Tuesday, May 30, 2006

'Nam Vet

Memorial Day -- 2006

9:18 a.m. - - Post and Mason (in front of Morton’s Steakhouse, half a block from Union Square)

HE’S A SHORTISH 56-YEAR OLD WHITE GUY, wearing blue jeans, a plaid long-sleeve shirt, and a light brown baseball cap pulled down low -- I never do get a look at his eyes.

“I’m going to Sutter and Hyde – Aces. ("Aces" is a bar between the Tenderloin and Polk Gulch.) I’m going to raise a toast before all the other crazies come out. I think I’ve got the jump on most of ‘em.”

This morning the city’s hotels are full of Memorial Day Weekend tourists plus 11,000 Physician Assistants attending a three-day meeting at Moscone, but they’re all slow risers. So far I’ve had only two rides, one of them a man named Ernesto who arrived in the States from Peru just three months ago, and whom I coaxed from a bus stop with the offer, in Spanish, of a free ride. (“Seguro?” he asked before getting in. For real?)

So I’m glad to have my current fare, a real-live paying customer. “Were you in the service?” I ask him.

“Army. Drafted. They sent me to Vietnam in 1969 when I was nineteen years old. I’d already been accepted at Berkeley but I didn’t want to go to college yet and so I took my chances -- almost the biggest mistake of my life. They drafted me right away. This was before the lottery, but it wouldn’t have mattered… In the lottery I came up number 36.”

In the middle of the Vietnam War, in order to address the embarrassing fact that it was almost exclusively the poor and the black who were being shipped off to become the maimed and the dead, the United States Selective Service Administration held a nationally televised lottery. Three hundred and sixty-five ping pong balls, each labeled with a different date of the year, were placed in a hopper and drawn out one by one. All males of draft age -- eighteen to twenty-six years old -- were assigned a draft number corresponding to the order of the draw. If your birthday was written on the first ping pong ball drawn, you were #1. If your birthday was written on the second ping pong ball, you were #2. And so on... Everyone who received a number lower than 60 was immediately sent a draft notice. Anyone with a number of 150 or higher was considered virtually “draft-proof” -- and those in the middle had to sweat it out.

My birthday, September 15, was written on the two-hundred-and-ninety-first ping pong ball to be drawn, and at the age of 18 I had the luxury of knowing that I would, almost certainly, never have to serve in the military if I didn’t want to. And although I sometimes try, I can’t even imagine the life I’d have had if I’d been sent to Vietnam.

“We’re you infantry?” I ask.

“Infantry,” he grunts.

“Shooting at people? Bullets whizzing by your head...?”

“I was shooting at them, they were shooting at me," he says. "We'd be in the field 45 days straight, lay low for seven, get resupplied by air, then go out for another 45 straight. But it was better than this Iraq war. These poor kids riding around in the desert in armored vehicles waiting for someone to shoot at them or some roadside bomb to blow them up. At least in the jungle we knew what to do: Hit ‘em -- before they hit you!

“I was in ‘Nam for twelve months and 26 days. Twelve months was a complete tour, but I gambled again. If you were already accepted to college, and if you had less than six months to go when you finished your tour, they would cut you loose. They didn’t want to ship you back stateside, give you a month of R & R, train you in a new job, and then lose you after maybe a month or two. So I stayed an extra 26 days in ‘Nam, and when I got out I had less than six months in my hitch, so I was done. It worked out -- I was able to go to UC-Berkeley, buy my first house... I knew lots of people who didn’t make it back, and I’m sorry about that. Better them than me, I say, but I’m going to raise a toast for all of them today.”

We’re stopped in front of Aces now. It’s been a short ride -- three minutes. I kill the $5.10 on the meter and say, “I can’t take your money today.”

He’s been matter-of-fact all along. No self-pitying lamentations, just straight-shooter reporting. But suddenly he erupts. His voice jumps twenty or thirty decibels, from quiet murmur to heavy mortar fire. He jumps forward and I feel the weight of his body shudder my seatback. “There’s no way, man!" he screams. "No way!” He swings his right arm toward me and his open hand slaps against my right shoulder, hard. “You’ve got to pay your gate, man -- no way!”

