Arleta Queen of Appalatchya

Arleta - borderless

Well, I’ve been gearing up for this for two or three years now, watching the taxi business as it’s taken a turn onto some dead end road in low gear, sputtering towards death by a thousand empty back seats. Never knowing which is, or has already been, that fatal last dead shift.

Yup, with every passing day, more and more Ubers and Lyfts flood the streets of San Francisco, as current reports have them at 45,000 – a ratio of 25 to 1 with cabs, with all of them busy getting their “hustle on.” (Or, so the TV ads would have you believe.)

Note: You never see an ad pitching you to RIDE, invariably they’re all ads luring you to DRIVE.

Reality is, in their sub-prime leased Camrys, Accords and Prius, these poor saps, too, are fighting their own over supply and finding it desperate in trying to squeeze out a dime. (And in keeping up the payments on their high interest rate ride.) And in this race to the bottom, reality is also that they are skimming the cream off of taxi. I mean, $20 airports?! WTF! Very few riders, however conscientious, put their principals over their wallet in this increasingly libertarian town, by opting for that fifty dollar taxi ride down to SFO – in support of this once middle class worker. (Though, yes, some still cab it to the airport. My enablers.)

Yeah, hard as I’ve tried to ignore the writing on the wall, in lieu yet of the writing on a three day notice,  I’ve been wracking my brain for three increasingly excruciating years now, pretending that the gig is not yet up, as running into walls trying to figure what the hell kind of living I could possibly stomach, post-cab. It is NOT a life one easily retracts from.

My dad, when he was alive, had warned me that once I got into driving a taxi, there would be a creeping loss of my then current admin/ops skills, with a less desirable resume’ coinciding, should I ever want to go back to my previous soul crushing, hellish, waking nightmare, spreadsheet shackled, PC eggshell treading, awkward boss fearing, manager fearing, supervisor fearing, mission statement passion feigning, milquetoast corporate office architecture confined, mundane, static, rote, routine and repetitive, HR political, manila folder labeling, expectation reviewed team player-faking, slow roasting on an absurd spit of lowest common denominator common courtesy, mind numbing, maddening and crippling torturous, creeping death by cubicle.

So, I’ve started to dust off my resume’, folks. And I have, again, begun to look up jobs – a bit more seriously than some recent off and on perusing – on Craigslist. (Hmm. Is that a dated way to job hunt?) Having a bit more focus, I’m thinking maybe with an eye to non-profit work helping out the homeless?

Oh, God! What am I doing!? YOU certainly WANT me here, LORD and READER! (If you’ve read this far.) To WRITE! And to DOCUMENT! To LEARN and SHARE and INTROSPECT! To GROW and to HEAL! To TEST the METTLE of this POOR SOUL! And to SERVE!

I mean, you’ve NEVER SHUT a DOOR on me without making ANOTHER’S OPENING PLAIN!

I WILL DRIVE!!!

9th Circuit justices and crack heads! Teachers and prostitutes! The homeless and hedge fund managers! Schizophrenics and nurses! Undocumented Mexican dishwashers and immigration lawyers! Techies (yes, even techies) and tourists to the ferry to Alcatraz! Mothers with children late for school and baristas! All walks to the ER and young black men with hoodies! Old veterans to the VA! Old Russian paratransit women with walkers off to their doctor’s, or the food bank, helping with their bags and then back again home!

And what of those homeless? Those drug addicts? Those Mexicans paying cash? That old paratransit with their walker and no cell phone, desperately flagging on Fillmore?

If I drive on, what of THOSE people? Those NOT in the club? Not plugged into the party that the disruptors call innovation? What of them who hold no ticket? The down, and the “out” demographic? WHO, if I hang up the keys, will pull over for them?

You KNOW it ain’t gonna be Uber or Lyft, or that private Chariot bus! And MUNI will not cut it, if you’re late or short on time. And truth be told, sadly, a great many other hacks often fail to serve, by passing you by if you’re not with luggage, able bodied, white, in a suit, or bottle blonde sexy in yoga pants, or carrying a look like you’re not in need.

