Two women in hoodies and boots stood on the corner of Broadway and Eager Street in East Baltimore. One stuck out a hand and feverishly waved an extended index finger at cars driving down the road. A burgundy Honda came to a stop in front of her and she and her friend hopped inside.

“Hacking” is Baltimore’s version of hitchhiking.

And some say it comes with its own share of dangers.

One of two teens raped last month decided to get in the car with a man after asking for directions. The 14-year-old was then sexually assaulted.

While the young girl wasn’t technically hacking, her actions were similar; she accepted a ride from a stranger. It has some wondering how parents can tell their children not to talk to strangers, when they hop into cars with people they don’t know for hacks.

“The fact that she asked for directions–had she known where she was going it would have lowered the probability of something bad happening,” suggested Dee James. He used to hack often, but stopped when he moved to an apartment in close proximity to a subway station.

Another hacker, Shawna Williams, says parents should explain to their children that “hacking” is only an option in “desperate situations.”

“And it’s dangerous for both sides,” she said.

At Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, five older men—all “hackmen”—are sitting near a water fountain on the mall’s first floor, softly asking those walking by: “Need a ride? Need a ride?”

One of the men, who goes by the name Erkie, says he doesn’t like to pick up young guys or young girls because the girls never want to pay and the guys are usually “up to trouble.”

Erkie picked up a man in his 20’s once and he ended up being the getaway driver for a robbery.

“Those are the types of things we encounter,” he said. “It comes with it.”

Erkie’s been a hack for 10 years. It’s a means to put an extra $50 to $100 on the table every day.

“It’s hard for black men to get jobs with felonies, so what does that leave him to do,” he questioned. “And I’ve got an AA degree.”

Several others gave similar reasons for opening up their cars to strangers.

“I do it because I don’t have a job,” said a man named Chance. “And it gives me the opportunity to meet people and push my business…I sell entertainment.”

They say it’s drastically cheaper to hail a hack than a cab in Baltimore, as the meter in a taxi starts ticking as soon as you hop inside. Hacks negotiate a flat rate before they drive off. Hackers add that taxi’s rarely cruise down city residential streets.

And research shows the hack business became prevalent in the Black community in the last half a century for that reason–it was nearly impossible for Blacks to flag down taxis, especially in predominately African-American neighborhoods.

But it’s still risky. Unlicensed cabs are illegal. People caught hailing a hack could face a $50 fine and those driving, a $500 fine. Hackmen also face possible jail time and car impoundment.

“We definitely discourage hacking,” said Baltimore City Police Spokesman Steve Sharkey. “It is a problem in terms of it can lead to violence. For the hacker and the hack. We’ve had cases in the past where a person has been a hack and been robbed for his or her cash at the end of the ride and that sometimes leads to even more violent consequences.”

But Wayne, a full-time mechanic, who’s been hacking on the side since 1995, says that’s why he doesn’t take his chances with strangers. He has personal customers that call him when they need a ride.

“My phone is loaded,” he said, holding up a Motorola cell phone.

The hackmen say their job is providing a much needed service in hard economic times. Many offer similar advice for passengers to stay safe.

*Women should not hail hacks alone. A second friend should make note of the hack’s license plate number and get a full look at the driver’s face.

*Try to avoid hacking at night.

*Feel a person out before hopping into their car. Try to judge their character.

*When possible, call a hack that you know.

*Know how to get to your destination, so you are aware if a hack is driving you off course.

Interesting Facts:
*The term “hack” more than likely comes from the days when pedestrians could flag down pony-drawn cabs—which were typically hackney ponies.

*While “hacking” seems unique to Baltimore, several other major cities have similar unlicensed cabbies, like the “gypsy cabs” in New York and the “jitneys” in Philadelphia.


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO