Never the Twain

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” – Anonymous

Despite popular attribution, this was NOT an utterance of Mark Twain. But, it is definitely feeling like “summer” around The Bay. I’m curled up in bed next to my space heater, wearing long johns and a Russian army-issued unshanka hat with the faux-fur ear flaps, until my alarm goes off at the brisk hour of 3:30am.

But, let’s skip ahead…


I’m rolling the Haight-Ashbury in Citizen’s Cab #1015 in what smells like a quiet day, contrary to a steady, and quite welcome, flow of rides. I’ve made the run west empty past all of the head shops, natural food stores and burgeoning millennial work-out spots portending the doom of this traditionally hippie-artsy district.

In front of the bowling alley-turned-Amoeba Records, at Haight’s end at Golden Gate Park, I scan for cops… and I flip my usual illegal U. Now, it’s back eastward past Escape From New York Pizza, Earthsong new age gifts, Wasteland thrift, Booksmith and BODYROK sculpt and cycling.

And there at the MUNI stop at Masonic & Haight, an anxious hand rises into the air to flag.

Hey. I know that hand. It’s a regular hail of mine, Margaret, the special needs teacher at SOTA (School of the Arts). Margaret’s a nutty middle-aged woman with scraggly dyed brown hair who talks under her breath a lot, while squirming skittishly in the back seat and jumping from topic to topic. But, hmm. Where’s her signature stuffed wolf head hat with the long dangling paws?

I pull over. And Margaret jumps anxiously into the back of my taxi.

Margaret, “Oh, thanks for stopp… Hey! HA! It’s YOU!! It’s been a while. How ARE you?? Wait. I need to call Yellow and cancel…”

Margaret starts dialing on her cell, as I grab my waybill and start to notate the ride.

Driver, in between Yellow’s automated on speaker instructs, “So, off to SOTA?”

Margaret, multitasking, “Oh, no. Starr King Elementary, out at 23rd & Wisconsin.”

Driver, scribbling, “Ah! They have you moving around, eh? I do remember driving you to Starr King, once or twice.”

Our banter takes a back seat as Margaret goes deep into the hole of Yellow Cab’s automated dispatch, attempting to cancel her ride… before eventually, after pressing 1, 3, #, 7, 4, and * to hear her options again, Margaret hangs up in failure. (To be fair, she sweated through the Yellow hole longer than most.)

Driver, “It’s ok. Yellow wasn’t really going to show up, anyway. Besides, it shouldn’t be that hard to flag a cab in the Haight. WE always seem to connect!” Changing the subject, “It’s COLD out this morning! Where’s your hat!”

Margaret, “Uh, I was running late, and forgot to grab it. Yeah, it’s just that the number for Yellow is SO easy to remember. 333-3333.”

Driver, making small talk, “So, are you getting excited for Christmas break?”

Margaret, “There’s too much to do to even THINK about it! They have us doing paperwork out of everywhere leading up to the break. But, it will be welcome!”

The Eagles ‘Take It Easy‘ serendipitously comes wafting over the radio.

Margaret starts dancing in her seat, “I LOVE this song!”

Driver turns it up.

Driver, “You work with autistic kids, right? I remember reading a study that showed if you put a potted plant next to a speaker and play different types of music, the plant will grow towards the speaker for certain types of music, and away for others. The plants seemed to like violins and Indian classical music a lot, was my takeaway.

They probably do some kind of music therapy with autistic kids, eh?”

Margaret, still busting a move, “Yes! We DEFINITELY work music therapy into our repertoire! But with these young autistic kids, you just never know. Every day is different. Every MINUTE is different! What works one minute to calm them, or keep their attention, might not work the next. And often, what works on one kid will set off another kid! It’s challenging.

I really feel for the parents of these kids. Though, it puts a lot on us teachers. The parents often have no idea just how deep their child’s lack of social skills goes, until they first get them into school for and see them trying to work in a regimented group. And when I get these kids, at four-years-old, the parents have usually just had their kids diagnosed. They don’t know how to deal. It’s hard.”

Driver, “So, what’s the current understanding of autism these days? Are the increased rate of diagnoses because of a wider spectrum recognition? Or they’re getting better at diagnosing? Or are we actually seeing more cases than in the past?”

Margaret, bopping along, “It’s still a big debate. I CAN tell you that some of these kids are getting misdiagnosed. I’ve seen some pretty smart kids, who just have some questionable social attributes, getting labeled.”

Driver, “HA! It’s that classic engineer type, eh? Engineers are famous for staring at their shoes when responding to you!”

