Category Archives: Cab Driving

Playing the Radio

I play the radio loud. Which is the only way to decipher cross streets when Artur calls out dispatch orders in his overworked and underpaid drawl.

The Russian accent doesn’t help. Especially when the two-way starts cracking up.

Believe it or not, National/Veterans still has regular customers. And Artur will browbeat drivers on the air to get them filled, calling out orders repeatedly and even singling out cabs he can tell are nearby, like a school teacher trying to get the class to answer a question nobody knows …

Last Friday, after dropping in The Castro, I’m inbound on Market while Artur is trying to fill an order for Geary and Webster. A regular customer at the Safeway needs a ride, but there are no takers.

For the next several minutes, Artur’s voice gets increasingly choleric: “Drivers! Geary and Webster! Somebody go pick her up! This is a regular customer! Come on!”

Even though I’m not close, I check in. “This is 233. Market and Sanchez.”

“233. God bless you. Go get her, please. I’ll give you a bonus load.”

With the promise of $10 off my gate, I get in the left turn lane. I figure Steiner through the Western Addition is my best bet. But there’s an Uber with Nevada plates in front of me, and when the light goes from green to yellow and then red, the driver doesn’t move.

Read the rest here.

[photos by Christian Lewis]

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Hailing a Taxi Like You Own The City

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Lauren Bacall in Rome, 1960

You know it’s a slow night in The City when practically every taxi not at SFO is queued up outside Davies Symphony Hall waiting for Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” to break.

As I roll up onto the scene, the line stretches from the entrance on Grove to the corner and then across Franklin. While I’m assessing the situation, the first cab in the second line starts blowing his horn, presumably, to prevent me from usurping his position. But I have no interest in this line.

Turning right on Grove, I head to the Van Ness side of Davies, to the actual cabstand for the venue. The one with signs indicating that only taxis are allowed to park there from 9 p.m. to midnight.

Very few taxi drivers, it seems, have faith in the Van Ness side of Davies. While I’m waiting, a taxi will occasionally stop, lose patience a few minutes later and speed off around the corner.

Eventually, Late Night Larry pulls in behind me, followed by a few more taxis.

Then concertgoers emerge en masse from the symphony hall. As the first cab in line, I get a fare right away going to Market and Castro. While the light at Hayes is red, I slowly wedge my front end between a minivan and a pickup truck so that when the signal turns green, I’m able to speed away.

All the way up Market, the lights are on my side. After dropping my fare at Catch, I hightail it back to Davies, hoping for a double-dip. At the very least, I’ll get a decent spot in line at the Orpheum for when “The Book of Mormon” breaks.

While fighting the congestion on Franklin, I see a woman on the corner of Hayes with her arm in the air. I flash my high beams and, once there’s an opening, swoop in.

She’s heading to the Richmond District.

“Thanks for stopping,” she says. “The security guard back there kept telling me he would help me catch a cab, but I’ve been taking cabs in San Francisco for 35 years. I may be old, but I can still hail a taxi.”

“You’re flagging skills are impeccable,” I say. “I spotted you from blocks away.”

“There is skill to hailing a taxi, isn’t there?”

“There is,” I respond, about to proffer one of my favorite lines: “You want to put your arm out like you — ”

“Like you own The City,” she says, snatching the words right from my mouth.

Read the rest here.

[photo from How to Hail a Taxi – A Photoset]

A Taxi-Driving Hero Ain’t Nothing to Be

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As a general rule, I never read comments. Especially comments on my own stuff, either on the Examiner site or social media. But when someone tags you in a Facebook post, it’s hard to avoid the nastiness so common when there’s a computer or smart phone screen in the way.

That’s how I stumble upon this bitter perspective:

“I guess writing this column is the only reason you still drive.”

I instantly click reply, “What the fuck does that even mean? As opposed to doing what? Getting back on track with my fledging astrophysics gig?”

Does this person think I’m independently wealthy? That the Examiner is paying me the big bucks for my 700 words a week, which I invariably turn in late because I’m too exhausted from driving a taxi all week to write about driving a taxi?

Before clicking submit, though, I delete the response. Type out, “You sound like my wife.” Then replace “wife” with “mother-in-law.” And delete that, too.

Instead, I turn off my phone and roll over. As I watch my daughter sleep under the muted glow of a nightlight, my mind spins, processing this notion that I’m supposed to be more than a taxi driver. Why? Because I’m white? American? Male? College-educated?

Who makes up these rules?

Read the rest here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

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:

Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum has something nice to say about the guy. Everyone, that is, except the taxi drivers. They still blame Ed for the flood of Uber and Lyft cars that are killing their livelihoods.

Turns out, taxi drivers aren’t the only San Francisco not mourning the death of Lee …

From Bush and Jones, I meander through the Tenderloin and end up at the scene of the crime.

Inside City Hall, several hundred Google developers are having their corporate holiday party. A typical frock-and-jock event, the guys wear the usual business casual, and the women are decked out in festive evening gowns. Slowly, in their high heels, they cascade down the steps, past the assemblage of bouquets and wreaths laid out in remembrance of Lee.

Outside, on the Polk Street side, an ad hoc cabstand is forming.

While the partygoers gather and wait with their phones out like Geiger counters, a bunch of Hackers gather outside our cabs to kvetch about how slow business has been this holiday season.

“Every year, it just gets worse …”

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do, man,” Icarus says. “I have to get out from under this debt. It’s killing me!”

Saddled with a $250,000 loan for a worthless medallion, Icarus works five days a week just to make the monthly payments.

“Am I supposed to declare bankruptcy over this and run my credit until I’m 60 years old?”

Things aren’t any better for Hester.

“I’d be doing so much better as a gate-and-gas driver.”

“Ed Lee ruined my life.”

“Maybe the Credit Union will step in and take these medallions back.”

Just days after Lee’s passing, KPIX ran a story about the San Francisco Credit Union suing The City over defaulted medallion loans because the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency did nothing to stop the illegal taxis that flooded the streets. And since The City is in the business of selling taxi medallions for $250,000, maintaining the value of those medallions would seem like a no-brainer.

Not so in Lee’s San Francisco, where, by his proclamation, every July 13 is Lyft Day.

It’s actions like these that helped feed the rumor, mostly spread among taxi drivers, that Lee’s daughter is an investor in Lyft, or works at Lyft or has some connection to the company. Whether or not that rumor is true doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. And there’s no going back now …

Read the full column here.

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]