A Hack’s Lot (For the Record)

Lately, a wise friend has been reminding me to keep my eyes on the road as I navigate these weekly cab reports. That these insights into the mind of a San Francisco hack are always, and above all, to be “in service” to YOU, my passenger.

However, as my metaphorical shift wears on and a proverbial sun falls lower in the sky, flooding the windshield of ‘ol Citizen’s Cab #1015, a driver can get a little blinded. He begins to wonder if maybe his fares would welcome a little detour down a side street, every now and then, to add a little spice to the regular commute. If your destination can wait, that is. And you’re not running late.

Are you?

Good. In that spirit, passengers, our route this week will be in service to the record. (Sorry, wise friend.) Our destination? The unvarnished, if not boring truth, in all its minutiae. I give you,

Alex’s Taxi Prep…

I leave the Citizen’s Cab office with my Prius’ key and 4 ‘o clock medallion ten dollars lighter, having tipped Tony back working dispatch a five, and with an extra five bribe thrown in, wasted on an airport call that will never come.

Pre-Starbucks, and Monday, I meander half awake out into this sea of unused taxis, each in various states of disrepair (though, still “in service”) in search of #1015. And with the warm, yellow glow of the lot’s sodium-vapor flood lights reflecting from the yellow-with-green-checkers color scheme of each, I crane to scan their hoods for my number. However, the usual game of Where’s Waldo, where your driver usually takes pride in the challenge, is falling flat this morning. So he cheats, clicking the “unlock” button on 1015’s wireless key, and isolates the resultant flashing of lights and companion CHIRP! now emanating from across the Citizen’s Cab lot.


Your driver’s first two potential obstacles to hitting the road are moot:

1.) There is no need for the dance back and forth to the office, grabbing and returning several other cabs’ keys, after moving each to free up a trapped 1015.

2.) AND upon pressing the “unlock” button, there WAS an actual CHIRP! indicating that my Prius has juice, and will actually start. As opposed to the other back and forth dance to the office, grabbing and returning the portable jump-start battery, after jumping a dead taxi.

Headed over, I squeeze between some taxis thereby startling one of the feral lot cats, Rocky, who goes darting away from an empty can of 9Lives here by the trash, vacuum and hose station, and takes cover out of sight under any of his choice of cabs.

As I approach my girl, I take heart in noticing that her windows are all up, meaning:

1.) The cloth seats aren’t all drenched from last night’s rain.

2.) The night driver is not trying to air out any residual stench of stomach contents left behind by one of a number bar patrons ferried home at 2am after last call, and in such a condition as needing to have been poured out of 1015.

Vomit is a rarity for the day driver. Yet, while I have never actually been in such dire need to exercise this bit of imparted cabbie wisdom from best friend, band mate and night driver, Christian, I have always kept the mental note:

Arm & Hammer Pet Fresh Carpet Odor Eliminator
(In the blue box.)

Christian insists this is the ONLY substance on God’s earth that will remove Eau du Vom’it.

Okay, so far, things are looking good. But, WAIT. There’s MORE!

Now, the driver circles his cab, inspecting for any unreported damage from the prior shift that may get pinned on him, potentially dinging his $500 security deposit and possibly costing him his job, for not having reported a collision.

No flat tires? Check!
Reach in and turn on headlights. Check!
Turn signals? Check!

Now, I throw the medallion and my cheap, ripped up Chinese backpack onto the shotgun seat, which contains the rest of my tools of the trade. And, we enter her…

Crank the manual seat handle all the way down, and recline the seat back to a 65 degree angle.

Any cigarette odor from illicit smoking in cab? No!
Any weapons, wallets, cell phones and/or illicit drugs left in the back? No!
Random food stuffs bottles and/or trash left in the door? On the floor? In the center arm rest console? No! No! No!

Straighten the rugs on the back floor, reset the seat belts in back to take up any slack, and,

Hit the START button…

And she’s alive! ALIVE!! Lights! And buzzes! And bings! And dings!

First, throw on the defogger, 70 degrees, and notch the fan half way up.

No, first, FIRST, check the gas gauge… Was I short tanked? If so, I have fifteen minutes from when I checked out of the office to make it to a gas station, fill any short – over two bucks, and get a time stamped receipt for proof. (Proof that I didn’t drive to Nevada and back, and then cry “short tank” after several hours of driving.) Any amount of the now rare “short tank” is to be deducted from a driver’s gate (cab rental) at EOD, and the previous driver harangued by the Russian management for remittance of the gas, PLUS a $10 fee! (Hence, that reference to “now rare.”)

Gas gauge? Full. Check!
Low tire pressure sensor light? Lit. Check!
Check engine light on? Yes. Check!

All is normal.

Next, we check to see if anybody has changed my presets on the FM radio. We’re going to need a little mood music at this point:

Preset 1, 88.5fm. KQED. (San Francisco’s NPR!)
Preset 2, 90.3fm. Classical KDFC. (Our pre-Starbucks mood music.)
Preset 3, 91.1fm. KCSM Jazz.
Preset 4, 98.1fm. The Breeze. (Need I say more?)
Preset 5, 103.7fm. iHeart 80’s. (Okay, sue me.)
Preset 6, 107.7fm. The Bone. (If it were “Ta-Ta-Tuesday” and I had a Bone bumper sticker, apparently women will flash their breasts at me out on the highway. Alas, I have been remiss.)

