Ed Lee’s Legacy of Grievances

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“San Francisco is a white-collar crime,” the woman in the back of my taxi says, in a machine gun-like monologue. “And Ed Lee is — was — one of the main culprits. It was Ed Lee who sold us out to the tech companies, turning The City into a playground for the rich.”

It seems like the only notable conversations I have in my cab anymore that aren’t long winded jeremiads are the ones that don’t involve politics. Or millennials. Or tech. Or San Francisco.

“Don’t get me wrong though … I didn’t want Ed Lee dead. Just out of office. Or in jail. He should have gone down after the Shrimp Boy case …”

When I pull up to the woman’s building at Bush and Jones, she hands me a $20 bill.

“So yeah … you won’t see me wearing a black armband anytime soon,” she says, as if there’s a moral obligation to mourn the untimely death of the mayor.

Granted, over the past few weeks, there have been countless public memorials, but the majority of the people I talk to in my cab haven’t changed their tunes.

Despite Willie Brown’s observation in his column for the Chronicle last week, it seems taxi drivers aren’t the only San Francisco not mourning the death of Lee …

Read the rest here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

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Where Have All the Good Rides Gone?

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Without the fireworks and traffic along The Embarcadero, last Sunday night would have felt like any other weekend night. That it was New Year’s Eve only seemed incidental…

By midnight, I’ve already forgotten about the holiday. Walking into the Hilton on O’Farrell, I’m taken aback by the small but rowdy crowd in the bar/reception area counting backwards.

In the restroom, it hits me.

“Oh yeah,” I say aloud, my voice echoing off the tile.

I’m not alone though, as a flushing toilet drowns out the cheers from the lobby.

Back on the street, the doorman at the Nikko flags me and deposits an older couple in my backseat.

“What’s going on?” the gentleman in the leather suit asks me.

“It’s the New Year,” I reply.

“Yes.” He laughs. “But where are all the people?”

“Still home for the holidays?” I suggest.

They’d been at Bix, where they’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve for the past 20 years.

“We always book months ahead of time,” he says. “But this year, the bar was only half full.”

“It was very odd,” the woman adds. “We left early, thinking the traffic would be dreadful.”

Ahead of us, Market Street is wide open, hardly a vehicle on the road and barely a soul on the sidewalk.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

A Taxi Driver and His Cab

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This week’s column is about the Taxi Commandment: thou shalt not covet another taxi driver’s cab.

From my earliest days at National, I fought tooth and nail to get a regular cab that was clean and ran well. I cajoled and begged the cashiers, happily paying extra for National 182, a Ford Fusion that met the above criteria and didn’t have a regular driver. For almost two years, 182 was my trusted ride, until the medallion owner took it out of circulation on a long-term lease.

After that, I ended up with 1462, the only National cab with an ad topper, one of numerous cabs recently acquired from Yellow. I hated driving around with a glowing advertisement above me. Plus, the speakers were broken. So when Vic, the medallion owner/day driver, switched to a 24-hour lease, I was almost relieved to be back at the mercy of the window and the varying conditions and quality of the gate and gas fleet.

Veterans 215 was the best of the worst. Even though I’m not keen on Camrys, this was Juneaux’s former cab, and due to his persnickety nature, the inside had remained mostly clean. But as long as it stayed in general circulation, it’s condition rapidly deteriorated.

Months later, Alex finally told me I would be on Veterans 233, a Fusion with low mileage, leather seats and a sunroof. For weeks, I watched the vehicle transform from a regular car into a taxi. First the paint job, then the taximeter and tablet attached to the dashboard and a top light fastened to the roof. Eventually, SFO permit stickers were affixed to the side and, after several more inspections, the day arrived when I was handed the keys and medallion.

Now that I had a regular cab, my next battle was to make sure other drivers didn’t trash it. Because no matter how cherry a taxi is, most cab drivers seem intent on running a good taxi into the ground.

Read the rest here.

Any Which Way But Downtown

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Last Friday, I start my shift like I always do these days: at the Hyatt Regency. And like most days, I circle the block four or five times before there’s room to squeeze into the line of cabs without blocking the bus lane.

Fortunately, demand is high. Within a few minutes, a large group of people are splitting their party into my taxi and the USA cab in front of me.

They’re going to Union Square, the kid in the passenger seat tells me. The adults have strong accents, and he’s obviously the interpreter.

Even though I’m not a fan of shadowing other drivers, I follow the other cab to keep everyone together.

