Last night was a hot night, literally. I slept with all the windows open in my flat. (Though, you shouldn’t take the word “slept” too literally.) I’m still grappling with the newish revelation that San Francisco has mosquitoes! They’re not the east coast big-itchy-welt-that-lasts-a-couple-days mosquitoes. But, it is nonetheless disconcerting to be tossing and turning throughout the night, sweating, and hearing that buzzing sound in your ear off and on, as you smack wildly at your own head.
So yeah, I came pretty close to calling-in “dead” to Citizen’s Cab his morning when my custom angel’s choir iPhone alarm went off, at 3:45am. Alas, their celestial beckoning reminds me that my name, Alexander, means “helper of men.” (Women too, I presume.) And there will be people out there on the street today who will NEED a RIDE! (Okay, okay. Rent’s coming up.)
I’ve been cruising my trusty Prius, #1015, as if in a dream. No rush. No hustling. No road rage. Or petty competitions with Ubers, or other cabs. Just no. It should be noted that this fugue state has been exacerbated by an exceptionally slow morning. I did drive Queen Sheba first thing, as I’ve been most mornings of late. At 5am, from her house in black middle-class Ingleside out on the edge of SF, to her downtown chef job at LinkedIn’s headquarters for her standard $26.05 metered fare, Amex. And standard, “Oh, and please don’t add a tip today.”
But after Sheba, it was an ethereal THREE HOURS before my next fare! (SIGH.)
Anyway, things have been livening up since. Right now, I’m coming back from a decent ride out to the Outer Sunset, having afterwards paused for a quick taking in of the majesty that is Ocean Beach, and the great Pacific. I was rolling west on Market behind a Yellow, in the inside lane deferring to his lead rights. But some old Chinese guy flagged me at the bus island, at 8th… with Yellow behind dude’s back in the outside lane.
Chen gets in the back of ‘ol Citizen’s Cab #1015. And Yellow doth protest.
Yeah, I macked Chen, Yellow. “HHHHOOOONNNKKK!!!” THIS!!!
Retraction: Okay, never mind that “just no” stuff.
Making my way back to civilization from the Sunset’s sea of single family homes, replete with garages, and cars, I’m surfing the lights on fast moving Lincoln, alongside Golden Gate Park.
At 19th Ave, still out there a bit, a voice comes crackling over the radio from dispatch, “10th & Lawton. 10th & Lawton.”
1015, “1015. 19th & Lincoln.”
Dispatch, “1015. Go get 1695 10th Ave.”
1015, “1015. Copy. 1695 10th Ave.”
Sweet. It’s nice to snag a ride from the netherworld, back to foot traffic. Efficiency is a beautiful thing. (Oh, and money. Money is a beautiful thing, too.)
I pull up in front of this four-story unremarkable apartment building, circa the 60’s. And I wait.
Hmmm. Out here, and this long a wait, this order MIGHT just be an airport!
Ten minutes (and direction from dispatch to keep waiting) later…
An old, bell-shaped woman in a brightly colored rugby shirt with coke-bottle glasses and one seriously wandering eye, MAGNIFIED, wearing a golf visor with ‘National Council of Jewish Women’ embroidered on it waddles out of the gate of her apartment building towards my cab. With a few reusable plastic grocery bags under her arm. And no luggage.
She settles in back, before beaming a broad smile in the rear view to reveal a complete lack of teeth on the right half of her upper jaw. And with a giddy cackle and a thick Eastern European accent, Babooshka begins conversing with herself.
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Geery baker? Or, Smahrt Feenal grocery? Niet. Geery, the baker… AH! (Hee, hee, hee.) Smahrt Feenal grocery! GEERY!! Do not (hee, hee, hee.) know!”
Driver, waybill at the ready, “Uh. Where to, ma’am?”
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) YEES! 10th, Geery. Russian baker. THEN, Smahrt Feenal grocery! You wait, baker, Smahrt Feenal. A man wait, before. (Hee, hee, hee.)”
