Out of The Tenderloin, Into the Fire

Friday – 10:30am, Citizen’s Cab #1015


Steve Jobs wants my attention. It’s a rarity. I’ve always presented myself as a moving target socially, and in particular, with cellular demands for an immediate reply. I mean, what’s the point of being a cab driver if I’m expected to act in some timely manner, and subjugated to serve at the behest of someone ELSE’s whims! (Oh, wait. Never mind.)

I check my phone… Hey! It’s best friend, Spermula bandmate and fellow cabbie Christian IM’ing me! The screen reads, simply, “GC.”

Golden Coffee.


This always stresses me out. Christian is a night driver. And he commonly walks the six blocks up the hill from his studio apartment in The Tenderloin (red light district) for a late breakfast. We sometimes meet to catch up. But the thing is, I’m working right now! This means not only money for the meal…

Aside: Okay, it’s all of $11 (tip included) for coffee, bacon and eggs. Golden Coffee is a cheap, rundown, dive-y diner, owned by a seedy-looking Chinese couple who give off the vibe that they’re undoubtedly hip to the profit-enhancing wonders of milk cut with melamine.

But, Christian’s offer also means time down from cabbing. And the streets of San Francisco have been rockin’ today! It’s just a little past my mark, 10am, when I like to have secured my day’s nut. But already, at 10:30, I’m $74 in the green!

I have to consider that Christian and I don’t get together much these days. Our schedules are at odds. And I’m a recluse. But, he’s also been gone for a couple weeks, back east visiting his mom in Northern Virginia, and his sister in jail. We should catch up. (Wait. Should I not be writing about that?) Oh, well. Let it be noted that Christian loves his sister very much. And she’s been long sober now, and says that jail probably saved her life. She has something like fifteen years already behind her. But, she still has EIGHT more to go! (I cannot fathom this.)

Note to Self: Do NOT commit armed robbery in VIRGINIA for your drug habit, unloaded shotgun or no.

So yeah, I usually hate to stop to eat. But I miss my friend. And like I said, I AM already $74 in the green!

I IM back a short “K,” and begin rolling down from the Haight towards Turk & Leavenworth to pick up my friend, and ride the six hilly blocks up to Sutter & Lev, Golden Coffee.

A half hour later…

I just dropped Christian off at Jones & Ellis. He’s off to make some noise at his music studio, down from his apartment in the TL. And I have committed to hitting Market at the bottom of Jones, for a run into the Financial fishing for fares.

One block shy, however, between Market & Golden Gate, in the thick of a real Tenderloin scene, a middle-aged, dentally challenged black guy in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt hails me, ever so softly. I slow to surmise the sidewalk picture around him, bustling with drug dealers, addicts, schizophrenics, and homeless milling about. And with blankets laid out on the ground advertising random used knick-knacks for sale, items procured during last night’s series of smash and grab car break-ins.

I jolt to a stop in the right lane, and throw on my hazards.

Whatever the scene around him, this guy exudes a mellow disposition. And he beams with a warm and genuine smile, lack of teeth notwithstanding.

But my hail doesn’t come out to get in the cab. What gives? I crane back to make eye contact, again. Does dude not know I stopped for him?

Ray, “Hey! Can you back in here, to this spot? I gotta load some things!”

Huh? Oh. Well, there is an open spot there. And I would like to get out of this lane before that onrush of cars coming up fast from behind reaches me. I jerk Citizen’s Cab #1015 into reverse, and ZOOM back into the spot next to Ray.

Ray, beaming a toothless smile, “Well, hey! Alright! We got us a cab! Can you open up the back? I got a couple things.”


I get out to help Ray load a couple of large Hefty bags, and a smaller plastic shopping bag spilling in the back of the taxi what looks like important personal papers, a birth certificate, medical forms, etc. This latter bag is handed to me by what must be the other half of “we,” a sixty-something white guy with shoulder-length white hair – though thinning and receding on top, a thick grey mustache, a thicker double chin, and all packaged in worn blue jeans and a black Member’s Only jacket.

Are these guys homeless?

I shut the hatch, and we all get back in the cab. But before I can glean a destination, Gino makes introductions.

Gino, the obvious alpha male of the duo, “How yous doin’? Dis’ is Ray. My name is Gino. We been bess friends fer fortee yeers now. ‘N dat’s ah looong time.” Adding, “‘N what is your name, if I may aks?”

Waybill at the ready, I check the rear view to catch a reclined Ray mumbling, giggling and rubbing the top of his head. (This man could not be happier.) And a poised Gino awaiting my name.

Alex, “Alex.”

Gino, “It is very nice ta meet yous, Alex… Alex… Al!”

