Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Cable Snaps

October 28, 2009

“War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves.” —Leo Tolstoy

wheels two suitcases through the front door of the Hotel W and toward my waiting cab. Walking beside him is a handsome white guy, mid-forty-ish, lanky and fit-looking and with a bit of a tan. The two of them are chatting, smiling, and I imagine my new fare as a golf or a tennis pro, or maybe he once played college shortstop somewhere in Iowa or Nebraska or Oklahoma. While I stow his luggage and he tips the doorman I note with envy his full head of hair, about an inch-and-a-half long, buzz-cut, and gone bone-white well before its time.

“Headed to SFO,” he says, as we pull away from the curb.

Forty bucks. “Music…,” I say, “to a cab driver’s ear.”

He gives me my hoped-for chuckle, and says, “You gotta make some money.”

“Where are you flying to today?” I ask.

“Denver,” he says. “Tomorrow it’s Dubai and Kandahar.”

“Kandahar… What’s your work?”

“I work for a private security contractor. Excuse me…,” he says. “Hello…?” In the rearview I see him holding a cell phone to his ear. “Yes, I need to check Frontier Airlines flight number…”

Last night I read a long article at in which the private security industry is portrayed as teeming with ex-military and ex-CIA officers earning thrice their previous salaries, thanks to inflated, insider, government contracts. By the time my fare snaps his phone shut we’ve passed the Moscone Convention Center and are rolling toward the Whole Foods Market on Fourth Street. I ask, “What’s your function in the security industry?”

“I’m a recruiter.” He chuckles again. “I hire mercenaries, you would say.”

I like to think of my cab as a sanctuary. In my cab you’re safe, you’re all right, even if you’re a prostitute (my first fare, 25 years ago, was a 4 a.m. street-walker and I was glad to have her) or a drug dealer (as long as you keep your heat stashed) or a preacher (your religion) or a drunk (the contents of your stomach). My job is not to judge you but deliver you safely from Point A to B.

“You folks have been getting a lot of flak lately.”

“A lot of things get exaggerated,” he says.

“What kind of things?”

“When you are fired on in the course of your duties, you have a right to fire back. To do whatever you have to do to save your own life.”

“Iraq…?” I say. “That Blackwater convoy in Iraq?”

“Yes,” he says. “I’m a recruiter for Blackwater. That whole thing really got exaggerated.”

In September 2007 a convoy of US diplomats was toodling through Bagdhah when their Blackwater escorts—private security contractors, mercenaries you would say—suddenly opened fire and exaggerated seventeen Iraqi civilians into bullet-riddled corpses. The new Iraqi government demanded the entire company leave the country, and perhaps a few low-level personnel did go home and start flipping burgers, but Blackwater itself simply took a new name—“Xe”—and went right on chugging.

“You guys changed your name,” I say. “Now you’re… She?”

My fare says, “Zie”—it rhymes with lie and die—but during the rest of the ride he uses only Blackwater.

As we climb the ramp to 101 South, I see a row of parked, black-and-white police cruisers blocking all lanes heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this week our Bay Area “Indian summer” was interrupted by winds gusting to 50 miles an hour. An overhead cable on the Bay Bridge snapped and 5,000 pounds of construction debris rained down on rush hour traffic. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, but now the bridge is closed indefinitely.

“I’m really glad to have you in my cab,” I tell my fare. I swivel my head, make quick eye contact—men’s magazine ad directors could use this man as a model, portraying success, confidence, The Smart Money—and turn my eyes back to the road. “Our politics are going to be very different, but I’d really like it if I could ask you some questions.”

Absolutely!” he says.

“This idea of sending contractors, profit-making companies, to fight our wars… I don’t see how this can possibly work out well?” Not exactly a question…

But he doesn’t mind: “When we go to war, it should of course—of course—be the military that moves in to pacify things, establish the tone.” He sounds practiced, smooth; his duties must include some public relations. “But when the military has stabilized a situation, the private sector can do a much better job at many aspects. And do them cheaper. We’re cost-effective. We’re a good deal for the taxpayer.”

I say, “Soldiers in the military want to go in, do the job, and go home. Profit-making entities have an entirely different motive.”

He’s ready: “The private sector can serve as a ‘force multiplier.’ The fewer troops Obama sends in, the happier he and the taxpayer are going to be. Obama will be using us more and more,” he says. “You’ll see.”

We’ve just passed Candlestick Park, where a week from Sunday 50,000 people will gather to exhort the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans to knock each other senseless. I think: Blackwater and Obama now seeing eye-to-eye—not reassuring.

My fare continues: “The private sector can do things the military isn’t set up for. Who do you think cleaned up the Deck of Cards?” Early in the Iraq invasion, American intelligence groups printed up a deck of playing cards featuring the names and faces of fifty-two “most-wanted” Iraqis. “Contractors,” he says. “That was contractors working with Special Ops forces.”

I say, “The same people who brought us Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, secret prisons, torture, a ruined global reputation. A hundred people have been killed in our custody.”

We’ve hit the long flat straightaway heading toward South San Francisco, a sixty-five mph zone. It feels like we’re doing about a hundred and ten, but I look down at the digital speedometer: 58. To our left, I see that the winds have riled up the bay. Usually the water here is steely-blue and calm, but today it’s milk-chocolate colored and choppy, dancing with millions of short, triangular, white-tipped waves: now-you-see-em, now-you-don’t traffic cones.

My fare: “Have you heard of waterboarding?”

“Well, yes…” Who hasn’t?

He asks, “Have you ever been waterboarded?”

“I’ve seen live demonstrations, I’ve seen people waterboarded on youtube, I’ve watched the debates in Congress…”

“Do you think waterboarding is torture?”

“I’ll go with John McCain on that one.”

“I’ve been waterboarded,” my fare says. “It didn’t kill me. It was part of a training program…”

“I know about SERE.”

“If waterboarding was torture, do you think we’d have been trained with it?”

“Did you know the people doing it?”


“Did you know it was going to end, and that you’d all be friends again?”


I ask, “How many times were you waterboarded?”

“If you’ve been waterboarded even once, you know it won’t kill you. You’ll survive. It’s not that serious.”

“We tried Japanese as war criminals for waterboarding. It’s illegal—it’s against our laws, it’s against our treaties. I’m not someone who actually thinks the Constitution is just a goddamned piece of paper!

Eye contact can damp down a convsersation, but in my cab—with the passenger staring at the back of my head, with me watching the road, with the presumption of anonymity, and with a guaranteed end not far ahead—a freewheeling intimacy often takes hold.

My fare asks me, “Have you ever been out of the country?”