No, I am one of those few taxi professionals just happy to stop for YOU! Cause YOU need a ride. And so I shall drive, until the good lord takes away these keys…

After all, who else is going to stop there at Market & 7th, adjacent the stolen goods fencing scene, by those old Chinese women crouched selling wares they’ve scored from the food banks, to the junkies and schizophrenics, and as always, the taxi hailing homeless.

And, that old greasy grey-haired woman with the bushy, bushy eyebrows, sunken grey eyes matching, who’s missing all her teeth, violently shaking her walker high, up above her head, like a rabid wailing simian, awful, frantic, screams, “TAAAAAXXXEEEE!!!” with all she’s got, all the life left in her lungs. In a deep all too familiar rasp, cigarette weathered and likely cancerous, my purpose on this Earth risks all out cardiac arrest in her beseeching my taxi, “STAAHHPPPP!!!!”

Meet, Arleta…

I ZOOM to a stop at the bus island, throwing on my hazards. And I jump out and around to help Arleta, before stowing her walker into the hatch of my trusty Prius – Citizen’s Cab 1015.

As all the while gasping, coughing and choking, Arleta barks, “(Cough! Cough!) I cundt git NO  kabs stahp fer me! FIIIVE wint by, ‘n NUN ‘ud stahp! Dey wuz ALLLL emptte, to! (Cough! Cough!)”

Driver, “Well, I got your back, ma’am. I don’t know why they wouldn’t stop for you. Any cab heading west on Market at this time of the morning should probably have been empty, after having just dropped someone at work down in the Financial. I’m sorry you had a hard time. That’s not right.

So, where are we headed?”

Arleta, “(Cough! Hack Cough!) Ta Suneedale. Fiff-teeeen, tirty-fiiiiive. ‘I jus goin’ pic som’in uhp. Den I comin’ bac ‘rownd, uhp Fiff-teeeen Hundert Frank’ln. (Cough! Cough!) Jus’ don’ kno WHYY nun d’em STAHP! A Yellah! Fliewheeeel! Den Citeewiiide! NUN ah ‘EM! Gaht gud munee, to! (Cough! Cough!) Yell fer ’em, to! ‘N LOWWDD!!

Ghat me parahtran’st cahrd, drivah. U kno waree Suneedale aht, dontacha? (Cough! Hack!)”

Driver, “Oh, right! Sunnydale! The projects out by the Cow Palace, in Visitacion Valley. I got you. Sorry, again. It always hurts when I hear about people having a hard time getting picked up. Especially, these days. Taxis don’t need any more bad press making things worse for us. And we’re considered part of the infrastructure in The City. We’re supposed to be out here to serve!

Oh, um, hey. If you’re paying with a Paratransit card, we’ll need to turn off the meter and run the card when we get to your place. You probably know that we’re not really supposed to do round trips on Paratransit, and the card will get declined if it’s an over thirty-five dollar ride. I’m guessing it’s like twenty-five just going out there to Visitacion Valley. It’s on the edge of town.”

Arleta, “Aww, dass whut I gunna till u. I seen et dun, jus’ lik dat befure. (Cough! Cough!) U jus’ ruhn dat cahrd whin we git dere. ‘N I bee in owt rit qwik. Come owt heya fer ah doctah ‘ppointmnt n’ fergaht ah packidg I needt. Luckee dey canclt da ‘ppointmnt. Come owt heyah aht foya en da morn’n. Ahn da niine buhss. Onlee tuk tirtee mints dat earlee. (Cough! Hack!! Cough!) Buht, I den reelize daam fergaht da paackidg. Esss aw rit. Dey werkin’ et ahl owt. Esss scrips, fer mi strok! Ahn sosha curitee ‘n Medeecade sinc da strok happn’. (Cough! Cough!) Dint nevah seen eet com’n!”

We roll down 101 towards the Cow Palace exit on what is turning out to be a pretty damn lucrative ride. And despite the rasp, and a bit of midrange twang in Arleta’s voice that I find piercing my skull off and on at certain pitches, I find Arleta to be a pretty sweet soul. And she doesn’t seem to mind riding the highway in for the most part, silence. Which, on account of the piercing skull thing, I kind of appreciate.

