03 August 2011

The End, Part I -- American Pie

I will always remember the misty rain falling over the city, halogen lit yellow, as I descended off the hill at Anza Vista. It was a few years ago, I think, but it could well have been my first week on the job five years ago or last night. When the rain falls like that it is evocative of my first feelings for this place at the age of 16 – feelings of the romance of the scene, the place, the city – stuffed down into a dusty vault of memory – only brought out under conditions perfect for a proper remembrance.

In my favorite moments from the last five years, I was always alone. It was always late. The streets were empty. The cab was coasting down asphalt streets, soundlessly, as I remember it. There was the mist seen from Anza Vista, of course, but there was also the 30 second hail storm on Nob Hill. It was a Monday night, cold obviously, and when the hail started to hit the pavement there was nobody else in the cab to share the moment with, which made me happy. Most of the time, cab fares – a cross-section of the residents of and visitors to the City – profane this quiet communion and break your anonymity. I had been a while since a moment like that hail storm.

And then, just yesterday, I got to see the beach again. After a long week – a week that involved tying off loose ends and seeing things through to their conclusions – I was spiritually and emotionally worn. It was a slow Monday and I had taken to driving up Geary, from its beginning up to Van Ness, and then down Post, back to Market, until someone required my services. It was half-way through my second lap, approaching Van Ness on Geary, that someone flagged my cab. He was a well dressed, softly spoken, Black professional. He needed to go home to 35th Avenue and Balboa. We moved over hills and through tunnels on Geary as it rolled its way to the Richmond District. Don McLean's “American Pie” came through on the radio, which I kept at a low volume. The cab rolled down the hill on leaving the last tunnel, downward to the Avenues. I started inaudibly muttering the lyrics to myself, and then my fare began singing them quietly. I raised the volume one notch at a time, and our voices rose with the volume as the numbers on the street signs grew. I dropped him at home as the song ended.

There was a small coffee shop around the corner on Balboa I remembered from a romantic day years prior, a cozy neighborhood spot that was open late with the same regulars sitting out front every night. I got a hot chocolate to buffet the cold. I got back in the car. While I should have headed back to town, kept working, pulling every cent off the street on a slow Monday, instead I kept moving West.

At the beginning of the slope down Balboa to the beach, I could see the Pacific, lit up in orange dusk-light to the horizon. In the parking lot, some surfers packed up their things into trucks and SUVs. I got out and walked to the retaining wall. I stood, flight jacket around me, beverage in my hand, with the part of the world humanity could never tame in front of me. Buttery waves rolled in down the length of Ocean Beach. The fantastic orange light still jumped over the horizon, lighting up the water, fading to a deep blue in the sky to the East. The Seal Rocks were silhouettes, black. The Cliff House still stood on its cliff, obscuring the Sutro Baths – and Sutro's Parapet hidden behind shubbery. It went dark.

I have done this job for five years, the longest I have ever held a paying position anywhere, because of these moments. It is the ability to commune with the breath of the City. You get to sit with that city, locked in quiet romance in the night. But, you get to do all of it anonymously, coast through the town as a unified part of the fabric of the thing you adore. In a taxi, you can hide in plain sight.

21 November 2008

The Smell of Defeat

Driving 50 miles per hour down a small, residential street is not a good idea. The street was Chenery. The street winds its way through Glen Park. A tight lane flanked by parked cars which hardly allows for two moving cars to pass each other, Chenery has many small stop signs which appear as if from a fog. Last night there was no fog, but I was driving 50 miles per hour and, when one of these signs appeared, I slammed on the brakes which promptly lost most of their pressure. I did get the car to stop somewhere near the limit line. There were no other cars and no pedestrians in sight. Then I smelled the burnt brake fluid. Two hours into my shift, I went home.

My stats to date:

(2) Sets of smoked brakes
(3) Blown transmissions
(1) Door torn off a cab
(1) Side mirror shattered

30 July 2008

SFO Taxi Overflow Lot #2

The subterranean lots that hold the taxis and drivers waiting to pick people up at SFO are filled with the low hums and shrill whistles of machines whose purposes are unknown to us. Probably air-conditioners, generators, transformers, we sit in the field of white noise created by their chorus, waiting. Working the airport is uncertain business. The wait, from the moment we drive in, to the slow procession of cabs through three lots, to our release topside at the terminals where we load, can take up to a few hours. The fares go everywhere, with higher paying rides to outlying communities in the Bay Area being less frequent than traffic-riddled jaunts into the city. A night spent picking people up at SFO can pay out big or pay out nothing. Through all of this waiting, all of this hoping, the one certainty is that the coffee here is absolutely wretched.

