They’ve been warning of a big El Niño in California. Say it’s gonna cause great landslides in the wake of this historic drought. But of course, they qualify that it won’t do much for the drought. Hmph! Well, who are they, anyway!
No really, who are “they”??
When I was a kid lying flat on my belly on the living room carpet inches from the TV, with my head propped up by elbows planted firmly in the floor, and the TV would go all white-noise and fuzzy, my parents would just write it off all nonchalant with, “It’s just them.” Well, I wanna know who “them” is! Cause they keep fucking up the program. Maybe we can all hunt them down, together! Get rid of “them”… Who’s with me!!
But, I digress.
The big El Niño this week was all of a three-hour rain, one morning. No wet gold for the cabbie.
It’s post-Starbucks. I’m rolling up 16th, just passing Mission.
Before Valencia, along a strip of closed bars, taquerias and Mexican produce marts, a wavering hand rises from the curb through the dark and mist; a flag. I immediately swerve right, and come to a halt in front of two men; a middle-aged Middle Easterner and a thirty-ish Mexican. The hand belongs to the Middle Eastern dude. He is vibrant, full of energy, loud and swaying. He’s drunk.
I unlock the doors to 137.
But before entering my cab, Allah bends into the back with a rambling story…
“HELL-O, my friend!! Many thank yous for stopping! It would seem I have locked myself out of my apartment! I am much embarrassed. I drive taxi for twenty-five years! Luxor, my friend! Taxi drivers look out for one another! Good people! Please, drive up two blocks of 16th. I call someone. Bring me the key. But please, friend. First, may I use your phone to call? My phone is upstairs, in my apartment…”
Allah, “Ah! I tip well, friend! And then you shall drive my other good friend here to work.”
Allah turns around to present Buen Amigo, who has stood silent the whole time.
Allah – now addressing Buen Amigo, “Friend! Where do you work? After I call my good friend for the key, you tell this driver where you go. This, too, is a good man. Be sure you tip him well. I will pay you back, friend. We have had great times tonight! Yes?”
Buen Amigo remains silent, as both now climb in back.
Friend starts the meter, before querying (amicably), “What is your friend’s number? I’ll call for you.”
Allah, “Ah! Many thank yous! My friend which we call. He is my BEST friend. A very famous singer! In Lebanon! He should be millionaire! IF he were still in Lebanon. I love him like my father. Sadly, my father has passed. A great man! His number is… 4… 1… 5… 2… 8… 9… Uh, yes! 2… 8… 9… 2… 8… 8… 9… That is it!”
Friend dials, and holds up his iPhone for all to hear on speaker.
(Friend does not think Allah a thief. But, eh, why screw around?)
Rrrriiinnngggg… Rrrriiinnnngggg… Rrrriiinnngggg…
A deep, groggy, ripped-from-sleep voice answers the call.
Allah, “AhbUd! AhbUd!! Are you there, AhbUd!? Wake up, AhbUd! I LOVE your music!!”
Not-AhbUd, “No. This is Charlie. I think you have the wrong number.”
Allah, “Ah! Charlie! Much apologies! I was calling my best friend, AhbUd! He is famous singer! In Lebanon! VERY famous… A voice like the Prophet himself! So sorry. You sleep!”
Friend hangs up the phone.
Allah, “So sorry. Ahbud’s number is on my phone… in my apartment. Please, try this number. 4… 1… 5… 2… 8… 9… Yes! 2… 8… 9… 9… That is it!”
Rrrriiinnngggg… Rrrriiinnnngggg… Rrrriiinnngggg…
And a groggy, ripped-from-sleep woman’s voice now answers the phone.
Not-AhbUd, “Mmm-Mmm… Yeeeeeesss?? Who (yaaawwnn) is calling??”
Allah, “You are NOT AhbUd! Many apologies. I call my best friend. Very famous singer, from Lebanon. VERY famous! Make beautiful music! Goodbye. You sleep!”
Allah turns to Friend, yet again, “Please, friend. ONE more call. It MUST be this one! 4… 1… 5… 2… 8… 9… Yes! This MUST be it! 2… 8… 9… 8…”
Rrrriiinnngggg… Rrrriiinnnngggg… Rrrriiinnngggg… Rrrriiinnngggg… Rrrriiinnnngggg…
And Allah gives up.
