Category Archives: Faces of Taxi

A random encounter every time

One of the first things I learned about driving a taxi was that it’s always a mystery who’s going to climb in the back of your taxi.

The uncertainty of where a ride will take you can be exhilarating and terrifying.

Oftentimes, simultaneously.

This collection of fascinating photographs, taken by photographer Bill Washburn in the 80s, perfectly captures the randomness in the ebb and flow of daily transit.

Washburn drove a San Francisco taxi from 1982 to 1986. During that time he documented the experience with a camera mounted to the dashboard.

Washburn’s photos, which include part of his own face in the frame with the passengers in the backseat, not only document the randomness of taxi driving, but also the awkward intimacy that comes from sharing an enclosed space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time.

I’m often curious how other drivers interact with their passengers.

Alex Sack, the Buddhist taxi documentarian, wrote in a recent blogpost about a ride to the airport: “I throw on some KDFC Classical 90.3FM, lest Constantine and I ride in, uh, awkward silence.” Background music is a familiar theme in Sack’s writing.

I tend to drive with just sounds of the city as a soundtrack. And the occasional burst of chatter from the dispatch radio. With few auditory distractions, the slightest utterance can potentially lead to a conversation. Which is my way of pursuing a story…

Taxi driving and the artistic pursuit are not strange bedfellows. There have been TV shows, movies, books, songs and all sorts of other creative representations of driving for hire.

Two other photographers who found inspiration behind the wheel of a taxi that instantly spring to mind are Erik Hagen, who drove a taxi in LA, and David Bradford, a NY taxi driver.

Washburn’s taxi photos are different, though, in that he turns the camera around, and focuses on the inside of the taxi. Where so much of the randomness really occurs…

For me, these still frame moments don’t just resonate because I’ve helmed the wheel of a cab. Long before I ever drove a taxi, I rode in them and the experience was always an occasion – either special or desperate.

My earliest memory is being in the back of a taxi, when my mother’s car broke down and she called a cab to take me to preschool. The driver was listening to the news on the radio. Something about President Ford…

The subtle revelations in Washburn’s snapshots pull me closer to the person in the back, stoking my curiosity about who these people were and what their lives were like outside of this short cab ride.

Another obvious quality to these photos is the time they capture: San Francisco in the 80s. Which isn’t just a bygone era, but also a time when taxicabs were the accepted form of private transportation.

Nowadays, Uber and Lyft are all the rage.

Having driven an Uber/Lyft before switching to taxi, I found app-based transportation to be a neutered experience.

Even though Uber and Lyft function essentially the same as a taxi – they both involve driving people for money – there is little spontaneity with the former.

Pick up and drop off points, along with routes, are all recorded.

You know the passenger’s name before they get in the car. They know yours.

There’s an assumed vetting process.

And the rating system gives the passenger all the control. Uber/Lyft drivers know that if they step out of line, they can get deactivated. Which limits uncertainly and creates a passive experience for the driver.

In a taxi, anyone or anything can happen.

That’s what makes these photos so intriguing: they expose the random adventure that comes from moving through the city, untethered by technology.

View the collection of photos, annotated and with an essay by Pete Brook here.

[all photos by Bill Washburn, used with permission]

[thanks to Pete Brook for turning me on to this project]

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The Luck of Juneaux

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Juneaux is the most fastidious taxi driver I know.

His cab is always spotless, inside and out. He focuses on superior customer service and, in the process, has an uncanny ability to twist fortune in his favor.

I call it “The Luck of Juneaux.”

A few weeks ago, I wake up to a salvo of texts that began at midnight.

“I’m so fucked,” Juneaux writes. “I accidentally overslept and now I only have six hours to make my nut. I’m going to end up hanging a gate.”

After several texts describing the hopelessness of the situation, his tone changes drastically.

“Dude! You’ll never believe what just happened …”

Around 3 a.m., he picks up a guy who’s lost his Lexus somewhere in SoMa and has Juneaux drive him around while he clicks his key remote. An hour later, the meter is at $34.75, and the guy realizes it’s a lost cause.

“So, he asks me, ‘Can you drive me home?’ Sure. Where’s home? ‘Half Moon Bay.’”

His good fortune doesn’t stop there. Back in The City, he gets a timed SFO through Flywheel.

His final text reads: “After gate, gas and tip, I’m $146 in the black. Not bad for starting my shift six hours late.”

