Scenes of San Francisco and the Bay Area from behind the wheel:
“Always say yes.”
During a recent Recitation of the Waybill, a bunch of us were standing around the National office as Late Night Larry offered up some of his incontrovertible advice.
“No matter the question,” he snarled. “The answer is always yes.”
I’ve implemented many of Larry’s words of wisdom over the years, but sometimes it’s my own rules that save the day. Like that Friday night when I was inbound on Columbus at 3 a.m., waiting for the light to change at Pacific.
Behind me, the neon lights of Broadway are diffused in the fog like the setup to a Scooby-Doo mystery, while stragglers lurk in dark corners.
Just as the signal turns green, a young black guy and an older white woman approach my cab. Besides the overwhelming stench of booze that’s almost palpable, their eyes are spinning in their sockets, suggesting other intoxicants.
“Hey! You’re cute!” the woman screeches at me. “Can I touch your hair?”
Less of a request and more of a warning, I try to dodge her grasp.
“Let’s not molest the driver,” the guy says with a giggle. “Yet.”
“Uhhh … Where to?” I ask hesitantly.
“We need snacks!” the woman shouts. “Pronto!”
“Driver, do you know where we can get some snacks?” the guy asks calmly, as if his companion’s exclamation wasn’t clear enough.
I suggest Union Square. With several 24-hour diners, fast food and a 7-Eleven, it covers all the bases for late night snack options. And close enough to get this rascally duo out of my cab. Pronto.
Read the rest here.
I might be cracking up. With a 3-month-old baby who’s already teething, consistent sleep has become a distant memory. And while I can usually navigate the streets of The City as if on autopilot, the synapses that control my sense of direction begin misfiring on Friday night.
My previous shift on Thursday was one of those rare occasions when the taxi gods smiled down on me. In the wet and blustery weather, business was booming. By the end of the night, I was exhausted — and not from the usual boredom and angst, but from actual exertion.
It felt good.
With just a few hours of erratic sleep, though, I’m back in the taxi and not feeling very good at all…
Read the rest here.
On this, the occasion of my 100th column, I can’t help but feel somewhat reflective. Almost two years have passed since the San Francisco Examiner gave me an opportunity to tell my stories of The City’s streets in 700 words, give or take. While writing about driving a taxi comes easy, actually driving a taxi can be a real drag sometimes. Particularly on those slow, mind-numbing nights, during excruciatingly slow weeks, in painfully slow months.
Taxi driving is more than a job. It’s a form of punishment for all the bad decisions you’ve ever made. Instead of pursuing the 9 to 5, you became an artist, played in bands, wrote books, traveled or just enjoyed life — all the unrealistic distractions your parents, teachers and guidance counselors said would only lead to poverty that somehow became sustainable through driving a taxi. Until one day, it was no longer viable, once some eggheads created a centralized dispatch app, and the cab companies were too busy squabbling over brand recognition to retain any relevance. But in the stupidity of it all, there was still a sense of freedom.
Taxi driving is still the closest you can get to the swashbuckling adventures of a pirate. With no bosses around and no supervisors breathing down your neck, it’s just you, your cab, the streets and the general public. How you navigate those obstacles is up to you. Even if you don’t have what it takes. Thankfully, the meek get lucky, too.
Read the rest here.
Now that I think of it, if I could do it over again, the last line of this week’s column for the S.F. Examiner would have read:
“Oh great,” she mumbles snidely as she reaches into her purse. “Lucky me.”
So as to emphasize her visible disdain at having ended up in a taxi.
In fact, the few minutes I interacted with her, when she was conscious, were more noteworthy than I realized last Wednesday afternoon, when I was putting the finishing touches on this column, already an hour and a half past my deadline.
What she actually told me after her address was, “I’ll do whatever you tell me, but I have to sleep now.” Which seemed implausible and surreal at the time. I wasn’t even sure if I heard her correctly.
When she paid me, she dropped her credit card and her wallet, spilling change onto the floorboard, which she never picked up, as well as her phone and her phone charger. I had to get her attention several times to not leave anything behind. Except the coins.
She tipped me 20% and I added the bridge toll. Plus a couple bucks in change -totaled out at a $75 ride. Her Uber probably would have cost a third of that.
I waited until she made it through a wooden gate with a “Beware of Dog” sign. Which seemed odd. Who has a dog you have to be wary of?
Marin County is weird.
Anyway, read the column here.
This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about driving a taxi during Thanksgiving weekend… The good, the bad and the turkey. (Spoiler alert: I’m the turkey.)
There wasn’t much to be thankful for over Thanksgiving weekend, as far as driving a taxi… That is, until Colin came up with one of his big dumb great ideas…
On Wednesday night, I’m waiting outside The Box, a literal hole in the wall on Natoma Street next to Tempest that serves up some of the best late night food options in The City. Potato skins with quail eggs, anyone?
As I smoke a cigarette, two guys approach me. The bedraggled one on my right hits me up for change so he can get a slice of pizza. On my left, equally disheveled, some kid from the bar who just wants a light.
“Sorry to bother you…”
“No worries.” I put a flame to the end of his cigarette. “It’s a little weird asking people for things in an alley.”
Next thing you know, we’re talking politics.
“But Hillary’s a bitch!” he declares at one point.
“What’s she ever done to you?” I ask with a condescending chuckle. He’s 27 years old and didn’t even vote.