Oh, boy—now I’m ready: “I was in Kandahar in 1974.” My fare was not expecting this answer, nor the bonus, the unspoken Sonnyboy! that comes along with it. There follows a micro-silence, a tiny hole in the offensive line of this conversation, and now I'm through it, into the backfield, off and running: “I’ve visited all fifty states, I’ve circled the world four times with my backpack—forty-some countries. I spent a month in Afghanistan in 1974 before people started destroying it. My father was in the OSS during World War II and spent 33 years in the CIA. I grew up in a neighborhood where maybe ten percent of the adults worked for the CIA, all of them incensed about communists torturing and killing people in a secret gulag in Siberia. They’d be puking their guts if they knew the CIA—and their force multipliers—had built a global secret prison system where one hundred people have died from our torture.”

“Where’s the evidence?”

“I don’t have it with me, but it’s certainly out there.”


“Seymour Hersch—reported the Mai Lai massacre—now he says a hundred people have died in US custody.”

“I don’t believe it,” my fare says. “I’ve got to see the evidence.”

“You can ignore it if you want, but it’s there, and it’s credible. Are you aware of the reporting?”

“You can find a lot of reporting,” he says. “I imagine you’re a New York Times reader. I read the Wall Street Journal.”

“Are you aware of the reporting or are you not aware of the reporting?”

I was five years old when my parents took me and my siblings to a multi-family Easter egg hunt at Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown section of Washington DC. My parents had never cut my two-year-old brother’s hair, and now Scott had gorgeous, silky, shoulder-length locks. Another boy, my own age, kept saying that Scott was a girl, and I warned this boy that if he kept on saying it, I was going to have to hit him. A moment later my father came trotting around the nearby hedge to investigate the commotion. I remember hearing my name called, remember pausing from my business-like pummeling of the other kid, remember looking up and seeing Dad’s big, amused, approving, rarely-granted smile.

My fare: “Have people died in our custody? Sure they have. Have Americans died in custody in prisons here in the US? Sure they have. And something like… twenty-nine thousand Americans die in traffic accidents each year? Why aren’t there big billboards tracking that figure? But five brave boys died in Afghanistan yesterday and nobody can stand it…”

I interrupt him: “Excuse me… I have to say that I find this conversation obscene. How’d we get to where we’re using traffic deaths to justify waterboarding, torture, murdering people in secret pr…?”

He interrupts right back: “This didn’t start with Afghanistan or Iraq. I spent twenty years in the military. What do you think your father’s people were doing? The CIA’s been rigging elections and assasinating people since the day it was born.”

No one can win these arguments—they’re circular, pointless, polarizing, and even well-rehearsed—but they’re impossible to resist, and oh so seductive. “These torture prisons are brand new,” I say. “And in the fifties and sixties no one worked at the CIA just to get a big fat Rolodex so they could quit and open private security firms.”

He says, “You ignore the fact that for you and me to be having this conversation lots of Americans have had to put their lives, their bodies, on the line.”

“I didn’t ask,” I tell him, “and the taxpayer didn’t ask, to have anyone tortured so that you and I can have an obscene conversation.”

I hear him sigh. “You’re a world traveler. And that’s great. You’re obviously an educated person. A lot of this is a matter of perspective…”

I can find comforting ways to rationalize many of my own screwups, even a couple of the most egregious ones, but some things are flatly indefensible. And this matter of casually torturing thousands of people…in the name of national security…at the curl of a vice-president’s upper lip… Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that America—all of us—will pay for this, and pay big. I tell him, “I’m never coming over to your perspective.”

As we glide up the ramp to SFO, we go quiet, our first silence since my fare closed up his phone. I believe in the maxim, What we resist, we become. And this is not the first time that I, while resisting the arrogance and self-righteousness of those who champion recreational torture and optional wars as a patriotic strategy for protecting American family values—phwew, there's a mouthful—have certainly registered my own self-righteous arrogance. No matter. Lines do exist. Torture is wrong, evil. And I don’t want this man thinking that he or any of his war criminal cohorts will be coming home to some sort of hero’s welcome, to some sort of sanctuary.

As I pull to a stop at the Frontier gate, he summons a hearty, same-team, bygones-be-bygones voice. “So… what do I owe you?” The unspoken bonus: My friend.

“Nothing.” Red digital figures—$33.25—glow from the meter. I punch a few buttons and it goes dark.

“Aw, man,” he says. The PR voice is gone. “Come on. Take my money.”

“I won’t touch it.”

I’m out of the cab. I’m at the back, opening the hatch. I set his first bag down at the curb. He’s out of the cab, too—I see his brown shoes come to a stop next to his suitcase—but I won’t look up at him. I keep my eyes on the asphalt of the roadway, the curbside concrete, the green rear bumper of my cab. In my peripheral view I note that my fare’s hands are extended out to his sides, palms up, like the poor, wired-up guy perched up on the box at Abu Ghraib, with the smock and that pointy black hood over his head. I hear my fare’s plaintive voice: “Don’t be like this…”

Anyone near us on the sidewalk would think, Why are these cab drivers always so pissed off? Look at that idiot giving shit to the nice-looking businessman…

I place his second bag on the sidewalk.

“Come on, man. Take the money…”

I close the hatch, turn toward him, square up, and finally look him in the eye. “Give it to some starving kid in Afghanistan.”

“Fair enough.” He sounds relieved, exonerated. He shoots his right hand toward me, waist high, looking for me to shake it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009



A quarter-century ago...

I was standing by the side of a two-lane highway in the Japanese countryside, a full day’s hitchhike west of Kyoto, and holding up a cardboard sign onto which I had inked the Japanese characters for “Hiroi" (broad) and "Shima" (island). It was dusk and I was still a long way from Hiroshima, and it was just starting to rain. In my book All the Right Places I wrote about what happened next:

An enormous silver tanker truck with a Mobil Oil logo on the side slowed to a stop right next to me. The driver smiled and nodded me up into the cab. He was perhaps the friendliest-looking person I’ve ever seen, one of those rare gentle people who seem not to have a mean or aggressive vein in their entire being. A white sports shirt and tan skin gave him the relaxed air of a cruise ship tennis pro. Of all the Japanese I met, this man, with lean face, high cheekbones, bright, perfect teeth, round eyes, and no glasses, would be the country’s best representative…

We knew only a few words of one another’s language, but we used them at lot. I was able to determine that he had two jobs; for every 10 days he worked for ‘Mobil Company,’ he also served five in the navy. West of Hiroshima, the Japanese Navy and US Marines share an air station, at Iwakuni, and after delivering his load of gasoline to the Hiroshima airport, the driver would report for duty. He was thirty-two -- my own age -- married, with a girl, ten, and a boy, seven. He lived in Tokyo and his name was Kanemoto. Kanemoto said we would cover the 97 kilometers to Hiroshima in two hours.

