Nothing to See Hear

It’s a bea-U-tiful predawn! Friday, the fog is shining, and San Francisco is beaming particular with her special glow, that elusive magic – which one taxi philosopher posits is embedded in her hills. And this sense of the sublime would radiate in each and every exchange between driver and passenger riding one Citizen’s Cab #1015 this day, together.

No, really. EVERY SINGLE ONE. (Okay, I’m a day driver.) I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped a four-way stop, all impatient and bad human, with the BACK SEAT WARM; or cut off a “rideshare,” well, just because; at this, only to have my passenger aggressively assert that it’s the OTHER guy who’s the REAL jackass! You see, it’s deeply coded in the DNA of this – when you think about it – quite unusual relationship.

There’s just something about moving across public streets in a two-ton metal box at life threatening speeds that, well, BINDS driver and passenger. Together, we travel not JUST to work – after the boss has stated previously that your next day late will be your last, or to the doctor’s, the supermarket, jury duty. Together, we traverse the human condition, as strangers, and as neighbors. And with a taxi demographic particular to 20th century transportation in the raging, “innovative” 21st, more often than not we travel as salt of the earth San Franciscans.

Which makes me feel bad that here I am calling in mental at 3:45am. (All considerations of rent, aside.)

After contending with the worried drawl of Tony back at dispatch – though, unclear what his concern might be: Maybe that times are tough for the color schemes, and drivers are these days too scarce to offend by “back gating” $83 for a missed day. Or maybe, the good human that he is, he’s just concerned about me, my finances, or mental state.

And, he should be. But hey, I’m not special. Have you read any newspapers, lately? Driven a cancer patient to chemo, or a homeless family to an SRO full of crackheads and bed bugs? Or a good friend to CPMC to spend the night in the hospital alongside his wife, then later, to the nursing home where she’s been transferred, indefinitely, as he watches the love of his life’s battle with dementia trumped, or more appropriately, compounded by a bad fall and subsequent broken arm.

Now awake, I go for a cup, and to embed on the couch. And I watch from the safety of my attic flat here on Post Street in agoraphobic awe, as the thick fog of an old timey, pre-global warming Bay ensconces The City. (What I can see of it, anyway.) But there is no mistaking the bellowing of the Golden Gate’s fog horns, rolling over Divisadero’s peak, and moo-ing sporadic.

Today, yes, I will be missing the stage, my spotlight, playing host to this most, um, charmed of American towns. And yes, I will miss the meager earnings that I am likely to not make. But mainly, I will miss my people.

Queen Sheba let me know last week that it’s her birthday coming up next week. She wants a free ride. Despite our regular “no tip when paying by credit card,” and the awkward deal of which we carefully dodge any further discussion, post the initial foisting, that when she’s paying cash on her usual $26.05 fare, twenty-five bucks will do. (For the record, I do not care if a passenger pays in cash, or first born.)

But Sheba DOES spend a lot of money in the aggregate on her early morning cab rides, with me, from the outskirts of SF, downtown to her chef job at LinkedIn’s HQ, 2nd & Howard. And I have very much come to very much appreciate that early morning bird in the hand right out of the Citizen’s gate. There IS the wisdom that THAT’s how you catch the worm! Oh, wait.

Uh, never mind.

I guess my point is, Cabulous smartphone taxi-app hails aside; from those with a social conscience, or taking pity on a dying breed, or those simply fed up with the revolving horde of out of town drivers.

Obligatory Rant: All of whom have their heads stuck in their GPS, and invariably, are herded the most tortured route across town, who just started getting their “side hustle” on last week, and come next, will be giving it up for Lent – as the female Uber driver who just the other day was stopped on 280 south by masked men boxing in her Hyundai RIGHT THERE ON THE HIGHWAY, before proceeding to smash her windows and strong arm rob her jewelry-dealer passenger, whom they had targeted.

My point is, I’ve become… endeared to my community, as getting my groove on in recent months with some steady rides from friends, neighbors, old school San Franciscans, looking for an ear to bend, and a ride.

There’s Billy, my schizophrenic friend whom I’ve known almost since moving to SF, back in ’98. We used to stay up doing drugs and playing music, and doing stop motion animation and the like. (Okay, the animation was more Billy’s forte’. Music was mine, along with the great human Erich Mandrell .) Until recently, Billy would call me twice a day for rides down from Diamond Heights to his regular watering hole in the Castro, The Mix. This, between bouts of being good, following his therapist’s advice to not mix his psych meds with alcohol.

