Burners & Redemption

cable car

It’s a groggy morning coming back to big city cab driving from a Labor Day weekend camping with my kid and his Boy Scout troop. The scene of the crime was a few hours north of San Francisco at the border of the redwood-abundant Mendocino National Forest, on the outskirts of a rustic western hippie-redneck town named Willits. I kept busy with my guitar and some illicit booze (This WAS a Christian endeavor, people!) as the boys all ran around honing their various skills in sailing and canoeing on the lake, and at dispersed stations set up for archery, BB guns, shotguns and rifles.Driving in my van way too early into work this morning, there’s that smell in the air. You know the one; where no one wants to be back at their desk, where the town ever so slowly creeps back to life and productivity as every khaki pant and navy skirt stands ready to blow off their first day of work clearing out emails and shooting the shit over at the water cooler via exchanging familial tales from their time off. The thing is though, a cabbie’s life involves no email… And aside from waiting in a hotel line or at the airport – which I do not “play”, there is no water cooler. It’s straight up back to work for your boy, Alex.

Well, if the past is prologue, I’ll likely be busy today with the return migration from Burning Man – by design coinciding with Labor Day, as I navigate around the hordes of dirt covered 4-wheel drive Subarus with neon-fuzz decorated mountain bikes racked onto their backs as they all sit in grid-lock on the off-ramps of 101. San Francisco progressively clears out during the week of Burning Man as it leads up to Labor Day. Post-BM, the city comes roaring back to life like a tsunami; not only with the return of the many hipsters and hipster-wannabes (now) indigenous to S.F., but also with all the eurofags now crossing continents en mass to attend the debauchery in the desert. There will be more than one German accent in the back of my taxi today emanating from dread-locked, crystal necklace-adorned, leather vest wearing, trust fund DJ’s gloating about their recent prowess on The Playa (musical and otherwise).

It’s all good. The back seat will be warm. But, I do wish I had email to check.
I’m out in Bayview in the Citizen’s Cab lot, and I’m headed up to the bullet-proof glass to see Sammy the Blonde Rocker for my key and medallion…

Sack, “Hey! You’re not Sammy!”

Not-Sammy, “No. I Vlad. There were many, many mosquitoes. I light citronella… candle… Sammy start dizzy… vomit… over office! He sleep truck now.”

Sack, “Wow. That sucks. I’ve been sleeping with my window open lately, too, due to the heat. I’ve been getting bitten by mosquitoes at night, too! I didn’t even know San Francisco HAD mosquitoes! Where the hell are they breeding anyway! I mean, with the drought and all… Anyway, nice to meet you, Vlad. I’m Sack. 137 please.”

It looks to be a party still over at the driver’s porch/lounge area behind me, as smoke is still rising from last night’s driver BBQ. It’s a weekly thing where drivers from all color schemes are alerted to bring meat by way of a taxi drivers group on Facebook… and okay, shoot the shit water cooler-style with tales of cabbie politics and close calls from the road. But these guys are done with their shifts, and I need to make money. Gotta roll.

As I pass the gaggle of wildly gesturing drivers, I take note of one of the lot cats up on the banquet table chomping boldly for a burger. This is unusual, as the norm for the various strays that inhabit the lot is first, their cautious approach; then, the cabbie heart melt; and finally, the rendered driver sees himself pitching half the turkey & swiss he made for lunch over. In this case, however, it’s a mangy orange and black-with-soot feral displaying much chutzpah by the grill… before she takes off running with her prize betwixt cabs prepping to go out and under long dead spares, dented, defunct and destroyed beyond repair. They sit randomly about the lot comprising a graveyard of parts waiting to Frankenstein into taxis of stretched longevity, and to be imbued with new life. (Er, like the cat?)

Well, it seems we’ve all become friends now. A kindred breed. And all of the enamored night drivers cheer on this downtrodden feline as she ravenously feasts and runs… and I move on towards 137 – my regular Prius.


It’s post-Starbucks and I’ve almost made it a full round through the city without a fare. That quiet “smell” is still hovering about.

