By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008; Page B01
Daisy Battle has a nickname, acquired after nearly 50 years at the wheel of her D.C. taxi. She’s “Drivin’ Miss Daisy.”
It is a bright weekday morning, and Battle is steering her cab, a just-washed 2003 Lincoln Continental, through downtown, looking for raised hands. She soon sees a woman with a suitcase standing outside a hotel. But before Battle can reach her, another cab shoots past to grab the customer.
“He’s going to cut me off,” she said. “That’s okay. Let him have it.”
Battle is one of the District’s most experienced cabdrivers and among the relatively few women in an industry dominated by men. The D.C. Taxicab Commission, which honored female drivers at a recent meeting, cannot provide an exact figure for how many there are because records do not include the sex of the drivers. Officials guess — based largely, they admit, on feminine-sounding names — that about 150 of the city’s estimated 6,800 licensed cabbies are women.
When Battle began driving a cab in 1961, there were several female drivers around who had begun their careers during World War II, when most of the men were away fighting. Battle was among the few young ones then.
In the years since, Battle has driven countless miles, hauled thousands of passengers, gone through three Lincolns, dealt with young punks and movie stars, weathered decades of debate about zones vs. meters, endured fender benders, traffic jams, hailstorms and snow emergencies, and raised five children on her earnings. Through her broad windshield, she has watched the District grow and the local taxi industry change.
“The thing about it is, it’s harder to drive a cab now than ever,” she said.
The aggravations pile up. Drivers, such as the one who cut her off, have a different attitude than they did in the old days, she said. Limousine companies are getting on her nerves, she said, by illegally competing for passengers. Some drivers are even bribing hotel employees, she said, to secure the plum fares to Dulles and BWI airports.
“Look at her,” she said, pointing to a woman sitting at the wheel of a black limo idling outside a downtown hotel. “She’s not supposed to be hacking, but she sits right there with that Maryland limo. She gets jobs, leaves and comes back.”
But Battle, a Northwest Washington resident, has no plans to park her Lincoln. She declines to give her age — “Just say I’m one of the seniors,” she said — and makes a face at the thought of retirement.
“As long as you keep going, you’ll be okay,” she said. “If I go home now, what am I going to do, sit still?”
Plus, the money remains good enough, she said — more than $200 a day.
In her early days, Battle was often stopped by police. “I was real small and used to wear a ponytail. They didn’t think I was old enough to drive.”
She got the idea from her then-husband, who moonlighted as a cabbie. The pace suited her. She could set her own hours, work around her children’s schedules. Later, after she was divorced, the women of her church took turns riding with her if she had to work evenings. She has been an independent contractor with Yellow Cab since 1972.
During the late 1970s and ’80s, when the District was earning its reputation as a murder capital, driving a cab was hazardous. A female cabbie was killed in 1979, and Battle recalls that Flora T. Washington, who was robbed of $2 and shot to death, had a toddler at home.
Battle never had any real problems, she said. She knew how to size up people.
Last year, for instance, she responded to a radio call that several other drivers had turned down. The would-be rider, a young man in a big coat and baggy pants, looked like trouble.
“I rolled the window down, and I said, ‘Look, you look like you have every gun in your pocket. Now, I’m not going to take any stuff.’ I said to him, ‘I have four grown boys and I didn’t take any stuff off of them, and if you want to ride with me, you better know how to act.’
“He said, ‘Ma’am, I know how to act,’ and I took him where he wanted to go.” He was very polite, she said.
She has also had her share of celebrity passengers. Actress Elizabeth Taylor, married to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) at the time, was delightful, Battle said, “just so funny and down-to-earth.” Comedian-activist Dick Gregory was the most generous tipper, she said. He once gave her a $100 bill for a $40 trip to Dulles and told her to keep the change.
“He told me, ‘God intends for everybody to survive,’ ” she said. “Oh, I just wanted to get him again.”
But on this bright weekday morning, it’s going to be more of a convention center crowd. Two women hail Battle’s taxi outside their hotel on Massachusetts Avenue NW. They are attending a conference on government technology.
“Ladies, I’m going to turn around and get you to the front,” Battle says when she reaches the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, so the women will not have to cross in traffic.
“That’s sweet of you,” says one of the passengers, Laura Gale of New York. “Because the gentlemen yesterday just dumped us out.”
Battle collects the $10 fare and a $2 tip. “Thank you, ladies,” she says, and drives on.