Sunday, January 22, 2006

Get a job -- like the rest of us!

SIXTH AND HARRISON, early Sunday morning, January 2006

I'VE BEEN OUT for half an hour now, long enough to have consumed my yogurt and bagel and coffee, and now I’m rolling, looking for my first fare. I swing by the after-hours club “Endup” at Sixth and Harrison. (Most bars and clubs close the minute local laws say they have to stop serving alcohol –- at 2 a.m. -– but “Endup” keeps thumping right along until about noon, and if you’re out on an all-nighter, or if you’re out looking for someone who is on an all-nighter, it’s almost certain that this is the place you’ll end-up.) The cab line is -- surprise! -- empty, and a young Asian man is waiting for me at the curb. “Twee Meesha,” he says. He’s not plastered, but his accent is a certified puzzle.

I make my best guess: “Twentieth and Mission?”

“Twee Meesha,” he says.

I swing left onto Harrison and head toward 20th.

I ask: “How are you today?”

“Me?” he says. “You?”

My brother Grant says that when you can’t understand other peoples’ language you inevitably come to think of them as “talking animals.” I think: “No story from this guy.”

We drive several blocks in silence.

“Mews…,” he says.

I turn. He is pointing toward my radio, twisting an imaginary knob in the air. “Mews... Techno… Boom-boom.”

I switch on the radio. KFOG is playing an acoustical version of Simon and Garfunckel's “Bridge over Troubled Water.” I love Simon and Garfunkel, but I loathe this particular song –- one of the most pathetic, syrupy songs I’ve ever heard.

“Ah,” he says. “Ah, good...” And then immediately he is talking into his cell phone in the chop-chop of… Cantonese?

His call ends abrubtly. “How long you drive taxis?” he asks me.

I’m surprised to hear him construct and so clearly deliver this sentence. I glance over my shoulder: “Twenty years.”

His eyes go wide. He extends his hand forward across the back seat. I twist my shoulder a bit so that we can shake. “Twee year!” he marvels. He barely looks twenty years old himself.

“Your work?” I ask

“Manicure pedicure.”

“You are from where?”


“I was there,” I say. “Ten days. Ten years ago. Very nice country. Very nice people.” True -- perhaps the most polite, happiest-seeming people I met in my travels -- and exhibiting no animosity over the War. When I visited, in 1995, more than half of Vietnam's populace had been born since the last American soldier skeedaddled, back in 1975.

“Thank you,” my fare says.

I ask, “How long in America?”

“One year. My brother my sister help me.”

I ask, “When you arrive… little English? No English?”

He laughs and fixes his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. “Little English. Now I go school. I want money.”

At 20th and Mission he gives me $12 for an $8.25 fare. I say, “Thank you. Welcome to America.”

* * *

THE NEIGHBORHOODS ARE DEAD, but the sidewalks around the Moscone Center are crawling with people wearing nametages. I park in front of the Hotel W and ask one of these badge-wearers what convention is in town. “The Fancy Foods show,” he says. I Windex my windows and vacuum the cab and read a while (“The Power of Now”) and pretty soon I’m on my way to the airport. My fare is from Kansas City, Missouri, a warehouse manager for a "specialty foods company." He has worked there for six years and “Boy-oh-boy, I have seen them grow and grow and grow.”

“What’s your biggest seller?”

“Chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. We’ve carry a clear plastic tube full of them -- It’s six inches long, and square. They retail for a dollar-fifty each, but we wholesale them for 70 dollars a crate, and we sell 500 to 1,000 crates a week.” I doodle in my head: roughly $50,000 a week, $3 million a year. “People just can’t get enough of ‘em.”

“You like ‘em?” I ask.

“They’re not bad. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth already, but yeah, they’re pretty tasty.”

“They have a crunch?”

“A little crunch," he says. "The chocolate coating is sort of soft, but then you hit the sunflower and there’s a little crunch.”

“I like a good crunch.”

“You might like these.”

“Dark chocolate?”

“Milk,” he says.

“I prefer dark, but I’m not that picky when it comes to chocolate.”

I ask if he has kids. “No kids,” he says, which surprises me: he seems the domestic sort. “But I've got four siblings and plenty of nieces and nephews. My father is 75 years old and he’s starting to not be able to remember things, including his five kids. He asks me, ‘Now which one are you?’ I say, ‘I’m George.’ My brother is getting married next month. It’s his second marriage –- her first. I’m standing up. One of my other brothers has seven kids by seven different women.”

“Does he know all the kids?”

“No. Plus he gets a postcard every now and then saying ‘You have a new grandkid.’ Only one of his women ever sued for child support and he had to pay twenty thousand dollars in a lump. And I’ve also got a sister who lives out in Beeville, Texas. That’s where George Bush goes hunting.”

I say: “There are many people here in the Bay Area, including your driver, who would be rooting for the animals.”

He laughs, but he doesn’t follow up.

* * *

FROM THE AIRPORT I pick up a guy who is here for just the last day of the Fancy Foods Show –- he has a dinner meeting with some business clients tonight and in the morning he's back on another plane. He lives in northern New Jersey -- in the town next to Tenafly, which is where my wife grew up -- and on the morning of September 11, 2001, he was at work.

I asked: “Did you go home early that day?”

“Yes, when I came out of the building there were fighter planes all over the sky, but no commercial airliners. I got home as fast as I could.”

He has three kids -- nine, four, and one. As we pass Candlestick Park we start talking baseball. My fare went to James Madison University in Virginia where during his freshman year he was the team’s backup catcher. At the end of that year the first-string catcher was drafted by the pros, and from then on my fare was the starter.

I asked: “What kind of team did you have?”

“Pretty good. One year we went 25 and 6. No, 26 and five.”

“Were you drafted?”

“I had a couple of tryouts, with Philadelphia and Cincinnati.”

“Did they come after you, or did you contact them?”

“My old high school coach arranged things. He had done some scouting and knew his way around.”

“Do you feel like you got a fair shot?"

“The pool of talent the major leagues has to draw from is so deep...” There is no lament in his voice. “There were 15 or 20 other guys there to try out, and they were all good. I felt like I belonged, but we all realized that in order to make it you really have to have extraordinary talent -- or else you have to get some big break.”

I told him, “A friend of mine has a son who is about 26 years old now and so far he’s been in the Kansas City, Detroit, and Philadelphia organizations. He’s been at Triple-A, doing pretty well, and a couple of Septembers ago he was called up and had one major league at-bat with the Phillies. Right now he’s recovering from shoulder surgery.”

My fare: “What did he do in that one at-bat?”

“He hit a fly ball to right field –- caught.”

“You’d be amazed how one at-bat can change a career. If he had popped it over the fence or smoked a double up the gap and scored two runners… Suddenly a career can take on a whole new direction.”

I asked: “Your catcher who was drafted –- what happened with him?”

“He bounced around the minors for a while. Never made it to the majors. Really, the pool of talent is just so, so deep. You really do have to pop one over the fence.””

I asked: “What’d he do when he quit?”

“He went out and got a job, just like the rest of us…”

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

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