And we did. While a torrential rain lashed the truck, I sat high up in the cab, warm and dry, using my guidebook Japanese and plenty of hand gestures to trade stories with Kanemoto. He drove me all the way to Hiroshima and veered out of his way, maneuvering his giant truck down small side-streets, to drop me as close as possible to my chosen hostel. (Chapter 18 of All the Right Places is a full, four-page account of our ride.)

FAST FORWARD: March 2009

I’m 58, a seasoned professional driver myself now, and one day I receive an e-mail with the subject line, “COINCIDENCE!

The writer tells me his name is Rick Wilson. Rick is 35 years old, and a native of New Zealand. He is married to a Japanese woman, and now the two of them are living in Hong Kong, where Rick teaches English as a second language.

Rick tells me that he recently asked some friends in Hong Kong where he might find some travel memoirs written in English, and they directed him to a particular library along a particular Hong Kong subway route, where he came across a copy of All the Right Places. “Imagine my surprise when I read on pages 82/83 about an amazingly friendly and gentle MOBIL company driver named Kanemoto. SOUNDS LIKE MY FATHER-IN-LAW!!!! My wife Maho rang Japan and spoke to Kanemoto (her father)!!!! He remembers you well and it made his day.”

Over the next few weeks Rick and Kanemoto and I exchange letters expressing our astonishment and delight, and we also exhange gifts –- I send them copies of my book, and Kanemoto sends me a beautiful silk scarf and two exquisite tapestries which now grace the wall of my studio (I see them as I type this).

TODAY: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

At noon I park my taxi near Pier 33, from where tours to Alcatraz Island are launched, to have a cup of coffee with Rick's parents, Eva and Bill, who are visiting San Francisco. Rick's whole family, including Kanemoto, is getting as big a kick as I am out of this small-small-world connection -- 25 years down the long twisty road. And today Rick's mom shares another interesting twist: 
“When Rick first showed his wife, Maho, what you had written in your book, Maho telephoned her father in Japan and asked him, 'Did you pick up a gaijin (foreigner) hitchhiker on your way to Hiroshima in1984?' And Kanemoto-San, said, ‘How did you know? I never picked up a single hitchhiker before that, and I never picked up a single hitchhiker after that. Just the one. How did you know?’ He couldn't believe it when Maho told him she'd read about it in a book! At what makes it even more interesting is that it was absolutely against the company's rules for Kanemoto to pick up hitchhikers -- and Kanemoto is a rule-conscious, straight-laced guy.”

Rick’s dad, Bill, laughs: “Until we’ve all had a couple of beers!”

We sit in the Pier 33 café, a scoured blue sky overhead, and talk about our lives. Bill and Eva both grew up in New Zealand, met when they were quite young, married when they were 21, and have raised two sons. I ask what kind of work Bill and Eva do, and Eva says she used to work in a law office where Bill had once been a lawyer. I ask Bill if he is still a lawyer, and he says he is a judge now. I ask how judgeships work in New Zealand, and he says there are four levels of judgeship. I ask which level is he? Bill says, "I'm a Supreme Court justice now..."

We pass a raucous hour together, and by the time they go off to their Alcatraz tour and I head off for the last couple of hours of my shift, I'm buzzing like a cheap alarm clock. But this ain't no coffee buzz. It's LIFE.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

$16 Million In My Backseat

"Kasan, a Zen teacher and monk, was off to officiate at a funeral of a famous nobleman. As he stood there waiting for the governor of the province and other lords and ladies to arrive, he noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty.

"The next day he called his disciples together and confessed he was not yet ready to be a true teacher. He explained to them that he still lacked the sameness of bearing before all human beings, whether baker or king. He was still unable to look through social roles and conceptual identities and see the sameness of being in every human. He then left and became the pupil of another master. He returned to his former disciples eight years later, enlightened."

— Eckart Tolle
“A New Earth”

-- Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It’s near the end of my shift on yet another breathtaking September afternoon in God’s Favorite City, and I’m trolling near Union Square, looking for one last fare. Rolling downhill on Powell Street, with my cab’s tires jostling against the cable car tracks, I hear a short low whistle from across the street.

I shoot a look back over my left shoulder and see a guy standing in front of the Union Square Hotel, a guy who could be a fashion model. He’s got his hands tucked confidently into his pockets, waiting for the world to come to him, as he knows it certainly will. He has thick black hair and a formidable, neatly trimmed, black goatee. He’s wearing shades, an expensive black suit, and a crisp white shirt open at the collar -- no tie. And not a cab driver in the world would miss the small black suitcase at his feet: airport -- forty bucks! If I hustle I’ve probably got just enough time to zip him out to SFO, gas up, zip back to the garage, jump out of my cab, jump into my own car, jump on the Bay Bridge and be waiting in Oakland when my daughter jumps down off the school bus at 4:15 PM sharp.

I snap him a nod, and the guy reaches down for his luggage. I stop mid-street, right on the cable car tracks -- in the entire block, not another vehicle is moving -- step out, and go around back to open the hatch. “I’m going to the ballpark,” the guy says, and lifts his suitcase.

“Are you a player?” I ask him.


The Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the wild card spot, and the Rockies are in town for a three-game series. The Giants have won the first two, and tonight they’re going for the sweep.

"Which team?" I ask.



Behind the wheel, weaving my way across Market Street, I ask, “What’s your name?”

“Todd Helton,” he says.

Todd Helton is one of the best players of the modern era. In the summer of 2000 he riveted sports fans nationwide by making a serious run at Ted Williams’ record batting average (.406), but wound up at .372 -- best in the majors that year. Todd Helton is not just a star, he’s baseball royalty, and I notice my mind start to grapple with the commoner’s anxiety. But almost the instant I notice it, it passes: over the years lots of celebrities -- athletes, politicians, comedians, actors, and even one Nobel Prize winner -- have ridden in my backseat. By now I understand that they are all just people, people needing to get from point A to point B. Sooner or later everyone winds up in a taxicab.

“How old were you,” I ask Helton, “when you first realized, ‘I might have a shot…?’”

“College,” he says. “No, I was drafted when I was in high school, so I knew it was a possibility. But I wanted to play college football.”

“You played both?”

“Football and baseball,” he says.

“Where’d you go to school?”

“The University of Tennessee.”

Now the rest of his story starts coming back to me. Helton was a two-sport star at Tennessee -- starting quarterback, All-American outfielder -- and for a while the sports world was abuzz with speculation over whether he would play professional baseball or professional football.

