DRIVER OF CABS, WEAVER OF STORIES
IT'S easy to find a taxi late at night on the 1100 block of 15th Street.
Lined with the massive Washington Post building on one side and the posh Madison Hotel on the other, the six-lane road bustles with blue delivery trucks stacked with newspapers, ladies of the night, and unsuspecting tourists.
That's where we met Lionel, an elderly black man with salt-and-pepper hair, driving slowly by the hotel's entrance and slumped down in his car seat with the comfort that accompanies a career of cab driving. He stopped alongside the canopy and motioned us into the back seat. We told him where in suburban Maryland we were headed and offered a possible route.
"What?!" he eyed us with disbelief in the rearview mirror. "I ain't goin' up no Connecticut Avenue. Here's 16th Street, a straight shot. What'd ya want to send me up Connecticut Avenue for?
"I been drivin' 52 going on 53 years driving a cab. I got to get out of the house. I'm 75, going on 76 years old. I got five grandchildren; I tell my wife I'll be back when they're put to bed.
"I got a 13-year-old grandson who won't leave me alone. Always changin' the channel when a program I'm lookin' at come on. Always makin' noise.
"Heh, heh, heh. No way!
"They don't live with me. They got their own house. They live four blocks away. They just come spend the night every once in a while.
"I'm from Florida. My parents always said if you don't like somethin', make it better. Left there in 1930. Couldn't stand the segregation. Got on a bus to New York. But the fellows I was traveling with got off the bus in Washington. You see, in the olden days, you used to be able to get off the bus and get back on later with the same ticket. Not no more. I was going to be with my brothers in New York. But I never made it. Stayed in Washington.
"Heck no, it was just as segregated as Florida. More segregated in Boston today than down South. Jews in one place; Poles in another. Negroes someplace else.
"You never known the segregation I know. They don't teach it to you in school.
"Havin' to rap on the back winda to get in someplace. Havin' to see if it's OK to come in."
We asked him about the recent riots in Los Angeles, and about life in Washington, D.C., where riots burned out part of the city in 1968.
"L.A.? What'd ya think was gonna happen? Welfare check runs out, food stamps gone. Two-hundred-and-forty-seven dollars don't go too far. Ain't no minimum wage jobs. Lousy education. Nobody stays in school. Family all broke up.
"You see, we always had a family. Family's important. I told my children - all five of them - if you don't want to get an education, then get on out. All my kids are professionals. One's a dental hygienist, one's a computer engineer, two are professional secretaries, and the last is a school teacher.
"I spent time with my kids. Brought 'em up myself. First my mother-in-law died. Then my sister. Then my wife kicked off. All within eight months. So I didn't date no woman or nothin'. For 12 years, I just brought up them kids. Took 'em on picnics, sightseeing to museums. You know, we was a family.
"I got two houses, three blocks from Capitol Hill. Paid $4,500 for one of 'em, and laid down $1,000 on another with a GI loan. Yeah, I served in World War II building a 3,000-mile road - a good piece of road in between China and Burma.
"If I sold 'em now, I'd probably have $100,000 or so. But what I want t'do that for? I don't need no money. Anyway, it's all in my children's and grandchildren's names.
"I worked hard all my life. For a while I was at the State Department. Drove a cab at night to make a livin'. The State Department? Oh, it was all right." He looked at us again through the rearview mirror. "You know. All right."
We asked him if he ever ran into trouble driving a cab in Washington, the city with the country's highest murder rate.
"Sure. I been held up. Three times. Last time was 2 1/2 years ago.
"Guy had a gun to my head. I told him, `Son, you got to take that gun away so I can reach into my pocket and give you my money.' I had the money in my pocket you see, but I wasn't gonna move 'til he took that gun from my head.
"When he did, I reached in and pulled out all my money. It was $210. I told him so. I told him I knew how much money it was 'cause I earned it. It was my Christmas money. I told him I hoped the next time he held me up I'd have twice as much. That's how I talked to him.
"He told me he was sorry he had to do this and all, you know. And that he didn't want to shoot me. Then he just got out of the cab and told me to turn the engine off for 60 seconds and then to drive away. I turned it off, and counted to 736.
"I went back to the Hyatt Regency where I picked him up. No sense callin' the police; he already had my money and was gone. I told the dispatcher at the Hyatt what happened. And he went and got the manager; took me down to the bar. Opened the cash register and gave me $75.
"I had $75 for Christmas Day. That's all. And I was planning to go see my brother in New York City on Christmas Day.
`YEAH. I was on my way to the Washington Post tonight to get tomorrow's paper when you hailed my cab. I like to read the paper early. 'Fore 11 o'clock. Now I got to drive all the way back and get a paper. You see, they start deliverin' at 11, but you can get it at a little after 9.
"Yeah. I love to read. Books, papers, anything. I want my children to be informed. See this? Picked this up from some fella who was loaded down with them on the street. Tells you everything about drugs. Food. AIDS. I got two more at home, but this is the one I keep in the cab.
"Left here? OK. Sho' is changed 'round here. All these big buildings and people carryin' on in the streets. This used to wide open space. Was just nothin' but woods out here. Shoot. We used to hunt rabbits out here.
"Uh-huh. My grandson's about asleep now. Time to go home.
"What'd ya say? Naw! He's ain't no 19! I said he's 13. What're ya adding six years on him for? If he was that age he'd be out on the street chasing y'all!"
We threw our heads back in laughter. And then he turned left.