A middle-aged man – he says he’s 40 – sits at the corner of Broad Street and Erie Avenue. He wears a black-and-gold fitted Los Angeles Lakers cap and a black T-shirt patterned with red, gold and blue drawings of vinyl records, and although it’s not quite 4 p.m., his face bears a scruffy, salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow.
“Some of ‘em stay out here all night,” he says. “I’m only here during the day.”
What he’s referring to are the roughly 20 to 30, he says, “hack” cab drivers who cover the intersection at the heart of Nicetown-Tioga. What he and the others do isn’t legal, so he’s not quick to disclose his real name or many details about his identity.
When asked whether the Philadelphia Parking Authority or Philadelphia Police officers ever reprimand him or his hack cab-driving cohorts, he shakes his head no.
“As long as I got my car parked legally,” he says.
For the past 15 years, he’s been operating his vehicle as an unlicensed, unmarked taxi for local community members. He says it’s a part-time gig, but since he’s been out of work, he’s been coming out to the busy junction every day beginning at 6 a.m.
He usually makes about $100 each day, depending on the number of customers he can attract and where they need to go. The farthest he’s ever driven a passenger is New Hope, Pa. He charged the passenger $80 for the trip.
Another hack cab driver stands close by, near the Route 23 bus’ path across Germantown Avenue. He wears a bright-red T-shirt and a pair of baggy denim shorts and says his name is “Sugar Daddy.” He has a bright smile on his face and a couple $100 bills in his pocket. He started driving a hack cab “to get high.”
“Crack, cocaine – whatever would get me outside myself,” he says.
But now, “Sugar Daddy” is no longer in the hack-cab business just to make cash to get high: He is clean, he says, and has been for the past four-and-a-half years.
A young, female PPA officer comes near. She points to an illegally parked sedan and suggests the vehicle’s owner move it.
PPA Press Contact Linda Miller says the agency does enforce the regulation of hack cabs.
“If we get a report on where they are normally seen [and] a description of the vehicle, we can go out and enforce them, into including impounding the vehicle,” Miller says.
But Ronald Blount, the president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, says he’s not sure the PPA has the resources to police the hack cab drivers.
“We’d really like to know why they’re not enforcing safe cab service throughout the entire city,” says Blount, who is a licensed medallion cab driver of 26 years and drives for various Philadelphia taxi companies, such as Victory Cab Co. and City Cab Co.
The hack cab drivers seem to pose a minimal threat to the wages of licensed Philadelphia cab drivers, who “very rarely go up into those neighborhoods,” Blount says.
“Very rarely will I see anyone [looking for a cab] on the streets up there,” he says. Often, when Blount is assigned to take someone to a neighborhood such as Nicetown or Tioga, he’ll drop the person off, and “I’ll go back up to Center City where I know I’ll seesomebody with their hands up.”
The real threat to medallion drivers are town cars, Blount says, which “don’t have to put a medallion on their cars.” Blount says there are 1,200 town cars in the city and 1,600 medallion cabs.
“The taxi cabs do all the advertising, but when they get the business,” he says, “the dispatchers put the town cars out.”
“They work in more impoverished neighborhoods, and they charge them double the rates, so it’s really not fair,” Blount adds.
The employees upstairs at Black and Nobel Bookstore – the self-described symbol “of the neighborhood barber shop or hair salon” and a “widely sought out meeting place in the community” – say hack cabs are a long-standing staple of North Philadelphia life. Because of this, they say members of Nicetown-Tioga and surrounding communities won’t likely allow their drivers to overcharge.
Jabari Higgs, a New Jersey resident who works inside the bookstore at 1409 W. Erie Ave., says his grandfather, the late Robert “Bobby” Mines, used to hack at the corner of Broad Street and Girard Avenue.
“He hacked up until he passed,” Higgs says. Mines died a few years ago at age 82.
“He used to sit right on the corner – on a crate,” Higgs adds, taking a break to reminisce about the time he ran into his grandfather while Mines was on the job. Higgs had recently returned home from his first year at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md., and was on his way to see a friend at Temple:
“And I saw my grandpop sitting out here in this heat, and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Higgs says with a laugh.
Mines began driving a hack cab when he was in his 70s. In his early days, Mines was in the army, but to Higgs’ knowledge, he was never deployed.
“I think it was more like desk-duty stuff,” Higgs says, adding that in the years before Mines became a hack, he worked for the now-defunct Strawbridge’s department store, known then as Strawbridge & Clothier.
Like most hack cab drivers, Mines had a couple of regular customers who he could rely on for a fare or two each day. To find the rest of his daily passengers, Higgs says Mines would stand near the Girard Avenue Trolley stops or the Broad Street Line exits for travelers who hadn’t reached their ultimate destinations.
The hacks at Broad Street and Erie Avenue have a similar set-up to what Higgs describes, with SEPTA bus routes 23, 53, 56, H and XH passing through the intersection and the Broad Street Line dropping passengers at its Erie stop.
Gregory Broughten, a former hack cab driver and a longtime Nicetown-Tioga resident, says he started as a hack at Broad Street and Olney Avenue It started as “an accident,” Broughten says, but he quickly drew in customers.
“I mean, one guy I met, just for instance,” he says, “he’d call me, and he’d say, ‘I’m over here,’ and he’d be in North Philadelphia. I’d take him down there to, somewhere in the Northeast – it was only like Kensington or something like that.
“He’d give me $20 to run him down there. He’d call me back and said, ‘You gotta go back home.’ Give me $20 to take him back. Call me again, run him back down there – 20 more dollars. This would happen like four or five times in a day,” he says.
“Now, when I moved down to Broad and Erie, it got more interesting,” he says. He attributes much of his success as a hack cab driver to his ability to network and – quite simply – make conversation.
“I was making out like a bandit for a minute,” he adds. “You have your good days, and you have your bad days.”