Allah, “AhbUd must be sleeping. Ah, friend. I shall waste your time no more. Please, drive my Mexican friend here to work. We have had many good times tonight, he and I. Take this money.” (Allah hands me three dollars.) “And my Mexican friend here, he will tip you more.”
Before Buen Amigo and I drive off, Allah turns to Buen Amigo and addresses him in Spanish.
“Nombre? Que nombre?”
And Buen Amigo speaks for the very first time.
With this exchange, Allah vigorously shakes Pedro’s hand, adding, “We shall meet again, Pedro! Now be sure you tip my friend here well. He is a taxi driver. These are good people!”
And with this, Pedro and I drive…
Driver, “Where to?”
Pedro, “25 Taylor.”
We traverse the pre-dawn dark and drizzle towards the Loin, in silence.
At drop, Pedro hands me up $15 cash on the $13.40 meter, and parts sans another word.
I strategize an exit cruising up nearby Polk Street, as averting my eyes from contact, at each red, with every transsexual prostitute angling to hook an early cabbie John.
Hmm. I might as well get set the morning mood. I dial-in to KDFC – 90.3FM, classical. Hoyt Smith is up dee-jaying now. He comes over the radio with the news of the day.
“In the news today, folks: One hundred and thirteen women are suing Qualitest Pharmaceuticals in a class action law suit… for batches of defective birth control pills. In a manufacturing error, a run of the company’s birth control pills were packaged in such a manner that the blister packs were rotated 180 degrees. This, to the effect of reversing their weekly tablet orientation. And who knew, folks? The last week’s pills are placebos, normally. However, not this batch. Yes, ninety-four of the women got pregnant. It remains to be seen if the lawsuit seeks damages for all costs to be incurred over the lifetime of the children. On that note folks, let’s tune in to Prelude #2 in c#, Opus number 30. It’s Sergei Rachmaninoff.”
“Cha-ching! – 2157 Grove. Madison. iPhone.”
I’m close-by, rolling the Lower Haight. And I ‘Accept’.
Pulling up on this order adjacent the Panhandle, I find a 20-somethng blonde out in front of an apartment building waving her phone at me.
“Madison?” Confirming Driver intones, craning out the cab’s window.
“Yes,” affirms Madison, as she climbs in back. “I need to get to Broadway and Battery as fast as you can!”
And Driver drives! FAST!
He ZOOMS down Golden Gate! Making it only two green lights before, DOH! Traffic ahead! He CUTS left on Laguna, for a RUN of green lights! BOB, weave, dOdGE… DOH! Traffic! SWERVE right onto Post! And an ARTERY of greens…
Driver is beaming with a straight back, confident, sublimely impressed with his Zen-like flow. He checks the rear-view, gushing with pride at his juggernaut navigation of this rush hour gauntlet! Driver is fishing for validation and ego reinforcement from his passenger via the glass. And…
Madison is oblivious. Her head is down, stuck consumed in her smartphone.
But nonetheless, Driver DRIVES!!
He ROCKS Post Street down the bus/taxi-only lane… until Taylor. BOB, weave, dOdGE… DOH! Construction ahead! CUT right up Taylor… and ANOTHER run of greens! Right down Clay… BOB, weave and right SURFING down the bus/taxi-only lane… for yet ANOTHER run of GREENS!! Left on Sansome, a VEER! Almost catching AIR around the Transamerica Pyramid! A RACEWAY of greens up to Broadway… BOB, weave and right! BAM!! Just ONE more block down, AND…. the intersection of Broadway and Battery! Driver pulls over!!
SIX MINUTES!! A NEW RECORD!!!
“Ok, ma’am! Broadway & Battery. FAST!” Bursting with adrenaline, Driver checks the rear view for his props…
Madison looks up and around startled, jarred from her phone screen. She exits 137 with no acknowledgement of the divine intervention that has just transpired. Madison goes on about her world with nary a “thank you”. (Or any other word for that matter.)
