concerned about his girlfriend taking a hack. "Not to say it's safer to take a hack being a dude, but hacks would probably see females as being vulnerable," he says.
Hale has practical reasons for putting his own safety at risk. "Cabs are too high nowadays," he says. "Most of the time, if you're not going too far, a hack is only $5. With cabs it's a $10 trip to go nowhere." As for public transportation: "If I'm going to take the bus to work, I leave at noon. If I catch a hack, I leave at 1:30."
For Hale's classmate 21-year-old James Hoit Jr., taking a hack is as natural as fresh air. "In my life, I have taken a hack over 500 times," he says, most often catching a ride between his grandmother's house in Edmondson Village and his home on West Madison Street.
"If you get caught at a light in a cab, that could change your fare," Hoit says. "A hack is a set price. From Grandma's house, it would cost me about $6." He estimates the same ride would cost him about $8 or $9 in a cab.
Hacks are not only usual practice for Hoit, but he thinks that many of his fellow students take hacks, too. After all, hacks can easily be found milling around the Northwood Plaza shopping center, which borders the Morgan State campus.
In fact, for Baltimoreans of Hoit's generation, hacking has always been part of the fabric of city life. "At one time my whole family used to take hacks," Hoit continues, remembering rides with his two sisters and two brothers. "That was probably about five years ago, before we had cars."
Hale also recognizes hacking as an ingrained part of his community and his heritage. "My grandfather used to hack when he was alive because he didn't like to stay in the house," Hale says. "He just hacked as a hobby."
Hale, who graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School, says he's an average student. Average or not, he says when he graduates from Morgan State, whose Engineering School is known for producing topnotch engineers, he stands to earn about $60,000 a year directly after graduation, more if he goes on to graduate school. Yet once you get past cost, convenience, and custom, one of the foremost reasons he takes hacks is that, as a young black man, it's easier for him to get a hack than a cab.
"A lot of times, cabs don't even stop anymore, especially for younger guys," Hale says. "[Cabbies] think somebody's going to jump out and not pay them. Nine times out of 10, you have to call a cab--they aren't just going to stop on a street. But you can get a hack, and way faster than a cab."
It may be a fact of life, but the Baltimore Police Department contends hacking can be a matter of life and death. According to police spokesman Detective Donny Moses, the dangers are twofold. "Hacks don't know who they're letting into their vehicles," he says. In addition to numerous robberies and murders, "there have been cases that I know of where people use hacks to transport drugs and/or weapons. Unbeknownst to the hacker, they could be putting themselves in danger."
In addition, customers are putting their lives at risk. "There have been cases where people will have gotten into a hack's vehicle, and the operator of that vehicle was the robber," Moses says. "A lot of times when people get into hacks, they don't realize that they could be getting into a stolen vehicle. And you have young girls trying to find a ride who . . . put themselves in harm's way."
Moses says the police department stands firm on the fact that "hacking is illegal. It's operating a paid taxi without a license." But he acknowledges that while the department is very aware of this problem, "unfortunately, because of the nature of other violent crimes we have to deal with, it's not a high priority every day of the year."
Moses, a thirtysomething Baltimore native, adds that while hacks have been around for quite a while, "hacking didn't become a problem until the '90s." Instead of people known in the community taking people home from the grocery store, "hacking has gone to a new level," he says. "People stand outside waiting for anyone to come by to pick them up."
And according to Moses, the new face of the hack is multicultural. "Most people think it is racially motivated," he says. "I've found that there's been no barrier. It's a quick, easy way of making money for blacks, whites, indifferent. If you need a quick fix, or need a few dollars, you give somebody a ride."
Ray Nelson, vice president of customer service and quality assurance for Yellow Transportation in Baltimore, shares Moses' dim view of hacking. "I'm glad to see that someone is as concerned about it as we are," he says when contacted.
"We are against it. Hacking is not regulated and it is not safe," Nelson says, citing the number of hacks and their customers who have killed, not to mention "raped, robbed, or violated." Nelson says that cab companies in Baltimore City are so against hacks that they have cooperated in past with police department in organizing sting operations to put a dent in the hack business. But today, he acknowledges, the hacking business may be stronger than ever. "Anyone can put their fingers up, and any Johnny public person will take you where you need to go," he marvels.
When asked about persistent claims that licensed cab drivers often don't pick up potential passengers of color, especially men, Nelson takes the question seriously. "I believe that there are some that do not, because there is an assumption that black men are a threat to them," he says. "I believe that there can be a threat with any person that you pick up. It takes a professional driver who knows and understands the streets to follow the guidelines of what it means to be a taxi driver.
"We have no problem with our cab drivers picking up anywhere. We're in the business of service. Do we have occasional problems? Sure we do, but those situations are more in the minority than the majority. We also have management in place to enforce the rules of the taxi company that you won't have with a hack--there are no checks and balances in terms of supervising driver behavior.
"As an African-American man," Nelson concludes, "I appreciate the fact that Yellow Cab takes the accusation that one of our cab drivers doesn't pick up a patron based on race very seriously."
Still, former Baltimore Police officer turned cab driver Thaddeus Logan, who is also African-American, acknowledges that the feelings of other black people about the legitimate cab business aren't drawn out of thin air. "That could be the reason why the hack business has flourished as it has--because many blacks aren't picked up," he says. "They are passed over."
Logan confirms that some cabbies may not pick up African-Americans because of fears that the riders would jump out of the cabs without paying the fare--which has sometimes happened, he says. "There has been trouble," he acknowledges. "But that doesn't mean that everyone should judge all blacks from something that happened with a few."
