The Scent of a Cabbie

Bluury Streets of SF


The sun’s been coming up early. (Ok. And I’ve been “sleeping in.”) Regardless, I do feel the unrelenting compulsion to race in to work, to beat its rise, like a vampire trying to make his casket before turning to ash. Hopefully, mine will be full of coffee grounds. I need a buzz.

I’m finished greasing Tony’s palms back in the Citizen’s Cab office, and I head out to the lot.

Aside: Yeah, I chanced a $5 bribe on Tony for an airport this morning. I don’t actually expect to see one come my way from dispatch. But I gotta check-in now and then, if only to keep Tony on his toes.

I’m in new ‘ol 137 and I’m immediately overcome with a strong wave of fruity… Well, just strong, fruity. I look around hard, but I cannot find the offending Christmas Tree air freshener, however hard I try. Oh, well. At least it’s not vomit. I shall ‘Accept.’


Finally, Starbucks!

“Would you like to try our Sumatra today? Or would you prefer the Blonde Roast, sir?”

I can only produce one word.


And “speed” does seem to be the word of the day, as I’m caught struck by an omen over at the sugar and creamers. It’s one of the ubiquitous early morning homeless Starbucks “customers,” from the tent and tarp encampments under the nearby 101 overpass. And Badger just can’t seem to keep still. He’s tapping away all amped-up on a napkin holder and countertop, as he shuffles his feet in place and looks around scanning to make eye contact with anyone who will engage. But no one will. For, there is no iPod involved here. Badger is just clearly high on meth. And I ignore him, as I splash some whole milk in my coffee and reach over to steal a thick stack of napkins from the opposite holder at the station. Then I quickly turn to leave – sans eye contact, to go on about my business and officially start my day, as I leave Badger behind all percussive and fidgeting like a child fishing for attention.


I’m cruising the Upper Haight, and have yet to break the ice. I guess the day has NOT officially started! But, it’s still early.

Anyway, it’s an odd scene up here. Odder than usual for the Haight. Amidst the everyday early morning street kids sleeping in head-shop doorways with their cats and pit bulls, there’s a long line of lawn chairs and tents and coolers lined up on the south sidewalk, snaking down Haight Street and wrapping around Masonic. From the looks of it, it’s a mostly bridge and tunnel (and South Bay) crowd. Hmm… The line ends at the weird Hip Hop/Star Wars clothing store here on Haight that I have yet to understand. It must be some kind of big sale they’re camped-out for. Well, I have noticed that True Clothing does have some kind of cult following. I mean, where else are you gonna get your Wu Tang Clan/Chewbacca T-shirt?

It’s kind of interesting to see the mix of young shoppers who spent the night here, as they’re distinguished from the everyday homeless runaways and drug dealers by their show of tents and lawn chairs and coolers. The only commonality is the sleeping bags and colorful blankets. Albeit sans several layers of notable grime, with respect to the ranks of the hip-hop/sci-fi fashionista geeks.

Rolling mid-block west past Ashbury, I suddenly take note of a ragged, dirty-faced, disheveled 20-something hippie kid, who strikes me as somewhat reminiscent of Pig Pen, as he meanders down the middle of the street gesturing wildly and screaming at no one. Finally, some normality.

I’ve made it to the end of the Haight Street strip and I’ve made my usual U-turn at Shrader, before cruising back through the strip, still fare-less. I’m passing Buena Vista Park and just beginning the dive down the hill into the Lower Haight.

Interesting Note: The curb that flanks Buena Vista Park was made from recycled tomb stones from old, turn-of-the-century San Francisco. At some point around the 1906 quake and fire, land in San Francisco became precious and it was decided that there was too much space being wasted on graveyards. So, it was mandated that whole graveyards be moved down south to Colma, if the deceased had family with money! Otherwise, your tombstone ended up playing some other utilitarian purpose. Some were stacked out at Ocean Beach, to be used as a hedge against erosion. They, of course, got buried in the sand over the years. But, every now and then, a big storm will come in from the Pacific and uncover the stones, making legible their inscriptions. If you look closely, some are actually still visible in the curb around Buena Vista Park!