I’m just breaching the hill overlooking the bay at Fillmore and Broadway, with its amazing view if the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and some monolithic container ship just creeping in. This scene is set to the sound of fog horns, as Classical 90.3 – KDFC competes the mood with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.


Still nothing. Damn Burners. They must be sleeping off all the MDMA and dust. Jeez. What am I doing out here? What social value do I have?? What’s my reason to breathe!?


“Cha-ching! 2135 Greenwich. Kayla. iPhone.”

My first ride! Fuckin’ finally!! Hell yeah, I ‘Accept’!!!

I’ve been cruising the Marina, again, and am only a few blocks away on the yuppie Union strip of boutique shops, gyms and cafe’s. And yes I am ready to actually get to work, and let go of the head that has ensued from rolling empty for an hour, or more, past scores of young white professionals staring at their cell phones waiting for their uninsured Uber or Lyft eager to wear down their new Toyota with the sub-prime loan for minimum-wage. Ah, “jobs” and the “sharing” economy. (Sorry, had to get at least one jab in.)

I roll up lickety-split on Kayla, who’s out in front of her building staring at her phone waiting for her actual Cabulous legit taxi ride to…

Kayla, “Hi driver, I’m going to 650 Cal, in the Financial. Can you take Van Ness to the Broadway Tunnel, then down Montgomery and right on California. Let me tell you! I HATE being hit on by my boss! I’m late for a meeting. But I don’t fucking care! I’m still gonna smoke a cigarette when I get out! Hey, I broke my toe! So I need you to pull right up front. I don’t even need to go to this dumb meeting! It’s shit. I drink wine at work. My boss doesn’t care. Fuck it. I’ll just drink. Hair of the dog, bitch! I was singing at Martuni’s last night. Karaoke. Karen Fuckin’ Carpenter, bitch! She had perfect fuckin’ pitch, man! NO ONE can sing like her! NO ONE!!”

I drive. And I note in the rear view that Kayla has tears welling as she relays her deep admiration for Karen Fuckin’ Carpenter.

But Kayla doth digress… some more, “My boyfriend wants to move. I think he’s crazy! We have it good, reeeel good! We only pay $3500 a month for our studio! Can you believe it?? If we move, we’ll never get a deal like that! He’s got the money, though. He works in tech. And he shops at Patagonia. Me? You wouldn’t believe it, but I got this outfit at Ross. Fuckin’ ROSS!! Anyway, I’m feelin’ kinda manic right now. Karen Carpenter always does that to me! No one understands. I NEED that cigarette now! DAMN. I do NOT want to go to work!!”

We pull up on Kayla’s office building, right up front. I haven’t got a word in edgewise. But what would have been the point?

Kayla starts managing her way out of 137 simultaneously nursing her toe and digging through her purse for cigarettes… as 137’s door starts to close on her foot! (Damn. I’ve asked the mechanics ten times to fix that door!)

But Kayla doesn’t seem to even notice. Whew! She parts with words of encouragement.

“You’ve been a great driver! I only take REAL cabs. Well, mostly… I’ll rate you five stars on Cabulous! Thanks, driver! Bye!”

And Kayla hobbles off singing the Carpenter’s We’ve Only Just Begun, with her voice cracking.

Okay, it’s 8:35am. And I am now $13 into my $120 nut to crack. Only eight more Kaylas until I’m in the green…

I figure I’ll roll out of the Financial west up Market. Yeah, not a usually lucrative course of action. But, eh, it’s become habit. Anyway, I’m not up for the gridlock that heading out up Sutter through Union Square would promise, despite the hotels.

A few minutes later…

I’m at a red on Market at Montgomery, still in the deep Financial.

Hey! What’s this?? A scene! Wow!! Some Middle Eastern guy from the flower shack is screaming bloody murder in Arabic (I presume) while chasing some forty-something white dude in a Hawaiian print shirt and white cargo shorts all around the flower stand with a mop! And Saddam looks pissed!!

Saddam swings hard!! And…

WHACK!!! He lands the mop handle on Dude’s head!!

