“Always say yes.”
During a recent Recitation of the Waybill, a bunch of us were standing around the National office as Late Night Larry offered up some of his incontrovertible advice.
“No matter the question,” he snarled. “The answer is always yes.”
I’ve implemented many of Larry’s words of wisdom over the years, but sometimes it’s my own rules that save the day. Like that Friday night when I was inbound on Columbus at 3 a.m., waiting for the light to change at Pacific.
Behind me, the neon lights of Broadway are diffused in the fog like the setup to a Scooby-Doo mystery, while stragglers lurk in dark corners.
Just as the signal turns green, a young black guy and an older white woman approach my cab. Besides the overwhelming stench of booze that’s almost palpable, their eyes are spinning in their sockets, suggesting other intoxicants.
“Hey! You’re cute!” the woman screeches at me. “Can I touch your hair?”
Less of a request and more of a warning, I try to dodge her grasp.
“Let’s not molest the driver,” the guy says with a giggle. “Yet.”
“Uhhh … Where to?” I ask hesitantly.
“We need snacks!” the woman shouts. “Pronto!”
“Driver, do you know where we can get some snacks?” the guy asks calmly, as if his companion’s exclamation wasn’t clear enough.
I suggest Union Square. With several 24-hour diners, fast food and a 7-Eleven, it covers all the bases for late night snack options. And close enough to get this rascally duo out of my cab. Pronto.
Read the rest here.
“So … what kind of drugs did you take?” I ask the guy in my backseat. He’s older, bespectacled, dressed in jeans and a V-neck sweater. Has the air of a successful middle manager.
“No drugs. Just weed.”
“Just weed?” I ask, like a dubious parent.
“Strong weed!” He laughs and then goes quiet.
As I head down Mission Street, I think about the possibility of getting so high on marijuana I forgot where I lived …
It hardly seems probable, although there was that one time in college when I smoked a joint with a co-worker and ended up in bed, swaddled in my duvet, rocking back and forth and chanting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me.”
Must be nice, though, to forget everything. Personal and financial problems, the constant tragedies in the world and the possibility of a future overrun with technology straight out of a dystopian movie.
But it seems impossible to escape, what with Facebook and Twitter. My phone is like a needle I use to mainline the distorted fire and brimstone of the 24-hour news cycle into my brain — a speedball of conflicting narratives — until I can’t turn away from the strobe light of information
I’d love to forget all that. Even for just 10 minutes …
Halfway up Kearney, the guy in back leans forward.
“OK, I know where I am now,” he says.
I realize I’ve been holding my breath and sigh with relief.
Read this week’s column for the S.F. Examiner here.
It’s inevitable. Now that I drive a taxi, I regularly field the inquiry: “So… have you thought about driving for Uber?” When I tell my passengers that I did the Lyft and Uber thing before switching to taxi driving, they’re usually shocked. “Don’t you make more money with Lyft and Uber?” Maybe some do, I’ll say, but I never did. After eleven months of mostly full time driving, my bank account was overdrawn, my credit cards were maxed out, the backseat of my car looked like I’d been transporting farm animals and I was riddled with self-loathing. 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.
I could go on ad nauseam, detailing the moral bankruptcy of the Lyft and Uber systems, but now that I’ve been a real taxi driver for two months, I try to deflect the Uber/Lyft question. It’s boring. I’m sick of talking about fucking Uber in my cab! And to be honest, I’m not proud to have driven for them as long as I did. In fact, I’m ashamed of it.
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, most of whom are longtime San Francisco residents. 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 cuts, enforced 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.
Plus, I’m a taxi driver.
In San Francisco!
I haven’t felt this connected to a place through a job since I was a cook in New Orleans.
While cruising through the Duboce Triangle, I get a request on Market Street. Pick up a middle-aged tourist guy and his twenty-something daughter. They’re in town from Texas. Ron and Lisa. They ask if I know George.
“George was our other Uber driver before you,” Ron tells me.