I ask, “Did you grow up in Tennessee?” His mainstream accent and clear diction expose my own prejudice -- he doesn’t sound like someone from Tennessee.

“I did,” he says. The conversation has been one-sided, with me firing questions at him, and now, sensing this, Helton slips in one of his own: “Are you from San Francisco?”

I usually answer my passengers’ inquiries with more information than they’ve requested, just in case they really do want a conversation. If I give a one- or two-word answer, a conversation usually fizzles, but if I give a little bit more a fare has some places to start, if he or she cares to. But I’m much more eager to hear Todd Helton’s story than to, yet again, hear my own. I tell him, “I grew up outside Washington DC, rooting for the old Washington Senators,” and then before he can muster a follow-up, I blurt, “I’ve got a sister in Littleton (a suburb of Denver) who is a big Rockies fan. She’s coming out for a visit in mid-October, and I’m glad the playoffs will be decided by then. It would be no fun if we were both pulling for opposite teams. But I imagine you’re having fun right now?”

“It is fun,” he says. “Not last night, but this time of year.”

This morning I only glanced at the sports headlines, so all I know is that the Rockies had a terrible night, an ugly 10-2 loss to the Giants -- but maybe Helton had his typical two-for-four or three-for-five?

“How did you do last night -- personally?”

“Terrible,” he says. “I struck out three times. That’s only the… fourth time in 13 years I’ve done that.”

“Ouch,” I say. “I didn’t know -- honest.” And then I change the subject: “Do you have kids?”

“My wife and I just had a girl five days ago.”


“Thank you,” he says.

“First kid?”

“We’ve also got a boy. He’s seven.”

“It must be tough to be away so much.”

“That is the toughest part of being a ballplayer -- but it’s tougher on my wife.”

“I imagine there are…” -- I smile into the rearview -- “compensations?”

Helton’s shades are off now. His eyes twinkle. “Oh,” he says, “many.” (Wikipedia: Over his career, Helton’s baseball contracts have so far earned him a total of $96 million. His salary in 2009 is $16.6 million.)

I ask if there is a particular pitcher he hates to hit against. He thinks for a moment and says, “No, not really.” Then: “There was one guy. He was a Giant...” (Attention, Dear Reader -- I’ll pause in case you want to guess. Hints: relief pitcher, now retired.)

It is a long-lingering regret among Giants fans that during Game Six of the 2002 World Series, when we were leading the Angels, 5-0, with two outs in the seventh inning (we were up three-games-to-two, and thus within seven outs of being World Series champs), manager Dusty Baker brought a lesser pitcher out of the bullpen instead of bringing in our All-Star closer.

“Do you remember Rob Nenn?” Todd Helton asks me.

Who in San Francisco doesn’t? Robb Nenn could spot a 95-96 mile-an-hour fastball just about anywhere he wanted (several times I saw him ping the radar gun with a 100), or he might just shoot you a 90-something sinker that pretends to be a fastball until precisely one-thousandth of a second after you’ve committed to swing, and then it dives straight down into the dirt, and you walk back to the bench, cursing. Giants fans always considered the game over, won, if we could get Nenn out to the mound.

“I was always surprised,” I tell him, “that the rest of the league didn’t declare Rob Nenn illegal.”

“He was no fun to hit against.”

We’re pulling up in front of the stadium now. I stop the cab and kill the meter, which reads $6.75. “Here you are,” he says, distractedly, and I see his hand lay a $10 bill onto the armrest at my right elbow. “It’s yours.”

“Thank you.” I turn the bill “heads-up” and as I’m slipping it in between my 20s and my 5s (it’s the only 10 in my wad today), I say, “Could I ask you to sign a postcard to my sister, Nancy?”

I’m not looking back at him as I say this, and, when a short silence ensues, my commoner’s anxiety returns in a panicky rush, full volume. Oh, no -- I’ve offended him! There we were, just a couple of guys talking, and now I’ve gone and crossed that invisible but unmistakable line. He is an Olympian god and I’m a cab driver -- and such a dumb shit cab driver sometimes. Geezus -- what was I thinking!

I say, “It’s okay -- if you don’t…”

“Oh, no problem,” he says quickly. “I was just checking a message.”

I turn around and see him folding up his cell phone and tucking it away. In a tone that could not have been any nicer, he says, “I’d be happy to sign a card.”

I pass him my clipboard and one of the Beach Impeach postcards I keep in my glove box. He signs, and hands it back. (Before mailing it to my sister I made a copy of it, and I’m looking at that right now. Helton has a beautiful, crisp signature, full of neatly parallel lines and looping swirls and one long flourish that my ruler measures at just over two inches long.)

“Thank you,” I say.

“My pleasure.” Helton’s not making any move to leave. He’s just sitting there, at ease, waiting for something, it seems. He can’t possibly be expecting some… payment, can he?

I offer up this: “If you make it to the playoffs, I hope you go all the way.”

“Thank you,” he says, but he’s still sitting there, composed, going nowhere. This is awkward. And then, to my great relief and further embarrassment, he says, “I was hoping you could pop the back open -- so I could get my suitcase.”

“Oh god...” I throw open my door and throw my feet out toward the asphalt. “I forgot all about your luggage!”

--------------------------------- THE END ----------------------------------

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Butt-naked, tag-toed, laid out on a slab...

Friday, Jan 9, 2009

, get-outta-town, pre-weekend rush is usually a busy time in the cab world. During a “normal” economic environment I would expect to have three-to-five short fares per hour on a Friday afternoon, or maybe a barrage of airport rides. But today, starting at 12:11 PM, I drive around for more than two hours without a single fare. I stop once -- at Subway for less than 10 minutes to buy a six-inch “Veggie Delight” on wheat -- but the rest of the time I’m rolling, trolling, without luck.

Thousands of Apple computer enthusiasts and vendors are breaking down their weeklong Macworld convention and hitting the road. Shortly after 2 PM I swing by Moscone Center to see if I can snag someone heading for the airport, but the taxi stand is overflowing with cabs, and I just cruise on by. I’ve got my ear on an NPR story about a group of atheists in Spain who are troubled by all the problems stirred up by the various people in the world who believe their God is the one-and-only true God, when, at the corner of Fourth and Howard, at 2:20 PM, after exactly two hours and nine minutes at the wheel of an empty cab, I am flagged by a large-ish, forty-ish, slightly overweight, bald-headed black man. He seems to be limping a bit, and grimacing a bit, as he moves toward my cab.