While Juneaux is dubious of its veracity, I have complete faith in The Luck. So much so, I’m convinced it’s even transferable …

Read the rest of the column here.

Or click the image below for the newsprint version (with no pop-up ads):

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[photo by Trevor Johnson]

Taxi Driving is More than a Job

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On this, the occasion of my 100th column, I can’t help but feel somewhat reflective. Almost two years have passed since the San Francisco Examiner gave me an opportunity to tell my stories of The City’s streets in 700 words, give or take. While writing about driving a taxi comes easy, actually driving a taxi can be a real drag sometimes. Particularly on those slow, mind-numbing nights, during excruciatingly slow weeks, in painfully slow months.

Taxi driving is more than a job. It’s a form of punishment for all the bad decisions you’ve ever made. Instead of pursuing the 9 to 5, you became an artist, played in bands, wrote books, traveled or just enjoyed life — all the unrealistic distractions your parents, teachers and guidance counselors said would only lead to poverty that somehow became sustainable through driving a taxi. Until one day, it was no longer viable, once some eggheads created a centralized dispatch app, and the cab companies were too busy squabbling over brand recognition to retain any relevance. But in the stupidity of it all, there was still a sense of freedom.

Taxi driving is still the closest you can get to the swashbuckling adventures of a pirate. With no bosses around and no supervisors breathing down your neck, it’s just you, your cab, the streets and the general public. How you navigate those obstacles is up to you. Even if you don’t have what it takes. Thankfully, the meek get lucky, too.

Read the rest here.

Stand Up for Taxi Drivers: Philip Liborio Gangi on the fate of the S-Medallions

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This is a Personal Statement From Philip Liborio Gangi: A San Francisco Taxi Driver since 1978

San Francisco will be losing 135 experienced and long-time taxi drivers this year. Some drivers who have been serving the public for over 40 years. This does not have to happen.

In 2012 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) issued a new type of taxi medallion known as the S-Medallion. These medallions were issued to drivers in part as a reward for long-term service. The drivers who got the S-Medallions had typically driven more than 25 years and had never received a medallion under the old system. When I received my S-Medallion my name had been on the regular medallion waiting list for 16 years and I had been driving a taxi in San Francisco for 35 years. At the time I received my S-Medallion Michael Harris was the Director of Taxi Services at MTA. I remember him specifically saying to me that MTA was looking to reward long-time drivers and that I should not have to wait for my name to come up on the regular medallion list.

Well 3 years later Michael Harris is working in a different division of MTA and the new Director of Taxi Services at SFMTA, Kate Toran, says that the S-Medallions were only a pilot program and that she is discontinuing the program and will start putting the S-Medallions out of service at the end of July 2016.This will empty the streets of long time and experienced taxi drivers. Paratransit Coordinating Council last week came out in support of the S-Medallion and said they would be sending a letter to MTA.

With car services on the streets of San Francisco like Uber and Lyft I am making only about one-third of what I used to make driving a taxi in San Francisco. A few recent nights I only went home with $80 after a ten hour shift. That comes to eight dollars an hour, less than a
minimum wage worker. My S-Medallion is currently giving me a $30 discount each night I drive for CityWide Cab, my taxi company. Without my medallion and that discount I do not believe it would be worth driving any more. After driving for 38 years here in San Francisco I find it very sad that the city will be losing me, an experienced driver who knows the streets among all the other S-Medallion holders who also would not only find it unprofitable to continue to drive, but feel betrayed by the city after all these years. Most S-Medallion holders I speak with will also not be sticking around if the city takes back their medallion.

I do not want to be pushed out of my job. It’s not what it used to be, but it’s part of my life. After 38 years, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen the Moscone Center and AT&T Park being built. I’ve seen happy 49ers fans celebrating in the 1980s on Broadway when the city’s team won the Super Bowl. I helped get people around the city during the 1989 earthquake. Over the years I have seen San Francisco change from a big town to a major U.S. city.

Please help Save the S Medallion, help MTA make the right decision and keep these long-time drivers on the streets. Keep the S-Medallion part of San Francisco. Write to MTA and the Board of Supervisors and request that the S-Medallion stay part of the San Francisco taxi fleet.

Sincerely,
Philip Liborio Gangi
S-Medallion Holder #S-17

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Top photo by Trevor Johnson. Bottom photo courtesy of author.