Margaret, now clapping along to the radio, “YES! But, if you want my opinion, I DO think there are more occurrences that are likely attributable to all that we have in our environment now, all the chemicals, and plastics that pregnant mothers and newborn babies are exposed to!”

We wind past SF General and up the hill the back way to Starr King Elementary, in Potrero Hill. And we find Margaret’s usual drop on the narrow side street flanking the school occupied with an oncoming school bus. So I defer, backing 1015 out and backwards up Carolina to conclude our business.

The meter reads $15.60. And Margaret throws me up a twenty, saying to keep it, with a warm hippie smile, and a “Merry Christmas!”

That’s Margaret, flaky as she may be, she’s always cash and a decent tip.

Now, back down the hill. I’ll check the hospital ER. And then I’ll do my usual rounds through The Mission, The Castro and back up towards the Haight. It’s been a good morning so far, and rush hour is starting to liven up. I shouldn’t get too far sans-fare.

Fifteen minutes later…

Ugh! I’ve made it all the way back to the Haight, where I picked up Margaret, sans-fare. And I have AGAIN made the run west empty past all of the head shops, natural food stores and burgeoning millennial work-out spots. (Yes, the ones portending the doom of this traditionally hippie-artsy district.)

And, AGAIN I flip my illegal U in front of Ameoba Records… after first scanning for cops. And AGAIN roll back east past Escape From New York Pizza, Earthsong new age gifts, Wasteland thrift, Booksmith and BODYROK sculpt and cycling… to where I now wait for the red at Masonic & Haight, where across the light at the MUNI bus stop, an anxious hand rises into the air to flag.

Hey! It’s… Margaret???

I pull over. And Margaret? jumps anxiously into the back of my taxi.

Margaret?, “Oh, thanks for stopp… HA! YOU!! How ARE you?? Wait. I need to call Yellow and cancel…”

Margaret? starts dialing on her cell, as I grab my waybill and start to notate the ride.

Driver, “So, uh… off to SOTA?”

Margaret?, “YES! You remember!”

Driver, “It’s COLD out this morning! Where’s your stuffed wolf hat that you always wear, with the long paws!”

Margaret?, navigating the Yellow hole, “OH! I was in too much of a hurry this morning getting out of the house and I forgot it!”

Driver goes silent until Margaret? gives up on canceling her Yellow Cab and hangs up.

Then, Driver makes small talk, “So, are you getting excited for Christmas break?”

Margaret?, “Well, not really. SOTA makes you use your vacation days for the break. And when you’re all out of them, it costs you.”

Driver, trying a different, more positive tack, “Well, do you have any special plans for Christmas?”

Margaret? shifting nervously in her seat, “Well, I’m going out to my sister’s again in Colorado. And I get to see my sweet little eight-year-old nephew. He’s SO smart! My sister is a bit odd, though. I think it’s because we grew up Army brats, moving from place to place. She’s in some kind of chanting cult now. Last Christmas when I was there, we went to go chant at someone’s house. I quietly pulled my nephew aside and asked how long the chant would go on. And Ben calmly whispered that it was ‘Only four hours. But, then we get to eat!’ Oh, GOD! I don’t know if I can handle it this year!

It’s hard this time of year working with the special needs kids, too. It’s not the kids, though, It’s the parents! They expect SO much from you! They’re all bitching at you, and demanding. ‘WHY is the homework like this? WHY aren’t you putting Billy’s syllabus in his backpack!’ GOD! I mean, I’m just the teacher’s aide. But, the teacher is getting pretty upset, too. She’s like, ‘WHO are these parents to be telling me how to run MY class!’”

Then, Margaret? starts getting agitated and weird, digressing and talking under her breath.

Margaret?, “I met a guy. But, it seems whenever I meet someone and start to get comfortable, I start to clam up, and withdraw…”


Hmm. Maybe it’s that Army brat thing?

We near SOTA, high up near Twin Peaks, and navigate around all of the high school students crossing the streets from every which angle.

Margaret?, “It’s a sad time of year. SOTA had a student die last year in the Ghost Ship fire. The youngest fatality at the rave.”


We pull into the drive at the back of SOTA, navigating around students, parents dropping and several trailer class rooms plunked down in the back lot.

The meter reads $11.20. And Margaret? nervously throws me up sixteen ones as she jumps out of the taxi yelling, “There’s sixteen there! If I don’t see you, have a merry Christmas!”



I’m rolling the Haight. At the MUNI stop at Masonic & Haight, there’s a woman across the red anxiously flagging me, in a grey stuffed wolf head hat, with long dangling paws…



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Photo by Christian Lewis

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 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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