“Look, the presidential election isn’t a popularity contest. You’re voting for an agenda.”
Like a bell signaling the end of a round, Dre calls out my name from behind the counter. I’m as ready for my food as I am to end this conversation…
I skipped work on Thursday. I was dubious about Friday too, but I did better than I assumed…
Saturday night, out of the sloshed fields of the Mission, I manage to get a decent ride to the Green Tortoise. Three English dudes from Brighton. One of whom forgot his ID.
“Look at him though,” the guy in the middle says. “He’s practically a gaffer. And his jokes are shit. Listen.”
“What did zero say to eight?” the guy asks. “Nice belt.”
Apparently, his bad jokes weren’t persuasive enough to get him into many bars.
They want me to tell my best one liners as we drive to North Beach, but instead I tell them about a ride I had on Friday night…
Around 9 p.m., I’m in the black. First up at the Hilton taxi stand. I’m smoking and talking to some other cab drivers when a guy with luggage walks up.
“Let’s go!” I throw his bags into the trunk.
Before I even make the corner he tells me in a thick accent, “My plane’s leaving in an hour. Do you think we can still make it?”
“We’ll make it,” I say.
The entire way to the airport, he’s freaking out that he’s going to miss his flight.
“Relax,” I keep saying. “It’ll be okay. By the way, are you carrying marijuana?”
“None at all. Why?”
“You reek of weed.”
“Oh, I’ve been trimming all week. It must be on my clothes.”
I continue to assure him that he won’t miss his plane, neglecting to mention that he’s probably going to get flagged in security. The smell of pot is so strong I’m practically getting a contact buzz.
At SFO, the United terminal is jam-packed. I make some questionable maneuvers to get close enough to drop him off. He hands me three $20 bills. “Keep it.”
“Run like the wind!” I yell after him…
“You think he made it?” one of the Brighton kids ask me.
“No, he probably end up getting anally probed.”
We all laugh.
“That’s so like a trimmer,” one of the guys says.
“Do we seem like trimmers?”
“I don’t really judge.”
“Well, we are.”
“We just changed our clothes before we went out.”
“Good job, cause you guys just reek of booze.”
“That was our plan all along.”
“Now that’s funny.”
Read the actual column here.
In my rickety National taxicab, I own the streets of San Francisco. I take my turns with a vengeance. I converge on Union Square at full tilt. Like all cab drivers, I follow the rules of the road that were lain down by the cab drivers who preceded us.
After six months, I can usually predict what another taxi driver will do, because we are all part of the same hive mind. We run the streets. Everybody else is just in our way.
I watch other cabs constantly. Even in my Uber-Lyft days, if I was on a street and there were no taxicabs, I knew I was on the wrong street. Still, to this day, I try to learn from the maneuvers of other cabs. I pay particular attention to top lights in relation to mine. So if I’m driving northwest on Columbus and most of the cabs going southeast have their lights off, I figure I might be heading in the right direction.
Who drives the streets of San Francisco more than cab drivers? Who else knows the shortcuts and the fastest way to get from any point A to any point B? We’ve been trained and licensed by The City to transport its citizens and visitors across the entire Bay Area. That’s our job. We move people around.
For better or worse, the map of San Francisco is permanently tattooed into my brain. Even in the haze of my post break-up blues, I know where I’m going. Sure, there were a few times last week that I froze up. Like when I was idling in front of the Intercontinental on Howard, pondering the bleak prospects of living alone on a cab driver’s earnings, and two women opened my doors abruptly.
“Where going to Mighty. Do you know where that is?”
Under normal circumstances, I would have driven straight down Howard, taken a left at 10th, crossed Division to Potrero, hung a left on 15th and another left onto Utah to drop them off proper, but with my head in a fog of despair, I momentarily forgot where I even was.
Sensing my confusion, one of the women fired up her GPS. By the time I crossed 5th, I’d regained my sense of direction. But I still had to listen to Siri guide me the rest of the way, her robotic voice like a ruler across my knuckles at each turn.
It’s hard not to get lost in your thoughts while moving through the ebb and flow of city life. I have a 4:45 cab. I hit the streets at the peak of afternoon rush hour and fight the gridlock in SoMa and the Financial until traffic lightens up a bit for the evening crowd. Once it’s dark, there aren’t as many buses and tech shuttles, very few bicyclists and fewer jaywalkers—I mean, pedestrians—jumping in front of my cab even though I have a green light (AKA, Vision Zero). But as people head to restaurants, concert venues and bars, there are still pockets of congestion. It’s not until after midnight that the streets are deserted enough to drive without restraint.
Amid the belly to the bar slump, though, things get quiet and my mind invariably drifts to my impending divorce. I feel the desperation of the indigents crawled up in doorways and against the sides of buildings. I’m not sure yet whether I can afford my Oakland apartment or if I’ll end up living in a wrecked cab in Upton Alley with two cats. I keep thinking about that Bukowksi line: “Many a good man has been put under the bridge by a woman.”
During my third week back from “vacation”—you know, that tropical resort in the second circle of Dante’s Inferno where you don’t send “Wish you were here” postcards to friends—I have my head screwed on tighter. And while I’m not firing on all cylinders yet, I run the streets like I’ve been trained and I actually made some money. Not enough to pay rent. But enough to remind myself there’s still money to be made driving a cab in San Francisco.
Maybe even enough to keep a roof over my head.
Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on August 6, 2015.