He’s got some bills folded up in his other hand. He pushes them toward me, and I take them and I thank him. He’s a ‘Nam vet, and he’s certainly earned the right to have things any way he wants them on Memorial Day.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Congenial Heart -- Incubated

The Haight-Ashbury District -- 7 a.m. on another slow Sunday morning –- I’ve been empty for about 45 minutes.

FOR FIVE OR SIX BLOCKS I haven't seen a soul on Haight Street, and then I spot a guy standing all alone in the bus zone at Cole Street. I can see that he is attached, via clear plastic tubing, to a small oxygen tank on wheels. He looks to be about 30 years old.

I pull over and lower my passenger-side window: “Every day I give away one free ride. Where are you headed?”

“Oh, thanks a lot -- I’m going to Geary and Polk.”

He lifts his little cart in ahead of his body -- a flurry of cords, wheels, and tubes -- arranges himself around it, pulls the door shut, and sighs.

“Looks like a lot of work,” I say.

“I’m on a waiting list for one of the backpack kinds. But there’s been some hangup with the paperwork, and it’s taken a while. A year and a half on the list. I’m not complaining -- they’re really expensive, and Social Security’s going to pay for it all. I’m just glad I can breathe. And get around. I can’t think there’s a better city in the world for public transportation. Anytime I get on a bus, the bus driver hardly ever asks me for money. And now here’s you!”

We head along the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park, lush green, dripping wet. Back in the 60s and early 70s, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead used to walk the two and a half blocks from their house on Clayton Street and play in the Panhandle for free.

I ask: “How long have you been using that?”

“Two and a half years. I was just living my life. Worked on foreign cars in a little garage out in the Sunset. A mechanic. Then I started feeling a little funny, losing energy, weak, not able to do things I’ve always been able to do. When it got so I couldn’t even walk a block I went to the Free Clinic, and they sent me to St. Mary’s for tests. They still can’t really say exactly what all’s wrong with me, but they say for sure I’ve got a congenial heart condition."

My notebook is open on the seat beside me, and my immediate instinct is to start scribbling but I keep my hands on the wheel. I can remember this.

He's got more to say: "I have trouble breathing, too. Every now and then I pass out and wind up getting incubated -- one minute I’m just minding my own business, and the next minute I wake up with all these tubes stuck all down my throat. Pretty freaky.”

We chat the rest of the way, but I’m not really registering any of it -- I’m too busy running his exact words over and over in my mind. Congenial... Incubated...

At Geary and Polk he says, “There are some asshole cab drivers, like there are asshole everythings, but most of you guys are all right.”

The instant he closes the door I grab my notebook and start writing as fast as I can.

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

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IT'S EARLY SUNDAY MORNING. Out near Ocean Beach a woman settles into my backseat.

“How are you doing today?” I ask.

“Fine, thank you,” she says, rather quietly, as though she’s not quite yet fully awake. “And how are you doing?”

“I’m alive and kicking.”

“Alive and kicking,” she echoes. “Me, too -- and I’m on my way to church to thank God for that.”

“All right,” I say.

She asks, “Do you have a religion?”

“No, I really don’t.”

“So I guess you don’t really know who God is?”

If my physical reaction to this comment were to be replayed in slow motion, I imagine that it would look almost identical to a slow-motion clip of someone who has just been hit in the back of the head by a bullet -- Kennedy in Dallas comes to mind. My shoulders slump, my head goes back and then snaps forward again.

“Now why would you say that?” I believe that I am able to ask this without anger, but undoubtedly a trace of hurt must have crept into my voice.

Immediately she says, “Oh, how rude of me! I’m sorry. We’re really all one family. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

“It’s alright,” I say. “I do agree about the one family. Everyone has their own ideas about God -- I certainly do. But I was raised in a particular religion, and I was taught that it was the only right religion. If we’re all one family, and if between us we’ve come up with hundreds of religions, how can there be only one right one? I could just never understand that theory.”

It’s a short ride. When we pull up in front of her church she hands me $6 for the $4.20 fare, wishes me a “blesst” day, and gets out. I try to keep my eyes on my waybill, try to not look at the church building that she's now walking toward. It's not important, I tell myself, just what brand of religion is practiced inside. In my opinion exclusivity -- "WE are the one true church!" -- is a cardinal (and perhaps only a subliminal) tenet of most every religion. I try not to look, but my body betrays me. I lean down to where I can scan the building, and the first thing I notice is the lettering above the door: "Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses."