So, yeah. Coming down the Haight Street hill into the Lower Haight… I smell something. It’s a shiny red Camaro with 17” chrome wheels tailgating me and revving his engine. And dude is antsy!

WTF?? It’s way too early to be in this kind of hurry. And Haight Street ain’t exactly the Autobahn. Hell, I’m not even going slow! Whatever. I’ll just stay the course.


But a couple blocks on, as I approach the four-way stop at Scott where many a cyclist blows the stop signs over here in the heart of The Wiggle….


Earnhardt floors it, as he dramatically veers around me, screeching tires and blasts completely through said four-way stop!!

Earnhardt continues ZOOMing on, FLYing through the entirety of the Lower Haight’s commercial strip, before continuing on in his hell bent rampage in egregiously running the red down at Fillmore. I watch Earnhardt as he darts through this usually heavily-trafficked straight-away, and take note as way down Haight he then signals before taking a left onto Webster. Jeez. I mean, why bother?

Anyway, yeah it’s early and relatively calm. But Earnhardt is EXTREMELY lucky that he didn’t take out a commuting cyclist, or jaywalking pedestrian! Yup, the word of the day definitely seems to be “speed”.

I putt on, and continue on with my rounds as I take my usual left onto Fillmore, now having also made it fare-less through the Lower Haight.

But, not so fast! (So to speak.)

Some young white blonde hipster chick in a tan beanie, jean jacket, black jeans and black leather motorcycle boots suddenly comes stumbling out from the sidewalk and half raising an arm to flag. I pull sharply to the curb on Fillmore. And my potential fare drunkenly maneuvers towards my open shotgun window to address me, seemingly exasperated, and posing more of a statement than a question.

“You take credit cards.”

But before I can answer, Jackie has already opened 137’s rear door and has set slumped in back.

“Uh, where to?” I query, with clipboard/waybill at the ready, as I gaze in the rear view for her response.

Jackie sniffles and coughs out, “26th & Guerrero,” as it becomes clear that Jackie is actually working with a mix of both alcohol and cocaine, as evidenced by the sniffles, and her blood-shot eyes. Yes, Jackie is just finishing her night.

We roll into the Mission in silence, but for a few sporadic coughs and sniffles, and the swinging sounds of Django Reinhardt wafting from San Francisco’s only jazz station KCSM, 91.1FM. (I move on from classical after dawn.) Yup, “speed”.

In short order, we arrive at Jackie’s drop at the corner of 26th and Guerrero. On cue, she throws me up an Amex for the $9.55 fare, and says to add four bucks before stumbling out of 137.

The ice is now broken.

I start back out of the Mission rolling towards the Castro, and ultimately towards the Haight again, as Tony comes over the radio berating a driver for all to hear.

“856! If ya don gaht no fare an don wanna chek tha mergn’cy room, tak ahff! Copee, 856? Roll!!”


Well, I’m back in the Upper Haight, again, with only Jackie under my belt. The sun’s beaming clear now up on Haight Street, and it begins to melt the morning dew. After I pass the still slumbering camped-out shoppers, I find that I have to navigate around a scene at the corner of Ashbury. It’s a bunch of cops standing about at the corner, surrounding a gurney that’s being loaded into the back of an ambulance.

Hey! It’s Pig Pen!

He’s strapped into the gurney. But, he’s sitting up… and vehemently waving both arms outstretched at the EMTs and cops giving them all BOTH middle fingers while yelling “FUCK YOU!!!” to them, over and over! Wow.

I roll on…

Another block on, at Clayton, I note a couple motorcycle cops off their bikes and searching the belongings of some street kids they’ve roused from their sleep in the doorway of Tibetan Gift Corner. One officer has his citation book out and is scratching them all a ticket. Guess it’s time to take out the trash, to clean up the streets. Sit/Lie lives here on the sidewalks of the Haight. But, hmm. Wonder how they’re addressing the hip-hop/Star Wars contingent?

“Cha-ching! – 380 Eddy. Ray. Dispatch.”