Now, set the bass to 1, the treble to 1, balance on 0, and fader to front 5 – so as to not overwhelm any skittish passengers in back.

Aside: Back when I started driving for a living, some eight of your civilian years ago (fifty-six in cab), Citizen’s had been phasing out its old fleet of gas guzzling Ford Crown Vics. This, on account of the then newly enacted San Francisco regulation that 90% of the city’s fleet be hybrid, electric or natural gas. Half the time, you’d find the FM radio broken on one of those dinosaurs, or the antenna disconnected. However, it was the great Jack Daniel back then who had turned me on to the idea of a quick stop by Walgreens for a $20 portable radio, to be returned for a full refund at end of shift. Jeez. The Crown Vics didn’t even have cup holders for your coffee! (But, those days are over. Prius, baby. I have arrived!)

Now, on with my seat belt, and time to adjust the rear view and side view mirrors. Check!

But, WAIT! There’s MORE! If you act NOW! You’ll get a complete listing of the contents of Alex’s ratty old, ripped up, cheap Chinese backpack full of his secret tricks of the trade!

From the little pocket on the front, I extract some loose change for a tip at Starbucks – for my tall coffee, and divine for the little Square credit card swiper attachment for my iPhone mixed in the change.

Note: Despite the daily messages nagging me to upgrade to the Square chip card reader, for $30, I have stuck with my free NON-chip reader. I suspect that one of these days, Square will phase out my old reader and force me to cough up the thirty bucks. But they’ll never get me without a fight! It should be said that any cab driver worth his or her salt is using Square. The credits hit your bank direct deposit the next day. And Square only charges 2.75%, versus Citizen Cab’s third party credit card vendor’s cab installed equipment, which sticks you for a whopping 5%! (Highway robbery!!!)

Moving on, from the side pocket on the front with the vertical zipper, which holds my old school metal cop-looking taxi badge, a sharpie, a lighter, a flashlight, and the safe travel charm bracelet that Amma the Hugging Saint gave me, I extract my pen. But not just ANY pen! For THIS is where a driver pulls all the stops. It’s a Pilot Precise V5 RT Premium Rolling Ball Pen, black, extra fine point. (You may think me facetious, but I have been complimented by many a passenger in my time.)

Now, it’s on to the front most of the two large compartments of my pack. This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s here that I retrieve the 6″x9″ clipboard and National Brand top binding lined steno pad that serves as my personal waybill. I pen my last name and cab number at the top center, the amount of bill change I have brought as my bank in the upper right corner, and the date and time that I’ve started my shift in the upper left corner. Then, I draw four columns down the main body of the pad, with a narrow column on the left side to mark the time I’ve started a ride, or received an order. With two wider columns in the middle to mark my pickup location, and where we are to drop. And last, a narrow column on the right side which will track the amounts received for each ride, with a circled “C’ to indicate a Cabulous fare, a square to indicate credit card remittance, and occasional circled dollar amounts showing me my total gross until that point in the shift where I have cracked my $110 nut (hopefully, before 10am) and I get to draw a bold horizontal line, monies after which goes to the kids getting fed and clothed.

I put my clipboard/waybill on the shotgun seat, a.k.a., my “office,” and now go to the same compartment for my water bottle (large, chilled overnight), a hand towel – cab driving is a sticky vocation, and my PB sandwich – halved and secured in a Ziploc sandwich baggie. This last at the hands of fate as to whether it will end up in the hands of some homeless junkie, or in my belly. (Or, some variation of both.)

Next, still from the same compartment of my backpack, it’s my Cabulous-supplied Android phone, dedicated to this taxi hailing-app, and the charging cord – with 12V power plug. Stick the Velcro-backed phone onto the strip adhered over the FM radio, wind the power cord around the taxi meter, under the dash, and plug ‘er in. Boot up the phone, log-in with my supplied four-digit pin, and I am green, ‘Available’!

Oh, there’s my lemon-scented Clorox alcohol wipes packet. PLUNK! on the shotgun seat. More on this, later. (I promise.)

As the gift that keeps giving, we stay with the large front compartment for extraction of my laminated 6″ x 9″ San Francisco Taxi ID, complete with my picture, my badge # and my associated color scheme; one Citizen’s Cab. And I pry from the back of that, a like sized laminated ad which hawks my book – with loops of duct tape on the back, and I reach back to adhere it over the rear credit card tablet that’s mounted on the back of the shotgun headrest for passengers to swipe their cards. (Which is moot, thanks to Square.)

Lastly, from what I’m SURE you suspected was a bottomless compartment! (Jeez. Have you REALLY made it this far?!) I extract the plastic bag holding a small supply of my cabbie tomes for sale, as well as a CD of my music for any who might be interested. I pull out one San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life… (Book 1) and one Sack CD, and stow them at the ready in the center arm rest console.