Down a ramp next to Lot #2, the only lot above which we can see open sky, is a catering truck of the variety commonly seen at large construction sites. Run by a pleasant Vietnamese family, it serves American fast-food staples, Asian rice dishes on rectangular Styrofoam plates, and has a black spigot which pours the much I use to keep myself awake. It tastes like chemicals: potassium nitrate; titanium dioxide; bleach; Micronesian speed. (I've never actually tried these things, other than the latter, but my imagination leads me to believe they have a similar effect on the palate.)

And still, I drink it. It is an intermittent feature of my nights at the airport. Its bitter taste, resistant to even a complete saturation of sugar, is a taste linked in memory to the sights of old Russian men playing cards on trunk-tops of taxis, waiting -- to the sounds of men yelling at each other in Arabic and laughing -- to the sounds of friends' voices on the phone when I call while I wait -- and cat naps in cars -- and hours of taking notes on it all -- and eventually to the sound of the dispatcher's shrill whistle which releases us from the lots, these pens, on to pick up some stranger and some unknown destination. I can never forget that taste.

29 July 2008

The Flowchart

At the beginning of my shift, I pick up a cab at the yard. I talk to the cashier, say hello to the mechanics and other drivers, eventually finding my taxi in the far corner of the lot. Even if it's a car I drive regularly, any number of things could have happened to it since I drove it last. For safety, you inspect the vehicle.

When I was a new driver, I wasted time checking to see if everything in the car worked -- not realizing what was important, not having a streamlined process for the beginning of my shift. Now I have that understanding, and I've turned my process into an easy-to-follow flowchart which should be handy to the new driver and beneficial to the old driver (in case of Alzheimer's).

You're welcome.

18 June 2008


"We are from Micronesia," one said.

I picked them up from the airport. Their accents didn't sound necessarily Micronesian, though I don't know what a Micronesian accent sounds like. They were friendly, plump, sweaty. They looked like they had just gotten off of a long flight. We talked -- I can't remember about what. And then I dropped them off at the hotel on Market at 8th street that used to be the Ramada, probably was the Ramada when this happened. They paid their fare from the airport and left.

A few minutes later I was taking someone to the Outer Sunset and the message came across the computer. Dispatchers are able to send their drivers text messages in cabs. Text messages are quite normal in everyday life. With most of the companies in San Francisco still operating with voice radios, the computer texting capabilities in Luxor and Yellow cabs seemed like a minor miracle. It read like this: "876. Last fare from airport to Ramada left small bottle in your car."

After dropping off in the Outer Sunset, I examined the lost article. It was a small hair-dye developer bottle filled with a white powder. The single question in my head, which is normally full of doubt and distrust, was: "Why did a Micronesian pack hair developer and then call every cab company, immediately, when they realized they lost it?" It must not have been developer. I opened it and smelled. Nothing. No smell. So, without thinking about it, I tasted. And it tasted like a base substance. "Is this speed?" I couldn't tell. So, I tasted again. "Yeah. Might be speed." And again. And again.

"Fuck. I have to get this thing back to these guys." As the revelation that the Micronesians were smuggling something illicit came to me, so did the elevated heart-rate and sweatiness of their contraband. "Fuck. I'm on speed." I sent Ethan a text: "I think I'm on speed. I didn't mean to. Fuck." I arrived at the Ramada -- quickly. I returned their developer bottle and left without incident.

I posed a number of questions to myself. "How did they get that bottle on the plane?" A more disgusting question, after I answered the first one was: "How big is the asshole of a Micronesian?"

07 May 2008

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

I’ve started to memorize Travis Bickle’s (Deniro’s) lines from Taxi Driver. The point is, of course, to convincingly recite them to my fares. Either they will recognize the lines and be entertained, or they won’t – in which case I will be entertained. The latter is much more likely. People only see what they want to see. When most people step into a taxi, you – as the driver – are re-imagined as their preconceived notions of what a taxi driver is.