Gino pulls a brown paper bag concealing a can from a jacket pocket, and sips.

Al, ” Uh, where we headed?”

Gino, “Ah, rite! Jus’ take us ta da bus stop down dere, aht 7th ‘n Mahrket.”

Huh??? That is only one half block down the street from their pick up! Well, whatever. Fine by me. I’ll just cut my losses on this fiasco right now.

As we begin driving the all of fifty feet, Gino proves a talker.

Gino, ” Dem black guys back dere were givin’ Ray ah hard time. So much drama. Who needs dat? We don’ need dat. We’re jus’ tryin’ ta enjoy ah beer. Dat’s all. ‘N dem black guys git dere fetters all in ah ruffle, wantin’ ta fight. Well, if yous wan’ trouble, buddy. You came ta da rite place! Ain’t dat rite, Capone? Allllll Capone!”

Huh?? Oh! Gino’s talking to ME!

Al Capone, “Uh, yeah. That’s right.”

Ray rubs the top of his head some more, and smiles and cackles.

Gino, “Ahn second taught. Take us ta ah beer store, would ya, Al? Al CAPONE! Okay??”

Al Capone, ” Uh, hmm. Okay. There’s one a few blocks up, at Valencia & Market.”

Gino, ” Well, okay! Al’s got us cover’d, Ray! Big Al… Al CAPONE! Ee’s ah good guy.”

The few blocks on to Valmar Grocery & Liquor, Gino just rambles on, albeit sweetly, as a child, about random subjects. And this while Ray mumbles, and giggles in support, as continuing to rub his head while reclined comfortably next to his friend. It is verified, Ray’s place in life is as sidekick to Gino, witness to the man and his non-stop oratory. (Which is not without significant inspiration from whatever the contents of that brown paper bag.)

We roll up on Valmar. And Gino gives Ray some money and tells him to go in for some beer.

While we wait, Gino suddenly comes out with, “Eh, Big Al… How much yous charge ta take us up ta Santa Rosa?”


Wow!!! OH! Shit! Uh, damn. Wait, WHA!? Hmmm…

Is this some kind of a tease? If it is NOT a tease, do I even WANT this ride??? And how do I make sure that I don’t waste the next two hours driving up to Santa Rosa and back, only to end the ride with a, “Gee, I was SURE dere was monee ahn dat card, Big Al! Sorree dere.”

And, what about the big fire? Excuse me, FIRES! I’m pretty sure they’ve got a pretty high percentage of containment on them now. But, there have been reports of numerous road closures, and insane traffic.

Big Al, “Uh… Well, I have to have the cab back to the lot soon, uh, -ish. Let me radio my dispatcher, and ask how much the meter is up to Santa Rosa.”

1015, “1015, over.”

Dmitry, “1015, what’s your over?”

1015, “How much from The City up to Santa Rosa.”

Dmitry, “You’re lookin’ at meter and a half, 1015. Around $240 dollars.”

Gino, “Yous tink yous can do it fer $150?”

Big Al, “Well, I really have to get the cab back. This ride might make me late. And I can’t be late.” Adding, “How about $200?”

Gino, “Yous got ah deal, CAPONE!”

Capone, “But, I really need the money up front. I hope you understand.”

Gino, “Ah! No problem dere, Big Al. I gaht tha cash rite heyah.”

Gino carefully extracts a couple bills from a wad in his pocket. And he snaps two of them and lays them flat on the center arm rest console next to me, smoothing out two crisp, new one hundred dollar bills.

Gino, “Dere ya go, Capone. It’s settl’d. We good now. Santa Rosa. Da El Crystal trailah park.” With a glow, adding, “Home.”

Ah! It all makes sense now! Overstuffed, heavy Hefty bag. Plastic shopping bag filled with life’s papers spilling across the hatch? Gino and Ray are NOT homeless! They’re REFUGEES from the FIRES!

Hmm. But these things are maybe not so mutually exclusive. Is Gino’s trailer anything more than a pile of ashes now? I DID hear some awful news on NPR, reporting from one of several burned out trailer parks.

Al, “Hey! Were you guys escaping the fire up there in Santa Rosa?”

Gino, “Ah, my trailah park wundt burnt. Buht dere was a lotta smoke, doh. We leff Santa Rosa ta git away from all ah it fer ah few days. We figure ta come down ta Da City ‘n git ah hotel room. Buht, none ah ’em take cash! Dey all want ya tah have ah credit card.”

Ray comes out with a 12 pack of Coors cans, and returns to his reclined position in back.

