Thursday, February 02, 2006

TIP -- To Insure Promptness

FEBRUARY, 2006 -- My tenth shift of the year

DAVID ASSIGNS ME AN ORDER at Haight and Laguna. A middle-aged woman is heading to Potrero Hill, to a fabric business that she owns. "This morning I'm hoping to sell 70 rolls of fabric to a motivated client,” she says.

In the year 2000, she moved from New Orleans to San Francisco. I say, “That’s a move that’s looking better and better.”

“My life would have been a catastrophe if I still lived in New Orleans. As a 48-year old woman I’d have had to move back in with my parents. I was self-employed, making custom gowns and dresses for Mardi Gras parties and debutante balls. Nobody’s spending money on THAT anymore! Have you ever been there?”

“A few times. The last time was... 2001.”

“Where did you stay?” she asks.

My daughter Sarah was not quite five years old yet in 2001. We had tagged along with Rhonda to a convention, and we saw her only at night. I remember riding with Sarah in a horse-drawn carriage through the French Quarter. I remember spending an afternoon playing with over-sized colored blocks at the Children's Museum. I remember looking out over the city at night from the window from the window of a tall hotel downtown. “I think it was the Hyatt Regency.”

“The Hyatt Regency! I spent ten weeks on the twenty-first floor of the Hyatt Regency when I was a teenager! My father was in the oil derrick business, and we had just come back from living in Brussels and Dubai. His company put our whole family up at the Hyatt Regency for ten weeks. We got to know all the housekeepers and waiters. Many years later I met one of the waiters at a party. I asked him if he remembered three teenage girls who wore skimpy negliges. He said, ‘We used to draw straws every morning to see who would get to wheel breakfast up to you!’”

-- IN FRONT OF THE FOUR SEASONS HOTEL: I am dictating to my computer when I am interrupted by a man who needs to go to California Pacific Medical Center. His mother is having a transfusion, her first -- she is 77. “She’s been a heavy smoker for 60 years. We think she’s got something. Probably cancer. Sixty years is a long time to be a heavy smoker.”

He notices my dictaphone, cell phone, recharging cord, laptop, and headphone/microphone scattered around the front seat, and says: “That’s a lot of gear.”

This is my tenth shift of the year, and until now I have not mentioned this book to anyone. But that’s about to change.

“I’m a writer,” I say, “and I’m trying to learn...”

He finishes my sentence: “...voice recognition software. What do you write?”

I tell him I have written two books, memoirs of two separate round-the-world trips I have taken. When you claim to a stranger that you are a writer, their first question is always: “Have you had anything published?” Their next question: “Who is your publisher?”

When I mention Random House, my fare whistles. Then: “I was in a little out-of-the-way restaurant in Venice with my daughter a few years ago, and we saw Rick Steves. I wouldn’t have recognized him, but my daughter says ‘You’re Rick Steves!’ and he says, ‘I am.’”

I say: “A writer named Michael Shapiro flattered me terribly a couple of years ago by including me in a book of interviews he did with '18 Great Travel Writers.' No one’s ever heard of me, but Rick Steves was in there. Also Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer...”

“The heavyweights,” my fare says. He asks if I’m working on another book, and when I say that I am, he asks, “Where are you going for this one?”

“Nowhere. This one is about a year behind the wheel of a San Francisco taxicab.”

He tells me that he used to drive a cab himself, in Los Angeles when he was in college. After college he owned and then sold a “staffing business” and while he was between things he drove a limo for a while. Now he is a financial planner.

People often ask me who are the best tippers. My observation is that professional people -- the people with the most money to manage -- are rarely loose with it. I think the responsibility of having so much money weighs on them, and they are very practical with it; they give a dutiful 10 or 15 percent. It’s the people without so much money who, often, seem to think of money as something to perhaps have a little fun with. They're the ones who most often surprise me with a big tip. Also falling into that category are those who make a living from tips –- we tip-dependent types have a vested interest in keeping this bizarre custom going (TIP -- an old English inn tradition, I have learned: give your horse and carriage to the guys in the stable, ask them to bring it round in the morning, and give them a little money To Insure Promptness). Also, we know how much fun it is to receive a big tip. Speaking generally, the most generous people I encounter are waiters, the rare professional gambler, and of course cab drivers. Or former cab drivers. At the hospital I wish my fare good luck with his mother, and he gives me fifteen bucks for a $9.15 ride. Once a cab driver always a cab driver.

“And I’ll look for your books,” he says. “Especially the cab driving book.”

“Better give me a couple of years on this one," I say. "For a while now I’ve been joking that I publish a book ‘every eleven and a half years whether anyone wants one or not.’ My last one was published in 2000, and now it looks like I’m going to need every minute of those eleven and a half years.”

PINE AND POLK: A middle-aged Vietnamese man –- gay, I judge -- is headed from Polk Gulch to the Castro district. He has lived in the States for twelve years. I tell him I visited Vietnam eleven years ago: Ho Chi Mihn City, Dalat, Nah Trang, Hue…”

“Hue,” he says. (‘Way’ with a puff of ‘h’ at the beginning.) “That is my home city.”

“I had an experience in Hue that I’ll never forget,” I tell him. “That wide boulevard... along the river... lined with the old tall trees...? Same side as the railroad station..."

"Le Loi."

“Yes, Lay Loy," I say, "One afternoon I was walking on Lay Loy, the only foreigner in a big crowd of people out walking going in both directions. Some bicycles. No cars anywhere. And then I notice that right next to me and just a little bit in front of me there’s a woman who is wearing absolutely no clothes. And the strangest thing is that everyone else on the street is pretending that she doesn’t exist. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, but the rest of the people would not look at her. And when I’d look around at them, they wouldn’t look at me either. I have never forgotten that. I walked along beside her for about two or three minutes, and I've never forgotten that.”

My fare: “I think she has lost her mind. I saw a woman just like that in Ho Chi Mihn City in 1975. From 1975 to 1982 was worst in Vietnam...”

The Vietnamese war –- or as the Vietnamese call it, “the American war” –- ended in 1975, and then things got worse. I shudder at what this portends for Iraq.

My fare continues: “Many people went to the camps. Many people have lost their houses, lost families, have lost their loves. Many people have tried to leave on boats. Many people have nothing. Everyone has a cruel knowledge from this time. I think we can understand this woman.”

I tell him I was surprised that people in Vietnam did not seem to resent me for being an American.

“War was too long ago. People must move on. Have a life. And most Vietnamese cannot remember the war –- they were born after.”

I think about the American Civil War, which ended 140 years ago. I think about the many white southerners who still seem to be fighting it. I think about how hard it is for so many of us, myself included, to let go of a bitter memory.

At the end of the ride, I ask: “What is it like for gay people in Vietnam?”

“It is better now,” he says. “But I like it here.”