Billy always overpays, much to my deep, deep, embarrassment, and praising of the Lord. It’s good, though, that I haven’t seen Billy in a couple weeks, since picking him up down in SOMA from a psych ward, after a weekend stint on suicide watch. I don’t think it was 5150. Billy is versed in, and appreciative of SF’s social services. And he is the sweetest person you will ever meet. It’s frustrating for me to hear how he is plagued by voices, since one fateful meth binge some decades ago. And how, despite ANY logic or reason, their tormenting of him, degrading attacks, and taunts such as, “You are going to jail. They are coming RIGHT NOW to lock you up. And you will never be let out!” despite not an ounce of aggression or illegality in his fifty-something year-old being.

Billy, “They are relentless. They don’t let up. They penetrate your mind, and you believe them. You have no choice. It’s hard to explain. Don’t EVER do meth!”

Then, there’s the TRUE patron saint of taxis – and a former cabbie himself, that warm and wonderful soul, motivational speaker on all things business of writing, humorist, thinker, jazz drummer, traveler, social juggernaut/host of Thanksgiving, retired writer’s agent, and devoted husband, Mike Larsen. (Fiacre ain’t got nothing on Larsen.)

Always with a sincere interest and encouragement for my (and others’) art, and hell bent on saving my children from a prolonged life with a penniless father, benefactor to my son, Milo – via of a horde of required reads from famous leftist North Beach institution, City Lights Books, a regular buyer of lunch, and always upbeat with a hearty laugh and a micromanaged taxi route, which is always correct, Mike comes regular, always with a flat twenty to ride just a few blocks down hill to speak at the likes of the Mechanics’ Institute: Library and Chess Room, on his ‘Reinventing Yourself as a Writer in an Age of Disruption: 10 Commandments That Guarantee Your Success. An atheist with a reserved front row seat in Heaven, the only time I ever see Mike Larsen uncomfortable, is when the talk turns to himself.

Aside: Pray for Mike Larsen, passengers. In a travesty of misdirected karma, the likes of which has heretofore gone unseen in recorded history, he and his wife are going through it. There but for Grace, go we.

Of course, the regulars, whose many dramas and victories I have played therapist and consigliere to over the course of my 7 human (49 cabbie) years driving do not stop here. A taxi driver is part of the fabric of the village in which they serve, as literally, part of the infrastructure. (Hence, oversight by the SFMTA.)

There are the regulars hailing you at the same bus stops in the Mission, almost daily. The undocumented, almost late for their construction job in downtown San FranHattan, as well as the undocumented madre dropping Jorge Jr. off at middle school, before going on to her cleaning gig at some kempt, suburban-esque Dutch Colonial in the otherworldly pleasant, tree-lined St. Francis Wood. And then there’s the teacher, with papers – I think, off to teach third grade out in the Excelsior.

And then, of course, there are the paratransits, municipally subsidized rides for the old and the infirm, the likes of Olive, the salty octogenarian widow, who tells tales of growing up in the Central Valley working on her family’s almond farm, and becoming a connoisseur of beer at way too early an age. Olive regularly bites the heads off her revolving crop of personal caretakers. But she seems to like me, a lot. Whenever I’m Olive’s driver, for one of her bi-weekly jaunts from her old home up in Corona heights over to UCSF – Mount Zion, she stops from berating the helper du jour, and lights up at the sound of my voice offering to help stow her walker, and guide her hand to the rear door of my taxi. (Over my years of driving Olive, I’ve watched the deterioration of her eye sight, to where it is now almost completely gone.)

I guess my point is, in these days of progress, disruption and innovation, where a self driving Uber awaits Olive in the very near future, to stow her walker and take her hand, and listen to her stories of almond farms and underage drinking, I can’t help but find myself to be as much an anachronism as my people.

It’s to the point where, when I accept that rare order coming from Citizen’s Cab dispatch, proper, for that short ride with the elderly, the downtrodden, and the incontinent, I can only stand in awe  of this, MY, aging community. And bond. But, I can’t resist asking.

“Your rotary phone STILL works??”




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Photo by Alex SacK

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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