Passengers, I have a confession to make…
Until a few weeks ago, I’d been living a double life here in San Francisco. A secret life that I have kept from you, and my regular Prius, Citizen’s Cab #1015: (Sigh.) Her name is 474. A Ford Escape. With a medallion holder goes by Antoinette.
It’s not all what you think, though. I was ONLY driving her on Tuesdays! Well, until I had to draw the line, and break up with her. However, you MUST understand! A taxi is not JUST a lifeless amalgamation of plastic and steel. She has a vibration. And a scent. Symbiotically, a taxi takes on the very SOUL of her owner. And hence, she is ONE with that medallion holder’s KARMA!
In 474’s case, Antoinette’s.
The first time I ever went out in her, upon leaving the lot, I was cornered by Antoinette and asked if I would agree to return 474 at 3:15pm, each Tuesday that we were scheduled. That’s an hour early of her 4:15 medallion time! At first I sat there dumbfounded, with a loooooong awkward pause ensuing, pregnant as Octomom, before I ultimately replied with a simple, “No.”
Aside: To those of you who assert this is not a word within my vocabulary, take note. (Ah-em, Bob!)
Another time, I don’t know HOW she did it, but SOMEHOW Antoinette found me out rolling the streets downtown, an hour before medallion time. (While out in her personal car.) She accosted me at a red, asking if I was headed back to the lot… and offering to follow me back in. Which she did.
All other times, I’d find Antoinette waiting for me out in the lot when I returned, before wanting to spend time with me discussing every little quirk that 474 was possessed with this week. And, of course, asking if I had clicked through on the gas… (You see, 474 has a particular about its gas tank, where it keeps clicking off at the pump every ten cents, even though it’s still a third empty.) At the end of every shift, though, I religiously made sure to sweat through repeatedly clicking the handle until the tank was unquestionably full. Still, Antoinette would often note that the “expensive” Chevron she takes 474 to on Bayshore fills her up without having to click through.
Antoinette, “Can you fill up 474 there?”
Yes, like her medallion holder, 474 had MANY particulars. Sure, she was clean as a whistle, inside and out. But, there were a MULTITUDE of other annoyances which can wear on a driver over the course of their 12-hour shift: Like, she also had that repeating BEEP!ing sound, super LOUD for safety, whenever you put her in reverse. And the dome light! THAT only had one option; BRIGHT! It could only come on with ALL three lights, whenever used early morning to, say, SEE! So you could mark a ride on your waybill, or help a passenger retrieve the phone they just lost in the crack of the back seat, or whatever. Whenever illuminated, it was as if an alien spacecraft had suddenly landed INSIDE of the cab! Oh, and her meter. Her meter, too. 474’s meter was jury-rigged, mounted at the top of a two-and-a-half foot metal bar, which shook violently, and LOUD, in resonance along the highway… over the entirety of each and every thirty-minute long airport ride!
And her turning radius absolutely SUCKED. Invariably, you would be forced into a nerve-wracking illegal three-point turn at the end of Market, down in the deep Financial. This, amidst heavy traffic, and POLICE, in lieu of your usual QUICK illegal U. And don’t get me started on 474’s FM radio. But, you CAN get me started on how the DISPATCH radio only had TWO settings: Off. And yes, LOUD!!!
Also, her rear view mirror. It had one of those LCD screens embedded in it that shows a driver a view from its rear camera. A redundant view that you didn’t need, or want. The rear view camera thing WOULD be “whatever.” But, as a result, the mirror was tinted. HEAVILY. With the effect being that you went your entire shift without NO eye contact between you and your passengers. And, my passengers, eye contact is the stuff of these reports. Alas, eye contact is the stuff of HUMANITY itself!
So, when Antoinette made her last request, early one morning about a month ago, via a Sharpie-written note awaiting me on 474’s dash, which relayed her phone number along with that I should now call her each shift with an ETA of when I’d be returning to the lot, I could take it no more. IMMEDIATELY, I went back in to see Tony at dispatch. And I DEMANDED that I be relieved of 474! And that I NEVER drive her again! (Even if this meant driving a spare.)
Note: Aside from never really KNOWING if I am actually turning it in, given my usual style of meandering back towards the lot near end-of-shift with an eye out for flags and an ear out for dispatched orders, CALLING Antoinette with a head’s up, even once, would mean that SHE WOULD NOW HAVE MY PHONE NUMBER!