When the USA driver takes a left onto Sacramento, I think, Good call. Up the hill to the Stockton Tunnel and we’re golden. But he turns onto Davis. OK, so Market then … That’ll work. At the light, though, he veers onto Pine. What the hell? Bad call, dude! Bad call!

It’s all I can do not to protest aloud. You can clearly see the traffic backed up on the incline …

As we approach Kearny, the USA cab cuts to the right. Going to California instead? No. Just trying to cut off some cars at the light.

While slowly ascending the hill, it’s apparent he plans to take Powell, which is, of course, jam-packed.

After little to no movement through several light cycles, I’ve had enough. I head to Mason and down to Post. As I make the left, I see the USA cab behind me.

I pull over before the corner and explain to the kid that the rest of their party will be along shortly.

“That’s Union Square,” I say, pointing at the giant Christmas tree.

Now, I’m in the thick of Yuletide insanity. As I consider my limited options, the St. Francis doorman’s whistle is like a foghorn in the brume, directing me into the cabstand, where fares are eagerly waiting. I get a nice couple from Redding going to Ruth’s Chris.

From there, a Flywheel order sends me to less congested pastures in the Castro. But it’s not long before I’m pulled back into the Union Square vortex …

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

The Night We Drove Old Yellow Around

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It was just like the old days. Before the taxi industry went to shit. Back when people still called cab companies when they needed a ride. Especially on Friday nights, which is when the following aberration occurred.

Of course, as a driver in the post-Uber/Lyft world, the notion of taxis being in high demand is mostly abstract, based entirely on stories form drivers who were around then and still around now.

On this particular night, though, I got a taste of that bygone era…

It happened just after last call. During the transition period between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m., when most cabs are prowling the bars in the Mission, the Castro, Polk Street, SoMa and Union Square, while others begin forming ad hoc taxi stands outside DJ clubs like Public Works, the Great Northern, Audio, the EndUp and the Cat Club.

As I’m cruising down Valencia on my way to check out the line at Public Works, the dispatch radio comes alive.

Sometimes, I forget the two-way is even there, occasionally restarting the device to make sure it’s still functioning. There are nights when the only activity is drivers asking for radio checks. So I’m surprised to hear Jesse’s voice break the silence.

“Guys, there seem to be orders on the board,” he says. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I have phone numbers. If anyone wants to check them out …”

He starts listing off cross streets.

Since I’m only a few blocks away, I check in for Duboce and Valencia. I pull up outside Zeitgeist and ask for a callout.

“Hold on, 182.” After a short pause, Jesse responds, “On the way out.”

“Copy that.”

A few minutes later, a guy gets in the back of my cab, and I take him to Bernal Heights. I want to ask questions, figure out what’s going on with the sudden demand for taxis, but he isn’t chatty.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

The Perfect Recipe for Gridlock

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about the one thing you can always count on when driving in San Francisco…

Thursday afternoon. The Financial District is popping. In Google Maps, downtown San Francisco looks like an open wound. Every street that leads to the freeway is bathed in blood.

For several hours, the Hyatt Regency is load-and-go.

According to one of my passengers, there was a 900-person conference at the hotel and, apparently, everyone left at the same time. With that kind of spike in demand, all car services are maxed out.

The doorman’s whistle never stops blowing. As I’m trying to make a U-turn on Drumm, the doorman singles me out:

“Veterans 233!”

I pull into the driveway, angering a large crowd waiting on the curb with their arms out.

Sorry, folks, but the hotel’s needs come first. It’s their taxi stand.

Since most people are going out to dinner or drinks, the rides are short enough for me to drop them off and return to the Hyatt within a few minutes.

After a while, the doorman starts getting friendly with me. He even lets me wait in the driveway when I pull in preemptively, asking everyone who walks through the door if they need a taxi. Several wrinkle their brows.

As if …

While I’m taking a fare to the Fairmont, a lady tries to flag me at Sacramento and Drumm. I point to a Yellow cab in the Regency taxi stand.

“By the time I cross the street, they’re always taken,” she says.

“Just wait for the next one,” I reply.

“That’s OK. I’ll just call an Uber.”

“Good luck with that,” the guy in back says. He tells me the wait time was more than 20 minutes for a Lyft.

Even Flywheel is showing signs of life. A few seconds after dropping at Tosca Cafe and turning on the app, an order comes in. It says nine minutes from Broadway and Montgomery to Sacramento and Front. But I make it in four.

The woman I pick up tells me she’d been trying to get a ride for half an hour.

Finally, a fare to 42nd and Judah spins me out of the metro area. From the Outer Sunset, I head to SFO …

Read the rest of the column here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]