Gravy, With a Side of Cancer

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Thanksgiving week is usually slow. Reeeeel s l   o   w   .   .     .

Thanksgiving proper, Citizen’s Cab lowers the gate (cab rental) for us drivers down from $91 to $61, as an act of mercy. A cabbie might gamble on coming into work early on Thanksgiving to drive a fare or two to the airport; people trying to make it somewhere around the country before turkey and the big game. Or that cabbie might just be spinning his or her wheels empty until well after noon, after the locals have long walked home from their neighborhood coffee joints and suddenly found themselves running late to whatever friend’s house with their thrown-together sweet potato casserole with marshmallows pot luck.

This year I chose to sleep in… until Black Friday.

But it will definitely be slow this morning, too, until the day wakes up for shopping and chemo.

 

8:15am:
I’ve just rolled-in to Citizen’s Cab.

Per my circadian rhythm, I’ve actually been awake for a few hours. I was just lying in bed staring at the ceiling and listening to random cars whoosh down Post Street outside of my window, maybe one every twenty minutes. On these days, I know to get up once the frequency of the whooshing increases, when one of those cars pulls me out from underneath the comforter… er, like a surfer called to his wave.

Back in the office, I find Kojak asleep at dispatch with his feet up on the desk, snoring. I try not to bother him as I quietly head over to the pegboard of keys and medallions to grab 137’s. Alas, the rattling wakes ‘ol Koj up.

Sack, “Happy Black Friday, Koj. How’s business?”

Kojak, “Oh! Um… Sack! Uh, yeah… (Yaaawwwnn.) Phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

Sack, “Ok. I’ll let you get back to work. Have a good one.”

Once out in 137 – my trusty Prius, I find that I have to do a little extra sanitizing today with the alcohol wipes, etc. Even two days away will see some extra, undisclosed build-up on the steering wheel and oft used surfaces. Today, it’s some greasy turkey bone leftovers awaiting me in the cup holder. MmMmm. At least the night driver didn’t skimp on the gravy.

The sun is up, which throws me. But I proceed with the cleansing ritual out in the lot along to KDFC – 90.3FM classical, in hopes of some kind of pre-coffee normality. (Ah, Brahms!)
8:45am:
Rolling the Upper Haight, now caffeinated, I’m still on the first leg of my first round of the city. I’ll usually give myself one round sans-fare, before I start to give in to dejection and a bad head.

Approaching Haight and Masonic… SCORE!

Note: While “SCORE!” is usually reserved for those luggage-bearing fares, on days like these “SCORE!” can apply to any situation where the back seat promises to be warm.

There’s an older black dude in a dark green trench coat and fedora at the inbound bus stop, flagging. He’s toggling his extended hand between me rolling west on the opposite side of the street, and a Yellow on his side of the street, across the light camped out at the cab stand. I better flip this U before Yellow guns it at the green and steals the deal!

ZOOM!!

And SUCCESS!! Yellow never stood a chance!

This saving’s MINE, bitch!!

Fedora stoops to address yours truly at the shotgun. I roll it down.

Fedora, “Hey. You mine if I smoke a cig’rette in ya cab?” Fedora displays a lit cig. “I’ll give ya tw’nty bucks. I’m juss goin’ down ta Van Ness ‘n Market.”

Hmm. Driving with a lit cigarette in your taxi is a $250 fine, if caught. If you’re NOT caught, then there’s driving around town with all the windows down for an hour or more to clear out the smell. On nice days, this isn’t so much a problem. But there’s some arctic front that’s moved into San Francisco just for the occasion.

Driver, “Sure. Get in.”

Driver rolls Fedora’s window down half way, as Fedora enters the cab.

Fedora, “Thanks, man. Mine if I roll up tha window? Iss cold as a bitch owt hee-yah!”

Sadly, Fedora’s question is rhetorical. He rolls up the window that I just rolled down.

Driver, “Uh… sure.”

Driver starts the meter.

Fedora, “Oh, man. You ain’t gotta start tha metah. Here’s a tw’nty.”

Driver turns off them meter, and accepts his bounty. (Van Ness & Market would normally be a ten dollar ride.)

Fedora speaks, “Maaan, how long you been in San Francisco? Me? I’m fifth gen’ration, brutha! Been livin’ in tha Haight fer thirtee yee-ahs! Ev’r since I gaht out tha Army! Ye-ahh, iss a diff’rent crop a kids out hee-ah now, tho. Some axed me fer a cig’rette. ‘N I tell ’em I don’ gaht one. Den dey axed me fer money. ‘N I tell ’em no. Den dey beat me up! Right in frunt a my daughtah!”