If the fares are paying attention to me and realize I don’t add up to what they think a taxi driver is or should be I get any number of responses: “Wow. You’re an American,” is quite common; “You’re the youngest cab driver I’ve ever seen,” is less common with the burly bear beard I’ve been growing; and “You’re too cute to be a cab driver,” followed by giggling – a typical comment from both genders, mostly on the weekends.

Most of the time, people automatically assume you’re trying to get one over on them. Other drivers rarely show you any courtesy. People don’t tip very well. And, as the great game of shuttling the people of San Francisco from point to point unfolds, you usually get a bad taste in your mouth. Pigeonholed into a stereotype, with people acting poorly around you, your distaste of people grows.

It isn’t always a bad thing. I think the job is hardening me up, in a way. The other night there was a whiny, wealthy, young, British couple that hopped into my car for a five block ride from the Pac Heights bar they were drinking (heavily) at to their hotel. On the way, they started asking me about places they could get food at one in the morning on a Monday night. I mentioned that there was a Denny’s restaurant across the street from their hotel. Turns out that the Denny’s in Japan Town is now a restaurant called Danny’s.

The Man: Why are we stopped.

Me: Uh. Red light. Incidentally, the Denny’s I was talking about is to our left… Oh…
wait… it’s now a Danny’s restaurant. Weird.

The Woman: That’s not a Denny’s.

Me: I just said that.

The Woman: It’s a Danny’s restaurant.

Me: Yeah. I just said that.

The Man: But where are we going to get food?

Me: There’re a few diners –

The Woman: That’s a Danny’s restaurant.

Me: There’re a few –

The Man: Why are we stopped?

Me: Red light, dude.

The Woman: It’s a red light. And that’s a Danny’s restaurant.

Me: Get the fuck out of my car.

The Man: What?

Me: Out!

27 February 2008

Where are we from? How did we get here?

“Where are you from?” I asked him, sitting across the table, which was covered with maps of San Francisco.

“Maybe,” he said, heavily accented, “I am from here.” He pointed on the map to the intersection of Washington and Columbus. The Transamerica Pyramid is at that corner. It was doubtful that my friend, who literally smelled like shit, was from there.

“Really?” I asked. He looked at me and looked at the map again.

“No. Maybe I am from here.” His finger slapped down on the map, again, this time in the middle of the Presidio.

“Nevermind,” I said, aiming my attention downward at the stack of flash cards in front of me. One side of the cards had hotel names. The other side had addresses and intersections.

“Maybe I am from here,” he said, pointing to another random location on the map. I was ignoring him.

Dave Trotman, our instructor, also a cab driver, listened closely to our conversation. The strange man at the table was an enigma – a crazy, possibly mentally-ill enigma who would be part of my peer group as a taxi driver.

Outside of the aging office building at 7th and Market where he held his classes, Trotman and I discussed his origins.

“I think he’s from some Eastern European country,” Dave said.

“I would like to give the Eastern Europeans more credit.”

“Every country has its crazies,” he said. “Oh, and I figure one more day of this and I’ll give you your certificate.” I’d only been in his class for three days.

“What about him,” I asked, pointing up and to the building.

“A few more weeks. He can’t start driving people around until he can at least identify Market street on a map," he said.

I finished my cigarette and we went back up to the classroom, where our friend was still staring blankly at the map.

* * *

Sometimes I ask myself how I got to a certain place in life. The events behind me are always blurry, and it’s hard to figure out how the events of the past caused the effects visible in the present. The place in question, here, was my position in a plastic classroom chair across the table from the man who was, now, talking to himself. From my vantage point, I traced the string of events back in time: I had been away for a number of months, in Europe. I returned, broke and desperate, but with a resolve not to get involved in the industry I had left when I left the States. At coffee, I saw an old friend who had been driving cabs in the City for a year and he broke it down for me. He told me about the classes I would have to take, the paperwork I would have to fill out, the fees I would have to pay to people like Trotman and entities like the City. And it seemed more interesting than a regular job – a coffee shop job, an office job, a construction job. There I was.

* * *

Months after our encounter across the table in the office building, I saw the Eastern European on the street. He was behind the wheel of a taxi, sitting at the cab-stand across the street from the Grand Hyatt. He was staring blankly at the hotel. Someone had given him a job.

But, I only saw him once. God only knows what kind of chaos that man caused, driving around in San Francisco at night. Maybe the Police do, too.