Tag Archives: i drive SF

Hope is Better than Nothing: A Late Night Larry Story

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner:

“San Francisco is always changing. So are we.”

While I’m idling in gridlocked traffic on Third Street, trying to get my fare to the St. Francis, I read the advertisement on the wooden barricades shielding the construction at Moscone Center. The statement feels more like a threat than the typical “pardon our dust as we make improvements” disclaimer.

It’s hard not to feel uptight when “change” is used in the same sentence as “San Francisco.”

And yet, you can almost watch The City change before your very eyes — like the weather, when the fog rolls in on a sunny day and wraps itself around the top of the Pyramid like King Kong, or you turn a corner and the wind blows so cold you can’t even remember how it feels to be warm…

If you want to live in San Francisco, you have to accept the flux. And those city dwellers who want the urban life and end up displaced by all this change should just accept inevitability and move along, right?

That’s what an advertisement like the one at Moscone Center seems to be saying. Or at least that’s how it feels in a cab yard, after a long shift, when we’re standing around a dormant barbeque grill trying to make sense of what’s become of the taxi industry.

“I still believe things will turn around,” Colin says.

“Something’s gotta give,” Juneaux points out.

“Ah, fuck this… We’re all doomed,” Jesse decrees as he tosses his cigarette and returns to the office.

“It does feel rather hopeless,” I admit.

“Speaking of hope,” says Late Night Larry. “Have I told you guys the one about the male hooker and the missing $100 bill?”

No one turns down a story from Larry …

Read Larry’s story here.

NIGHT ON EARTH

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Jesus Died for Somebody’s Sins but Not Mine

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My column for the S.F. Examiner this week is about driving on Easter weekend. Things did not go well…

Sometimes I really fucking hate driving a cab.

If it’s not the back seat drivers (“38th and Anza. Take a left, I’ll direct you the rest of the way.”), it’s the fares who act like they’re your long lost friends, but at the end of the ride, stiff you on the tip.

If it’s not the horrible drivers on the road, doing everything they can to make your job more difficult, it’s the passengers who get out and forget to pay. (“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought this was Uber.”)

Or the passengers who ask me, “Have you ever thought about going back to school?”

Then there are fellow cab drivers who don’t adhere to proper road etiquette. Yeah, I know we’re all competing for limited number of rides, but if I’m driving down the street and a hand goes up in front of me, cutting across two lanes of traffic to swoop in and snake the fare out from under me is not just bad form, it’s proof that there are still way too many scumbags driving cabs.

“We’re all hungry,” a driver told me once.

Okay, but does that mean you’re free to steal food out of someone else’s hands?

I don’t want to point fingers, cause I know they have the largest fleet in The City and thus are the most ubiquitous, but the biggest culprits of this type of activity are almost always Yellow cab drivers.

I’ve taken to calling them the wolf pack, with their shark-like toppers on the roofs of their cabs. At least it’s easy to see them from a distance and try to avoid their potential bad behavior.

And hey, no offense to all the great Yellow drivers out there, but seriously, why can’t management over there put a sign up in the office? Something as simple as, “Don’t be an asshole to your fellow cab drivers.”

Okay. I know I sound bitter this week. I ended my shift on Saturday night with a fare who puked inside my cab. And no I didn’t collect my $100 cleaning fee. My night was ruined and I drove back to the National yard and cleaned a stranger’s vomit out of my cab.

To add insult to injury, earlier that night, I was bragging to some passengers about how lucky I’ve been to have not had anyone puke inside my cab in two years of driving for hire. I even went so far as to boast about my skills at preventing potential pukers by taking precautions…

Too bad there was no wood in the taxi to knock on…

Anyway, read the column here.

 

photo by Colin Marcoux

 

Guilty of Driving a Cab

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Originally printed in the S.F. Examiner

 

 

Driving a cab in San Francisco is like wearing a target around your neck. It’s always open season on taxis. On good days, the contempt most people have toward the taxi industry misses the mark. But on the bad days, it’s a shot straight to the heart.

In the four months I’ve been driving a cab, I’ve been disrespected as a matter of course. Honked at more times than I can count. As if I’m asking people to sacrifice their first born to let me change lanes in front of them. Nobody cuts me any slack. During rush hour, I have to fight for each one-fifth of a mile to get passengers where they’re going.