Gino, “Ray, Big Al’s gonna take us home, all da way uhp ta Santa Rosa.” Then looking concerned, addresses me in the rear view, ” I don wantch yous ta git no ticket, Capone. I’ll keep my beers in da bag.”

Capone, “Oh! Actually, many people don’t realize. But it’s legal to drink in a taxi. Well, not for ME! But, for YOU it is.”

Gino, “Really?”

Capone, “Yeah, really. It’s all good.”

Gino, “Yous want a beer, Capone? Heyah, have ah beer!”

Gino’s handing me up a can of Coor’s, which I wave off.

Capone, “I can’t drink while driving. That wouldn’t be good for my career.” Adding, “Uh, but I guess I could take it… for later.”

Gino, still pushing the Coor’s, “Heyah, Capone. Yous take dis fer later.” And settling in for our long ride, now seeks to establish, “Eh, Capone. You likes ‘Capone’ bettah? Or, ‘Allll Capone’? Or, ‘BIG Al!!’”

Capone, “I guess ‘Capone’ has kind of grown on me.”

We hit the highway, as Gino lights up the stage, and Ray giggles, mumbles and rubs his head in his own special show of support.

Gino, “So we’s stayt up fer three days. Culd’nt git ah hotel witowt no credit card. Buht, it aint like I don’ gaht no cash, doh! We had ta jus’ walk’d around. We’s ate aht da Denny’s. Dey chargt us twenty-eight buhcks fer dat, doh. Jus’ each ah us had bacon, ‘n scamblt eggs, toast, taters, n’ coffee. Fer twinty-eight buhcks! Tha werld’s gattin’ too damn ‘spensive.”

Capone, “You know, that (bed bug infested, crack & meth bazaar) Travelodge back across the street from where you bought beer takes cash. I’ve driven people there a lot.”

Gino, “Yeah, we triet dat place. Buht dey was full up.” Continuing, “Ya know, Capone. I grew up in dis city. Was BORN heyah. I’m half Italian, ‘n half Mexican. ‘N I tell ya, tings changt. Ah LOT! Take Ray, heyah. We aks ah place ta let ’em use da batroom, ‘n nobodee’d let ‘em piss. I mean, ah man’s gotta piss ee’s gotta piss. Dey say buy sumtin’, buy sumtin’! Fer what? Jus’ ta take ah piss? Well, Ray jus went where ee could. ‘N den dey gettin’ all hot undu da collah ’bout it. Ain’t rite havin’ ta hold yerself when ya gotta go. Rite, Capone??”

Capone, “Uh, Yeah. Bathrooms are gold for cab drivers. We have our spots staked out all across the city. But there’s always a Starbucks right around the corner. God bless Starbucks.”

We roll the Bay Bridge through light mid-day traffic, and continue up 580 like, before after a bit crossing over the Richmond Bridge and the San Pablo Bay, gaining palpable distance from The City and its bustle with every passing mile.

I smell the air, and lose myself in the rolling brown hills, the big sky, and the horizon, as I phase in and out of focus upon Gino’s incessant rambling. There’s a lot of flat land up this way, and I am reminded of just how much I take San Francisco’s ubiquitous high peaks and carved out valleys for granted. We roll on further into country, taking in the few relatively soft brown hills flanking these plains, cow pastures, and soon enough, the procession of vineyards.

But, hmm. As we ever near Sonoma, I can see no signs of fire, current or previous, or any smoke in the sky. It’s all just big and blue, with only a few sporadic clouds, puffy and white.

Ah! A first sign of the diminished Armageddon. It’s a hand painted banner hanging from a walking bridge, over 101. It reads, “THANK YOU!” Presumably, for the 9,000 firefighters who converged on Sonoma County over the last week, plus. (Amazingly, with prison inmates constituting 40% of Cal Fire’s force and earning only two dollars a day while out of jail risking their lives in the fight. And all of whom, it should be noted, will never be allowed to make a career of it, after release. Fire departments don’t hire convicted felons.)

We begin hitting some traffic as we near Santa Rosa. But Gino keeps us entertained, having not paused once from his random bantering over the last forty-five minutes. Jumping from stimulus to stimulus, and topic to topic, Gino JUST now notes the placard hawking my book that’s covering the rear credit card screen, RIGHT in his face!

Gino, “Hey! What’s dis?? Dis yous, Big Al?” He starts reading the placard, s  l   o   w   l   y, “Daaad…. tau… taug… ht… meee. Daaaaad… tau… ght… mee… daaat… ahhh… ahhh… ahhh… maaan’s wor… wor… wort… innn… lii… lii… liii…”

I can’t stands it no more!