And into the jury-rigged section of PVC with the slit cut in it, which the lot’s mechanics have glued onto the dash, I wedge in 1015’s medallion – upright and forward facing in the windshield, per law, and my laminated taxi ID upright and inward facing, per law.

Now, on to my cargo shorts:

One Bluetooth headset, left pocket.
One “wallet.” Really, a hair band securing my California driver’s license, my A-card (taxi permit), and my various credit, health and ATM cards.
It is from said “wallet” that I have a small stack of Citizen’s Cab business cards/receipts, and a few sparkly-backed business cards hawking my book and website. (I pull these out and wedge them under the rubber bands wrapped around the driver’s sun visor.)
I hit the number 2 button on the taxi meter to feed out about six inches of blank meter receipt tape, which I then fold in half, write the date on, section one side for notating Cabulous money, and the other for notating Square credit card money. This will come home with me. (I recycle my waybill at end of shift. That’s just to keep track of rides during.)
My right pocket holds 1015’s wireless key, and the cargo pocket below holds my bill change bank.
Pull my personal iPhone out of its special pocket in my cargo shorts, and place it a safe from cancerous distance away in the tray under the gear shift. This, I use to process Square.

Ah! But you didn’t REALLY think we were done with my backpack! Did you??

The large REAR compartment holds a slew of maybes:

Duct tape (Any explanation needed? I think not!)
A gallon Ziploc bag of various adapters and electronics, iPhone and Android cords for any passenger in need of a charge.
Velcro, for that rare spare taxi that has no means to mount my Cabulous phone.
Extra rubber bands.
Extra business cards.
A backup supply of Starbucks napkins.
And an extra roll of meter receipt tape. (Without tape loaded, the meter will not run!)
Oh! And a stack of triplicate, carbon manual Paratransit forms, for processing the city-subsidized old and infirm, and poor people rides, via calling into the hellish automated system for approval when the front tablet linked to the meter is not working. Like today and ALL of last week! ARGH!! Each call is five minute exercise in bureaucracy, inefficiency, idiocy and redundancy! “Press 1, if you are breathing. You pressed 1. Press 2, to confirm you meant to press 1.” Etc., etc.

The current Russian management of Citizen’s Cab was too cheap to stick with Verizon, so they went over to Sprint and some sketchy third-party software vendor for the tax dispatch and Paratransit-processing software custom to the tablet, which is linked to the meter. So, where I would usually have gone through telling you how I log-in to the tablet, in two different fields, with the last four of my driver’s license to start the tracking of my day’s rides via the city’s newish “electronic” waybill system, this hasn’t been the case for about a week. (Which CAN’T be legal!) The tablet just won’t log you in now, giving some kind of flag regarding the wireless. Of course, I originally thought that Ivan the manager didn’t pay our wireless bill, and I was waiting to come to work one morning to find the lot chained up and Citizen’s out of business. But, I have since learned from Tony that the dead tablets are all just due to some asinine dispute between our custom software vendor and Sprint, on account of some new issue with incompatible code.

Okay, folks. We’re ALMOST out of the lot!

But first, I promised you more on those lemon-scented Clorox alcohol wipes. This the last step in your driver’s prep, sanitizing every touchable surface within reach of the driver; the steering wheel, the gear shift, the fan and thermostat buttons, all FM radio buttons and dials, the hazards button, the taxi meter buttons, the (dead) tablet, driver’s door lock buttons, the turn signal arm & headlights switch, and the CB handset and volume knob. (Which during the wipe I will reboot and key the handset looking for that magic BEEP! that signals a working dispatch radio.)

Most brands of alcohol wipes I have found to leave a sticky residue on your hands. (And this biz is sticky enough!) And many do not have alcohol! Much needed to kill all bacteria, dirt, food residue, schmegma, and any other organic matter and/or bodily fluids of which one would prefer not to muse. Which brings us to that backup supply of Starbucks napkins.

After alcohol wiping down 1015’s insides, this pre-Starbucks run supply acts as mitts, to keep the freshly loosened black gunk you’ve unleashed from every surface from getting all over your hands, before making it to a Starbucks for coffee, more napkins – to be stowed in the overhead sunglasses compartment, and running water.

Aside: For those interested in the master class of post-prep taxi setup, once I have finished with my coffee, I switch it out from its place of honor in the cup holder for my water bottle, and then wedge the lid and cardboard warmer inside the cup, and the cup into the holder in the driver’s door to act as a mini trash receptacle for the remainder of my shift. Used napkins, and the empty Ziploc baggie left over from my PB sandwich, if I’ve been selfish and not bequeathed said sandwich to that homeless junkie, aforementioned.

And without further ado, we ROLL! OUT of the darkened, yellow hued Citizen’s Cab lot, veering 1015 around some ballsy raccoon, waddling mid-road for the dumpster which straddles the sheet metal worker’s and construction equipment rental neighbors just across the alley.

It’s ON to adventure! To the streets!! And what will this day hold? Will I kill?? Or, BE killed! Will I make a million dollars? Or, will I go home bust. It’s anyone’s guess. The life of a hack.

Now, who needs a ride…



Please SHARE if so inclined, folks!
(Or, maybe not this week’s:)


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…

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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