WASHINGTON – Sam Covert first hit the streets of the capital in September 1960 in pursuit of his own set of wheels – a 1955 Chevy his dad back in South Carolina said he could buy if he earned the money.
“I never did get that car,” said Covert,a 68-year-old cab driver. Now,he drives a 1999 Lincoln with a taxi topper instead.
Covert worked in a lumber and hardware company,where he was fired for helping to organize a union,and then delivered freight,which wasn't steady work.
He enrolled in taxi school in 1964,figuring it would provide a steady income.
On a recent Monday morning,when business is usually slow,Covert carefully scanned the sidewalks for a raised hand. He spotted one outside a downtown office and greeted his first customer with a “good morning ma'am” and a smile.
Covert listened to her instructions to a courthouse where she had jury duty. Even though he knew where the courthouse is,he listened to her directions,he said,because even after all these years,he still learns about new routes and different entrances. As the woman shook her head in frustration over higher taxi rates,including a $1 fuel charge,Covert nodded his in agreement.
“That trip would cost 40 cents when I first started,” Covert told her.
As she stepped out,she handed him $9 for her $7.50 bill,which Covert said “is generous for one zone.”
Unlike nearly every other city,District of Columbia taxi fares are based on a confusing zone system – sometimes a trip of a few blocks is $7.50,but the same few blocks costs nearly $10 if the route crosses a zone line. The city plans to switch to meters May 1. Some cab drivers say their incomes will drop. Covert said not much will change.
Competing with other cab drivers has become routine,Covert said,who drove that Monday morning around the Capitol,through business sections of Northeast D.C. and on the interstate.
Other passengers took no notice of him as they put in their headphones or visited among themselves – which can make for interesting listening.
One trip that sticks out in Covert's mind is one where he drove a few men to the Washington Hilton in 1972. He overheard them openly discuss campaign strategies and realized the “George” they kept referring to was George Wallace,the Republican presidential candidate who ran against Richard Nixon.
“I remember these campaign workers must have been running short on funds,” Covert said,”because they didn't tip me anything.”
As a courtesy,Covert keeps the radio silent unless someone asks him to turn it on. When he's cruising,he cracks the windows and tunes in to Tony Evans,a Baptist minister who broadcasts out of Dallas.
Covert works the bar scene Friday nights,and occasionally Saturdays,driving people who can't drive themselves.
“I'm expected in church on Sunday,” said Covert,who goes to St. James Baptist Church in Capitol Heights,Md.,a Washington suburb.
The Adams Morgan neighborhood is crowded on weekends,and bar hoppers hail taxis “up until daylight.” Covert's rule is that his alcohol-sodden customers have to stay awake to give him directions to their homes.
“They think I ought to know because I'm the cab driver,” Covert said.
During the week,he covers all the quadrants,including neighborhoods in the city's far Northeast that many avoid.
Covert has been robbed at gunpoint five times. Once robbers took his cab. And Covert quit hacking for 14 years after a thief shot him in 1973.
On that December day,he sensed something was wrong. To test his passenger,he drove past the requested stop. When he put the car in reverse and his foot on the brake,Covert turned to face the 22-year-old and found a .25-caliber automatic gun in his mouth. Before he could react,the man pulled the trigger. The bullet put a hole through his tongue,then lodged behind his left ear.
“Knocked out all these,” Covert said tapping his front teeth. “Had to pull ‘em at the hospital.”
When his foot came off the brake,the car spun and crashed into an abandoned building,pinning the shooter inside.
“Our eyes met,” Covert said,”and I grabbed the pistol with my left hand and pulled him over the seat.”
Covert wrestled the gun away and shot the thief twice,grazing his thigh and buttocks,before he got away.
Police found the shooter a few minutes later and took him to the city's public hospital,where he received free treatment. Covert had to pay his own $993 bill.
Another time,two would-be robbers wanted Covert to go home so they could steal his television. Covert slowed down when he saw a police car,opened the door and rolled out.
Every one of the five robbers Covert has met has been black,he said,which is disappointing and unnerving.
“In South Carolina,we used to be afraid of the Ku Klux Klan,” Covert said. “Now I'm not thinking of them. I'm thinking of my own little black brothers walking around with their pants hanging off their hind parts.”
Like many blacks in the city,his grandchildren complain that they can't get a cab to stop for them,Covert said,which is why he still picks up almost anyone.
After the shooting,Covert drove city buses and trains. He came back to cabs in part because he missed the interaction with customers,including his regulars. Even though he has never studied enough to earn his tour guide license,he enjoys the history of the buildings he's aged with.
The license clipped to the passenger side mirror in his cab expires in a year,but Covert doesn't think he'll renew.
“I'm on the verge of moving back to South Carolina,” he said,back to “one little post office,two grocery stores” and his late father's three acres.