After weeks of no 474, only driving old beaten spares on Tuesdays, I STILL avoid Antoinette. (Er, like the French Revolution.) I even once opted walking through the garage and go back into the office to check out at end-of-shift, instead of at the bullet-proof glass window. This, when I saw Antoinette too near the window, over in a gaggle of drivers talking up on the rustic porch with the Coke machine – that acts as our driver’s lounge. And STILL, upon leaving via the same covert route to escape her hooks, ALMOST safe out of the lot and at my van in the alley, I hear LOUD from across the lot, “Alex! ALEX!!! You owe me $20 for that short tank last week!!”
Alex, “Huh!? I haven’t driven 474 in WEEKS!”
Antoinette, “Oh!? Okay!!!”
Tony, working dispatch, “Uhhhh, Sack. Uhhh, sorree dere. Buht I don gaht no spares fer ya taday. All I gaht is 474.”
Sack, “Ugh! Well… okay. But Tony, just PROMISE me that you WON’T tell Antoinette!”
Driving west up Market, past Westfield Mall and now in the Loin, I suddenly hear some BIG lungs yelling “TAXI!!!”
I slow, and look back via the rear view… To find in the street, around Turk, a thirty-something white guy in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans, with a thick mustache, waving at me from the middle of the street.
After scanning for cops, I flip an illegal U and go back for Buddy.
And Buddy gets in back.
Driver, waybill at the ready, “You got some good lungs there, Buddy.”
Buddy, stoic and curt, “Yeah. Go straight up Powell there. I’ll let you know when to drop me off. It’s somewhere up Powell.”
Driver, “Uh, ok. I guess. I’ll have to make another illegal U-turn up around Westfield. But only if there are no cops. They’ve got a lot of cops busting people around here these days, on account of all the pedestrian deaths over the last few years. The City has that ‘Vision Zero‘ program going full force, trying to stop all the deaths.
Buddy, “Cops don’t ticket cab drivers. Do they?”
Driver, “Well, some are cool. Some see us as working, and know that most of us drivers know what we’re doing. But the motorcycle cops, all they do is traffic tickets. They’re not taking bank robbers to jail, cuffed on the back of their bikes!”
Buddy, “Huh. I just got out of jail for bank robbery. Did ten years.”
Buddy, expounding, “I work at a machine shop, now. But I gotta take off once a week to go to group counseling, as part of my parole. It sucks. But, that’s where you’re taking me now. To my group counseling up there on Powell Street, somewhere.”
Driver, “Wow! I’ve NEVER actually driven a bank robber before! (Er, that I know of.) I DID drive the assistant manager of a bank in Union Square, once, after his bank had just been robbed. He was dealing with some loose ends around it afterwards. Apparently, that was a weekly occurrence at his bank. But the robbers always just used a note, and were smart enough to never take the bag with the dye pack.”
DOH! I hope Buddy didn’t get busted taking the dye pack!!
Driver, QUICKLY changing the subject, sorta, “Anyway, if you don’t mind I ask. How much did you steal?”
Buddy, “It wasn’t much. Only $80,000.”
Cabbie, trying to relate, “I was in jail for a weekend, once. I opted to go, years after my initial arrest and court case for a D.U.I. I got when I was 21. After the two years of probation were up, I hadn’t completed one of the stipulations of my probation. (Er, you probably don’t want to hear this from your cab driver. Eh?)
Anyway, when it came back up years later, I knew that I could opt for a weekend in jail, rather than just finish the week-long $200 alcohol education class, which the judge was still offering me to wrap it all up. But I was curious about jail. And I declined the judge’s offer. He thought I was crazy.
And my ma was none too pleased, either.
The judge first sentenced me to a weekend in September that my band, Dicksister, had been scheduled to play a benefit concert for a women’s homeless shelter. So just before he gaveled, I interjected, and explained. He was visibly annoyed with me. But what could he do? It was a benefit concert for women! He changed my sentence to the next weekend… The weekend of my mother’s birthday, complete with a birthday dinner that I had to now explain why I would not be attending!
My biggest memory of jail was how boring it was. I didn’t feel threatened, at all. I actually knew three people in my wing! And ONE of them was the top dog of the wing. And HE used to date my sister! (No, passengers. I do NOT chew tabaccee. And I do still have all of my teeth.) Yeah, REAL boring. The library was closed on the weekends. And they made you get up at five in the morning, with nothing to do all day. Save, one hour out in the yard.
