Tag Archives: san francisco

The Perfect Recipe for Gridlock

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about the one thing you can always count on when driving in San Francisco…

Thursday afternoon. The Financial District is popping. In Google Maps, downtown San Francisco looks like an open wound. Every street that leads to the freeway is bathed in blood.

For several hours, the Hyatt Regency is load-and-go.

According to one of my passengers, there was a 900-person conference at the hotel and, apparently, everyone left at the same time. With that kind of spike in demand, all car services are maxed out.

The doorman’s whistle never stops blowing. As I’m trying to make a U-turn on Drumm, the doorman singles me out:

“Veterans 233!”

I pull into the driveway, angering a large crowd waiting on the curb with their arms out.

Sorry, folks, but the hotel’s needs come first. It’s their taxi stand.

Since most people are going out to dinner or drinks, the rides are short enough for me to drop them off and return to the Hyatt within a few minutes.

After a while, the doorman starts getting friendly with me. He even lets me wait in the driveway when I pull in preemptively, asking everyone who walks through the door if they need a taxi. Several wrinkle their brows.

As if …

While I’m taking a fare to the Fairmont, a lady tries to flag me at Sacramento and Drumm. I point to a Yellow cab in the Regency taxi stand.

“By the time I cross the street, they’re always taken,” she says.

“Just wait for the next one,” I reply.

“That’s OK. I’ll just call an Uber.”

“Good luck with that,” the guy in back says. He tells me the wait time was more than 20 minutes for a Lyft.

Even Flywheel is showing signs of life. A few seconds after dropping at Tosca Cafe and turning on the app, an order comes in. It says nine minutes from Broadway and Montgomery to Sacramento and Front. But I make it in four.

The woman I pick up tells me she’d been trying to get a ride for half an hour.

Finally, a fare to 42nd and Judah spins me out of the metro area. From the Outer Sunset, I head to SFO …

Read the rest of the column here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

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The Night of Early Morning Stragglers

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about misadventures while working the early morning crowd on Thanksgiving Day…

Lately, I’ve been playing with days, trying to carve out a schedule that’s not just lucrative but also conducive to the mind, the body, the kid, the wife and BART.

As part of my experimentation, I take a chance and work the day before Thanksgiving. Business is respectable during the first part of my shift, but after midnight, the streets are deserted. No cars. No pedestrians. No panhandlers. Just the occasional straggler. And Mr. Judy and me, rolling from one bar to the next, pulling up and looking through the doors for any signs of life …

“It’s really dead,” I say.

“I love it like this,” Mr. Judy responds cheerfully. “This is the San Francisco I miss.”

Despite the lack of paying customers, San Francisco is magical during the holidays — and Burning Man — when most of the transplants have gone home, leaving The City to those of us who have no other home. For a change, the majority of people you see out and about look like they could be your friends.

Once Mr. Judy gives up and I take him home, a regular calls me. She needs to drop off the keys her boyfriend accidentally left at her place in the Mission.

When I pull up, she climbs in the front seat, which is her wont, and plugs my aux cable into her phone.

“I’m so annoyed right now,” she says, manipulating the settings in the cab’s stereo.

“Where are we heading?” I ask.

“Outer Richmond. Take the long way.”

As I meander through the night, she doesn’t say much. The music plays, and we watch The City stream past.

On my way to drop her back home, I pass a flag on Valencia. Once free, I quickly swing around the block. The guy is still there. He gets in on the left and sits right behind me.

“I’m so glad you picked me [up],” he says, “Otherwise, I might have done something stupid.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Well, I’m just drunk and stoned right now. Oh, and I’ve been doing blow all night. But if you hadn’t got me out of there, I would’ve ended up smoking crack and doing crystal … and that … that would be bad.”

“How so?”

“When I smoke crack and snort meth, I always seem to let some dude give me head.”

I’m not sure how to respond, failing to see the problem.

“I’m not gay!”

“Oh.”

Read the rest of the column here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

My worst passenger

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During the three-and-a-half years I’ve been driving for hire, I’ve had my share of unruly passengers: fist-fighting coeds, racist frat boys, pukers, techie thugs, bossy old folks and grown-ass adults so wasted they couldn’t remember where they lived. But none were as disagreeable as my 9-month-old daughter during a road trip to Los Angeles last week.

Now that was a hell ride from the get go.

Read the column here.

 

 

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]

San Francisco is no way to treat a human

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“Sometimes I just want to scream, ‘Has everyone lost their goddamn minds?’”

Considering the windows or my taxi are rolled down, and we’re sitting at a red light on Market Street, I think to myself: You kind of did. But this is no time to split hairs. My fare is currently explaining the politics of flipism.

“That’s how shit gets done in San Francisco.” He clears his throat. “They use a Magic 8-Ball. ‘Should we anchor this high-rise condominium to the bedrock?’ Someone shakes the 8-Ball. ‘My sources say no.’ Then, the person in charge goes, ‘OK, fellas. You heard the Magic 8-Ball.’”

The guy has been shouting at the back of my head since I picked him up on a radio order. We began this journey from the Inner Richmond to AT&T on the agreed-upon circuitous route of California to Presidio to Bush to Octavia to Post to Hyde to Market (!) to Fourth and then, “Just drop me at the train station. I’ll walk the rest of the way so I can suck down a few cigarettes before the game.”

Read the rest of the column here.

The Shapes of San Francisco

 

The Long Rocky Road to Buster’s

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Christian started it. That picture he posted on Facebook of his cab outside Buster’s triggered a hankering for a Buster’s Burger that I couldn’t satisfy with just one. Or two. Or even three. Pretty much any fare to North Beach over the past few weeks was an excuse to hit up Buster’s …

Last Friday night, after dropping at The Boardroom, I make a beeline to Columbus and Vallejo, hoping for rock-star parking at the green meter on the corner.

When I get there, an SUV is hogging the space and part of the red curb next to the fire hydrant, preventing me from squeezing in without blocking the crosswalk.

I consider giving up, but my Buster’s craving is too strong. I go around the block searching for another spot, then head to the Vesuvio taxi stand, which, fortunately, isn’t overrun by Uber drivers.
Just as I’m getting back into my cab, two guys approach me.

“Are you available?” the first one asks, opening my back door.

“Sure,” I say, thinking, Well, the fries are usually hot as hell anyway.

“We’re going to Parc 55,” the first guy tells me. “The address is — ”

“Parc 55,” I reply, cutting him off. “I got ya.”

“See, he knows where he’s going,” the other guy playfully chides his companion.

I take a right on Pacific and head down Stockton. As the cab bounces and jerks over a battle zone of potholes, buckled asphalt and metal plates, I apologize for the rough terrain.

“Does San Francisco have many streets that are in bad shape like this?”

I can’t help but laugh. “I’ve driven on dirt roads that were smoother than most of these streets.”

“Are there certain ones you intentionally avoid?”

“There are plenty of streets I’d like to avoid, but it’s almost impossible since so many are ripped to shit.”

“What are some of the streets you think are in the worst condition?” he asks.

I rattle a few off the top of my head: Van Ness, Haight Street, Broadway and Fourth Street.

“Potrero was a total shit show for like five years,” I add. “But they finally repaved it, although there’s still a stretch between Division and 17th that’s a complete suspension killer.”

When they ask me to spell out Potrero, I realize they’re writing them down.

[Keep reading…]