Dude runs in circles around the flower shack with Saddam in close pursuit!!


Dude ducks JUST in time!! And a MISS!!

Now Dude is sprinting for the newsstand rack next to my cab! (Good call. It’s a veritable wall.)

But Dude is no match for Saddam! He leaps the newsstand like an Olympian with a loud “Allah Akbar!” with mop wielded HIGH! And…


Saddam plants one RIGHT IN DUDE’S GUT!!

Dude bowls over and rolls, right as Saddam goes for the follow-through!

Saddam lifts the mop again, over his head FLYING in the air! And he comes down with another solid…


Right on Dude’s back!!

Dude scampers on the ground on all fours, gunning it for the shelter of Dosa – the south Indian food cart just as they’re setting up shop for the imminent lunch rush.

And it’s circles around Dosa… Saddam and Dude, around and around… with Saddam screaming in Arabic and SWINGING WILDLY FOR THE FENCES!!

And my light turns green on Market.

Damn. I really wonder what Dude did to piss off Saddam?? Guess we’ll never know. Ah, such is the life. I roll.
A few minutes later…

I’m still heading west up Market. But traffic has come to a stop ahead of 9th street. Hmm. There’s sirens… and police and… Hey! Wha?? The bomb squad just passed me!! Jeez. I might be stuck here for a while.

It’s bad enough that they shut down most of the lanes here around Bill Graham Civic Auditorium over a week ago. Although it was all hush-hush, everyone knew it was for some Apple event that’s going down today. But the excessive street closures for TWO WEEKS prior has not only proven a public disservice, but word has it that it’s also at a net loss to the tax payer what with all the police overtime and public works set-up! I guess it’s fitting that it’s all right across from City Hall. Another tech dick sucking, complements of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

Actually, I can sympathize with the tech-central location of this “suspicious package“. I mean, this town is now officially a Google/Apple/Yahoo/Twitter/Facebook annex. Unless of course, the bomb scare is just some geek’s vehement objection to Apple’s unveiling of a $100 pencil! (Excuse me, iPencil.)

The day moves on…


I’m cruising the upper Haight, which is bustling with tourists and still dusty Burners. (I would’ve thought most would’ve taken a shower by now. But, I guess they’re proud to show off their Burning Man street cred.)

Suddenly, a Burner with neon blue dread locks, black leather pants and matching leather vest boasting some bejeweled oracle hanging over his hairy heart, still wearing his dust storm goggles, jumps out from in front of the organic produce market at Ashbury, and flags.

Yes, Dieter. I am available.

I pull over… And four more Burners all quickly descend from the curb on 137!! Wait! I am only allowed to take four! (One passenger per seat belt.) But before I can protest, I have to quickly grab my “office” from the shotgun seat before the dirty Burner who’s already opened my shotgun sits on my waybill, hand towel, Royal Gate Prophet CD, etc.

Ah, screw it. They’re already all in… and bursting with excitement… and German accents.

My passengers all continue to gab with apparently no thought of the deal. It seems I have to remind them that they are in a cab, and that they should probably provide a destination!

I turn to address the alpha riding shotgun.

Driver, “Where to, Dieter?”

Dieter, “Ah, yess. Drivuh, cood you tak uhs too Fishuhmahn Woorf. Yess.”

I drive.

Hmm. Wonder if they’ll be hitting the Wax Museum, or Ripley’s Believe It or Not!…

It’s a good $20 ride from the Haight to Fisherman’s Wharf. I think I’ll make this my last. I’ve made enough to justify calling it a day.

Ten Minutes Later…

We pull up on the Wharf with my head spinning from loud European-accented tales of artsy public sex – something to do with finger painting, Ecstasy trips, and DJ rankings. The fare is $17.55. Dieter hands me over a twenty and yells to “Keeeep ett!” over the din of his crew all piling out of my taxi.

Okay, back to the lot. Back to Citizen’s Cab to call it!

But before I can move, an older tourist couple approaches my window, with trepidation. They bend in the open shotgun window to address.

“Are you free, driver?”

Driver, “Uh, sure Where ya headed?”