That’s Ray and King Louie! A regular and his Chihuahua mix that do a daily round trip for his methadone fix. You may recall Ray. He’s a nice old black guy who lives and sells “Roxies” (Oxycontin) here in the Tenderloin. He uses the proceeds to look out for his adult daughter. (And King Louie, of course.)

I like Ray. But his regular ride has moved from the methadone trailer at the back of the gravel lot at 14th & Mission over to SF General now. While the round trip is now around $30 on the meter, Ray always has just a twenty at the ready. And he hands it up as mentioning nothing about the short. I understand that Ray is not a man of means. I would generally be cool with that, but for the fact that his regular ride is right smack at the peak of rush hour! And I got kids to fee… Oh, whatever.

I ‘Accept’.

I pull up on 380 Eddy. And Ray and King Louie are out in front and ready to go, as usual. And as usual, Ray opens the back door for King Louie, who jumps in and then up front to sniff me out before going on to inspect the rest of the cab. Louie’s pretty damn cute, even if he smells a bit ripe today.

Under his olive green fishing hat, Ray barks at King Louie to settle down after getting in, then gums through his lips with his friendly rasp,

“Howz ur kidz, man? Thaht one givin’ u truble shape uhp, yit? Soundz lik thaht oldah kid neeed ah guud smackin’!”

“Oh, things are ok. But nothing’s changed with the teenager. Thanks for asking, though. You headed over to General?”

Ray, “Ye-ah. U kno et. ‘N wate fer me, ‘n tak me bak agin.”

As we start off, I hear the crinkling of a single bill being drawn from Ray’s pants pocket and then flattened on his lap. Sure enough, Ray hands me up a twenty as I drive. And I turn off the meter.

Yeah, whatever.

We navigate rush hour traffic and the maze of construction on Potrero. Hell, on everywhere! San Francisco is a nightmare these days with development and construction and streets being ripped up around every turn, as they’re replacing the 100-year-old sewer system and adding underground infrastructure for all the new high-rise developments and various new office and hospital buildings.

I pull into the horseshoe drive behind building 93 at SF General, and I pull over out of the way to the side in this small parking lot here to wait…

I’m rocking NPR now. Krasny is doing a bit on the recent revelations of exploitation by nail salons of their immigrant workers. And as I listen to the litany of horrors taking place in these modern American sweatshops, I take note of a young black dude and his girl having trouble with their old beat up Toyota. It won’t start for them. Dude has jumper cables out and after looking around, is now calling over to some other black dude who’s just happening by in a shiny black SUV with huge chrome wheels. I’m closer to the Toyota. And I don’t think the brother in the SUV can fit in next to the Toyota to jump dude. I ponder why dude doesn’t ask me to help. Is it because I’m white? Or because I’m a cabbie? Whatever. I would help. But they seem to be trying to work it out.

Five minutes later…

Ok. This is just painful to watch. I can easily fit in next to dude’s Toyota. And they are totally floundering.

“Hey! You need help, man? I can probably fit in next to you!”

“Yeah! That’d be great, man!”

And SUV brother backs off, as I roll in-between the Toyota and the brick wall of the hospital.

I get out and go to unlatch my hood. But the plastic handle for the hood under the dash seems to be broken. The cable that attaches to the latch has come off of it. No matter. I can just pull the cable directly. And, I do. And I get out to go up and unlatch the hood proper…

Hey! The hood didn’t lift!

I go back inside the cab, and pull the cable again. And get back out to check the hood…

Hey! Still nothing!

And right on cue, Ray and King Louie come out of the hospital.

“Dude. I’m really sorry. My hood won’t open. And it looks like I gotta go now. Good luck, man.”

And Dude jumps to go running, yelling after the brother in the SUV, who’s already started to roll.



I’m cruising back into the city and headed up Mission Street, fresh from an airport. No, NOT courtesy of dispatch.