Anyway, JEEZ! FIVE cabs passed her up??? All said and done, this is going to be around a fifty dollar ride!! Karma, baby!

Fifteen minutes after pickup…

We pull into one of the seedier ghettos of San Francisco; the Sunnydale projects. I’ve read in the papers of kids having been caught in the crossfire and shot on the playgrounds here. Police have been shot at.

And, I personally know one cab driver who after picking up from a club downtown in SOMA late one Saturday night, at drop, was presented with the display of a pistol in lieu of remittance on the twenty-something dollar meter. To be fair, apparently the guy had his girlfriend get out of the taxi before he got down to business with my friend Trevor. And, if I recall the story right, the guy was pretty apologetic about ripping Trevor off. He just calmly lifted his shirt to show my boy that he was packing. And then said something like, “Sorree ’bout dis. Buh, dass  tha way dis gotta go. We coo?”

Trevor’s reply was aptly agreeable, “Ah, no problem here, man. We’re good. Have a nice night.”

After winding a few blocks inside the Sunnydale projects, we find the day time scene bustling with (mostly black life and) a seemingly inordinate number of trash and recycling bins situated about, not to interfere with the copious amounts of variously sized actual trash strewn about here on the sidewalks, curbs and cul-de-sacs – acting as landscaping for this project’s signature groupings of four unit two-story apartment buildings.

I do not feel unsafe. I guess I never really do, though. Still, I figure I this is one time I should maybe actually HEED one of Rose’s Cab School Commandments, Number IV:  If a passenger’s drop is in an alley, always BACK into the alley! (Or in this case, cul-de-sac.)

As we pull, uh… back in to Arleta’s apartment grouping, it looks like I’ll have to jump out to move some kid’s bike that’s laid out obstructing the middle of the drive. Signs of life. I do have to get out to help with Arleta’s walker, anyway. If it at all sounds like I’m hamming this up, I don’t mean to. It’s really no thing. I actually have lived across the street from some projects for the last fourteen years – though, projects with significantly less gun activity. (Actually, NONE in years.)

Arleta, “(Cough! Cough!)  Takee dis heyah cahrd. N’ takee ur tip. Dey ain’ giv’n u drivahs ‘nuf wit dat. (Cough! Cough!) N’ don’ fergit u tern dat metah bahck rit qwik aftah. (Cough! Cough!)”

The meter’s at $26.60 as I swipe Arleta’s card, hitting the button to add the city’s subsidized flat 10% tip. She’s right that it’s a meager tip. And many Paratransit passengers acknowledge by adding a few bucks of their own at drop. Not that I’m worried about that here. This is a good ride, in any event.

I get out to help Arleta with her walker, and move the bike. She assures me that she’ll be “rit qwik” grabbing her package. True to her word – and the spirit of the woman flagging me back in the Loin, Arleta works some kind of violent combo trample-waddle, as hastily plodding off disappearing into one of the apartments.

Indeed, in less than a minute, Arleta is back trample-waddling for the gold towards 1015, with her left hand slamming forward her walker and her right arm securing some brown nondescript tissue-sized box of… prescriptions? Whatever. I dunno. We roll.

Arleta, “(Cough! Hack!! Cough!) U maybee cud make ah stahp fer sum pahp? Dere ah Sev’n Lev’n rit dere by da hiwaay. I git u ah Pep’si.”

Driver, “Oh, sure. No Problem. I don’t need one, though. I got my water. Thanks, though.”

Arleta, “U shure? (Cough!) Kan’ go enn cuss ah mo-bilty ‘pairmnt. Strok ‘n ahl. Ess me buin’! (Hack!)

‘Neeway, u bee shure git ah lituh Pep’si. Dey enn da caayse waay en bahck dere. (Cough! Cough!)  Sumtim deys owt. Eff dat bee da cayse, git to twin’tee ownce. Dey kin bee hardt fine, dere enn da bahck. ‘N git yerself wun! (Cough!)

Arleta hands me up a twenty, as I once more decline her generous offer of a Pepsi. I assure her I’ll do right by her in this mission. I mean, if I can’t find a Pepsi in a 7-11, I got bigger issues to concern myself with.