I was driving up Kearny Street last Saturday night and a guy in an Uber SUV spit on my cab. The tourists in my backseat were horrified. “Oh, just part of driving a taxi in San Francisco,” I joked.

A month ago, while picking up a fare on King Street, some joker knocked my side mirror off and drove away. I spent two hours at the police station filing a report. “Won’t be the last time,” the officer doing the paperwork nonchalantly told me.

This week I paid San Francisco $110 for “obstructing traffic” in front of a strip club at 1:30 a.m. The SFMTA mailed the citation to my cab company. Claimed I was a “drive away.” Of course I drove away. I’m a taxi driver. That’s what I do. I drive, I stop, I pick up passengers and then I drive away.

From City Hall to fresh-faced transplants, everyone hates cabs. And yet, I can’t help but wonder: What happened to the mythology of cab driving?

My earliest memory is being in a taxi. The family station wagon was in the shop. I remember sitting in the backseat with my mother. The driver was listening to news radio. Something about President Ford.

As a child of the ’70s, glued to the TV set, I never missed an episode of “Taxi.” I couldn’t wait to see what shenanigans Latka and Iggy would get into. I’d laugh as Louie berated all the drivers who hung around the garage solving each other’s problems. In “Taxi Driver,” there was Travis Bickle, the loner moving through the streets of New York like a reluctant servant to the night and all its proclivities. Even “D.C. Cab” portrayed a struggling taxi company as the ultimate underdog, with Mr. T the baddest cabdriver who ever lived.

As fascinating as cabs were to me growing up, I didn’t use them much until I moved to New Orleans, where most of the drivers doubled as tour guides, concierges of vice or therapists. I’ve sighed more than once in the back of a New Orleans cab and had the driver say, “Lay it on me, baby.”

I never thought I’d drive a taxi myself. In my illustrious career as an overeducated slacker, I’ve worked as a cook, painter, flea market vendor, book dealer and personal assistant. Taxi driving wasn’t much of a stretch. So when the wife and I ended up in Oakland last year, with no other prospects, I decided to do the Uber-Lyft thing.

Before I ever hit the road, I pinned a map of San Francisco to the wall. I studied the streets and how they intersected each other. For two weeks, the wife and I drove around The City figuring out major thoroughfares and how to get from one neighborhood to the next.

After a few months, it was obvious app-based transportation is only a simulacrum of taxi driving. But I’d learned enough to know I could do the real thing.

Switching to a taxi was an intimidating proposition, though, based on all the horrible things I’d heard from my passengers. San Franciscans love to complain about transportation. And the only thing worse than Muni and BART are taxis.

I thought it would be different for me. Despite the muddied reputation I’d inherited. I wanted to be a great taxi driver. I still do. But it doesn’t matter who’s behind the wheel. In this city, a color scheme and a top light will always be targets for disdain.

From Uber/Lyft to Taxi: It’s the Cabbie’s Life for Me

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My first column for the San Francisco Examiner

“So, why aren’t you driving for Uber?”

Heading down Post Street, I wait for the light to change at Jones and practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel along to the Slayer CD blasting from the stereo in my taxicab. It’s rush hour. Union Square is a sea of brake lights.

There’s something counterintuitive about driving into a traffic jam, but for a taxi driver, that’s where the fares are. After three months behind the wheel, I’ve become Zen with downtown traffic. I embrace the challenge of gridlock. So when the light turns green, I charge headlong into the congestion.

At Taylor, I kill the tunes and roll down my window. Listen for the whistles from hotel doormen that reverberate through the streets. I cruise slowly past the J.W.

Nothing.

At Powell, I check the cabstand in front of the St. Francis. Too long. Glance towards the Sir Francis Drake, but the faux Yeoman Warder is minding his own business.

Across the street, an arm goes up. Businessman heading to the W. Traffic is snarled as I creep towards Montgomery. But I’m getting paid to cross Market.

After dropping him off, I cruise Moscone. Another flag. This one back to Union Square. From there, a long fare to Monterey Heights. Nice enough guy. Works in finance. Insists on taking the 280, despite going so far out of the way. Whatever. His nickel.

We start chatting.

Eventually, he asks the million-dollar question: “So… why aren’t you driving for Uber?”