Cabbie author interjects, “Dad taught me that a man’s worth in life is measured by what he’s done for society. Well, people need a ride…”

Gino, “Hey dere, Big Al! Dat’s, uh… Dat’s very…”

Then Gino trails off, apparently overtaken by sudden musical inspiration. He starts tapping on the back of the shotgun seat headrest.

Gino, “(TAP, TAH, TAP-TAP!) Whyyyy must I BEEEE ah TEEEN-AGER in LOVE????

Dutifully, Ray jumps in to cacophanize with Gino, both revealing an acute knowledge of all of this Dion & The Belmont’s song’s lyrics, as evidenced over the next three minutes, LOUDLY.

Aside: I wasn’t really expecting to sell a book on this ride, anyway.

After having crawled through some kind of backup on 101 for a bit now, we come to a scene with a CHP motorcycle cop in the highway’s median investigating a smashed up white Toyota Camry there. All of its airbags are deployed, and its Uber and Lyft signs are half hanging off the inside of the “rideshare’s” smashed windshield. And the driver and his passengers are still inside the wreckage. (Alas, they’re still alive.)

Hmm. I figured this slowdown was surely due to some fire-related road closures. I guess not. Traffic starts moving once we pass the scene, and all have sufficiently gawked at the wreckage.

And soon enough, we peel off 101 at Todd Road, and then onto Santa Rosa Avenue. And now, we’re just blocks from Gino and Ray’s trailer park, El Crystal. Like a lot of the terrain inland here, the area is relatively flat, and sparse with commerce on this stretch of Santa Rosa Ave. Commerce only peeks out from tiny strips that flank us, offering the likes of a mom and pop tax preparer, a rundown liquor store, a medicinal marijuana doctor’s office on our right, and a medicinal marijuana dispensary one more block up on our left.

Breaking from other hits he’s mastered from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Gino starts to gush as we near El Crystal. He’s proud to show off his home.

Gino, “Hey! Big Al! Wanna come in ‘n drink wit us? We like yous. Yer tha bess drivah evah drove me ‘n Ray.”

Big Al, “Uh, thanks, Gino. I’d really love to, but I have to get the cab back.”

Gino, “Aww, yeah. I guess yous gotta job ta do. Well, heyah! Take anoter beer fer later!”

Gino hands me up another Coor’s, as we turn into the El Crystal trailer park and roll past the unmanned security guard shack at the entrance. We continue, deep into bowels of the (unscathed) trailer park, passing trailer after trailer, with each creatively individuated by its own paint job and adornments, a pink flamingo here, a spinning daisy pinwheel there, the odd American flag, or seasonal decorative house flag sporting pumpkins, or what.

Gino decries the gauntlet of speed bumps we face, set every ten feet and almost too innumerable to count. (He says he’s gotta piss, bad.) And he decries more, the nightly drunk and drugged-out hot rods who fly through the trailer park every night at high speed, in spite of the speed bumps. (It is obvious that there are more than a few children living here.) Eventually, we reach Gino’s trailer at the end of the long straight street.

Gino, “Dere it is! HOME!!”

I pull to the curb alongside a humble, nondescript trailer, with grey painted steps leading up to the front door, atop of which a mangy grey-striped cat with half closed eyes stands sentinel, next to an empty cat dish.

Gino, “Dat’s Missus Cat. She don’ belong tah no one. Buht, she likes hangin’ owt wit me ‘n Ray.”

As Gino and Ray exit the taxi, a bottle of brandy falls out of Ray’s shirt pocket onto the ground, as with a light hearted mumble and giggle of acknowledgement, he stumbles to pick it up.

This, as Gino apologizes “If dere’s anee cans I mighta leff behind in da cab, uh…”

I turn to look back, to note two empty Coors cans on the floor, and a puddle of beer captured (thankfully) by 1015’s industrial strength floor mat.

Big Al, “Uh, can I put these out in your recycling bin? I probably shouldn’t be driving back to town alone with empty beer cans in my cab.”

Gino, “Anyting fer yous, Big Al! Da bin’s rite dere!”

I grab a wad of Starbucks napkins, to boot, to soak up the puddle, as I grab the cans and chuck them into Gino’s trailer’s 50-gallon recycling bin, which I note is filled to the rim with empty beer cans and 12-pack boxes.

Ray giggles at the door and rubs his head for good measure, as Gino suddenly seems kind of sad to see me go. I wish Ray and Gino well and shake their hands, before returning to my charge at the helm of Citizen’s Cab #1015.

And as I start off on my journey back, Gino waves goodbye to me as he stands beside Ray and Missus Cat at the door. All watch as I roll, waving and watching, over the gauntlet of speed bumps, out onto Santa Rosa Avenue, and to 101 south.




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Photo by Alex SacK


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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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