Sure enough, Arleta was right. They’re out of one liters. There’s an empty row there in the fridge. So, two 20 ounce Pepsi’s it is. I knew I could handle this! I DO have a future!

After paying and getting Arleta’s change, I head back out to cab parked right on front of the 7-11. Two construction workers entering as I’m leaving take note that I have made a pit stop for Arleta, and commend me sincerely for being the taxi professional that I am.

“Now that’s REAL taxi service! Keep up the good work, man!”

I’ll surely be sainted for this.

We roll back onto 101 north, onto towards 1500 Franklin – another medical appointment Arleta enlightens, and not that far from where I picked her up. Well, relative to this round trip ride to the outskirts of San Francisco.

A bit looser now, with the glow and possibly caffeine of her Pepsi kicking in, Arleta gets a bit more talkative on the return. I’m still having intermittent issues with my skull possibly exploding from an occasional sweet spot she hits in her mid-range yelling voice, but the topic is interesting. Arleta gives me the low down from ground zero in the Sunnydale projects, with respect to gangs and the crime and such.

Arleta, “Dey gaht dem boyss dere yung uh twilve, tirteen, goin’ ’round shoot’n wun nuther. (Cough! Hack!! Cough!) ‘N aht da cahps! Sillin’ druggz. Smokin’ druggz. Runnin’ ’round ‘n gangss! (Hack!) Dey gaht ah gaaaang waaar ‘tween dem ovah Huntr’z Point n’ Suneedale! Ahl shootin’ wun nuther fer terf! (Cough! Hack!! Cough!)

Kidss dat yung awt naht (Hack!) bee doin’ ahl dat! (Cough! Cough!)”

We exit the highway and start up the gauntlet thoroughfare that is Franklin, gauntlet, as it’s under heavy construction and is nowadays saturated with out of town rideshares unversed in the side streets. (Arleta’s drop is on Franklin, or I wouldn’t be here.) Arleta has gotten warm to me now, and again understandably seethes at the thought of those five cabs that passed her on. She asks for my number, which I decline to give, deflecting with giving her a card for Citizen’s Cab and the usual assurance, “We’re good people. You get a human on the phone. And they actually care about their passengers, and follow up!”

Arleta seems appeased, fondling the card. Then, she revisits her gripe about the injustice that is the SF Paratransit program’s cheap fixed 10% tip for taxi drivers.

Arleta, “Mabee dat’s eet whyy no wun pic me uhp. (Cough!) Dey seen I gahts ah walk’r. Figur’n fer ah para’trnsit. ‘N dey gittin stuhck fer ah cheep tip. (Cough! Hack!)  Lotta tim taxees sayin’ dere machi’n brok.

Ain’t rit, u gittin’ onlee 1.9% fer tip ahn ah riiide. Too dallaz, ain’t ah livin’! (Cough!) U nee bee makin’ ah livin’!”

Well, Arleta’s math is just a little off here. Like I said, it’s 10%. But, I’ll just concede her larger point and not bother getting into it. Besides, we’re getting close to her doctor at 1500.

Driver, curious, “I hope you don’t mind I ask, but there’s a strong twang in your voice. I’m curious, where are you from originally?”

Arleta, a little vague, “Ah, bahck eass.”

Driver, pushing, “Oh? I’m from Maryland! Where back east?”

Arleta, “Appalatchya! Wes’ Ginya! Gru uhp werkin’ ah fahrm. ‘N bin smokin’ (Cough! Hack!! Cough!) sinc sevin yeert ‘ol. (Cough!) Das whyy com dis heer coff! Ghat m’ph’sema! Try’d kwitin’. Buht ess haaard, loooord. Reeel haard. Dey seyin’ ess hard’r ‘n hero’n. (Hack!! Cough!)

Buht oh, dat beutee in dem mowtans ah Appalatchya! (Cough!) Da leeves whin dey bee chang’n. ‘N dem snowss, evin whin ess twintee b’low! U cud jus’ STAHP! ‘N staaare owt ahtdem mowntn’s, fer ever! Bee-U-t’fulst ting ahn ert. (Hack!)”