I plug the $12.55 fare into the Cabulous phone, and I roll… south towards Market.
However, before I make it two blocks,
“Cha-ching! – 530 Francisco. Ravi. iPhone.”
Hell, yeah! Well, Cabulous has been rockin’ lately. Taxi drivers have been seeing a horde of converts from Uber and Lyft. All these new passengers, without fail, cite first the lack of knowledge of city streets the scab cabs possess. And secondly, they cite their annoyance with price goug… er, “surging”. And then, there’s those who have recently broken bones in a “rideshare” and are still sorting through the (lack of) insurance nightmare. Funny, it would seem that the situation has come full circle. Now, the dirty, cigarette-stained, vomit-infused taxi has taken its mantle as the “premium” transportation option!
I pull up on 530 Francisco in North Beach, lickety-split. I ‘Call Passenger’.
And I wait…
Damn. Who knows how long this will go on… I always fear starting the meter before a passenger comes out, too. It might offend. Besides, when idle the meter only ticks up at the slower 55 cent/minute rate. I generally prefer to rely on simple human decency to take care of me at end of ride, in the tip. When a fare has made me wait more than five minutes. (Yeah, I’m a fool.)
Many moons pass, and Ravi finally pops out of his glass and steel apartment building to settle in back of 137 with his brown leather laptop bag on his lap. Ravi directs simply, “Broadway & Battery,” before diving quietly into his phone screen. As with Madison, this is the modus operandi of an Uber/Lyft convert.
Well, as Rose would preach back in cab school, “The back seat’s warm.”
Master Cabbie deftly navigates side streets of North Beach, zig-zagging up through these steep narrow hills, one-way alleys and dead-ends around Coit Tower, as smartly he avoids the enveloping morning gridlock now working its way into the Financial.
Then, Ravi and Driver come across a scene…
WTF!? It’s a HUGE Google bus! WEDGED, stuck at Green & Castle! What the hell was Sergey thinking! Aside from all the “No Trucks Over Five Tons” signs, it is apparent to even the most brain dead upon entering this steep, narrow maze of streets, that a tour bus would NEVER make it!
Ravi looks up from his phone, as he and Master Cabbie share a laugh at the ironic thought that Sergey must have been following Google maps on his bus’ GPS. HA!!
We squeeze around the stuck white behemoth, and tack the few blocks more, over the hill to Ravi’s drop.
And just as Madison before him, Ravi exits 137 all aloof, with no consideration of the fellow human that has provided him service. (Sigh.)
I plug Ravi’s $7.55 fare into the Cabulous phone. And it immediately “Cha-ching!”s with another order, then blanks out. Hmm. I better drill down and make sure Ravi’s fare went through.
I punch into the detail screen of the Cabulous phone…
Ravi’s fare went through alright. But he didn’t tip! HEY!! MADISON DIDN’T EITHER!!! I gave that woman the fastest ride to work in the HISTORY of cab driving!! Ooohhhh!! They came from Uber, or Lyft. Those drivers don’t get tips! Great. Not only are those fuckers undercutting legit, highly regulated, commercially insured, mechanically checked, FBI background-checked taxis… but now they’ve poisoned the well with narcissistic assholes who think they don’t have to tip cabs! Or figure their driver won’t notice until Elvis has left the building. (Which it would seem is a pretty good bet.)
UGH! A true race to the bottom, folks.
Tony comes over the radio. He’s calling out an intersection old school, for whatever closest available driver to bid on.
“Heatha n’ Eulcid. Anybody? Heatha n’ Euclid…”
“137. Post & Baker.”
“137. Ya wanna check owt Heatha n’ Euclid?”
“137. That was the plan. Over.”
“Ok, 137. Why dontcha go ova tah 90 Heatha. Coppee, 137?”
“137. Copy. 90 Heather.”
And I roll. (I was just blocks away, finishing putting clothes in the dryer at home. One of a cabbie’s perks.)
At 90 Heather, I radio-in to Tony for a call-out.
“Coppee, 137. Callin’ owt.”