Driver, “Wow! In front of your daughter?? That’s not cool. I used to live up here at 1328 Haight, years ago. There were always street kids. But they were kind of embedded in the landscape when I lived here. I mean, it’s the Haight! The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, ALL that… I have heard from a few passengers recently how the kids out here now are a bit more of an aggressive bunch, though. But I wasn’t sure what to think, what with all the new moneyed transplant NIMBYs living in the Haight these days.”

Fedora, “Nah, brutha! Dere’s still some good ones. But dere’s some bad one’s out hee-ah, too! I din’t wanna fight in frunt a my daughtah, so I juss curl up on tha ground as dey waz kickin’ me. Tolt ‘er, ‘Iss ok, baby. Dadee’s juss playin’.’ Den, my old street kid homees come by wit sticks n’ scare off tha dudes beetin’ me up! Hey, man! I gottah friend, Richard, gaht beet up outside Hobson’s Choice one night, by dose kids who killt dose people! Man, coulda bin Richard!”

Driver, “Wow! I read about that! Guess it’s a mixed bag, eh?”

We roll up outside of All Star Donuts, at Van Ness & Market.

Fedora, “Yo, man. You wan’ some coffee ‘n a do-nut? Iss on me!”

Driver, “Oh, no. Thanks, though. Got my coffee right here.” Driver displays coffee. And sips for proof. “And I got breakfast ready to go, too.” Driver displays turkey & swiss on wheat (with mustard).

Driver checks the rear view. Fedora looks sad, almost rejected, as he holds the door open with one foot on the ground. He’s still waiting for my breakfast order.

Fedora, “You sure, man?”

Driver, “Yeah, I’m ok. But, thanks.”

It’s 8:21am. Fedora just exited the cab. And he’s brought me close to the seedy Tenderloin district and friend, night driver and band mate Christian’s apartment. It’s kind of sad. With all the “Manhattanizing” of San Francisco, Christian’s tiny studio has been set to have all three of its windows permanently boarded-up for a high-rise condo complex that’s to be wedged-in between his building and the homeless shelter behind. Yeah, all of his fellow occupants decried the move in a community meeting with the planners. Surely this maneuver CANNOT be legal. But alas, money speaks. Surprise! Despite the outcry, the project is moving forward.

Anyway, Christian’s been “back east” in Virginia for a few days, visiting his sister in jail. He asked me to feed his fish while he’s away. Seems like now would be a good time. But this entails trusting my cab to be parked in front of his high-rise, ex-YMCA building right at ground zero in the Loin. It will also entail dealing with the old, black, stoic doorman; breaking him away the from his morning news shows to buzz me in, sign me in with my driver’s license, and dutifully receive an askance eye to my explanation of “feeding the fish”.

Anyway, Christian is flying back today. I better make sure the little beasts are still alive. (It should be noted that I have a bad personal history with fish. Living fish, anyway.)

 

9:35am:
“Cha-ching! – 411 Pierce. Yvette. Dispatch.”

My second fare of the day. Yay.

Yeah, I ‘Accept’.

Yvette is a regular. She’s a middle-aged thinker, a well-to-do, educated black woman who’s long owned her Victorian here in the Lower Haight. She lives there with her aging mother and random brothers. It’s usually a loud ride to or fro some various medical appointment, with Yvette and her mom yammering at each other as Yvette hastily shoves ma in back creaking, groaning and protesting. And of course, it’s the reverse ritual at drop.

“Why u gotta always be pushin’ me, girl! Hmph! You KNOW my knees ain’t no good! LORD!”

I pull up out in front of 411 Pierce, and wait… And wait… The usual. (It always takes Yvette and Ma some time to make it down all the stairs inside.)

Five Minutes Later…

To a cabbie’s baited breath, the door to 411 Pierce creaks open…

And out pops an older black dude.

Huh? NOT Yvette??

Dude makes his way to 137, and jumps in back, with, “Thank you for waiting. My sister called the taxi for me. I need to go to the ER at Kaiser. On Geary, sir.”

Driver props his waybill/clipboard on the steering wheel, marks it and repeats back, “Kaiser ER,” as he turns to the rear view to… OH, GOD!!!

(GASP!!) Brother’s eyes are totally swollen shut! They’re all red, puffy and gooing something awful!! It’s straight out of a horror movie!

Brother (presumably hearing my gasp), “Man. Does it look that bad? You think the ER is busy about now? I dunno what happened. But it started yesterday. Maybe some bad turkey, or somethin’.”

Driver, “Uh, yeah. Bad turkey. Probably best to get that checked out. Anyway, it’s been a pretty quiet morning so far. I don’t suspect the ER’s too busy.”