Jeez. I’ve been out here over ten minutes, already! And Babushka wants me to hang out waiting while she grocery shops only a few blocks away???
Recall: A San Francisco taxi meter runs at a slower “idling rate” of 55 cents/minute when not moving. (Versus 55 cents per 1/5 mile.)
Babooshka, sizing me up with HUGE brown coke-bottle eyes – and one seriously wandering eye, MAGNIFIED, “You, Russian??”
Driver, “Me? Oh, no. I’m American.”
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Me, Moldova! (Hee, hee, hee.)”
Babooshka, expounds, sort of, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Live Kazakhstan. My seester. Geeve musiic, lesson, FREE! How you say?”
Babooshka mimes fingering a trumpet.
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) YEES! Troompet! Lesson, FREE!! Make no money. NO money!”
We roll Lincoln, fast, towards Crossover Driver through the park.
Babooshka, “My seester, rape… by Heetler. Brother, the oldest, killed. In war. I youngest. Born 19… 39. (Hee, hee, hee.) War begin only. In Latvia, German live, TWO YEERS, with us. A nice man. But Heetler. Like my seester. Very pretty. Mayta. She geeve lesson him. How you say?”
Babooshka mimes fingering a flute.
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) YEES! FLUTE!”
Babooshka, “My father, warn us, not trust. But, nice man. Seester teach flute. FREE! NO money! But yees, Heetler.”
We pull up on Babooshka’s Russian bakery, 10th & Geary. And she waddles out cackling, if not commanding, “You, wait!”
Ten minutes later…
Babooshka waddles back out and into the back of 1015, with one single plastic box of some kind of Russian pastries.
There’s twenty-five minutes invested in this ride thus far, and the meter is only at $11.75.
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Igor. NICE man! Geeve pierogi. FREE! (Hee, hee, hee.) Such NICE man!” Now beaming an BIG eye in the rear view, “NOW! Smahrt Feenal!! (Hee, hee, hee.)”
Babooshka, picking up earlier small talk, ” Yees, Heetler bad. BUT Stalin bad, MORE! Worse Heetler! Kill many. MANY more. EVERYONE!”
Babooshka adding, digressing (I think?), “Three times, in life, me, broken.”
Wha? But lest I get a word in edge-wise, or a chance at inquiry, Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Come to Amereeka, Perestroika! Glasnost! From Crimea. Oh, Crimea. Live Crimea, yeers. (Hee, hee, hee.) Sascha! POOTIN!! Geeve your money, ALL, to Sascha! HA!!!”
And here we are, Smart & Final.
Babooshka, grabbing her reusable shopping bags, “You, wait. Maybe, one hour. HA! Maybe, half that. (Hee, hee, hee.)”
Huh??? An HOUR!?
I pass the time cooking in the sun (on a particularly hot San Francisco day; a continuation from last night) and listening to WAY too much NPR. (Would you like your Trump news fried? Scrambled? Twitter side up? Or over Armageddon?”
I watch the meter tick up ever so slowly, as my brain, and body, melts…
Fifteen minutes later… Meter reads $22.20
Fifteen more minutes later… Meter reads $30.45
Fifteen MORE minutes later… Meter reads $38.70
FIFTEEN MORE minutes later… Meter reads $46.95
FIFTEEN MORE MINUTES LATER… Meter reads $55.20
FINALLY! Babooshka waddles out of Smart & Final with a shopping cart, with two of her medium sized reusable grocery bags full.
She asks that I get out to help load her “heavy bags” into 1015’s hatch, which I do. All BOTH of them, which took Babooshka an HOUR to shop for???
Well, ok, whatever. An hour and forty-five minutes in; fifty-five bucks. I guess I could have been rolling empty. Barring any airport I may have lost to opportunity cost here, I guess it’s not even that bad. Yeah, sure. My glass is half full.