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

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

"The Short Guy"

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006

7 a.m. – Eighth and Market

IT'S A WET EASTER MORNING, early, streets slick and blackened from rain that swings moodily between intermittent drizzle and instantaneous cloud-rippers. Right now it’s drizzle, and as I turn onto Eighth Street I see a Yellow Cab SUV parked in front of the Holiday Inn, hoping to snag an airport.

I recognize the guy behind the wheel from my eighteen years over at Yellow. Yellow Cab is the big dog in the city's pack of cab companies, and has been buying Ford Escape SUVs lately -- hybrids, the wave of the future -- but few of the other companies can afford them -- yet. But with gas going up daily, it'll soon be a matter of survival.

I pull up alongside and slide down my passenger’s side window.

“Hey, Frankie -- what kind of mileage does that thing get you?”

He’s quick with his answer: “Thirty-five to forty miles a gallon. What do you get?” (The manufacturer, plus all of the other Escape drivers that I know, say twenty-five is more like it.)

“Nine around town –- maybe thirteen on the freeway.”

“The Taxi Commision spends so much time dinking around with stupid petty stuff," Frankie squawks. "What they oughta do is mandate that the whole fleet become hybrids. Put $30 every single shift back into the pockets of every driver. Get rid of this fuckin' raghead oil.”

Just then our attention is drawn behind us, back up Eighth Street, by the sudden appearance of fifteen motorcycle cops, five black and white cruisers, and three or four parking control buggies -- all of them flying down Eighth Street in VIP escort formation. Two motorcycles stop in the middle of the intersection behind us -- Eighth and Market -- and with their flashing blue and yellow lights stop all traffic. Two more zip ahead and seal off the next intersection, Eighth and Mission.

Eighth Street is one-way and stretches a full five lanes wide. Frankie’s cab is in the far right lane, up against the curb, and I'm idling in the second lane. One motorcycle cop swerves over and motions me toward the curb. I pull over just beyond Frankie, shift into Park, and start to open my door to get out and walk back and finish off our conversation -- Frankie's 'raghead' is still echoing in my ear.

But the instant my door cracks open, another motorcycle cop swings over and stops, blocking me. “Stay put,” he says. “Stay in the cab.”

I close my door, roll down the window. His ear is two feet from my face. “Who is it?” I ask.

“Uh...Condi?” he says, uncertainly, not looking at me, keeping his eyes focused on his sideview mirror. He’s Chinese. His helmet strap sits exactly on the rim of a round, hairless chin.

“Condaleeza Rice?” I say. I hadn’t heard that she was in town. She studied at Stanford, just down the freeway, but even though she’s now Secretary of State I’m not sure Standord is so eager to see her these days. Bush tried to visit recently, but demonstrators blocked his motorcade and forced it to retreat off campus.

“No, not her,” said the cop. He looks directly at me now. He holds his hand out flat, palm facing downward, and pats the air three feet off the ground. “Who’s the short guy?”

The Dalai Lama!” I know the Dalai Lama is in town to attend a conference organized by Muslims who say Osama bin Laden has hijacked their religion and does not represent them.

“Yeah, that guy.” The cop shrugs -- ‘Condi. Dalai. Who can keep all these damn nicknames straight, anyway?’

And now a phalanx of motorcycle cops comes zipping down the middle of empty Eighth Street, surrounding a five-vehicle motorcade. In the lead is a black SUV, windows down, three or four Secret Service types visible inside –- dark suits, dark shades, even in the dim morning light. Following it are four black limos, not stretches, but short tasteful Buddhist limos. I can’t see inside, but I know the Dalai Lama is in there somewhere, probably looking out, present, aware. And if so, what he sees this morning is a middle aged white cab driver, his head sticking out his cab window, flashing the kind of electric smile you can’t fake -- or I can’t anyway, not this early on a rainy day -- and waving his baseball cap high over his head. I’m not sure he can hear my yelled greeting, but I throw it out there anyway: "Hello, Dalai!"

The motorcade speeds on, the cop roars off after it. I get out of the cab, walk back to Frankie.