I always turn my radio down (or off) when I have customers, and now I turn it way down. My fare says he is out finishing up some errands this afternoon, and right now he’s going to the Metro PCS cell phone store at Sixteenth and Bryant. He works as an in-home, health-care provider, but he is currently on disability himself due to having “pulled my back out.” He is fumbling with his cell phone and seems distracted by my questions, so I leave him alone and turn up NPR a snitch. After a couple of moments my fare clicks his phone shut. “What’s that they’re saying on the radio?” he asks.

“It’s a story about some atheists in Spain,” I say. “They’ve hired a truck to drive around their city with a billboard saying, ‘There probably is no God, so what the heck, why don’t you just go ahead and relax and enjoy your life.’ Spain is the third country with a group like this –- the first two countries are the United States and England.”

My fare begins to speak in a voice that is even, neutral, but which begins to gather strength and conviction and lofty heights shortly after takeoff. “Well I can tell you this,” he says. “There is a God. Those people in Spain and wherever are going to be in for a very big surprise when they find out. I know –- because I died on January 15, 1985, over at Highland Hospital in Oakland. I’d been smoking crack and that’s where I wound up. In the emergency room. Dead. Heart stopped. Not breathing. I was butt-naked, tag-toed, laid out on a slab, and the guy who was working on me went to get a saw to cut open my chest. And while he was gone I saw a bright light. God. And God told me, ‘I’ll give you a choice -– you can either call it quits right now or you can stay and preach the gospel.’ I decided I wanted to preach the gospel, and I’ve been preaching it ever since. Twenty-three years now...”

He continues: “When the hospital guy comes back, I’m sittin’ up, butt-naked except for my tag toe. But I’m breathing. Heart beating. Guy says, ‘How’d you get back alive?’ I say, ‘God gave me a choice, and then he brought me back.’ He says, ‘I guess so, cause you was dead as dead gets. I just went upstairs to get this saw to cut your chest open and do an autopsy. But here you are all woke up.’ So...”, my fare tells me, “whenever I hear people tell me there aint no God, I tell ‘em they’re a liar, because there sure is a God. And one day we’re all going to find out.”

He doesn’t sound like he’s looking for an argument, he’s just doing his witnessing, and now he seems finished. I’m a dues-paying member of the Secular Coalition For America, a group that lobbies in Washington to try to blunt the damage religious fundamentalists have visited upon our country and planet recently. Consider Prop 8, which was on California’s statewide ballot in last November's election, and which was designed to strip a fundamental civil right (the right to marry) from California's gay citizens -- and which won (for now). Someone from the No-on-Prop-8 campaign said it best, “It’s time to re-institute the separation of church and hate.” Having listened to my fare’s story, I figure I’ve earned the right to weigh in, and now, as neutrally, as lightly as I can manage, I say, “We shall see.”

“We shall!” says my fare.

I ask him: “Where do you do your preaching? Like you’re doing right now, or in a church?”

“I preach on the street and also in churches.” He mentions two churches out in the Bayview District.

At Sixteenth and Bryant he spends a few minutes inside the cell phone store while I sit outside in my cab, jotting notes. When he comes back we head for the Alice Griffith public housing project out by Candlestick. This was once one of the nastiest places in the city –- drug dealers clustered on the corners, drive-by strafings, crumbling buildings, desperately poor people, almost all of them African-American. Then a few years ago the San Francisco Housing Authority erected a fence around the place, rebuilt most of the units, splashed new paint everywhere, erected a gatehouse at the entrance and staffed it round-the-clock with security guards who carry guns and require everyone who enters the project to show some i.d. During my eighteen years as a night driver I hated going there, but ever since that gatehouse was erected, and especially since I became a day driver (five years ago), it barely alarms me at all any more.

The whole way out there, my fare talks on his phone to a woman (I can easily hear her voice) about buying insurance for a car she owns; about the problems of a friend the two of them have in common; and about some of the other preachers in the Bay Area. “I told him he was going to be an associate minister in 2009 –- before this year is out. I told him that...” And then, suddenly, I’m jolted by the n-word. It is, I think, the ugliest word in the English language -- perhaps in any language. “… I’m going to get that n-word on up,” my fare tells his woman friend, “and take him out and have a man’s day with him…”

For years I have tried not to let that razor-sharp epithet slip through my lips, not even in an academic or reportorial context. I have thrown white people out of my cab for using it, which they sometimes do with a vicious casualness. More frequently, black people toss the n-word around the back of my cab with a casual innocence, and I’ve reprimanded many of them against doing so, although I’ve committed this latter act only in the safe confines of my own mind.

At the entrance to the housing project, I see the gatehouse now standing empty, gutted, derelict –- undoubtedly the result of the city’s recent budget woes. But the streets of the project still seem clean enough, the sun is high, and I’m not feeling threatened. My fare directs me to stop at the curb in front of a row of ramshackle, rundown, two-story, public housing units. Parked next to us is a tall, white recreational vehicle, maybe 16 or 18 feet long and ten feet tall. Parked in the RV’s shadow is a burgundy colored Mercedes sedan that looks recently washed and waxed. The meter reads $20.20, and my fare passes a $100 bill to me. I make change, he tips me $3.20, and as he opens the back door to leave I ask, “The light -- what was it like?"

“Bright!” he says.

“Did a person come with it?”

“No,” he says, “but there was a voice.”

“Like the voices we’re using now? With words?”

“I was talking with it just like we’re talking now. Words. Sentences. We had a conversation.”

I tell him: “I’ve never smoked crack, but I had a friend who got hooked on it. He had four kids and a great job, but he just could not stay away from crack. His company sent him to rehab twice, but crack kept pulling him back, and finally he lost his job. Do you ever…?”

“So here’s how it is,” he says. “Bottom line. God told me, ‘If you preach the gospel, I’ll clean you up.’ And we made a deal. I’ve kept my end up, and so has he. He cleaned me up good. I’ve never smoked crack since then. Period. God took away the desire. Now my baby mama –- she can sit around the house smoking crack for a week, two weeks, three weeks, and I can be around her all that time and never even be tempted. It’s not for me anymore. I don’t have the desire. God cleaned me up.”

I say: “But I know things pile up on all of us sometimes. When they pile up on you, do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘You know… Maybe if...?’”

He says: “I did love smoking crack –- I’m telling it like it is – but God took that burden up off me. When I have troubles now I say, ‘God, it was your offer. I took you up on it. I’ve done my part. So what do you want me to do now?’ And he takes care of me. Over to your left…,” he says. “You see that Mercedes? And that mobile home, too?”

I turn and look. Neither vehicle is new -- they both have some years on them, but not too many.

