- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Marathon Man” would come to mind when I hailed a taxi in the District under the zone system.

It is the scene in which he is bound to a chair and being tortured by the Nazi war criminal/dentist played splendidly by Laurence Olivier, who keeps asking Mr. Hoffman’s character: “Is it safe?”

See, that is what I would ask myself before getting into a city taxi that functioned under the zone system. Is it safe? Pause. Is it safe?

Hack: “Tell me what the ‘it’ means.”

This exchange would lead to Third World bartering of sorts, all in an effort to find a “safe” fare. I would offer to trade the tattered T-shirt on my back for a five-block ride that amounted to $5. Or one beat-up running shoe from either the right or left foot? His call. And so it went, the fine art of negotiating, with the demonstrative hand movements.

Yes, I would acknowledge the passing through of 10 zones on that particular route, plus passing a spot on the Monopoly board game where you pay $10 out of principle for being an infidel. Or something like that. Or I assume it was something like that because there was the voice of a cleric blasting through the sound system of the taxi. I could not be sure what the cleric was saying. I am not even sure it was a cleric.

Perhaps it was some announcer from Al Jazeera TV droning on about how warm and wonderful Americans are and how the U.S. plays a vital role in the global economy. And how about those D.C. United soccer players? Who knows? I have no answers. I have no questions either, except the one I used to pose to hacks: Would you please pull out the city map, so we can break down this six-block ride, foot by foot, street by street, zone by zone, in the hope that we can agree on a fare that will make both of us feel good about ourselves as human beings?

So you want $15? But it is not a $15 ride. It does not even feel like a $10 ride. Why was I able to take a taxi there last week for $8? Explain that one. Silence. Ah, I see. You do not speak English, except you were speaking perfect English a moment ago, but now we have this convenient language barrier.

This is how it used to be with the zone system. You did not merely take a taxi to another neighborhood. You underwent a cultural revolution, an experience, in which the hack saw not your humanity but the dollar bill, which, sadly, is now worth only one cent on the euro. At this pace, we soon will be trading bags of dollars for bags of groceries at the supermarket. Sorry. I digress.

Is it safe? Why, it is absolutely, unequivocally safe to hop into a city cab these days, because all are supposed to be equipped with meters. And if you happen to see one without a meter, you are supposed to report the offender to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, even if it is 3 a.m. and your eyes are bloodshot, your head is spinning and your breath could knock down a horse, which, of course, would draw PETA’s protesters to your doorstep.

And who cares what is playing on the radio? We are free at last. Free from the hack-inspired tyranny. Free from the let-your-conscience-be-your-guide fare plan. Free from the $12 ride in one direction that somehow became $9 on the return trip.

Free, free, free. Free of Dustin’s image. Free of Laurence’s image. Free to step into a taxi and listen to someone in a foreign tongue from the Middle East praise God, family and the Redskins, although not necessarily in that order.

At long last, it is safe.

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