“The Dalai Lama,” I say before he asks. “On Easter morning. Is this a great job or what!”

“The Dalai Lama...” Frankie says. And he nods his head in the direction they’ve gone. “Look at that...”

I turn. The motorcade is two blocks past us already, swarming down Eighth Street toward the Highway 101 on-ramps -- south to the airport or east toward Berkeley? Who knows where the Dalai Lama might be going today -- he might not even know himself yet. Maybe he’s meeting Condi somewhere...

“Look at that,” Frankie is saying. From this distance, the motorcade is a mass of madly flashing lights -- dozens and dozens of them, blue and red and yellow and orange and red and blue and yellow and red and orange... “Looks like a damn Easter egg hunt.”

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

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

"There! There's your Rolex."


(A polite, exuberant, 42-year old resident of the Haight-Ashbury. A native of Texas, later a resident of New York City for 16 years, five years ago he moved to San Francisco.)

“IN 1947 MY MOTHER desperately wanted to leave her hometown -- Pogue, Texas, eleven hundred people -- to go to secretarial school in Dallas. But her mother would not let her. She made her go to the University of Texas -- You-Tee -- in Austin, with ten thousand horny GIs just back from the war. She wound up marrying one of them. My father.

“When I was about ten, we moved to Longview, Texas. Then in 1985, when I was 21, I moved to New York City. I took the last Branniff flight out of Texas -- really, the last flight -- the airline announced its closing immediately after we took off and was out of business by the time we landed.

"On the way to New York the plane gets struck by lightning -- like ‘Get out of here and don’t look back, pal.’ You would think that I’d have gotten the message. But after I’d been in New York about five months my mother came to visit. I was homesick and I told her I was thinking of coming back to Texas. My mother remembered her own experience of wanting to have her own independent life, and she asked me what she could do to get me to not come home. What could she give me to get me to stay in New York?

"I was as shallow as any 21-year-old might be, and I finally said she could buy me a fancy watch. She wound up buying me a vintage Rolex from [a famous store (?) that was not so long ago converted into Niketown?] for $985. She told me, ‘Don’t ever tell your brother or your sister about this.’

"I wound up staying for 16 years -- I became the head of wardrobe [head of something else, too?] for MTV. But I go back to Texas every year to visit, and I’m always invited to talk to the students at my former high school. I tell them that in fact you CAN survive high school in Texas and you CAN in fact have goals and dreams and you CAN in fact meet them… ‘Hey, I’m living proof, there’s my locker -- number 1322!’"

We’ve pulled up in front of his destination. I’m in no hurry to have him leave, but he pays me -- he tips me big -- and while he's still sitting in the back of the cab, fingers gripping the rear door handle, rain drumming on the rooftop, he hurries to the end of his story:

“Now one year when I went back, a reporter from the local newspaper came and wrote a feature story about me. And in the paper, he told the story of the watch. And the next day my mother gets a call from my sister. My mother told her, ‘That was a long time ago, and that’s just the way life goes.’ Anyway, it didn’t set so well with my sister. But not so long after that my aunt died and left me her house. And I sold it to my sister for one dollar, and I told her, 'There. There’s your Rolex.'”

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

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Steer clear of THAT guy!

FRIDAY, MAY 12, 2006

8:58 a.m.--Gottingen and Dwight

, clear blue morning. Soft air, moist as a towelette. A woman about my age wheels a suitcase out of her house on Goetingen St. She’s flying to Portland, Oregon, where she is to lead a yoga workshop. She was born on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, has lived in the US since 1972, and these days leads tour groups of yoga students to places all over the world -- to Cuba, Marakesh, India...

I can hold up my end of a yoga conversation as long as it remains short and superficial. “Is it a particular kind of yoga?” I ask.

“It is taught by a wonderful master from India -- BKS Iyengar.”

I'm not over my head yet: “I once was roommates with a woman who studied with Iyengar,” I tell her.