“Back in October,” he says, “I didn’t have any money. And I talked to God, like I always do, and I said, ‘Ok, what’s up? What do you want me to do now?’ And he tells me it’s already all taken care of. And then a couple of days go by and I learn that someone who was supposed to send me some money had already sent it to me, but they sent it to the church where I preach, instead of to me. ‘Oh yeah,’ they tell me, ‘we sent that money weeks ago.’ And there it was, at the church. Seven thousand dollars. And I bought that Mercedes and that mobile home, too. And then my back went out at work, and the doctor says I can’t work for a while. But now I get money for that, too –- $1300 every two weeks – that’s the same as I was making when I could work. They say I’ll probably be off work for six months -– and I’ll be preaching every day of it. Bottom line…,” he says. “Can’t nobody tell me there ain’t no God!”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

“Ever had a black eye before?”

SUNDAY, Oct 5, 2008

RIDE # 1 -- 25th and Potrero -- 6:25 a.m.

My first fare has four heavy suitcases and is heading to SFO, but she’s not sure if she’s flying to Detroit today or to Delaware. “I’ve been traveling so much lately," she explains, rummaging in her purse. "I know it starts with a D. If I can find my itinerary, I can tell you.”

I say: “Oh, I’m just making conversation. You don’t have to find it for me.”

“I just got back from Atlanta yesterday morning. I’m a trainer of trainers for Paul Mitchell Hair Systems. Paul Mitchell is opening 100 new stores around the country, and I train the people who train the hair stylists who use the products. Let’s see. Here it is. I’m going to Detroit. Actually... Dearborn, Michigan.”

To become a licensed hair stylist (or a barber) in California requires 2,000 hours of training, a fact that always amazes me. I tell my fare: “When I started driving a cab, I had to attend a four-hour class given by the police department and, at the end, pass a simple written test.” (Back in 1985, many cab driver applicants, most of them recent immigrants, told me they slipped the instructor a $20 bill: a t.i.p -- To Insure Passing)

I continue: “And suddenly I was a licensed cab driver. Four hours for a cab driver, 2,000 for a hair stylist. Now if a hair stylist messes up, someone has a bad hair day, but if a cab driver messes up, it can be life-altering.”

“Oh,” she says. “That’s good. I’m going to remember that.”

RIDE # 2 -- North Beach -- 8:32 a.m.

Sunday mornings can be deathly slow. Back in the City, I grab a bagel and a cup of vanilla/hazelnut coffee at Noah’s Bagels near Potrero Hill, then roll through the Mission to the Castro (the police have barricaded the street, vendors are setting up for today’s Castro Street Fair) and then downtown (all the hotels have long lines of cabs out front) and over through North Beach (about 50 Chinese are doing tai-chi in Washington Square) to the Marina (scattered young professionals, most of them male, are pushing strollers and cuddling coffee cups) and then, just for fun, out to the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s wearing a thin fuzz of fog today). Back to the Marina, back downtown, on and on… One can drive a long way on a Sunday morning in San Francisco, when the streets are empty and no one’s out looking for a cab, no one's calling...

I finally give up and head for the Wharf, to watch the runners in KFOG's annual Bridge-to-Bridge Run stagger along the waterfront. As I’m turning from Colombus onto Mason, I stop for a pedestrian passing through the crosswalk. He strikes me as out-of-place: the clubs have all been closed for many hours, but he is still dressed for a night of jazz-joint hopping. His brown hair is slicked straight back. He’s wearing a turtleneck -- probably not a full turtleneck, just a turtle-collar, I tell myself. Also, slacks and a sport-coat that are two different shades of gray-green -- maybe it was the closest thing to a suit he could find in his closet. And black loafers, not shiny.

At first he doesn’t see me (and he doesn’t seem to hear my motionless, noiseless Prius), but then he turns. His movements are slow, stiff -- instead of turning directly toward me, he turns the “wrong” way, so that his body makes a complete revolution (a couple of moments later I will understand this awkwardness), and then he raises an index finger toward me. After one hour and 50 minutes, my ride drought has ended.

He’s headed to the Marina District, and I again aim the cab back toward the Golden Gate Bridge. “How are you this beautiful morning?” I ask.

“I got jumped by some black guys last night.” He says these words distractedly, and I instinctively disbelieve them. They sound rehearsed, prepared -- a sort of racist shorthand that any fellow white person, and certainly a white cab driver, should unquestionably swallow. I imagine that he's actually suffered some embarrassing incident he doesn't feel like revisiting, so he's lobbed this at me instead.

“Where’d it happen?” I ask.

“Back over that way.”

“Did you see it coming?”

“No.” He seems particularly distracted now.

I glance at the rearview, and I see that my fare has positioned himself so that he can study his face in the mirror, which the two of us are now sharing. For the first time, I see that his left eye is swollen completely shut. The area around the socket is puffed up into a perfect roundness, as though, somehow, exactly half a ping pong ball has been slipped over it. A thin black line, a horizontal slit, stretches across the exact middle of this swollen eye -- it looks like someone with a ruler and a thin-tipped Sharpie has carefully inked it in. The damage is very fresh: the surrounding skin is still flesh-toned, not discolored, but oh, very soon that's gonna change.

His story still rings false to me, and instantly I invent two alternate versions, both involving a woman. In the first version, my fare is standing at the bar in a jazz club sometime last evening, ordering his fourth martini, when he impulsively suggests something snappy to a young woman who appears at his elbow, a young woman whose nearby boyfriend takes immediate fistic exception…

The second version: to my fare’s surprise and delight, he has awakened in bed this morning, maybe just fifteen minutes ago, beside a young woman he met just last night, and now this woman, sobering up, seeing my fare in her bed, wants him gone; he wants something more, please. Pointed discussion. Short wrestling match. Woman grabs clock-radio from nightstand and smacks my fare in the face…

I ask him: “Have you ever had a black eye before?”

He’s patting at it, tenderly. “Not like this.” His other eye is open extra-wide, as though it’s trying to collect extra light, extra data. Feed enough data back to the brain, and maybe the brain can make some sense of all this. The black pupil is centered dead-middle in his good eye, completely surrounded by stark whiteness. “Have you?” he asks.

“No," I say. We address each other via the mirror, like we’re sharing a bathroom somewhere. “Not like that.”

“At least I can see,” he says, tentative, a question mark in his voice. He seems to want my medical opinion.

“Can you see through the swollen one?” I place my palm over my own right eye. In the mirror I see him cover his good eye with his palm; the back of his hand is a web of stringy blue veins.

“Can you see?” I ask.