Driver, more curious, “So, what brought you out to California?”

Arleta, “(Cough!) Ohh, babee girlls dadee gaht kilt.”

Ummm…

Arleta expounding, but not with the goods, “So, (Hack!) I com owt ta git myy dawt’r, ta ‘bring’er bahck eass uhp uhpstat Nuw Yooork, set’er uhp livn’ wich ‘er daddees ma ‘n pa. (Cough!)

Alwaaays kinda hert, thinkin’ culdnt do mor fer ‘er. Hahd too jahbs, en ah hosptl ‘n ussah stor clirk. (Cough! Hack!! Cough!)  Fer a bit end’d uhp payin’ ah frind wach owt fer ‘er, babeesittin’, fore ‘n aftah werk. Wadn’t rit ‘neehow. Whin I bee gittin’ hom, mosuh tim ’round midnit, shee alwaays bee e’sleep. (Hack!)

Nawh, ess bess she wint bahck eess ta ‘er gran kin. (Hack!) Betr fer ett.”

Driver, “Wow! Well, how old was she when her daddy was killed. And how did he die! Uh, er… if you don’t mind sharing.”

Arleta, “Nahw, don’ mind. Shess jus’ ateteen monts whin he gaht kilt. (Cough!) Shee ah succ’ssful prr’ty tirty yeer oldt wo-man now! Shee gaht skoolt, ‘n shee ah registert nerse! Kin pr’sribe medicashuns ‘n ahl ah eet! (Cough! Hack!)

‘Er daddee? Willl, ess reel sahd. (Cough!) Ahh girrrl grow’n uhp, naht havin’ ‘er daddee. He gaht shat. Wuss ah frind ah dunnit. Freek accah-dint. Dat eet wuss. (Hack!) Ess frind bee cleenin’ ‘es gunn whin ‘er daddee waak bi ’em, jus’ settin’ dere ahn da cowch cleenin’. Ess frind dint kno dat gunn wuss lodt. ‘N jus’ wun shat, wint strate enn myyy babbee girrl dadees hart. Kilt ’em rit den ‘n dere. (Cough! Cough!)”

Driver, “Holy crap! That DOES suck! Man, there’s always ONE in the chamber!”

And right on cue, we pull up to 1500 Franklin and Arleta’s final drop, at another of what I gather are her several doctors. She collects her little brown box and her two 20 ounce Pepsi’s and earnestly thanks me for the ride, as she readies to once again trample-waddle out of the back seat of Citizen’s Cab 1015.

And I ready to first process her Paratransit card, and then get out between spurts of fast moving cars to help Arleta with her walker.

But with a twinkle in her eye, and a warm knowing look, Arleta throws me a curve.

Arleta, “(Cough!) Wuss dat metah readin’? Tirty-fiiive? I cann stan’ u gittin no 1.9% tip. U bin reel gud ta mee. Stahp whin nun ah ’em otha taxees wud! (Cough! Hack!!)”

Arleta looks me deep in the eyes as she slips some folded up bills into the palm of my hand, and then turns to trample-waddle off into her clinic. And as she trample-waddles off, with a wave of her hand behind her turned back Arleta wishes me a lucrative day.

Well, “(Cough!) Mak sum monnee owt dere!” is actually how she put it.

Once safely back in the driver’s seat of my taxi, I open my hand and ready my waybill to notate this bounty. Huh?? SWEET! TWO twenties and TWO fives! On a thirty-five dollar meter!! And this, not counting the twenty-eight bucks via Paratransit on the first leg of Arleta’s ride!

Aside: I really don’t understand her logic in not just tipping cash on this second leg, and paying the meter via her Paratransit card. But, eh, I’ll just concede her larger point. She just seemed so proud in the moment. It wasn’t worth the bother of getting into it.

In any event, $78!!! Hell, yeah! This “duty to the public” thing is working, if only for today. And, I am so very glad to serve! Jeez! What those five cabs all passed up! The beneficence of Arleta Queen of Appalatchya!

Karma, baby.

_____

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Photo by Alex SacK

www.AlexSacK.com

Check out Alex’s Book 1 – San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
& Book 2 San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane…

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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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