“I don’t really know any other drivers,” I say. “We basically stay in our cars.”
“George drives for Uber to support his wife and three kids,” Lisa says. “He never has time to even see them because he drives all the time. Not like you. You’re probably just doing this to support your marijuana habit.”
“What’d you say?” I ask with an uncomfortable laugh.
She doesn’t reply.
“Poor George,” Ron goes on. “He probably saw us together, father and daughter, and felt jealous of our close relationship.”
Lisa scoffs. “Well, looks can be deceiving.
Ron keeps making small talk with me. They’re Airbnbing a place in Telegraph Hill. Spent the day going around town drinking and shopping. I’m taking them to the Macy’s on Union Square where Lisa saw a purse she liked earlier but didn’t buy.
“It’s a tote!” she clarifies.
Traffic around Union Square is always the perfect example of a clusterfuck. On Saturdays, it’s the epitome of a clusterfuck.
I point out the traffic when we’re two blocks away.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ron tells me. “We’re in no hurry. Long as the purse is still there.”
“It’s a tote!”
Five minutes later, about a block away from Macy’s, I tell him, “It’s gonna take forever to get there with all this traffic. Macy’s is right there.”
I point at the giant sign looming over the street.
“I suppose we can walk one block,” Ron says. “Maybe hit up this place over here… Johnny Foley’s.” He reads the sign on the Irish pub across the street.
I take a left on Powell and a right on Ellis. Go offline and drive away from downtown as quickly as possible. I’ve made the mistake of trying to get rides downtown on a Saturday before. Never again. Let the cab drivers have the business. They can take all of downtown as far as I’m concerned. Since all the one-way streets are split into taxi and bus lanes, it’s designed for cabs anyway, not regular cars.
I go back online after I cross Van Ness. Pick up a guy going to the Haight. Drop him off and track down a woman with an accent and her gentleman friend.
“Oh, is this your bag on the seat?” she asks.
I reach around. It’s a paper shopping bag from a boutique. Look inside. See a scarf and a flask. Instantly realize that girl Lisa must have left it behind. I remember she had several bags when she got in.
“I know who this belongs to,” I say.
“What’s in the bag?” asks the gentleman. “Lingerie?”
“No, a scarf.”
I drop them off in the Mission and email Uber. Parked on 24th, I look through the bag for the receipts to see if it has her name on them. There’s a stuffed porcupine and a swimsuit bottom as well as the scarf and flask. About $100 worth of stuff. I feel bad. She must be freaking out. She seemed too uptight not to have a cow over losing her hard-earned purchases.
Oh well. There’s a link on the confirmation email from Uber to click if you think you might have lost something in a car. Perhaps she’ll notice it when she realizes she’s one bag short.
I put the bag in my trunk. Smoke a cigarette. I’m about to go back online when my phone rings. The generic Uber number.
“Is this Kelly?”
“Right. I have your bag.”
“Oh, thank god!”
I get her address in Telegraph Hill and her phone number, just in case. “I’m in the Mission, so it’ll take a little while to get there. I have to drive all the way across town.”
I take Cesar Chavez to Guerrero, cruise to Market Street, down to Franklin, up and over Pac Heights to Broadway, through the tunnel and into Chinatown. I forget to turn on Powell, so I have to circle around on Kearney to Columbus. My phone rings. It’s Lisa.
“Just checking to make sure you didn’t get lost.”
Uhmmm… Is that another stoner crack?
“Sorry. It took a while to get to North Beach from the Mission. I’m just a few minutes away.”
Slowly, I head up the hills, dodging several rambunctious taxis and maneuvering around lost tourists.
Lisa meets me outside the apartment building.
“Nice view you got here,” I say. Take the bag out of my trunk.
Lisa thanks me and hands me a folded ten dollar bill.
I acknowledge the tip. “Happy to help.”
Ten’s alright, I think as I make a five point conversion out of the dead end. A twenty would have been even better…