Category Archives: The Taxi Experience

Stranger than Fiction

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This week’s I Drive S.F. column for the S.F. Examiner is about the other side of San Francisco, the one you don’t see from an Uber/Lyft – the taxi side of The City … 

“Since they’re spoon-fed ride requests, Uber/Lyft drivers don’t have to troll the streets of the Tenderloin at 1 a.m. looking for junkies running late meet up with their dealers before they turn into pumpkins … 

“During my eleven months driving for Uber and Lyft, most of what I documented were studies in vapid entitlement, the occasional comedy of errors due to a technical glitch and jeremiads about the exploitative nature of the business model.

“Once in a taxi, though, things went into overdrive and I charged headlong into the unknown, fueled by a guileless enthusiasm tinged with fear and a thrash metal soundtrack. Each shift came with a variety of misadventures, discoveries and altercations. All I had to do was write it down.

“Although only some of the stories made it into the column, as many encounters weren’t – and still aren’t – suitable for the general reading public. The really wild rides are reserved for the zines, where I have more freedom to describe the sordid and ribald aspects of driving a taxi in San Francisco. But I still have to be careful what’s divulged, to not risk losing my A-card …” 

Read the whole thing here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

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Waiting for the Man

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I recently discovered that if you park your cab on Van Ness and Oak at 2 a.m., with no headlights and the top light off, while the passenger in the backseat is looking to score drugs, almost everyone who walks past will try to solicit a ride.

First, it was two guys with suitcases, who seemed to emerge from thin air. Standing next to their luggage on the curb, smoking and laughing, they continuously glance inside my taxi. Much to the chagrin of my fare, a guy I picked up in the TL who told me his name was Cricket.

“What are these assholes doing?” Cricket wonders aloud. “They’re going to spook my guy! Get rid of them!”

“Me?” I ask. “How?”

“Tell them to fuck off!”

So far, I’ve just been avoiding eye contact, figuring they’ll get the message eventually. A few seconds later, one of the guys steps into the street and flags a passing cab.

“See, they just needed a taxi,” I say. Then add, wistfully, “Perhaps to the airport …”

A few minutes later, an old man approaches my taxi.

“Cabbie!” he yells across the street. “Cabbie! I need a ride!”

“Now what?” Cricket moans. “Goddamn it!”

I roll down my window and tell the old man, “I’m not available. Sorry.”

“C’mon! I got money!” He pulls out a wad of cash.

“But I already have a fare,” I explain. “Another cab will come by shortly.”

“Ah, these motherfuckers won’t ever pick me up!”

I try to offer some reassurance but he brushes my comment away with a wave of his hand and wanders down the street.

Who knew this seemingly desolate spot in The City would be such a hot spot for rides?

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

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At any time of the day, Market Street can seem like an inside joke among city planners and the wanton desires of the meddling tycoons who’ve exerted dominance over San Francisco since Day 1. Another example of the many laughable aspects of The City that’s so absurd it’s hard to believe the street was designed intentionally, rather than just the result of tossing I Ching coins, or a game of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.

From its original inception, Market Street has pissed off San Franciscans. More than 150 years ago, when the citizens heard about Jasper O’Farrell’s plan, they sent a lynch mob after the young surveyor, who escaped on horseback in the middle of the night and hid out in Sonoma until the furor died down.

Lucky bastard.

Good thing they didn’t have social media back then. Otherwise, Jasper would have been forced to change his name and/or live the rest of his life in a cave to avoid the infamy of a simple Google search.

Nowadays, during rush hour, commuting motorists, homeward-bound bicyclists, confused tourists, expeditious pedestrians, angry Muni operators, delivery truck drivers and thousands upon thousands of vehicles for hire all compete for access to the limited roadway. And instead of blaming Jasper, today’s citizens take their frustrations out on each other.

Whether traversing the thoroughfare from one of the many streets that crisscross it from the north or south, trying to reach the Bay Bridge or 101 South or just leaving work downtown for the Castro or Twin Peaks — which is where the street was originally supposed to go — it seems Herb Caen was on the mark, as always, when he called Market Street an “obtuse angle no traffic plan could solve.”

Read the rest here.

The Regulars

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Not all rides are created equal. Some involve a series of obstacles, with one hassle after another and the expectation of a discount at the end. Others are just a pick-up and a drop-off for twice the meter.