Babooshka, BIG eye, rear view, “Now, HOME!” Adding, “(Hee, hee, hee.) Estonia! Ah, Estonia… We live, Estonia… THREE yeers. (Hee, hee, hee.)” Gushing, “Beautiful. BEAUTIFUL! HA!!” And, “Then live, THREE YEERS, Vilnius. Lithuania. HA!! BEAUTIFUL! (Hee, hee, hee.)”
Driver, going for the converse, “Hey! My family, on my father’s side, immigrated to the U.S. from Latvia and Lithuania, Vilnius even! Though some years back, Ellis Island and all…”
Alas, Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) THEN, Belarus! YEERS. A little, village. There, everyone math. I want teach, math. But little village, EVERYONE math! SMART math. Here, math. There, math. So, me, biology. Maybe geograph, teach. I TEACH, geograph. BUT! Professor Hornshteyn, fire me. Not, good. Niet! In Amereeka, 27 yeers. UCSF not hire, math. I no learn English, but, smart, math.”
Babooshka digresses, again, as she is now flashing her teeth – or lack thereof, in the rear view, “Ukraine, doctor. Did, THIS!”
She opens her mouth and points at her upper jaw, highlighting that all of her teeth are missing on the right side. And that on the left side, it’s crooked teeth poking out every which way.
Babooshka, “UCSF. Plastic, surgery. No money. Niet.” Adding, “Husband, divorce me. 27 yeers, marry. After come, Amereeka.” And one more, “THREE times, me, BROKEN!” which Babooshka emphasizes by shoving three fingers into the front of the taxi, in my face.
Right as we pull up to her building.
We are two hours in now, with the meter reading a FINAL $67.30. And Babooshka hands me up an SF Paratransit card.
Driver, “Babooshka! Paratransit doesn’t LET you take round trips! And the system has a cap at $37 a ride! Your card will decline! Babooshka, you will have to pay for this ride another way!”
Babooshka looks a little hurt. She shrugs, with, “But, no have, money. Niet.”
Babooshka smiles, toothless, “(Hee, hee, hee.) You, call them.”
Well, I DO have manual slips. But this is a five minute ordeal calling into some automated rabbit hole system, designed to make Mother Russia proud. A system that will SURELY decline any authorization, and even further waste my time. UGH!! And SF Paratransit does NOT let you get through to a human with that phone number, should a driver getting the short end of the perogi need to explain!
And I HAVE to have an authorization number to get paid back at the Citizen’s Cab lot at end-of-shift!
I begin filling out a manual slip and dialing SF Paratransit automated approval. I enter, in triplicate, all of the minute details of the ride, culminating with the fare; $67.30.
Five minutes later…
Of suffering Babooshka cackling in back, while rambling off every country in Eastern Europe in which she has lived in her life (Spoiler: ALL of them!) and having absolutely NO comprehension that I am on my Bluetooth headset, busy, focused on the robot woman’s instructs navigating me through punching every quantifiable piece of information under the Sun, save Babooshka’s bra size. (Spoiler: She’s not wearing one!)
And… the authorization code!!
S… H… I… T ! ! ! !
Then, Babooshka gets brilliant.
“Make, TWO, charges. Here, I have second, card.”
Hey! She IS good at math!
I make out two manual slips, splitting the fare, one with each of her Paratransit cards, which… Damn. They have the same ID number. Hmm. Will the system know? And decline ONE of them?? Am I going to sit here and do the math to figure out allotments that match what a taxi meter is capable of charging, to not raise flags, or test SheBot? (Not in the mood right now. And not as easy as it sounds. Okay, it’s not that hard, either. But, fuck it.) Will I be getting some kind of fraud audit from Paratransit?? If this DOES even work in the short term???
Ten minutes (and two manual Paratransit card authorizations) later…
For now, at least. Eh, actually. I think down at the Paratransit office they value cab drivers and do not want to bite the hand that feeds. I mean, this is NOT my fault, anyway. I think in these cases, they admonish the card holder, who is trained to know better.
Our business complete, suddenly, Babooshka comes out of left field.