I tell him I did the Uber/Lyft thing for ten months before switching to taxi. He’s surprised. They always are.

“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” he asks.

Even though I get asked the same thing multiple times a night, I’m never sure how to respond. For me, there were more reasons not to drive for Uber and Lyft than to continue driving for Uber and Lyft. I wasn’t making enough money after the two start-ups went to war for market dominance and began slashing prices. After ten months, my bank account was overdrawn, my credit cards were maxed out, I was riddled with self-loathing and, due to the insurance risks, I constantly worried I’d have to declare bankruptcy if I got into an accident. My car was getting ragged out enough already. The backseat looked like I’d been transporting farm animals.

I was basically subsidizing multi-million — or, in Uber’s case, multi-billion — dollar companies. And for what? Empty promises and a sense of community?

What bullshit. I never felt like anything but an underpaid, untrained and unregulated cab driver.

From the beginning, I was appalled by the self-entitled culture that spawned the phenomenon of “ridesharing” and the consequences it’s had on the livelihoods of cab drivers. It wasn’t easy participating in the destruction of a blue-collar industry. After all, I’m a descendent of coal miners, janitors, store clerks and army grunts. In college, I was required to read The Communist Manifesto three times.

Being an Uber/Lyft driver is not in my nature. To be successful at it requires personality traits I will never possess: the ability to cheat and scam. And a complete lack of conscience.

Since the only time you make decent money is during surge pricing, you have to take pride in ripping people off. The rest of the time, you’re barely making minimum wage, so you need to be somewhat stupid as well. You’re basically running your personal car into the ground and hoping to luck out with a ride that’s more than five bucks.

Some drivers have figured out how to make the system work for them and earn more money referring drivers than they do actually driving themselves, but isn’t that just a bizarro take on the pyramid scheme?

Despite Uber’s political spin or Lyft’s cheerful advertising campaign, using your personal car as a taxi is not sustainable. Each time I got behind the wheel of my Jetta and turned on the apps, I had to overlook the absurdity of what I was doing. It never ceased to amaze me that people would be so willing to ride in some random dude’s car. But since my passengers acted as if the activity were perfectly normal, I went along with it.

Once I realized what I’d gotten myself into, I wanted to document the exploitative nature of this predatory business model. I wanted to expose the inherent risks associated with inadequate insurance, the lack of training and the vulnerability of not having anyone to contact in an emergency. I wanted to shed light on the reality of being a driver, dealing with constant fare cutsenforced jingoism and the tyranny of an unfair rating system. I wanted to reveal the lies. All the dirty lies. I started a blog and even published two zines about my experiences.

Naïvely, I thought reporting on these issues from the perspective of a driver would make a difference. I was wrong. People hold on to their faith in the corporate spirit even when it’s against their best interest. That’s what I figured out from all this.

Oh, and that I really like driving the streets of San Francisco.

So I signed up for taxi school and went pro. Now I make more money, feel more relaxed and no longer have to worry about declaring bankruptcy if I get into an accident.

But I don’t tell the guy any of this. Now that I’ve been a real taxi driver for three months, I try to deflect the Uber/Lyft question. I’m not proud to have driven for them as long as I did. In fact, I’m mostly ashamed of it.

So I say, “The way I figured it, people hate taxi drivers so much, they must be doing something right.”

I laugh. He doesn’t join me. Instead, he tells me how much he prefers Uber. From 101 interchange to the Monterey exit, he regales me with a litany of horror stories about the taxi industry before Uber and Lyft came to town. They wouldn’t take people to the Richmond or Sunset districts. The cabs smelled horrible. The drivers were rude. They wouldn’t accept credit cards. And when you called dispatch, they never showed up.

I listen to his jeremiad patiently. It’s all I can do. I’ve heard these complaints repeatedly since I started driving a car for hire in San Francisco. As much as I want to apologize for the past transgressions of taxi drivers, I can’t help but wonder why he’s in a cab in the first place. Oh, Uber must be surging like crazy.

“Honestly,” he says at one point, “I don’t take cabs because I don’t want to deal with fucking cabbies.”