We drive.

9:40am:
After some pleasant holiday conversation I’ve dropped Brother off at the ER, after having me verify it’s actually a ten he’s given me on the $7.90 fare. I’m feeling a little loopy, on account of the odd morning? Well, the smell of these odd days do throw you. Eh, think I’ll break from the usual rounds of foot-trafficked commercial areas, and try weaving around nearby Alamo Square. Maybe drive by the view at the Painted Ladies.

As I pull a left down Steiner from Hayes, a touristy-looking man and woman in their late 20’s with cameras accost me in the cross-walk, right in front of one of the Ladies. They look kind of agitated. Boyfriend is hunched over with his arm around Girlfriend. And she’s holding a rag to his chin.

Fare number three.

Girlfriend (distressed), “Please. We couldn’t catch an Uber. Can you take us to the ER at UCSF Parnassus? My boyfriend was just hit by a speeding car in the crosswalk! They guy didn’t even stop! He’s bleeding badly from his chin!”

We drive.

I’m quiet as we roll, wondering why we’re not headed to the closer Kaiser ER that I just came from. Probably an insurance thing? Whatever. Anyway, this must particularly suck for them. I do sense that these are tourists. My super-sharp mind has divined this from Girlfriend’s heavy Australian accent. (Oh, and that they were hanging out at the Painted Ladies with cameras. Yup, brainpower. )

A bit on, as we head up Stanyan nearing UCSF, we pass a sting operation at the crosswalk at Haight. There’s gaggle of motorcycle cops in hiding. They’re busting cars not yielding to pedestrians. Hey! This must be part of the aptly named Vision Zero program.

I roll down my window as we pass and I yell over at one cop, “Hey, Ponch! You’re in the wrong part of town!”

(Nah, just kidding. But should I have??)

I know about these stings. They are particularly egregious. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about yielding. But the law has it that it’s a $238 fine if you don’t stop as soon as a pedestrian has put even one foot into the crosswalk, EVEN IF ON THE FAR SIDE OF THREE LANES FROM YOU!

So, it’s a quick turn up Parnassus… and drop for my passengers at the ER. In their rush, Girlfriend doesn’t bother asking how much is on the meter. She just hastily throws me up a twenty with a nervous, “Thank you!” as she shuffles Boyfriend and his bloody rag, still pressed to his chin, out of my taxi and off into the ER.

“Er, hope your day gets better!” I shout meekly after.

Now, back to the Haight…

As I once again pass CHiPs, it seems Jon and Ponch have since snagged an Uber for not yielding. Hmm. Maybe that’s why Girlfriend couldn’t hail one… they’re all busy. (Okay, okay. I’ll let up:)

Suddenly, “Cha-ching! – 411 Pierce. Yvette. Dispatch.”

Huh?

Well, it can’t be the same call. Orders get flushed out of the dispatch cue once you turn on the meter.

Sure. I ‘Accept’ the call.

And I pull out in front of 411 Pierce lickety-split. And I wait… And wait…

Five Minutes Later…

The door opens to 411 Pierce. It’s Yvette!

Yvette closes the door to her building behind her, and makes her way down the front stairs with a big book in her hand. (War and Peace?) And hey! No mother! Well, ok.

But Yvette pops in back, all annoyed STILL.

“The Kaiser ER, driver. I used to work intake there. So I know the deal. They got my brother over there now. And they won’t do SHIT for ’em! Now I gotta spend my day in the ER kickin’ ass! How’s YOUR day goin’?”

I do not sense Yvette is really waiting for an answer.

We drive.

 

11:45am:
The town is starting to wake up. I down on Market at shopping central – Westfield Mall and Union Square. But as usual, the Black Friday crowd that’s amassing to shop has all taken other means to the mall. And they are not, as of yet, full of bags, tired and ready to cab it back home.

“Cha-ching! – 5150 Diamond Heights. Don. Dispatch.”

Hmm. This is a bit of a travel. But, “a bird in the hand” and all… Besides, my potential passenger is not likely riding just a few blocks. Not from way up in residential Diamond Heights.

I do ‘Accept’.

A few minutes on, after I’ve weaved my way up high into Diamond Heights and taken in its majestic view, I catch a wood sign reading “5150 Diamond Heights”. This, at the base of a drive leading up to a parking garage on the ground floor this 70’s era, dark wood-shingled apartment complex.

Hmm. But, something doesn’t feel right.

I guess Don could come out of that door next to the garage gate. But, still. I better radio-in to dispatch to make sure I’m in the right place.

“137. Over.”