“He is an old man now, but when you see him give a lecture he just comes alive. When he was a young man, he was poor and sick, and like so many people in India he had no access to health care, and he turned to yoga. Now you see him doing these incredible things, and teaching, and you recognize his deep love for yoga. His daughter, too -- she is almost 60 now. But they both show an endless love for yoga. I have been studying it since 1979, and teaching it for years now. Yoga has become very popular recently. Anyone who has no job thinks, ‘Well, I will take a two-week course and become a yoga instructor.' And any beginning yoga student will not know the difference between someone who has been studying for two weeks and someone who has been studying for 20 years. I can hardly wait for yoga to be not-so-popular any more, and only those of us who really know it will be left.”

10:55 a.m. -- United terminal, SFO

A TALL GUY with thinning blond hair like mine walks up to my cab. He’s in his fifties -- or maybe he’s already crossed the 60-yard line -- and the only luggage he is carrying is one letter-size, manila envelope.

“You’re one of the lightest travelers I’ve encountered.”

“It’s just a day trip from L.A.,” he says. “Up and back.”

He’s in banking. I tell him that all the business people I meet in my cab, especially the tech people, seem afraid of appearing irrationally exuberant, but each one says that his or her niche is doing well, and each claims to feel pretty confident about the future. “How’s the mood in L.A.?” I ask.


My fare says he's been in banking his whole career, and with Citi National for four years. "Before that," he says, "I spent some time with Bank of America and Security Pacific…”

“Shot in the dark...,” I say. “Did you ever run into a guy named Seth Leadbeater?”

There is silence from the back seat. I glance back. A grin is sliding across my fare's face. “Sure,” he says. “I know Seth.”

“Seth was my college roomate,” I say.

“Well...,” he says. “I knew him at Seck Pack. He’s back in the Midwest these days.”

“Commerce Bank. St Louis, Missouri," I say. "He’s the president.”

My fare says, “Seth and I exchanged emails on something not so long ago.”

Nowadays Leadbeater and I are political opposites, and I proceed delicately with his colleague. "Most people in the Bay Area are not big Bush fans," I say. "I’m not. But I’ve got about four people in my life who are, and I call them now and then, and ask how they’re feeling about the administration. [This week’s polls show 31 percent support for Bush -- lowest for any president since Nixon was driven from office.] Seth is one of them. I figure when I hear these guys start to sour on Bush, it’s all over, but not one of them has yet. Seth hadn’t turned when I talked to him about a month ago.”

“It doesn’t seem to matter which side you’re on,” says this man in my backseat, “the choices we have are not very appealing.”

I think: Republican. I ask: “Who shall I tell Seth I had in my cab?”

“Chris Warmouth,” he says.

“Are you the president at Citi National?”

“I am,” he says.

I drop him at the Citi National Bank office at 150 California, and immediately punch “Leadbeater” on my cell phone menu. His secretary tells me Seth’s on vacation and puts me through to his voicemail. I drop my voice low and serious, trying to sound presidential, entirely un-Newsham-like, and just a little alarmed:

“Seth, this is Chris Warmouth, Citi National Bank. I’m up here in San Francisco for the day, and I just got out of a cab driven by a fellow who claims he was your roommate in college. He is absolutely, rabidly anti-Bush. He talked my ear off from the moment I got into his cab until the moment I got out. He's quite a ranter. I would steer way, way clear of that guy if I were you.”

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

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Broken left clavicle

(A Friday during ski season)

TODAY THERE IS A HIGH LID of gray clouds clamped down over the city, but the air underneath is crystal clear. Coming across the Bay Bridge on my way to work, I note two beams of light that have managed to poke through to highlight Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower, splashes of green and red and silver blazing against the morning’s gray backdrop.

My fourth ride is a radio call, a youngish Asian woman from Pacific Heights, standing in front of her apartment building with an enormous black suitcase.

“I’m sorry it’s so heavy,” she says right off.

I lift it into the trunk, and say, “Oh, I’ve felt lots heavier.” And I have.

“I hope that’s what the airlines say,” she says, laughing, and then she has another apology: “But I’m sorry that I’m not going to the airport until this afternoon.”

I reassure her: “At the Academy, they drill us and drill us and drill us on trying to not get too excited when we see luggage. I’m usually pretty good about it, but when you mentioned ‘airlines’, I have to admit I got a little flushed. I’m over it now.”

