Tag Archives: san francisco taxi

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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A Hell Ride into the Peninsula

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about a long ride, the green hell of suburbia, blowjobs, fast food and the semantics of meat when coupons are involved… 

Before I’m even on the Central Freeway, he asks if he can suck my dick. I laugh it off, but he persists. Vehemently. No matter how many times I turn down his offer to suck my dick and try to change the subject, he doesn’t let up. Over and over, all the way down the 101.

“I just know you’re going to let me suck your dick…”

“Uhm, no.”

“Then shut up,” he says. “Your voice is turning me on.”

I shut up. Then he asks me a random question and returns to the topic of sucking my dick. When I reject his advances for the umpteenth time, he tells me to shut up again.

“Stop asking me questions then!” I shout.

Read the rest here.

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Being at the right place at the right time…

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It’s a quiet night. I’m close to my nut, but still in the red at 10 p.m. After dropping off near Telegraph Hill, I meander through the Wharf and North Beach, fighting off competing taxi drivers who try to usurp my pole position down Columbus. At Pacific, I cut over to Powell, for no other reason than I don’t usually take Powell.

At Clay Street, a man and a woman with suitcases flag me. I pop the trunk. Since I’m blocking traffic, I stay behind the wheel and let the man do the heavy lifting.

I’ve long since given up the notion that luggage means an airport ride, so I’m not surprised when the woman asks, out of breath, “Can you take us to 100 California?”

Read the rest of this week’s column for the S.F. Examiner 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.

A Good Night in a Taxi Comes at a Price

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“You know it’s a slow night,” Juneaux once joked, “when you’re hoping somebody pukes in your taxi so you can collect that $100 cleaning fee.”

This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about another puker… except this time I got the cleaning fee. And a funny story… maybe? 

Read the column here.

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Photo by Christian Lewis.