Tony Jr. comes back, “137. What’s your over?”

“137. I’m at 5150. Am I supposed to be up the driveway?”

Tony Jr., “Copy, 137. Yes. Don needs you to help him. Stay where you are.”

“137. Copy.”

I wait… And wait…

And wait…

Eight minutes Later…

Tony Jr. comes over the radio, again, “137. Over.”

“137.”

Tony Jr., “137. Don says he’s been waiting outside. He says he doesn’t see you, 137. Over.”

“137. I’ve been waiting up the driveway, like you said. Where is Don?”

Tony Jr., “137. He says he’s half way down some stairs. He needs help, 137. Do you see stairs? Over.”

“137. No. But I suspect they are not up the driveway. I’ll drive around and look for Don.”

I back out of the drive, navigating around an incoming silver Beemer who shoots me a dirty look for… well, for existing, I guess.

And 137 turns the corner on Diamond Heights to find, sure enough, there are some winding stairs nestled amidst a steep hillside of foliage, with a pushing-500-pounds Don sitting halfway down them, awaiting me with a grimace and a cane.

Driver jumps out of his taxi, and runs around the cab, offering a profuse apology to his passenger as he sprints up a section of stairs for assistance. Will this calm the beast?

Don rises to his feet, steadies himself with his cane, and reaches for Driver’s arm. Then, Don stops. He turns to look deep into Driver’s eyes. And he huffs,

“I do NOT suppose that the dispatcher told you to meet me by the stairs! I need help. The dispatcher is ALWAYS derelict! No. I do not suppose that this is YOUR doing. STILL! Let us go! I am now running late for my appointment. And I DO wish to put the chemotherapy that awaits behind me!”

We hobble down the last flight of stairs with Driver desperately trying to avoid a Don landslide. At the base, he stops once more to turn and address yours truly, with penetrating eye contact.

“Driver, it is required that I sit up front. My knees will not suffer the back seat. By the way, we are going to 450 Sutter, in Union Square. Do you know the building, driver?”

I run over to 137 to shuffle my “office” from the shotgun seat to the back, to prep for Don’s arrival. I slide the seat as far back as it will go for him, and assure,

“Why yes, sir. I am a, uh, professional. I drive passengers safely to 450 Sutter multiple times a day. Here, sir. The front seat is ready for you…”

I run back around to the driver’s seat. And I start the meter, wondering what the next ten minutes plus will be like, riding with a 500 pound agitated Don up in my personal space.

Once settled in, Don forgoes the seat belt. And we ride, ignoring the incessant beeping of the Prius alerting us to his transgression.

Don (getting salty now), “May I ask, how do you plan on going? My drivers always fuck me up. Much like the dispatcher!”

Driver, “Well, sir. I usually play it Zen. I go where ever there are no cars. And no construction! Today, we have a challenge, though, as there’s a lot of construction at Post & Van Ness, for the building of the new CPMC medical complex. It might be best to avoid Post, and go a little out of our way, up to Bush.”

Don, “Ha! I like you, driver. I will trust your instincts! Yes, this damn city has changed so much! Construction EVERYWHERE! I remember when they built the Ballroom Hotel; back in the 50’s, I believe. And now they are tearing it down for that CPMC building, like everything else in this city. I am 76 years old, driver. I was born in San Francisco. And I have seen many changes. Too damn many!”

Wow. Even with his obesity and cancer, I would never have pegged Don for older than 65!

Don (continuing), “Yes, so many changes. And SO much construction. Thanks to the likes of that damn Mayor Ed Lee. And that FUCKING Supervisor Scott Wiener! I require permits to address a new situation. But I cannot stand in line for hours to receive the damn permits! That bastard Scott Wiener put a damn dog park right outside of my window! And they bark ALL FUCKING DAY LONG!”

Driver (bursting out laughing), “HA! HA! HA!! That’s AWFUL!! HA! HA!”

But, Don doth protest, “STOP laughing! EVERYONE laughs! IT’S NOT FUNNY!!!”

Holding Back Tears Driver, “I apologize, sir.”

Don, changing the subject, “So, what else do YOU do, driver? You’re in a band, right?”

Shocked Driver, “Why yes, sir! How did you know!”

Don, “I have found that all of my drivers are artists, in some fashion.”

Driver, “Well, sir. You are very intuitive. I play music, write, AND have kids. I drive a cab so I can be around for them.”

Reaching Back into the Conversation Don, “By the way, driver, you were supposed to tell me that I do NOT look 76!”