Pretty soon we’re talking weather, and then I'm yacking about my daughter’s new infatuation with downhill skiing, which leads this woman to share a story about a guy who ran into her, quite literally, on a ski slope:

“I was skiing at Big Bear. I’m not a bad skier, but I’m not a great skier, and I came to a place were you could go over a jump or not. I didn’t -- he did. I skied around the jump, but he came flying over it. People all over the mountain said they heard the impact. My girlfriend was two chairlifts over, and she heard it. His ski hit the back of my left shoulder. But he was a good guy. He could easily have just skied away, but Ski Patrol took me down the hill in a basket, and he skied down behind us. When I was in the clinic, he told me he was the one who had hit me and he said how sorry he was, and was I okay? And at first I thought it wasn’t so bad -- it hurt, but I didn’t know it was broken until that night when I went to bed. My left clavicle...”

A shot of phantom pain seers through my collarbone region. “I broke my left clavicle in ninth grade,” I tell her. “Lying down or trying to get up out of bed was the worst part.”

“Getting up -- that was my worst..." she says. "He asked if I had insurance, and I said no -- but I said I was sure I was OK. But he said he’d really like my number anyway just to make sure. He really wasn’t looking for a date -- when I ski I don’t wear makeup, and my hair is just yanked back -- it’s not pretty. When he called I told him what had happened, that I'd actually broken my clavicle -- and he asked if he could pay my medical bills, but I told him no, and he said, 'Well at least let me take you to dinner.'

“It wasn’t long after that that I shocked my mother by telling her I was moving to Chicago, where he was from, and we were going to live together. I was only 21. We were together for four years. He was a sweet guy, but he wanted kids -- that’s something he was always interested in, and I wasn’t. Now he’s married and has two young kids.”

“Has your sentiment about having kids changed?”

“No, that hasn’t changed. Now I’m in a relationship with a wonderful man -- this afternoon I’m flying to Miami to take a cruise in the Western Carribean with him and his 14-year-old son. It’s been a privilege, really, getting to know him -- both of them -- but no, that hasn’t changed my sentiment at all. If anything, it’s strengthened it...”

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


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A brother with talent

1:08 p.m. -- Along the Powell Street Cable Car line, at Geary, the heart of Union Square

FOR THE PAST YEAR OR SO there has been a street guy working the area around Union Square. Actually, I’m not sure "street guy" is the best way to describe him. He’s too well-dressed and too clean to be “homeless”; too motivated and fit to be a “panhandler”; and nothing about him says “down and out.” "Entertainer" is probably more accurate.

He positions himself at street-corners busy with pedestrians, and performs a kind of handstand/headstand that is new to me. Before he tips his legs skyward, he places onto the sidewalk in front of him a contraption that looks like a large shock absorber -- it may be some sort of industrial spring, about one foot tall. Instead of planting the top of his head directly onto the concrete, this fellow positions it atop this spring. Much of the stress of his headstand is thus absorbed by the spring instead of by his neck, and he can stand there upside down and motionless for several minutes. Any passing tourist, any passing motorist, any passing cab driver, cannot help but be captivated.

Today I am stopped at the signal at Geary and Powell, window down, and there he is just off to my left. There are no conventions in town this week, and I imagine that he's not having a day to write home about. Through my open window I hear him say, in a voice that is even, but also disgusted: “I might as well be standing right side up shakin’ a paper cup! Doesn’t anyone have a buck for a brother with some talent?”

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


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Great bones

Sunday, May 7, 2006

12:59 p.m. -- Washington and Cherry -- It’s another beautiful Sunday, though not quite as warm as, not quite as ideal as last Sunday. Business is slow, and I've spent the last ten minutes chasing a radio call all the way from the Haight-Ashbury to Presidio Heights, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco. Old mansions line this block of Washington Street, and every other nearby block, too. Few of the residents here take cabs -- most have their own drivers.

Two strikingly handsome white folks in their early/mid thirties step from the curb when they see me coming. The woman is blond and slim and has a pleasant, amused smile on her face. She's wearing shades -- we’re getting toward summertime, the sun seems particularly high in the sky today, the world seems awfully bright -- and I can't see her eyes. "Hello," she says warmly. She seems to regard her beauty lightly, as though it’s a new toy she’s just been presented -- gift-wrapped, in bed, along with a steaming cup of coffee this very morning.