I catch a Yellow Cab in the rear view zooming up from behind on my left. He’s no doubt trying to pass, and mack me on the Mission run. Fucker. But before Yellow can, a fat white guy in a dirty wife-beater (that doesn’t even remotely cover his belly) at the bus stop at 22nd steps out into the street to flag me. Well, why not?

I pull over.

Take THAT, Yellow bitch!

And Archie gets in back.

And Archie stinks.


Oh, JESUS!!!

The cab FILLS with the most potent shit stench EVER! EVER!! And in my five years driving, I have seen a LOT of “EVER”!!!

I roll all the windows down, full stop!

And Archie speaks, “Nice day, huh?”

And Overcome Cabbie speaks, “Uh, yeah. Let’s get some fresh air in here, eh? Oh, where to?”

(PLEASE say the NEXT intersection!)

Archie, “I’m going to 6th & Mission… How’s your day goin’?”

(Well it was going just great… until you consumed my taxi with the most unbelievable shit-your-pants malodor EVER known to man!!)

Teary-eyed Cabbie, “Oh, it’s going ok. 6th & Mission. You got it!”

I floor it! I HAVE to make these lights!!

But, oh Lord! The windows rolled down have done nothing! NOTHING!!


Ok… It’s not too far to Archie’s no doubt crack SRO hotel drop up at watch-your-cell-phone central, at 6th. It’s just a straight shot up Mission. But, still.


Archie (attempting small talk), “I hear there’s a big tech thing happening on Howard. Maybe you can catch one of those guys heading to the airport.”

Holding Breath Cabbie, “Oh, (gulp) yeah. That thing just started at Moscone, I think. Maybe (gasp) Friday.”

Archie, “What’s ‘Moscone’?”

Uh, huh.

We drive. And the onslaught continues RELENTLESS!

But Archie plays it sweet, and he is conversational. He IS a nice guy… BURN HIS SOUL!!!

As we approach 6th Street, Archie hands me up a Visa while simultaneously asking, “Do you take credit cards?”

Crying Cabbie, “Uh, (sniff) sure. No (gasp) problem. It’s $9 (gulp) .55. How much should I (choking down vomit) charge it for?”

Archie, “Make it an even $10, if it doesn’t decline. Thanks.”

(If it doesn’t decline?? Whatever. Money’s not important right now! JUST GET OUT!! And take the MOST OFFENSIVE shit stench EVER KNOWN TO MAN with you!!!)

Turning-Blue Cabbie, “Oh, thanks.”

The card goes through. Well, Ok.

And Archie exits 137…

But, he does NOT exit my LIFE! For this is a SPECIAL brand of rot. One that does NOT leave the cab with Archie. It seems… (sniff, sniff ) yes, it seems to have gotten STUCK in my NOSE!!

This EVIL proves NO less embedded in my nasal passages than the omnipotent funk of DEATH! And there’s something organic in this INVASION, that has fused itself into my VERY BEING!

OH, GOD!!!

As I drive off with my stomach convulsing, I look back and check the seats…


Trailing THICK across the vinyl back seat, shimmering in the sun, is a foot-wide, foot-long, very SOLID glazed streak of brownish OOZE all OVER the seat where Archie sat! Holy JEEZ!!

I grab a wad of Starbucks napkins and wipe, and wipe, Archie’s ass from this newly-declared Superfund site. But it just smears! I wipe more… And MORE… AND MOREEE!


Shit!! (No pun intended.)

I pour water from my bottle all across the seat, before going for round two with the napkins, and chucking them out of the window as I roll…

But I can STILL see the STREAK! And all the foulness has NOT relented ONE BIT! GOD!!! My eyes are STILL watering! My stomach… STILL gurgling and contracting!!

What the hell am I going to do?? I can’t take passengers in the cab with it smelling like this!! And this, WITH all of the windows completely DOWN! Ugh! And for a mere TEN bucks!

I can’t call it a day, though. It’s WAY too early. And baby needs a new pair of shoes.


Well, maybe it will clear out with the windows all down for a while, cooking in the noon California sun… Hey! I know what I’ll do. I’ll head over to Moscone and get in the cab line. It’ll give me some down time. It’ll no doubt be like 20 minutes before I catch a fare over at the Internet of Things conference. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.