And I wait…
Five minutes later…
A middle-aged woman, lively with a Spanish accent, comes bustling out this 70’s contemporary apartment building and jumps in back, a bit frantic.
“How long have you been here, driver? They didn’t tell me! Now, I am running late! To Daly City, driver. Fast as you can!”
And Driver drives.
As Magdalena and I bob and weave across Golden Gate Park and the Sunset, she explains that she is just dropping off some records at a medical office near the Daly City BART and then plans to return to the city to get dropped at UCSF – Parnassus, back near the Haight. Magdalena asks if I can wait.
“I’ll only be twenty minutes, driver…”
I worry about how long it might really take her. After all, it is a medical office! Even twenty minutes is not really worth my time. There are rush hour spoils to be had back in town.
“Uhh… I’m not sure I can wait that long. And jeez, technically, you will be in Daly City and it would be illegal for a San Francisco taxi to pick you up outside of the city. I guess you could walk a block over the city line to the BART station, and then call Citizen’s Cab for a ride from there. Or, I could give you this $10 off coupon for the Cabulous app! Yeah, try that! You have a smart phone, yes?”
Genius, Alex! When she enters the code for her coupon, you’ll get a $15 bonus for turning on a new customer to Cabulous! You have dodged a bullet AND helped Maggie out! Absolutely Genius!
Genius Cabbie sighs, with pride and relief.
Magdalena, “Are you sure you can’t just wait for me, driver? It won’t even be twenty minutes. I promise.”
Genius Cabbie, “(Sigh.) Okay. I’ll wait.”
We continue on. And Maggie notices the ad placard I have covering the rear credit card screen that’s hawking my book 1.
Maggie, “Oh! Are YOU Alex Sack? Did you write a book!”
Cabbie Author, “Why, yes. That’s me. I wrote a book.”
Maggie, “That is so wonderful! I should write a book! I used to work as a world tour director. I speak four languages. You come across all kinds in that industry. Some very mean people, actually. I would say that 75% of the tourists are toxic. The kind of people who leave home for world tours are usually trying to escape something; a bad divorce, or sickness, cancer and the like. They can be quite toxic. Sometimes, you need to recover for weeks after a tour! I used to regularly visit these shaman women I know on a New Mexican reservation. They would pray and cover me in sage. They once gave me turquoise to suck the poison out of me. It worked, too! I noticed the blue rock turning grey over time. The shaman women had said that this meant the turquoise was absorbing the negative energy. Once, I even suffered a heart attack! The turquoise turned completely dark. And it crumbled. It saved my life! I can only imagine how bad the heart attack would have been had I not been near the rock! Brazilian tourists are the most toxic for some reason. I once told a man, ‘FUCK YOU!’ He very much earned it, too. He was the kind of man who unquestionably beat his wife. Well, I was NOT his wife! I told him, ‘FUCK YOU!’ Afterwards, he wrote my manager a nasty letter. He thought I would be fired. But I was there the very next morning, still guiding the tour. I went right up to this man and smiled and said, ‘Good morning!’ Boy, was he scared of me then! I did eventually have to quit, though. it was too much poison. I work in insurance coding now.”
Cabbie Author, seeing a chance to get in a word edgewise, “Yeah, I deal with all kinds, too. I have to tell people the book is not fiction! I have a pretty good way of keeping the peace in the cab, though. I see my job as sometimes healer. A lot of people just want to be heard.”
Maggie, “Yes, but they can be very abusive. You cannot give too much of yourself. Yes, I really should write a book. I have many, many stories from my days as a tour director… One time during a tour of France, I had what I believed to be a 79 year-old woman on the tour. She had only brought with her a hand bag and a sweater. I had thought that she might just be eccentric, as some do prefer to travel light and shop for clothes in France, or Spain, or whatever destination they might be visiting. But as it turned out, Marie Claire was 90 years-old and had escaped from a mental institution! I do not know if it was Alzheimer’s, or some other condition, but she would get weird, up and down on me. Others in the tour noticed something off, too. At first though, they thought I was patronizing when I would assert, ‘Madame Claire, stay with me!’ But they came to understand that something was off. But they didn’t know that Marie Claire had escaped from a mental institution! I found this out when I contacted the Thomas Cook agency to inquire about her. Do you know Thomas Cook? It is the Cadillac of travel agencies. Well, it turns out that she had money. And they were sending her around the world, milking Marie Claire for all she had! They told me prior to France, Marie Claire had just come from twenty days in Tunisia! With just a handbag and sweater! I was very worried when we visited the Grand Canyon. Marie Claire got away from me and I thought that she may have gotten lost forever down in one of the canyons! However, she did return, however late. But I did have to contact her son after Alcatraz. He did not even know Marie Claire had escaped! At Alcatraz, they shut down the island after she’d gone missing! The Coast Guard AND the federal police came! It was quite a scene! It took them all many hours to find poor Madame Claire! I could not believe that Thomas Cook could be so cruel!”