The man is tall, a cross between rangy and borderline buff. I imagine the two of them in the opening scenes of a movie: Reese Witherspoon’s convertible sports car breaks down in the desert. A half-mile in the distance she sees a ramshackle structure dancing in the heat waves. She’s sweating a bit by the time she hikes to it. A pair of blue jeans and work boots are sticking out from under a ’57 Chevy. “Excuse me,” she says. A scraping sound follows, as Jeff Bridges rolls out from under the car. He sits up, uses his corded forearm to smooth back a brown forelock, and looks up at his future. “Yes, ma’m. What can I do for ya'?”

In real life, after they tell me their destination (Russian Hill), I ask, “What are you two up to on this beautiful afternoon?”

“We were just at an open house,” the man says. “They’ve redone the place completely, and we wanted to see the design work.”

“Are either of you an architect or a designer?”

“No,” says the man, “but Josie’s great with design -- she’s a natural.”

They’re not ‘tumbleouts’ (people whose stories just pour out of them) but they don’t seem to mind my questions, and they take turns answering. They live in Phoenix now, but the woman used to live in San Francisco, in the Marina District, and she loved it here. When she’d hooked up with the man, they’d decided to “keep a place in San Francisco” and now they spend “several weekends a year here, mostly in the summer.” Their place on Russian Hill has a view of the Financial District and the Bay Bridge. In Phoenix they’re "working together on a project,” restoring a 100-year old adobe, hoping to get it back to it’s former glory. “It has great bones,” says the woman. The house sits on two and a half acres in an area that is a mix of residential and high-rise office development. This isn’t their first project together, but it’s their biggest so far. “This one is special,” says the woman.

“How many square feet?” I ask.

“Eight-five hundred,” she says.

The back of my head slams into the headrest, and both of them laugh. Rhonda, Sarah, and I live in a two-bedroom, one-bath house of 1300 square feet. “What kind of shape is it in?” I ask. “And was it empty?”

“No, there was a family living there. It’s in decent shape -- it’s just old,” says the woman.

“A family of how many?”

“Two,” says the man.

“Forty-two hundred and fifty square feet apiece!”

We’re in a friendly mood by the time we reach their place, which is a short stroll down to the cafes of North Beach, but a steep climb back up.

The man says, “We need to leave for the Oakland airport at 1:45.”

“I’d love to take you.”

1:44 p.m. -- Taylor and Broadway -- Thirty five minutes after I drop them, I’m back, pulling around the corner and turning up the hill toward their place. Ten seconds later Mr. Bridges comes out with a suitcase in either arm. He’s changed into blue jeans and a white tee-shirt -- pretty casual dress for a plane ride, but then they are headed for the desert heat. Ms. Witherspoon is wearing a sleeveless black top. She smiles and gives me another warm, “Hello.” She’s gorgeous. I can barely look at her.

I feel badly about having grilled them so mercilessly during their first ride, and now I’m silent as we cruise down the hill, follow Columbus through North Beach to the Financial District, and head for the Bay Bridge. They’re quiet too, at first, and then they start talking in lowered voices about a building they’ve been keeping their eyes on. The woman happened by it yesterday and saw it listed for sale. “Two-point-three,” she says, “which seems about right.” He murmurs agreement. And they fall silent.

Cab drivers heading out from SF and across one of the surrounding bridges are supposed to inform a fare, before leaving the city, that the fare is responsible for the return bridge toll. I usually do just that, but as soon as I hear the "two-point-three" I just don’t have the heart. It seems so petty. For the sake of my own imagined dignity, I’ll eat the $3 bridge toll. I stay silent until we’ve almost passed through the tunnel at Yerba Buena Island, halfway across the Bay, and then I ask:

“How did you two meet?”

They do what most people do when asked this question: they laugh.

“In a revolving door,” the woman says.


“Yes,” she says, tickled at the very thought of it. “No fooling.”

“Where was the revolving door?”

“At a hotel in LA,” says the man.

“Were you headed in the same direction or opposites?”

“Opposites,” says the man.

“So you just kept revolving and followed her?”

She answers for him: “He did. I was leaving, heading back to San Francisco. I had already checked out and my bags were in a taxi out front. Terry said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, 'San Francisco.' He said, 'You’re not going anywhere.’ And I had the valet get my bags out of the trunk.”