15 Minutes Later…

I’m now first in line at the Moscone South cab stand, as four suits walk up. Without acknowledging me, they all pile into 137, with one sitting up front. The suit sitting up front takes the initiative to break from the animated group converse to direct simply, “Hotel Nikko, driver.”

I mark my waybill and drive, as watch carefully in the rear view for any sign that my suits notice the HELL that their driver STILL has yet to escape… And I pray for the one who has assumed Archie’s post. I wonder if his dry cleaner can do what a forest of Starbucks napkins could not! And I pray please, PLEASE, do NOT roll up your WINDOWS!!

Hmm. My suits do not seem to be flinching, at all! But the evil is STILL with ME, and alive in my nostrils as a kicking mule! I keep my fingers crossed. Yeah, it MUST be in my nose!

We ride with my fares oblivious. WHEW! They just gab amongst themselves like an old boys club, as each tries to out misogyny the other, “Which head was she talking to?” as all bellow in laughter. (Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!)

As we pass a high-rise condo construction site, the boys get all serious talking real estate. I’m not thinking these guys were there for the tech. Anyway, they remain oblivious. Good. Maybe the high volume of the open windows has distracted their olfactory senses. Usually, fares ask me to roll up the windows. Thank the Lord these have not!

We roll up on the Hotel Nikko and I drop my suits, $10 richer on AMEX. And it looks like I got another ride! Sweet. The Nikko doorman holds the door open for an older couple, who get in back.

PLEASE don’t ask me to roll up the windows! PLEASE DO NOT!!

Ozzy & Harriet scooch in back with beaming smiles, “Beautiful day! Yes, driver? We are going to the Cliff House, please.”

Hesitant Cabbie, “The beach, it is! Yes, a lovely day! It’s very nice to enjoy it with the windows down, wouldn’t you agree?”


Bob Valor is back at dispatch now. He comes over the radio.

“137… 137, over. Come in, 137…”

“137. Over.”

“137. Check your hood. Your hood’s open, 137!”

“137. Uh… copy.”

Jeez. What? Is Big Brother watching me??
I scan around, to no avail.

Anyway, I guess the latch did work back at General. Oops.


I’m rolling up 18th and headed into the Castro.

Between the heat of the direct sun, the airing out the cab with all of the windows rolled completely down for over two hours, and several passengers having now come and gone as foisted in a collaborative effort to sop up Archie’s offense… I can now breathe once again! (Sigh.) Sweet!

I’m come up on my right turn for the Castro strip. But before I can, two large black women in brown MUNI uniforms come running across the street from the bus stop at Castro to hail me. And I pull over.

My pair is vibrant and jovial, fun. Queen and Latifah give off a very warm vibe as they jump in back all excited and giddy.

“Tank gahd you stop’d, drivah! We headed ta tha MUNI lot uhp aht 16th ‘n Potr’ro. Tha bus takin’ TOO long! Ha! Ha!”

Both laugh in unison, as do I with them, at the irony.

Driver, “16th & Potrero. (Heh, heh.) Are you guys MUNI drivers?”

Latifah, “Ye-ah. We drive buses. ‘N we late! Tink you kin git us dere en fihve minute?”

Assuring Driver, “Sure. No problem.”

Queen, “Ye-ah, tank gahd you stop’d. Some cabs don’ pick uhp no black peeple!”

Latifah, “Especily owt en da Bay-view! I jus’ had ta star usin’ dat Cabulous thang. Mm-hmm!”

Apologetic Cabbie, “Well, it’s mostly Yellow that doesn’t stop for black people, or play the Bayview. And they’re the biggest cab company. So, they kind of give us all a bad name. Yellow treats their drivers bad, too. So only the bad ones go work there. And for some reason they have the most Middle Easterners. And, I hate to say it, but a lot of Middle Easterners don’t like black people.”

Queen, “Ye-ah! I kno dat! ‘N dey especily hate wuman! Dey wuman gaht NO rites! So, we’s gittin NO luv! Ha! Ha!”