Maggie and I roll up on 500 Parnassus – UCSF, with the meter at $43.55. She throws me up an Amex, parting with, “Make it for $50. You have been wonderful, driver! You have inspired me to write a book. Thank you!”
And I drive.
“Cha-ching! – 1670 Jackson. Lisa. iPhone.”
Rockin’ the Cabulous this morning, I ‘Accept’ and fly up from the Marina to my Lisa. She’s waiting out in front of her building, gesturing wildly on her cell.
Lisa approaches 137, gets off her call and pops in back. She looks kind of serious.
“One Beach, please. In Fisherman’s Wharf.” And Lisa goes on to massage the cell phone in her lap, as she looks stoically out the window.
We roll in silence, but for Michael Krazny on NPR in a Forum with the Director of the LightHouse for the Blind on how they just received a surprise donation of $175 million. The donation was bequeathed by a recently deceased business man who was never known for his philanthropy, or his hidden failing eyesight issues the years prior to his death!
Krazny, “But I understand the daughter has filed a lawsuit challenged the will? I guess this is to be expected. She is set to receive $250,000. But apparently, there are questions of impropriety with the father, when she was young?”
Suddenly, from the back, Lisa chimes in…
“Sniff! Sniff! … SNORT! SNIFF!”
Uh, did the molestation talk on NPR hit a nerve or something? I ignore it.
And, “SNIFF! SNORT! SNIFF! … SNORT! SNIFF!!”
Damn. I have missed my window. I would usually check the rear view, maybe offer a clean Starbucks napkin. But I’ve ignored it too long. It would just be awkward now. I stay the course, silent.
Lisa takes a call on her cell.
“(Sniff! SNORT!) I’m SO glad you called me back! Did you hear?? Have you been on Facebook?? It’s John Davies! He’s missing! Yes. You remember John Davies, don’t you?? I put it on Facebook. But NONE of my friends shared it! I NEED you to go on Facebook and share it! (SNORT!) Yeah, the Long Beach police say it’s a high priority. I’m SO scared! It’s John Davies! He got married to that woman. And the police are worried! Okay… Okay… (Sniff! Sniff!)”
We roll up on Lisa’s office building across from the Aquarium, at touristy pier 39. And Lisa continues on her call as she exits my taxi in a daze, with Driver offering a leery “Have a nice day” to her back as she meanders off.
I’m feeling a little lost now myself this morning. But maybe it’s just a contact high.
Five minutes Later…
I’m cruising the Chestnut Strip in the Marina. But despite the disposable income so abundant in this part of town, this ground has long been ceded to the likes of Uber and Lyft. I’ll likely not find a fare, or myself, over here.
Case in point, as I pass the Apple store I note a new black Camry with the tell-tale U sign inside of the windshield stopped out in front. The Middle Eastern driver is out of his “rideshare” and can be seen posing self-consciously in front of the Church of Jobs, taking selfies with his iPhone.
The epitome of new San Francisco.
And as the day rolls on, I feel the increasing need to find myself amidst this fog. As I think about it, that Uber scab and I are not so different. For I, too, am out on these streets searching for myself.
Or maybe, I’m just waiting to see what white-noise and fuzzy reception “they” have in store for me next…
Photo by Christian Lewis
Stuff THIS in yer stocking! San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane… (Book 2) out now!
Check out Alex’s Book 1 – San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
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