Same with regulars. There are familiar cross streets you hear over the radio and flat out ignore. You could be a bingo, but not in the mood to deal with a hell ride, and no amount of cajoling from Artur, not even the promise of a bonus load, will persuade you to take the order.

Then, there are cross streets you know are pay dirt. Like this lady in Nob Hill who used to call every Thursday for a ride to Daly City. She paid $10 on top of the meter, which ended up being a $40 ride.

Drivers would fight over that fare. I was once three blocks away when the call came in and had the order on my tablet, but another driver beat me to the location by racing up Sacramento from the Financial in the taxi lane.

Sometimes, the promise of a paid ride out of an undesirable neighborhood will make a ride more appealing. Like when you hear Bryan’s cross streets in Russian Hill over the radio after dropping in the Marina. As a rep for a beer company, he’s usually heading to the Mission or another part of town with a high concentration of bars. I’ve tried on several occasions to snake that fare from other drivers.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Marin County Thrill Ride

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During last call on Friday nights, I usually wait out the shit show in some dark recess of The City. A few weeks ago, though, trying to escape the sloshed fields of the Mission, I was driving past the Armory Club when a guy jumped in front of my cab.

“Will you take five of us?” he asks.

While it’s not exactly legal to transport more people than there are seatbelts, what are laws in San Francisco anymore but mere suggestions?

As three women and one dude pile into the backseat, laughing and grunting as they position themselves in a tight mass, the first guy holds the door open like he’s directing traffic, then jumps in the front seat.

“83 Elaine Ave.,” he says. “We’re going to my place. I have plenty of booze, so we can keep this party going. Right?”

Everyone cheers.

“Where?” I ask.

“Mill Valley,” he tells me.

“To the bridge!” the guy in back yells. “Take us to the bridge!”

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Pimp my Taximeter

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As the prime movers behind the Uberization of San Francisco’s taxi industry, Flywheel, the taxi-hailing app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, seem so intent on emulating Uber that they’re even taking a page out of deposed CEO Travis Kalanick’s “Guide to Being a Complete Dirtbag.”

Last Wednesday, Flywheel sent out a message informing drivers not affiliated with one of their color scheme partners that we’ll no longer be receiving orders through the app. Unless, that is, we switch to one of the six color scheme partners.

Drivers were understandably outraged that Hansu Kim, the owner of Flywheel, the app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, would actually kneecap 1,000s of drivers who rely on the app for part of their income, as well as stymie users who expect Flywheel to provide prompt service and, through this divisive act, traduce the industry in the public eye.

As one driver put it: “Just when you think it can’t get any worse …”

But wait. It gets worse.

Since the color scheme partners listed in their first message all use Flywheel’s TaxiOS, instead of the traditional taximeter, most drivers assumed that was the proviso: Adopt their backend, app-based metering system and shoulder the massive costs associated with acquiring hundreds of smartphones to run the app, removing the old taximeter equipment and then paying them monthly service and network charges and a percentage of Flywheel orders, credit card-processing fees and dispatch orders routed through the app.

Displaying Uber-like greed, Flywheel seems to want a piece of all our action, on top of what we’re already giving the cab companies for leasing vehicles.

In return, we get the Flywheel orders back, for which we’d been paying them a cut of appropriately 13 percent.

Now that’s what you call a hornswoggling.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Taking Grandma to the Crack Store

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After dropping a fare in the Richmond District late one night, I head toward Haight Street. With low expectations and the 7-Noriega in front of me, I cruise past Milk Bar, Murio’s and The Alembic. At Cole, I manage to overtake the bus.

Outside of Club Deluxe a short, elderly woman sidesteps a group of smoking hepcats and hisses, “Cabbie!”

I hit the brakes.

She approaches my window with a crumpled $20 bill and mumbles, “Downtown.”

“Sure. Get in,” I say, cringing as the bus barrels down on me and she’s slowly climbing into the back of my cab. When she shuts the door it doesn’t close all the way. I take off anyway.

“Where downtown are you going?” I ask.

She responds in an unintelligible garble.

“Where?”

She mumbles something several times before I finally realize she’s saying, “Walgreens.”

“Which one?” I inquire.

“Downtown.”

“But there are so many.”

“Downtown!”

“OK.” I take a left at Ashbury.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]