Tourist Couple (in unison), “Union Square.”

Driver, “Great! Get in.”

And we roll up Hyde while trailing an historic cable car, much to the delight of my tourist passengers who squeal in amazement at both the cable car ahead and the almost vertical inclines of Russian Hill.

Then, there is a break in the excitement.

Wife speaks, “Driver, did you know that there is a wallet in your back seat? It looks like there is a LOT of money here, too!”

Huh? Oh, jeez. The Burners!

Driver, “Oh! Uh… I’ll take it. We’re supposed to hand these things in to our dispatcher, in case the passenger calls to get it back.”

Right on cue, Wife hands me up a fat, dusty, black leather wallet with a thick wad of cash almost busting out. And I can tell from her look in the rear view that she questions whether I will actually turn the wallet in! Hmph!

Well, what would YOU do?

It’s illegal, of course, for me to keep the wallet. A Yellow Cab driver was actually arrested recently and jailed after an MTA sting for not turning in a wallet! The MTA played like passengers and totally set the guy up!

Well, I’m not really materialistic. If I were, I would NOT be driving a cab! Besides, I got this karma thing to consider. And on that note, my Burners don’t have a Trump’s chance in the general of getting this wallet back if I do turn it in to dispatch! They most certainly have NO clue what cab number they took, or even what color scheme they rode in! Jeez. Well, after I drop my tourists I’ll see if there’s any phone numbers I can call… that are NOT in Germany!

In short order, we pull up on the Westin St. Francis, ground zero in Union Square. Husband throws me $10 cash on the $7.90 fare. And as they exit 137, Wife awkwardly leans in to emphasize that I am “a decent man” for trying to get the wallet back to its owner. Hmph!

I dig though the wallet…

Let’s see… a German ID card, a couple pre-paid ATM cards, a stack of DJ business cards (figures), and… $390!! Jeez!

Well, the pre-paid ATM cards will be no help. I can’t call the bank. German ID doesn’t help. Hmm. I Guess I’ll try emailing the address on the DJ business card, and hold onto the wallet for a day, wait to see if I get a reply. Yeah, I’m risking my ass. But this will be Dieter et al’s best chance of getting it back.

From my iPhone (yeah, I’m a hypocrite) I email a generic, “Did you lose a wallet? If so, where?”

And I continue heading towards gas and the lot…

I check my email at the gas station on Army, a few blocks from Citizen’s… Wow! One of them responded already!

“Yess! En cahb too Woorf! How kehn I ghet?”

I email back that my day is done in the cab, as I am all the way across town now and close to the lot. But I let Dieter’s man know that he can pick up his wallet at my house in the city, after work.

And I walk from this day with a meager $143, but good karma.

Well, I suppose I done better than clearing out emails.


P.S. – Dieter et al roll up on my flat in a Yellow about an hour later, and I come down to meet them with wallet in hand. They all thank me profusely in thick German, and then start to hand me a twenty from the wad. But I wave them off, and relay a tale from my days in New York as a drummer living in the Lower East Side…

I tell them how I used to flag cabs at Houston & Ludlow, and then trick my driver into stopping by my apartment a couple blocks down at Rivington to “pick something up”. But with the meter now running, and before said driver could do anything, he’d find me quickly filling his cab up with my drum kit, in cases at the ready from just inside the door of my street-level studio. (Shout out to 133 Ludlow, y’all!)

It’d usually be a short trip over to CBGB’s, or Mercury Lounge. But I’d tip very well and was pretty quick about the whole load-in and out. Well once, after a gig, I get a call around two in the morning from my driver. It would seem that I left my stick bag in his cab after the gig! (We’re talkin’ about $80 worth of sticks, etc. here, which was no small beans to me back then.) Anyway, my driver said he saw my business card in the bag, and that’s how he knew to call. He mentioned that he was pretty far away, way up the Upper East Side by Columbia. But he offered to bring it down to me post-haste. Well, he did. And I, of course, went to throw my savior a twenty for his help, which this cab driver adamantly refused to take.

And here we are.


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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