Logan has been driving a cab in Baltimore for 30 years and says he foresaw the rise of hacks some 20 years ago when he authored Hey Cabbie!, a cult-classic memoir of his adventures on the street and behind the wheel. Logan, who owns his own cab and his own medallion--one of 1,100 or so permits offered in Baltimore City to operate within its boundaries--says that hacks take business away from cabbies such as himself who have "gone through all of the proper procedures to be owner, operator, or lease operators, and spent thousands of dollars." And it's only gotten worse.
"[Hacks] swoop down like sea gulls" and snatch up fares, Logan says. "Somebody will hail you and pull you over, but these [hacks] will blow their horn and your customer will go to them.
"Years ago it was much easier," he continues. "Today you have to interface with the hacks, church buses who pick up members, hotels who have limos, schools who have buses to transport people between campuses--there's a lot going on. Whereas before, people were flagging cabs all over the city. All of the above has cut into the income of the cab driver."
His remedy? "Hacking is taking money from the [cab] drivers on the street. But no one's complaining," Logan says. "[Cab companies] are [still] leasing their vehicles daily, so that means they are not losing money, because the cabs are off of the lot. But if x amount of cabs were left on the lot daily, with illegal hacking as prevalent as it is, someone from the cab companies would put pressure on the authorities or the government."
Logan believes that hacking is only going to get bigger as long as enforcement remains lax and the practice spreads beyond the black community. "Whites in certain borderline areas ride hacks, too," he says, pointing to Highlandtown, Patterson Park, and Pigtown.
On other hand, Louis Hughes says he has noticed cab drivers trying to take back business from the hacks who are taking business from them. "Even the regular cabs will respond to the wiggling of the finger on the street," he says. "But I've seen folks turn down a cab for a hack."
Lola is a thirtysomething professional woman who does not wish to be identified by her real name. She is willing to share, however, that when it comes to getting around Baltimore, "all I take is hacks." And whenever she wants a ride, all Lola needs to do is dial the phone number of her trusty hack club. A few minutes and $5 or so later, she is on her way.
Lola says her situation is not unusual. She says hack clubs are used by many in black communities in Baltimore--they are certainly in use in her gentrified West Baltimore neighborhood. She is not only happy to be able to access cheap and reliable transportation, but also happy to support the hacks. "One of the things that I have observed," she says, "is that because of the economy, these young men who can't get jobs, or have prison records and can't get honest jobs, turn to hacking. It's illegal, but it's not like being involved in drugs or something."
Lola says the hacks in the club she patronizes can be categorized in three groups: retirees from places like Bethlehem Steel; men who are in their 30s who use hacking as a second income; and, the least prevalent, those who have not been able to find mainstream employment, due partly to prison records or lack of education. The latter group includes a few women who have disabilities or have been laid off from other jobs.
"These clubs are in little neighborhoods all over the city," Lola says. "Technically these men are not getting in trouble. [The clubs] are also social clubs, where members pay dues to maintain the buildings where calls come in--like a taxi service." And in contrast to the view of the dangerous "shot money" hacks, she says that "many of the older men, in particular, that I have ridden with are well-mannered Southern gentlemen.
"This is an underground economy that is misunderstood," she says, adding that it increasingly spans racial and economic lines. "I've seen it out in Towson at grocery stores, too. Men who hack very quietly because they can't get a Jimmy's Cab. If you know about it, you really know about it and you notice it."
While he is relatively careful to keep a low profile, Frank is a big part of this economy. A 69-year-old father of six, he runs the hack club that Lola describes, and says that he knows of at least 10 similar operations in West Baltimore. "Hack clubs exist in many city neighborhoods, especially on the west side," he says.
Frank says he has 16 drivers in his outfit. Membership in the club costs $25; after that, he says, the individual hacks are on their own financially. When pressed about how much his drivers make, he says, "I don't ask them." When asked about claims that a small number of his hacks have criminal records, he says, "Not my drivers.
"I don't know of anybody who has been incarcerated," he continues. "I can't say that I wouldn't hire a driver with a jail record, as long as they did their time. Depends on what they went to jail for. People can go to jail and be innocent." He says that usually someone has to know a member to get into the club in the first place, adding that his eldest son is a driver.
Not only does using a familiar hack club make riders feel safer, it eases the minds of the hacks, too. "I feel that working in a club is more safe," Frank says. "Most of the time you ride the same customers. You don't have to worry about anybody holding you up."
Frank says he drove for other hack clubs for 15 years before he found a nice neighborhood and "spanned off for myself." He himself doesn't hack anymore. In fact, he says he now runs the club more for the social aspects. Drivers often sit and play cards between jobs; he adds that his drivers sometimes join others in this secret society of club hacks for bus trips to Atlantic City, N.J., and the like.
Frank says that his income derives from another, legitimate business: a limo service. The legal and illegal car services share space in a one-story building, and Frank says that both do well in spite of the fact that the police department knows exactly what's going on behind the doors.
"They 100 percent know what's going on," he says. "But as long as you treat the neighbors and customers right, they [only] pull some of us over and give us tickets."
In fact, family members, Friends, neighbors, and customers of hacks all over Baltimore know what's going on. And while some see hacks as unfair competition (licensed cab drivers and cab companies) or an illegal and potentially dangerous nuisance (the police), Doug says he is rising above the legalities for the greater public good.
After all, he says, "I'm a good American hack. I hack, I work, I go to church."
And as spring melts into summer, the days may get longer, hotter, and hairier on the streets. Doug's routes may change, his customers may come and go, but one thing is certain: He will still be in business, as long as his Chevy is rolling. Tomorrow is another day. And it starts before 5 a.m.
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