It’s quiet on San Francisco streets at five in the morning. Except, here in The Loin. Where large black transsexual prostitutes are out sashaying for tricks, as illegal Mexicans hang on street corners fencing electronics – offering cash for stock from whatever a junkie may have procured in the night, and shady characters of all colors wait around those corners to sell said junkie pills, heroin, crack and meth. (Or whatever other cure, from a myriad, for that which ails them.) A truly vibrant after hours economy to make Adam Smith proud.
And for the ‘five in the morning’ cab driver, the rules of the road are different. In short, there are none.
“TAXXIIII!!!” rings out from the center of the hustle, Market & Lev.
The hack scans… to hone in on a tiny frame, a lesbian-looking chick in a dirty Member’s Only jacket with short cropped hair – as if chopped haphazardly herself in a mirror, with dull scissors. Billie’s stretched tippy-toe in her Chuck Taylors and frantically waving her hand high, running down Leavenworth towards my taxi. (Which is currently stopped for a red on Market, in the inside of two lanes, and on the far side of a MUNI bus island and the outside lane from Billie.)
Dutifully, one Citizen’s Cab #1015 swerves an illegal right on red, across the MUNI bus island, across a growling street sweeper awaiting the green in the outside lane, and comes to a jerking stop at the corner, meeting Billie half-way.
“Thanks A MILLION for stopping, driver!” huffs out a raspy Billie. A gravelly rasp undoubtedly worn deep by years of drugs, cigarettes and liquor. Billie adds to direct, “Can you pull up a little here? Up to the bus shelter? That’s my husband up there. He’s waiting for me.”
Aside: Well. Despite Billie’s butch presentation, I guess she is NOT a lesbian. I will have to have my gaydar taken in for service.
Up a half block, I note an older black man sitting in the bus shelter. He’s pretty skinny, and haggard looking, wearing a dirty Warriors cap and nodding off. We inch forward to him.
And Billie jumps out to rouse her husband.
“Willie! Willie!! I got us a cab! Come on! Willie!!”
She shakes Willie to his feet, and pours him in back of 1015.
Billie, “Thanks again, driver. Okay, we’re just going up to Ellis and Leavenworth. I, uh, gotta pick up my cell phone there. And then, we’re going on to O’Farrell and Jones, to our hotel. Sorry it’s not a long ride, driver. But we really appreciate it.”
Pick up her cell phone. Right.
Driver, “Oh, no problem. That’s why I’m here.”
We ride the couple blocks up Lev, as I sip from my Starbucks. And in no time, we’re pulling up to the corner of Ellis and Lev, adjacent a corner store with a group of black guys hanging out in front.
As we pull to a stop, Billie yells and waves out of her window at a tall, lanky one in the group, then addresses me, “Here’s a twenty for collateral, driver. Uh, I just gotta go get my cell phone. I’ll be right back.”
And Billie jumps out to go mingle with the group, leaving husband Willie nodding out in back. I watch as some kind of exchange is made, and before you know it, Billie is back in the cab. And excited.
Billie to Willie, “Okay, honey. I got it. Do you think we should get another one, though?”
Huh? TWO cell phones??
Willie mumbles something to Billie, and they begin arguing about whether their next stop is still on to O’Farrell and Jones, or just one more block up to Lev and O’Farrell to get coffee. (I guess my Starbucks inspired Willie.) Whatever the deal, I guess my happy couple is satisfied with just one cell phone.
I pull off, as Billie breaks from the back and forth to again yell out her window at the group.
“SORRY ABOUT USING THE N-WORD!!!”
Billie sounds sincere about her apology, too. I like her. She’s very considerate, polite, and self aware.
She makes an executive decision as Willie nods off, directing me to continue on with their original plan dropping at their SRO at O’Farrell and Jones.
And within a minute we are there, with the meter at a whopping $5.15.
I still have Billie’s twenty collateral, as she looks at the meter and nervously does math.
Billie, “Uh, um… I guess keep three bucks on that, driver. And thanks, again. We really appreciate you.”
Driver hands back Billie twelve dollars, repeating, “You got it. That’s what I’m here for.”
But Billie flounders, second guessing with her change.
Billie, “Hell, you got a dangerous job, driver. Here. Take another buck. And thanks, again!