I want to tell him I actually enjoy being a cab driver. That I feel more connected to The City than I ever did with Uber and Lyft. And I admire the veteran cab drivers, many of whom are longtime San Franciscans. They have the best stories. Becoming a cab driver was like joining a league of disgruntled gentlemen and surly ladies. The buccaneers of city streets. Taking people’s money for getting them where they need to go. By whatever means necessary. I want to tell him to fuck off. That he’s badmouthing my friends. I’ve met some amazing cab drivers since I started hanging around taxi yards.

But I keep my mouth shut. Drive. Do my job…

After a while, though, the guy’s vitriol gets to me. When I drop him off, I’m bummed beyond belief.

At least he gives me a decent tip. I turn the Slayer back on. Full blast. Take Portola down the hill. Should be plenty of fares in the Castro. Especially if Uber’s still surging.

This article is an amalgam of two articles that previously appeared in two very different versions. One on Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website and the other in the San Francisco Examiner.

 

“Is This a Lyft or Do I Need to Pay You?”

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Originally appeared on Broke-Ass Stuart’s Goddamn Website

It’s Saturday night. I’m cruising through Hayes Valley, keeping a watchful eye for street hails outside the Jazz Center. On Franklin, a hand goes up, though somewhat feebly. I pull over anyway. A young guy approaches my window.

“Can you take me to Safeway?”

I look in my rearview at traffic approaching. “Of course! Get in!” I take off right before a wave of cars pile up behind me. “Which Safeway you want?”

“The one in the Marina. Do you need the address?”

“No.”

I head up and over the hills, fighting to catch the timed lights. As I descend into the Marina, I get in the right lane to bypass Lombard traffic. Take a left at Bay. Past Fort Mason to Laguna. Pull into the Safeway parking lot and deposit the guy at the front door like a rock star. He thanks me and gets out of the cab.

“Hey! Don’t forget to pay me!” I shout.

“Oh, sorry.” He chuckles. “I’m just so used to Uber and Lyft…”

I laugh along good-naturedly. This happens all the time. Even though I’m driving a bright yellow cab with green checkers on the side. Even though there is a top light that boldly states “TAXI.” Even though numbers and insignias are painted on the doors. Even though the windows have credit card stickers and permits. Even though “SAN FRANCISCO TAXICAB” is written on the side and trunk. And even though there is a taximeter on the dash, a tablet on the headrest of the passenger seat and plaques on the inside of the doors, I go through this farce multiple times a night.

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I make an off-handed comment to the latest case in point that money still needs to exchange hands sometimes…

“That’s why these apps are so great,” the guy tells me earnestly. “They store my payment information. I request a car through my phone and—”

“I know all about them,” I cut him off. Thinking, If Uber and Lyft are so great, why the fuck are you in a taxi? Then it hits me… Uber must be surging and Lyft is no doubt in prime time. When multipliers hit 1.9 or 200 percent, all these loyal rideshare users are suddenly clamoring to get in cabs, where the price is always the same, regardless of demand. (Although during rush hour when everybody wants in my cab, sometimes I think about auctioning off the seats to the highest bidder. But that would be illegal, right?)

“Fare-weather” passengers are a crapshoot. There are those who seem unsure how to behave in a taxi. Like this guy. While others tell me straight up Uber is surging 4.6x and that’s the only reason they’re slumming it in a cab. Some just act like they’re in a rideshare and I have PTSD flashbacks to the ten months I drove for Uber and Lyft before switching to taxi.

As I run the guy’s card through the Square on my iPhone and hand it back, he apologizes again.

“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “Happens all the time.”

“Maybe you should consider driving for Uber then.” He laughs.

I’m not sure how to respond. I consider mentioning that cabs have apps too. Flywheel works just like Uber, expect you get a real taxi driver who’s fully insured and licensed. But instead, I mumble something about not wanting to be part of the problem anymore

Whatever. It’s getting late. I’m on my fourth 12-hour shift in a row. And now I’m in the Marina. During surge. Unless I bug out, I’ll end up on Union, getting flagged by seven bros who want to ride in my cab all at once (“we’ll tip you”) or a pack of girls heading to the Mission, commandeering my stereo and screaming at each other the whole way down Gough.

On occasions like these, I remember what Late-Night Larry once told me: “You’re a night cabbie! It’s your job to make sure people have fun.”

As I pull out of the parking lot and head down Laguna to Chestnut, I groan and join the party.