Testing the Waters Driver, “Well, sir. I was going to. I was thinking it.” Now, with a wry smile, “But I couldn’t get a word in edgewise…”

Don, “HA! I DO like you, driver!” Digressing extremely, “You have not yet had a colonoscopy, have you? No. I suppose you are not yet 50.”

Driver, “Oh, me? No. I haven’t. I’m 45. But I did once find someone’s colonoscopy pictures on the floor of a Tower Records I worked at, back in Maryland. Not sure why someone was shopping with those. Or how they came to drop them.”

Ignoring the Comment Don, “I have acid reflux, driver. It is distinct from my cancer, however. Food gets stuck in my throat! They prescribed me Prilosec. But it did absolutely nothing for me. Do you know anyone with acid reflux, driver?”

Driver, “Uh, I think my sister might have it…”

I don’t think Don has found the vein he was looking for with acid reflux. He digresses back into the digestive tract.

Don, “The thing about colonoscopies is, contrary to popular belief, they do not hurt. There are no nerves in your ass.”

Schooled Driver, “Wow! I did NOT know that! Hmm. Why do they sedate you beforehand then?”

Don, “They do NOT sedate you for pain. They sedate you because it is a strange, uncomfortable feeling.”

Yeah, I’ll bet!

Back to Cancer Don, “It does suck having cancer, driver. I had asked for a colonoscopy years ago. But my insurance would not pay for it. And now, I have stage III colon cancer. The lawsuit has been ongoing for years. You might not know it to look at me, but I have lost over 100 pounds! However, Hell be damned! They say that I am NOT a candidate for skin removal surgery. It’s fucking UNBEARABLE! I simply CANNOT live this way! MY DAMN BALLS HANG SO LOW, I AM IN CONSTANT DANGER OF STEPPING ON THEM!!!”

Empathetic Driver, “Er, I’m sorry to hear that.” Continuing (overstepping?), “Excuse me for asking, but don’t you want to die?”

Amused Don, “HA! I DO like you, driver! NO! I do NOT want to die! I have too many people whose lives I still need to make miserable! Besides, I have hopes of visiting the South Pole before I die.”

Confused Driver, “Uh.. wouldn’t the South Pole be a little hard to visit? Er, for someone mobility impaired? Oh! Do you mean by way of a cruise ship? My mother’s all about cruise ships!”

Asserting Don, “No! NOT on a DAMN cruise ship!! There are ways…”

Before Driver can divine the ways, we pull up (and around a Yellow vying to cut us off at construction) on Don’s chemotherapy appointment. We have arrived outside of the gilded, ornate, golden facade that is 450 Sutter.

The meter reads $18.90.

Post-haste, Driver jumps out and runs around to start helping Don out of the cab and onward in his trek towards the door. And as I do, Don stops in his tracks, and turns once more with a piercing stab into my eyes. Don shoves a twenty and a five into my hand, and offers his last words.

“I’m sorry. I believe I owe you a cleaning fee on top of the meter, for talking so much! HA! I hope to see you again soon, driver.”

No problem, Don. This cleansing is on me. I hope to see you soon.

The day plays out with increasingly sparse medical rides, as they are replaced by the occasional nondescript shuttle, returning weary Black Friday shoppers back home to the Marina.

I think I’ll call it.

 

3:05pm:
I’m pulling ‘ol 137 back into the Citizen’s Cab lot, gassed up and ready to check out. The lot is quiet and vacant of activity, but for some random driver over at the hose and vacuum station who’s blasting loud, heavy rock music, hunched over inside his Ford Fusion – cab 1185, vacuuming. Even from the back, I recognize that black pork pie hat, and those spindly arms overlaid completely in Gothic ink.

It’s Christian! He’s back!

I quietly park 137 out of sight, and exit the taxi…

I creep over, all stealthy from across the lot, and up behind my friend, slow and steady, as Christian remains bent over inside, unawares, immersed in his cacophony…

Yes, my friend does not hear my catlike approach, as I firmly take hold of my trusty Pilot Precise V5 Retractable Fine Point (mercifully retracted) and JAB the instrument! POINT BLANK through his Levis!! As I BREACH Christian’s rectum with a GREAT,

“SSSSSSQQQQQUUUUUUEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Shocked and terrified, Christian THROWS OFF his vacuum hose!! INSTANTANEOUS, he reflexively STRAIGHTENS his back, STIFF!! And Christian bangs HARD his head into the ceiling of cab 1185!!

And as Christian remains stunned, still squirming (and now squealing), your driver retreats double-time, off towards the bullet-proof glass of check-out, and freedom, as yelling behind him…

Welcome home, Christian!

 


Photo by Christian Lewis

www.AlexSacK.com

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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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 14 and (a hormonal) 16. 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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