Ten minutes later…
Wynton Marsalis’ The Majesty Of The Blues wafts over 91.1FM KCSM jazz, as I opt to strategize Polk out from downtown, out towards Cow Hollow and The Marina. Those grounds with their yuppie clientele have long been ceded to the “rideshares,” but I still flog myself these early mornings rolling them in hopes of scoring that rare Cabulous airport. A hack’s life can always surprise.
Tony, Sr. comes crackling over the radio, “Lahmbard ‘n Bakah. Lahmbard ‘n Bakah.”
Citizen’s Cab #1015, “1015. Chestnut and Scott.”
Tony, Sr., “Yeah, 1015. Goh git 2707 Lahmbard. Da Inn aht Golden Gate hotel. Dis guy’s gotta git ta tha airport. Keith’s da name.”
1015, “1015, copy. 2707 Lombard, at Baker. Keith.”
I FLOOR IT the few blocks to the Inn at Golden Gate, lest some other Citizen’s Cab playing the radio “chase’ the order and steal my breakfast!
And waiting out in front with an olive drab duffel pack, is a trim, kempt, twenty-something Keith.
Keith, “Thanks for coming to get me, driver. I’m off to the airport. Alaska Air.”
Driver notates his waybill and repeats back the destination, as a nice, polite Keith wants to talk.
Keith, “Do you get many rides this early, driver?”
Driver, “Not too many. The odd airport. The odd drug deal. A Mexican headed to their kitchen job. What brought you to San Francisco?”
Keith, “Oh, I travel a lot for work. I’m always traveling. I’ve been to San Francisco a few times already in this job. I work for a company that manages events. We just did a run for cancer here. I’m the one who sets up the tents and places the traffic cones, and things like that. Now, it’s back home to Montana. It’s good money. But, I’m still trying to find my place in the world. You can’t really build a life around the events thing.”
Driver, “Yeah, I guess traveling that much you can’t really put down roots. Or start a family.”
Keith, “No. Definitely not. And I want to. I’ve been thinking about becoming a firefighter. I actually did the volunteer firefighter thing for a while. But, I’m thinking I might go professional. It was crazy, doing the volunteer thing. There was NO training. Within a week, you’re just inside a burning building with all this equipment, not knowing ANYTHING about fire. Or, if the building is going to collapse on you. But you learn quick!”
Driver, “That IS crazy! You’d think they want you to know how fire acts. And how to avoid dangerous situations, like a floor you’re on giving way. Jeez!”
Keith, “Before that, I rode a bull in rodeos. They gave you no training for that, either. Except, they just told you to practice riding a horse bareback for a while to get used to it. That did help. But, too many guys around me were getting stepped on by the bulls. And ending up paralyzed. I figured that wouldn’t be a good career choice. Well, for the long term, anyway.”
Driver, “Yeah, uh, probably not.”
Keith, “Anyway, it’s not easy getting accepted as a professional firefighter. But, I’m a vet. Marines. Two tours in Afghanistan. I’m thinking that might help get me in.”
Driver, “Yeah. I would think so!”
Keith, “I actually just got back into the events thing, after taking five months off to clear my mind. I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s where I started thinking more seriously about firefighting.
It was really a beautiful, peaceful time. I really got to see some things. There was what they called the ‘super bloom’ in the desert. All sorts of colorful flowers, as far as you could see. They said this year was special because of the wet winter.
Man, I’ll tell you. I almost lost my life on the hike, though. A couple times. Once, I slipped and slid down a snowy ravine and almost drowned in a river, up in the Sierras. Yeah, because California had that particularly wet winter, the snow pack was melting off something big. All of the rivers and creeks were really swollen.
I have PTSD, driver. From my tours in Afghanistan. I don’t wish anyone to ever have to go to war. It messes with you. It’s not natural. And I didn’t want to do all what the VA has you do, with sitting around talking in support groups and the like. I actually did the Pacific Crest Trail as part of a program run by vets, as an alternative way to address your PTSD. I’m glad I did, too. It really helped me work through some things.”
As we pull in to SFO, terminal 2, Alaska Air, Keith throws me up a corporate Amex and warmly thanks me for the ride, saying to add ten to the $45.10 meter. And as Keith grabs his rucksack to exit the taxi, Driver can only think to cap our ride as one safe and ignorant in the 99%.
Driver, “Uh, yeah. War sucks.”
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Photo by Alex SacK
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