“Is THIS, book, YOU??”
She sees my ad, that’s been in her face this whole time covering the rear credit card screen, that’s hawking my book.
Driver, gushing, “Well, yeah. I wrote a book. Two, actually. Part of what is to be a trilogy. Cubicle, to cab school, to San Francisco streets – trial by fire as a taxi driver.”
Babooshka, “I buy! I BUY! How much??”
Driver, “Oh, uh. Ten bucks. Thanks!”
She hands me up a ten, cash, and excitedly flips through my book, before slowing, and beginning to look confused.
Babooshka, “It written, in, English?”
Driver, “Uh, yeah. It’s in English.”
Babooshka, “Well, you sign, book. I geeve to seester, Mayta. She read, to me. Sign, ‘To Babooshka AND Mayta. Good. Very GOOD!”
“To Babooshka and Mayta, Enjoy the ride! @”
Well, I did not see THAT coming!
Babooshka, “(Hee, hee, hee.) NOW! You, help, bring bags UP! (Hee, hee, hee.)”
I jump out and around and grab Babooshka’s two bags of groceries, as she handles the plastic box of Russian pastries. And after an inspired jolt up three flights of stairs, I reach apartment #4, where a placard reading “No Crime” with a circle and a slash through it lays on Babooshka’s straw doormat. She eventually catches up and unlocks the door, bidding me to bring in her bags. In, past the empty bottle of vodka on the floor just inside the front door. In, past the kitchen filled with old world dinnerware, flowery and ornate. In, to a living room adorned with pictures hung of family, the mortality of each which is TBD. A living room, half filled with a walnut stained, quite old, baby grand piano! SWEET!
And, AH-HA!! No doubt, the guilty scene of Babooshka’s sister’s infamous FREE music lessons!
Babooshka confirms my suspicions, as she throws up her hands and GASPS!
“SEE! THERE!! NO money! She makes NIET!!! Music! For FREE!!”
Then Babooshka glows, lifting the keylid, and boasting with pride…
“Piano, same as… Rachmaninoff!”
I respectfully arpeggiate a D minor chord. (The saddest of all keys.)
Babooshka, beaming toothless, “You, like?”
Driver, “Yes. I like, Babooshka.”
And, I go for my escape!!!
But once back out in the hall, Babooshka will not let me off so easy! She AGAIN points to her missing teeth, and starts in AGAIN to tell of their sad undoing at the hands of some butcher back in Ukraine. This, as I turn to listen, again. As I can only stand trapped outside of her door, with my hands in my pockets, forcing a smile and nodding. However, apparently aware this ground has been covered, Babooshka all at once stops, and starts intently scanning me, up and down.
Babooshka – honing in on my belly, “You are, fat. You must, exercise.” Miming now, a dribble and lay up, “Beskeet-BULL!”
I sigh, and begin to work up an excuse, about how cab life is sedentary, I’m too mentally fatigued after work, and go to work too early in the morning to exercise, or some other lame reason.
However, having sensed that her hook is lodged now, deep in its prey, and not missing a beat, Babooshka has somehow now all jujitsu moved back to talk of her sister.
And we are once AGAIN, BACK in Kazakhstan! (Though, I could not for the life of me tell you the year.)
I back away, slowly, attempting my best to feign a natural “Well, I should probably be getting back to the cab now,” over Babooshka’s rambling soliloquy. My aim ignored, I turn for the stairs, mid-ramble. And I start down the steps towards FREEDOM! Sweet FREEDOM!!!
Having no choice but to acknowledge it is time that we part, Babooshka having caught, MUST now release! Back into the stream of The City! Out in to that brackish estuary, and the open waters, these San Francisco streets…
Babooshka, peers over the staircase, waving, as I skip and hop (uh, like a salmon?) down the three flights of stairs. “Bye! Good-bye!! Bye-bye!”
And… I’m back SAFE in the cab!!
Hey, what’s that… in the back seat?
A flip pho-
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Photo by Alex SacK