What did you hate the most about jail?”
Buddy, “It ALL sucked! But yeah, boredom was near the top of the list. And the sex offenders. I HATE sex offenders! Can’t stand ’em. And there’s some sex offenders in my group.
They got a mark on ’em inside. A lot are in solitary, for their own safety. Otherwise, they get beat. BAD.
Even when they get out, they get treated different. Sex offenders get the ankle monitors with GPS on them, so they can be tracked wherever they go. If they go near schools, or playgrounds. Other guys just get the monitor that says when you leave home, and come back, from work or what.”
Hmm. Buddy sounds in the know.
Driver, “You also hear that Federal prison is easier time than state. That’s what you hear, anyway. Is that true?”
Buddy, “Naw. Federal prison’s WAY more violent. You gotta really watch your back, and know who you’re in with.”
Driver, “Oh, hmm… How’d you get busted, anyway?”
Buddy, “Had a friend, in on the robbery. He snitched on me. Got me talking on a wire, admitting to the bank. He ALSO got me on the wire talking about my AR15, and a quarter pound of meth I had.” Continuing, grumbling, “Man, the bank heist was a stupid thing I shouldn’t have even gotten jail for! It was an $80,000 heist, but I only got $30,000 for driving. I didn’t even know they were going to rob the bank!
Anyway, I’m not mad I got snitched on. But he ain’t my friend no more. Some guys get hung up about it inside, and spend all their time planning on what they’re gonna do to the snitch when they get out. But, you can’t spend your life letting all that eat you up.”
I note Buddy in the rear view, as he suddenly turns to look out his window, grinding his teeth.
Driver, “Wow! Bank robbery, assault rifle, a QUARTER POUND of meth??? How much of that ten years was for each of those counts!”
Buddy, looking annoyed, “I dunno. They just kind of lumped it all together.”
Assuring Driver, “Well, it sounds like it could have been a much longer sentence. I have a friend who’s sister is in jail in Virginia, for armed robbery with an unloaded shotgun, for her habit. She got a mandatory twenty-two years, or something.
I’m guessing you didn’t have a public defender? There are all sorts of news stories about how overworked they all are, and how they’re all just seeing their client’s case for the first time as they’re walking in to court. And how, by default, public defenders all just have you plead guilty.”
Buddy, “Yeah, well my girlfriend at the time was a paralegal. My family helped pay for a lawyer, too. That all helped, a lot.”
Driver, changing the subject, sorta, “I heard a story on NPR about how 40% of the CalFire firefighters up in the Sonoma fires a few weeks back were inmates. And, how they can’t get hired as firefighters after they get out, on account of that they’re convicted felons. That’s cold!”
Buddy, “Yeah, it’s true. I was in the fire brigade.”
Driver, digressing – actually this time, “Hey! This is probably a dumb question. But, I once heard about inmates watching movies with jail break scenes in them, while IN jail! HA! Did they let you guys watch stuff like that? Hey! Did they let you guys watch Breaking Bad???”
Buddy, smiling for the first time, and even busting out a chuckle (so to speak), “Yeah, we all watched Breaking Bad.”
Suddenly, Buddy notes he meter, mid-Chinatown.
Buddy, “Hey, man. We’re close. Want to let me out here, for a flat ten?”
The fare’s at $10.10. Buddy’s group counseling must be just a couple of blocks up more, in North Beach. (As, I seriously doubt it’s in Fisherman’s Wharf, nestled in between Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!)
Obliging Driver, “Uh, sure. No sweat, man. Just don’t ROB me!!! HA! HA! HA!”
(Okay:) I didn’t really say that last part.)
Buddy flattens out a ten on the center armrest console. And he jumps out of my taxi at a red, at Pacific, parting with a simple, in-character curt, “Thanks.”
As suddenly, my iPhone rings, “Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding! Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding!”
Hey! It’s the Citizen’s Cab driver’s line. Hmm. Dmitry’s at dispatch, now. He sometimes calls me with an airport, knowing that I’ll throw him an extra five at check-out.
Sack, “This is Sack.”
Dmitry, “Sack. I got Antoinette here. Are you in 474 today?”
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Photo by Christian Lewis
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