Tag Archives: san francisco

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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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…]

The Scourge of Outside Lands

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Part One

It never fails.

Whenever I work large events like Outside Lands, I always end up with a pack of drunken millennials in my taxi who are so accustomed to geographically-challenged Uber/Lyft drivers that they will try, despite the haze of alcohol, weed and molly, to micromanage my attempt to navigate the congestion.

Of all the tragedies that have resulted from the rise of Uber and Lyft, this assumption that a driver for hire has no clue how to reach the simplest destinations is really, as our commander-in-chief would put it, sad.

The other day, I pick up this guy at the Grand Hyatt. As he tips the doorman for flagging him a cab, I hear the guy say his phone had died and he wasn’t able to order an Uber.

“Where to?” I ask.

“Pac Heights.”

Okay. “Where in Pac Heights?”

“Geary and Laguna.”

“What?” I respond, somewhat confused.

“Lower Pac Heights. Close to Japantown.”

Brother, there is no Lower Pac Heights, I want to say. Geary and Laguna is Japantown. But I let it go. He’s either a tourist or has just moved here.

As I’m about to cross Van Ness, I ask where he’s going at Laguna and Geary.

He leans forward and says, “Oh, uhh, keep going two more blocks.”

“I know where Laguna is,” I reply. “Where are you going at Geary and Laguna? Are you on Geary? Laguna? Am I going right or left? It’s a big street with lots of turn restrictions.”

“Left on Laguna,” he says. “You’ll uhhh… probably have to make a U-turn.”

“Yeah, at Webster,” I mumble. So his cross streets are actually Ellis and Laguna, which would enable me to access the street he actually lives on: Cleary Court.

And regardless of what his real estate agent told him, he lives in motherfucking Western Addition!

It’s always the clueless passengers who tell you how to get somewhere, and they usually end up lost or going the longest route possible…

Anyway, this is my fourth year working Outside Lands. And even though I’m steeling myself for the inevitable shit show, I am hopeful this year might be different…

An unforeseen benefit of Uber and Lyft is that the number of millennials I pick up has dwindled to the point that, when they do end up in my cab, it’s usually memorable.

Like the four bros who surprised me at Davies Symphony Hall a few months back…

Drunk off their asses and wearing white tuxedos, they pile into my cab and demand to be taken to Emperor Norton’s.

“Do you know where that is?” one asks.

I respond affirmatively several times over the next few blocks, while the three guys in back continue to question whether I’m going the right way since I didn’t put the location into my phone and the guy up front incessantly nags me about playing the radio.

“Look!” I finally snap. “The bar is only five blocks away. I think you can go that long without music. Don’t you?”

*

On Friday, the first night of Outside Lands, things were astonishingly calm and uneventful.

That is, free of millennials.

I take two guys to Brass Tacks.

“Do you mind if we do garbage cocaine?” the one on the right asks me.

After several key bumps, the guy spends the rest of the ride complaining about the shitty blow in San Francisco.

My second ride is a young couple who’d just met. They spend the ride to Club Deluxe bonding over their pets. When I pull up to the bar, the guy hands me a $20 bill and refuses change on the $12.30 fare.

“For going out of your way to pick us up,” he says, exiting curbside.

Day two starts out smooth enough.

Since I stopped working Saturday nights, I don’t have my regular cab. So I’m driving Veterans 327. Late Night Larry’s cab.

As I venture out to the park on Fulton while the sun is still in the sky, I’m impressed with how the PCOs are controlling the streets and making sure all vehicles are able to get through the area. That same is true on Lincoln. Even though the SFMTA had promised us taxi stands, there are no designated staging areas. But it isn’t that much of a hassle.

When Metallica stops playing later that night, though, there’s little chance for any kind order in the ensuing chaos…

Read Part Two here.

[photo by Jessica Christian]

The Outside Lands Transportation Shit Show

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On my way to the city to work Outside Lands

I just completed my fourth Outside Lands as a driver, which prompted me to reevaluate my previous reportage on working the three day music festival in Golden Gate Park. 

My first OSL was in 2014 as an Uber/Lyft driver. I covered that experience here.

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My second OSL was in a taxi and I wrote about it here

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Since I didn’t publish anything about my third year working Outside Lands in 2016, I searched my computer for any notes I may have written and found this:

The tide is turning as anti-Uber backlash surges…

Passengers are starting to realize that Uber and Lyft drivers, the majority of whom aren’t from the area, are creating most of the traffic congestion in The City, especially during major festivals.

That’s what happened during Outside Lands.

I wasn’t making any money driving people home from the festival. With all the congestion getting back to the park for another load, it just wasn’t worth my time…

Next week, my column will be about working Outside Lands for the fourth time. And no, it’s not going to be pretty…

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