Beaming Cabbie, “Yeah, black people, women… and dogs. Dogs, too!”

Doh! Did I just compare blacks and women to dogs? Maybe that didn’t come out quite right.

Clarifying Cabbie, “Er, I mean… Back in the one day cab class at the MTA when I was getting legal, there was this very sweet Middle Eastern gentleman in a sport coat who when told that as a cab driver, we HAVE to take people’s dogs, he raised his hand in class and asked if he could “put the dog in the trunk”. Of course, the instructor told him no. But he wasn’t having it. There was a five minute back and forth between him and the instructor where he was asking, “But WHY can’t we put the dog in the trunk?”

Queen & Latifah both bust out laughing at this, again in unison.

“Ha! HA! Ha!! HA!!”

We roll up in no time on their MUNI bus lot. And Latifah throws me $15 cash for the $9.55 ride, as Queen leans back in through the open shotgun window with,

“We’s lik you! Shuld com werk fah MUNI wit us! Be ah buss drivah! Ha! HA! Com ahn ovah!”
I’m rolling up 18th again, fresh from Queen & Latifah’s drop.

But just as I cross Church into the edge of the Castro, a big older black woman flags me from the sidewalk right outside of a food bank here. I pull over, albeit hesitantly.

You see, the last two times that I pulled over for someone flagging outside of this food bank, they got in and immediately handed me a voucher for Yellow Cab! And it has not thus far proven very easy to explain that while, yes, my cab does have a good amount of yellow in its color scheme, there are also green checkers… GREEN CHECKERS! I am NOT, nor ever have I EVER been a Yellow!

So, Flo gets in back. But before she can speak, I half-jest in offering,

“You don’t happen to be paying with a voucher for Yellow Cab, do you?”

I smile nervously, via the rear view. But it appears that Flo does not get the joke. A stoic Flo just retorts with a sharp, “No, sir.”

Hmm. I better try repairing the damage here.

“Er, uh. Beautiful day, huh? Where ya headed?”

Flo, “It’s ah short ride, drivah. Jus’ uhp to 18th & Collingwood, please. Yessir, it is ah beaut’ful day. But we need tah pray to tha lord fer those poor peeple en Nepal. There waz ‘nother eart-quake owt there dis mornin’! Hmph! Lord!”

Commiserating Driver, “Oh, yeah! I listen to a lot of NPR. I just heard about that! Just awful. Those poor people! Yes, a prayer is in order.”

Flo, “’N there waz ah twelve yeer ‘ol boy who gaht run ovah by a MUNI train jus’ dis morn’n owt aht Lakeview ‘n San Jose! He run across dah street to make tha train fer skool, ‘n almos’ gaht hit by TWO diffrn’t trucks! Then he spin ‘round ‘n git hit smack en front ah da train! His mama had tah come ‘n try to pull ‘em owt from undah da train! Jus’ awful. Say ah pray’r fer him! Lord!”

Wow! I did not hear about that one! That sucks. My younger boy is 12! That kid’s poor mother… Man, Flo is ON with her current events. NPR ain’t gaht nuthin’ on Flo!

Hail, Mary! And Amen!


Check out Alex’s book San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
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Photo by Christian Lewis

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Alex Sack

Alex Sack, born 1970, is a taxi driver who grew up in the Washington D.C. suburbs of Maryland. He attended several different colleges and universities around the D.C./Baltimore region as a music major for 4 & 1/2 years before quitting - pre-diploma - to the horror of his father. He tried his hand as a professional musician/songwriter seeing him through travels domiciled in New York City’s East Village, Los Angeles (where he scored a few songs on The Disney Channel's 'Even Stevens') and San Francisco - where he's ultimately put down roots. Alex is a single dad to two boys, currently ages 15 and 17. His post-natal fallback occupation as Operations Assistant at a start-up clean-tech engineering consultancy came to a sudden end with the one-two punch of the owner’s fatal skiing accident in Tahoe and the subsequent downturn in the economy.This - and an acquired nervous twitch to cubicle work - has led to his latest job...

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