He says, “Hmmnnn…”

We drive in silence. I consider whether or not to give him a free ride. No matter that I’ve judged him a liar -- “jumped by some black guys” -- and probably an unrepentant racist. (I judge myself as being, like most of the people I know, at least a semi-repentant racist.) Still, he’s human, and no matter what has really happened to him, and no matter my judgments or fantastic inventions about his life, he’s obviously in some distress. And I do like to give my free rides to folks experiencing rough patches -- I like to think that my little free ride gifts can bust loose a rusted chain; can improve the flow of karma; can perhaps allow the giftee an opening in which to maybe turn things around: “Hey, there still is some good in the world… My little dilemma ain’t so bad… I’ll survive… Maybe this is the point where things start to go my way…

I scan my body and spot a light, flickering turmoil in my stomach, as though the edge of a single sheet of newspaper is just catching fire. No, says my body. Wait.

I think: “‘Some black guys…’ ‘Back over that way…’ Hah! Was it two black guys? Four black guys? Seventeen? Were they lurking on the sidewalk out front of Pearl’s Jazz Club? Packed into a stall in the men’s room at the Hustlers’ Club?

At Chestnut and Divisadero the meter reads $8.05. My fare gives me two fives and says, “Keep it. Thanks.” He seems permanently distracted now, as I would be if I were in his spot.

“Good luck with the eye,” I tell him, as he eases himself up out of my cab. “I think you’ll be fine.”

RIDE #3 -- Chestnut and Scott -- 8:41 a.m.

Less than a block later I see something that immediately stretches my cheeks into a grin. A tall young white guy, maybe 25-26, is standing in the bus zone at Chestnut and Scott, one arm held high and still in the air. A large white rectangular bandage covers most of his forehead; it’s plastered just above his eyebrows, like a window into his skull. Small, fresh-looking, red-black scabs surround his eye sockets and cheeks. His nose is skinned. Individual cab shifts often develop their own themes – three different fares paying with $100 bills, four different fares from London, five fares who've been to the chiropractor today – but rarely do these themes develop in the space of two, early, back-to-back rides.

This fellow is headed, not surprisingly, to California Pacific Medical Center, up in Pacific Heights.

“So what happened?”

“I went to Octoberfest yesterday,” he says, “and a girl jumped on my back and I did a face-plant right into the pavement.”

“Oh, man! Lots of pain?”

“Yeah, I was in pretty bad shape. I’m going to be ok, but I was hurting bad for a while there.”

“Did you know her, or was she a stranger?”

“I know her. It was a date.”

“A first date?”

“Our first.” He’s able to chuckle.

“Do you like her?”

“A lot. She’s great. And she was great about this. She spent eight hours at the hospital with me yesterday.”

“I suppose that during eight hours you were able to find some ways to laugh about it?”

“We laughed a lot!” In the mirror I can see him smiling, amused, oblivious to his wounds and the big white flag of a bandage pasted to his forehead. I think: Someday, some advertising whiz will think of a way to sell ads on marquee injuries. My fare and his date had met about a month ago, at work, in a software company of some 500 people. The two of them work in different sections, but they’d bumped into each other, and there had been an attraction.

I say, “No matter how things turn out, this could be a great story. Already it’s a great story.”

“I know.” He’s tickled. “Great first date. I’m already looking forward to the next one.”

At the hospital I kill the meter ($6.70). “Free ride! To your new relationship -- and a quick healing!”

He gets it immediately. “Thanks, man!” He peers at me from under his empty white billboard. His fresh young scabs can’t keep him from smiling, nodding. “That’s just great,” he says. “Thanks.”

Although he doesn’t actually say it, in his eyes I can read what he’s thinking: “Oh, I can’t wait to tell HER about THIS!

--------------------------------- THE END ---------------------------------

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hybrid Heaven

(NOTE: Bay Area radio station KQED has a feature called the "KQED Perspective." Anyone may submit a 375-word piece on a topic of their own choice, and if it is accepted the author goes to station to read it (two-minute limit), and then it is broadcast to the station's wide audience. Below is the script of a Perspective I wrote and which was broadcast on July 31, 2008. You can listen to it here.)

AFTER TWENTY-TWO YEARS of driving San Francisco taxicabs, most of which averaged about twelve miles per gallon, a year ago I made The Switch.

I gave up my gas guzzler and put a snappy-looking green-and-white hybrid on the streets. Now there are seven of us at the company where I work.

Last Friday, as I was flying across the Bay Bridge, the odometer clicked over to 100,000 miles. You’ll probably not believe the year-end numbers, but here they are:

In the past year I have cut my gas consumption at work by nearly 75% percent. To log 100,000 miles, one of my old slurpers would have burned more than 8,000 gallons of gas. But my hybrid averages about 45 miles-per-gallon, and to drive last year’s 100,000 miles it used less than 3,000 gallons. That’s at least 5,000 gallons of gasoline that didn’t get burned last year. Great for the environment AND for a cab driver’s wallet! At $4.50 per gallon, my pretty green hybrid saves enough money, each year, so that I could afford, each year, to buy ANOTHER brand new, beautiful hybrid.

PLUS enough gas to drive it from the Golden Gate to the White House!

AND back!


At the end of my shift I often pull into a station where several other cab drivers are leaning against their thirsty cabs, watching their pumps register forty dollars, fifty dollars, sixty dollars… I quickly pump my twelve or maybe fifteen bucks worth, and drive off to a chorus of, “Hey -- that’s no fair!”

It’s a cry echoing across America these days. But if our country could achieve the 75% reduction my hybrid has –- or a 50% or even a 30% reduction –- we would OVERNIGHT re-draw the world’s geo-political and economic maps. The U.S. consumes some 400 million gallons of gasoline per day –- 150 billion gallons per year… All that money we’re shipping to other countries...

My guess is that most people WANT to make The Switch, but are waiting for the right time.

I think the time is Now.

With a Perspective, I’m Brad Newsham.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Riding the crest of my latte...

FRIDAY MORNING -- First Ride -- 16th and Folsom

It’s still a few minutes until 7 a.m, and I’m not actually mentally prepared for customers just yet. Four or five thin quills of light -- orange and blood-red -- have formed a series of hairline cracks in the eastern sky, but a purple darkness still rules.

I'm stopped for the red light at Sixteenth and Folsom. A warm, half-eaten Noah’s bagel with tomatoes and mushrooms and spinach is spread out on a wrapper on the seat beside me. My fingers are curled around a Peet's Coffee paper cup containing a hot latte with a tiny dash of hazelnut and another tiny dash of vanilla.

