Tag Archives: san francisco taxi drivers

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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Playlists, Profanity and Other Tricks of the Trade

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Originally published on October 16, 2015 in the S.F. Examiner

Tonight I’m all alone in my cab. Although I may not be the only one prowling the streets of San Francisco playing the Modern Lovers, if I don’t get a fare soon, I just might go insane.

It’s still early but I’m a little cranky from waking up at nine in the morning to a cacophony of power tools drilling into concrete and slicing through wood. Coming off my second 12-hour shift in a row, I was tired as hell, but there was no way to sleep through the noise.

In the two years I’ve been in this apartment, I’ve suffered one construction project after another. But that’s the price you pay for living in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood.

I began my shift that afternoon by dialing in a Pandora station based on a playlist of garage and noise rock bands. A proud Luddite, I only recently discovered streaming music through my iPhone. I started with the free service, but once the Lyft ads became overbearing, I upgraded.

As I troll the Embarcadero for a fare, “Astral Plane” segues nicely into Thee Oh Sees.

I don’t get a flag until I’m on Jefferson. Two guys going to the Best Western Americana. About two-thirds into the ride, one of the guys asks me in a German accent why we don’t have partitions like New York cabs.

“Cause we’re fucking friendly in California!” I shout.

My feeble sarcasm doesn’t translate well and we spend the next several blocks in awkward silence as the Wooden Shjips drone on in the background.

So much for taking Late Night Larry’s advice.

Last week, at the National barbeque, Larry was telling me how to break the ice with passengers.

“I ask every person who gets in my cab, ‘How the fuck are you?’ Unless they’re the sophisticated type. Then I ask, ‘How the hell are you?’”

I was dubious about using profanity with my passengers, but several other drivers nodded their heads in agreement.

Even though I’m constantly soliciting tricks of the trade from experienced cab drivers—like creating a soundtrack for the cab—as I head up Seventh Street to see if the Orpheum is breaking, I wonder if they were just pulling my leg this time.

Of course, it’s easy for Larry to pull off a faux-surly attitude with his passengers. He already comes across like a college football coach. Before driving a cab, he was the house dick at the St. Francis. Before that, an MP homicide detective in Vietnam. At some point he was involved in banking.

It’s difficult to keep track of Larry’s myriad adventures and his long history, which began in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, when his family moved to California from St. Louis to start a riverboat company on the American River.

Like most native San Franciscans, nothing shocks Larry. When he tells a story, whether it’s about driving a cab or solving a murder, he punctuates the most gruesome aspects with sadistic laughter.

Or the night he had two pukers and never seemed happier.

“Two!” he shouted gleefully. “In one night! What are the odds? I made an extra $200.00!”

“Yeah, but the puke…” I pointed out.

“Ah, I know how to clean up puke,” he said, brushing away the insignificant detail.

At the Orpheum, I get a short ride to the Hilton, where I pick up a couple going to Ashbury Heights. Then a flag on Divisadero to the Hotel Kabuki.

I cruise down O’Farrell just as the Shannon and the Clams show at the Great American is breaking. With King Kahn and the Shrines blasting, I pull behind a Yellow cab and wait for a like-minded fare.

After the initial wave has dissipated, I watch the remaining concertgoers stand around holding their phones and looking up and down the street for their Ubers and Lyfts. Somebody gets into the Yellow cab in front of me, but I sit empty until it’s just the roadies and me.

I give up and turn left onto Larkin. Outside New Century, I immediately get flagged. A guy climbs into my backseat.

Before he can tell me where he’s going, I turn around and ask him, “How the fuck are you doing tonight?”

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Top photo still from Night on Earth. Bottom photo from set of Taxi Driver via

The Many Potholes on the Road to Self-Driving Cars

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“You know it’s a good ride,” Juneaux texts me after letting me know he’d gotten a ride to  Palo Alto, “when you’re using cruise control on the way back The City. 

Just as I’m about to respond with “You lucky bastard,” I get flagged by two guys on the corner of Post and Powell.

“Do you know of any strip clubs open this late?” one asks. 

Five minutes later and $50 richer, I drive away from New Century, thinking about the different services we offer as taxi drivers and how difficult it would be to replace the taxi experience with self-driving cars.

Take the four women I picked up earlier that day outside Magnolia on Haight for example. They’re going to the Marriott Maquis. 

“But first we need to see the painted ladies. Is that alright?”

That’s more than alright. A $15 fare turned into a $25 fare, since I obviously had to show them other Victorians in the neighborhood. 

How can you get service like that from a self-driving car? 

Read the rest here.

 

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

Where and Where Not to Buy Weed on the Street in San Francisco

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The only time I’ve ever been mugged was in the Civic Center BART station 20 years ago when I tried to buy weed from a crack dealer. After the guy stopped pummeling me and I gave him the $20 he knew I had, a man who looked like my “Shakespeare in Rome” professor asked me, “Did that guy just rob you?”

I’m heading inbound on Market, trying to prevent a Yellow cab in the right lane from getting the jump on me, when a guy flags me at the Seventh Street Muni island stop. He opens my front door, and I quickly grab my bag and stow it under my seat. He asks how much to Ocean Beach. I tell him around $20.

“Let’s do it,” he says.

I turn right on Sixth and start driving west.

His name is Hugh. He’s from Sydney, in San Francisco working on some project for a tech firm. Spent the past two weeks sequestered in an incubator in the Mission. This is the first time he’s been free to venture out and explore The City.

“So what have you been up to?” I ask.

“Well, I just lost $300 trying to buy weed.”

“Why’d you think you could buy pot around here?” I ask, more nonplussed than he seems to be. They only sell crack and heroin in mid-Market. Some pot dealers hang out by Jones Street, but they usually close up shop early.

Hugh shrugs. “I just wanted to celebrate turning in the first part of my project this morning.”

This week’s column is about buying drugs on the street in San Francisco… It’s not always easy…

Read it here.

Midnight on the Golden Gate Bridge by Christian Lewis

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The span is quiet. As I make my return south to the The City, I look up to see the tower fading into a bed of Pacific fog. The lights of Downtown, Telegraph Hill and the Wharf struggle to reach me through the thick night air. Crossing the bridge after sunset and beyond is a part of my job as a cab driver that I revel in and it always ends before I am ready. From the grandeur of the bridge I can witness all the beauty and character of The City without being confronted with what is broken and dying inside of her. I fell for San Francisco the first time I came aboard and it is these brief moments that remind me why I came here and why I stay…

 

photo and text by Christian Lewis