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.