(I picked up the latte habit about two months ago, and every time I buy one I can’t quite believe it -- including tip each latte costs $5! And now I’m buying one of these things at least two or three mornings a week, and sometimes I go back in the afternoon for another. It’s an expensive habit, a hundred bucks a month or more, and I think about how far $100 would go in the socalled Third World, say in a village in the mountains of the Phillipines. But I love these drinks -- love the taste, love the buzz. The Dalai Lama has famously said, “My religion is kindness.” Well, I certainly do aspire to be Dalai Lama-ish myself someday, but truth be told, presently there is no religious debate in my life. Each and every morning my religion is COFFEE!)

Rush hour won't kick in for another half hour, and I’m not at all expecting to find a fare out here on this quiet, brooding, semi-industrial, old-warehouse-filled section of the Mission District. Nonetheless, in the corner of my right eye, over toward the sidewalk, I see a faint glimmer -- something pale -- moving slowly back and forth. It takes a moment to interpret the data, but then it registers that this is the palm of a young man's hand. He has understood that I can't easily see him in the early morning dimness, so he's leaned down from the curb and is slowly rotating his open hand, which is incrementally lighter than his clothes and the rest of him, and now he's caught my eye.

As he's settling in, he says, “Seventh and Folsom, please." Most of the young dark-haired guys I pick up during mornings in the Mission have thick, or sometimes less-thick, Latino accents. They’re most often headed to restaurant jobs downtown or at the Wharf or in the Marina or the Upper Fillmore, and they often seem a little tentative, as I would be, no doubt, if I found myself living in a culture other than the one where I was born and raised. But this guy’s accent is absolutely mainstream, even kind of polished -- the voice of a native -- and in those first four words I hear a deep confidence.

I place my latte in the dashboard cup holder, slide aside my bagel and wrapper to uncover my clipboard and waybill, and, per SFPD Taxicab Detail regulations, I jot down the time (“6:55 a.m.”), the trip’s origin (“16/Fols”) and destination (“7/Fols”).

“What’s your day hold?” I ask my fare.

“I’m headed to work.” There is a definite eagerness in his voice. Maybe he’s already had a latte of his own.

“What’s your work?”

“I’m a residential counselor,” he says.

“What’s that mean exactly?”

“I’m a counselor to 15-to-18 year olds who’ve wound up in the junvenille detention system -- at the jail, at halfway houses, and at a couple of other city facilities, too.”

“Do you like your work?”

“Very much.”

“What’s your background?” When I ask this standard question of mine, most people tell me where they went to school and what they studied.

My fare says, “What do you mean?”

“How’d you get credentialed for this job?”

Without hesitation, and with a chuckle: “Life.”

“Ah,” I say. “The best teacher…”

“The best teacher,” he echoes. “I didn’t get a diploma, but Life has credentialed me. I’ve been fully stamped, endorsed, certified, validated, graduated…”

He’s got me chuckling along with him now. I can imagine the teenagers he works with finding themselves instantly at ease with him, falling naturally into his orbit. And I imagine that he can, and does, with complete credibility, tell them, “I’ve been where you are, brother. I know what you’re going through. There IS a way forward. I’ve walked it, bro.”

“I’m fifty-six,” I say. “May I ask how old you are?”


"Twenty-three," I echo. Even younger than I'd have guessed. “Absolutely GREAT time of life, as I remember.”

“I’m liking the way things are working out right now,” he says. “My boss has an MFT -- a Marriage and Family therapist degree -- and a couple of other degrees, too, and I imagine I’ll have to start getting those things to continue in this field. If you want to advance -- and I do -- you need the paper. But right now I’m just doing the work and enjoying it. I see people come out of school with degrees, and… well... they... well…”

“I imagine you’re way ahead of them,” I say.

“I do think some of them have learned some things from me,” he admits.

It’s been a short, sweet ride. Already we’ve traveled the nine blocks down Folsom and are sitting at the red light at Seventh Street. As soon as the signal goes green I will cross the intersection and drop him on the far side, where he’ll get out, walk a block and a half up Seventh (Seventh is one-way here, and by having me drop him right here my fare has shaved three blocks from the route and has saved himself at least 45, or maybe 90, cents on the meter) to start his day at the San Francisco City and County Jail.

I’m staring at the signal, waiting, thinking what a great start to my own day this has been, when this polite young twenty-three year old in my back seat asks, “How long have you been driving a cab?”

I say, “This is my twenty-third year…”

There’s an almost-audible ‘Ding!’ sound inside the cab. I hear it, my fare hears it -- if you’d been in the cab you’d have heard it, too -- I swear! A smile rips across my face and I turn around and see that my fare’s face also has a great big smile. We both know the next line in this script. It’s sitting right there, as clear as the traffic signal. It’s MY line, but even though we’ve never rehearsed, my fare knows exactly what words are coming -- and now he’s waiting, grinning, amused in advance. My line is so completely obvious, and even though it’s not completely true, I absolutely have to deliver it. Life demands this scrap of dialogue from me…

I deepen my voice a register and try to affect a gravelly, seen-it-all, tough-guy tone. I look him in the eye, and even though I haven't yet opened my mouth I can see that he's almost laughing out loud. I crank up my speaking volume, and I say it: “I’ve been out here driving this rig every day since you were born, KID!”

And now we’re both roaring. Six-fifty-nine a.m. and we’re sitting at the traffic light at Seventh and Folsom, a block and a half from the City and County Jail, just howling at each other, our bodies rocking backward and forward. If you were a cop standing on the corner and witnessing this unlikely scene, your instinct would be to investigate.

A few seconds later we’ve cleared the intersection and have stopped at the curb. He extends green currency in my direction, but I wave him off. “Free ride!” I say.

“Oh, no way...!” he says, and pushes the bills closer toward me.

“It’s my little tradition,” I tell him.

About 15 years ago, when I started this tradition, I used to debate with myself: “Should it be THIS person? Or should I wait? Maybe there’ll be a ‘better’ one later on...?” But over the years I’ve learned to let my body decide, and there’s been no debate this morning -- my body congress has reached a unanimous, filibuster-proof, final decision. “Every day I give away one free ride, and today you’re it...”

“You can’t do that!” he says. “You gotta make a living...!” But his smile is huge.

I reach past him, yank the latch and throw open the back door. “Out!” I say. “In the next half-hour you’re gonna run into at least a dozen people who need that money worse than either of us. Give it to one of them.” Checkmate! The door is gaping, wide open at his elbow. The rest of his day awaits him, out there on the sidewalk...

He throws his head back in involuntary surrender. “Aghh!” he screams. He's laughing.

“Aghh,” I scream back. Laughing.

As I pull away, I’m about popping out of my skin...

“Oh, man!” I say aloud to my latte, which has found its way back into my hand. “Who’s next?”

--------------------------------- THE END ---------------------------------

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