They’re laughing again. And I’m liking this story a lot: “That’s pretty much verbatim?”

“Pretty much verbatim,” says the man. “Actually I said, ‘until you have lunch with me’.”

I try to imagine myself saying something remotely like this to a woman I don’t know, and I know I never will. Or at least I never have. I say, “This was the first time you met?”

The woman: “We’d actually seen each other briefly the day before, around the pool. We’d talked just a little. I was with someone else...”

“A man? Or another woman?”

“A man. Terry says he didn’t even notice my bikini...” -- she’s getting a kick out of telling this part -- “he noticed my ‘energy.'”

I say, “There IS such a thing as 'bikini energy.'” But I do understand completely what other things Terry might have noticed. “Where was the hotel?”

“The Mondrian Hotel -- on Sunset,” the woman says. “It was the hot place then, where young people would go to meet.”

“When was this?”

She says, “Seven years ago.”

“What day?”

Both of them at once: “July fifteenth.”

“Well, congratulations.”

The woman: “I think we’ve probably lasted a little over the average of most people who meet at the Mondrian.”

I point over my shoulder at her. “How did you feel, what did you think, when he said, ‘You’re not going anywhere’?”

“I loved it!” At 'loved,' her voice rises higher, to a delighted and delightful squeak. "I LOVED it!"

She continues: “Here’s what he actually said: ‘The girl from the pool.’ And I said: ‘The boy from the pool.’ He said: ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘San Francisco.’ And he said, ‘You’re not going anywhere until you have lunch with me.’ And after lunch he just kept finding other things that I had to do before I could leave. I didn’t make it out of LA until the next day.”

I say: “You know him now. Is that typical of how he is?”

“Exactly. If he wants something, he goes after it.”

I point over my shoulder toward him. “Did you surprise yourself? Did you have it rehearsed or anything.”

“Entirely spontaneous,” he says. “I don’t think those things work any other way.”

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


Monday, May 08, 2006

I'm so gay it's not funny!

April 28, 2006

11 a.m. — Van Ness and Market Streets, office of the San Francisco Taxi Commission

EACH SPRING, in order to prove that they're still alive, all San Francisco taxicab permit holders must appear in person at the Taxicab Commission to sign an affidavit, present a picture ID, and surrender a right thumbprint. I usually wait until the very last day of the deadline, as it is the one day when I can count on running into old-timer, permit-holding friends I haven't seen in a year or so, noted procrastinators all of us. But I’m not scheduled to work on deadline day this year, won't be making the trip across the Bay Bridge and into the City, and so I'm here at the Taxi Commission office one week early, with my cab parked -- legally, at a meter -- out at the curb. Next Friday this place'll be packed, but today I’m the only permit holder in the office. A young woman, a Taxi Commission newcomer, shows me where to sign, helps me ink my thumb, gives me a towel to wipe off, and I'm all done -- good for another year.

11:13 a.m. — Market and Franklin — Around the corner from the Taxi Commission I see a guy waving from the sidewalk. He’s a short white guy in his late twenties, with a black baseball hat pushed way back on his head. The hair on top of his head is dark and stubbly, indistinguishable from his six-day old beard. The odd detail: he’s holding a paper bag full of groceries high in the crook of one arm -- too high -- it's almost up under his armpit and he's squeezing it the way one might squeeze a squirming poodle.

I comment on the clear weather, the warmish temps –- no turtleneck for me today.

“We earned this,” he says, still resenting the record rains we endured in March. And then his story tumbles out: “I left Cleveland, Ohio, to escape winter. Joined the Air Force, but they pulled a dirty trick –- sent me right back to Dayton, Ohio. They made me an MP and sent me undercover into gay bars to try to find Air Force people in there. This was before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.' In every military installation, they keep a list of local places –- bars and clubs -– you can’t go into. So they’d send me in to see if there were any of our guys hanging out. But before I could go in, I always had to show my military ID to the management -- that’s the regulation -- and the bouncer would call ahead to the bartender and the DJ, who would crank down the music and turn down all the house lights and then shine a spotlight on me and say, ‘Anyone in the military, that guy in the spotlight is undercover -- in just a minute we’re going to turn the lights back on, and you’re not going to be here any more.’

"And of course while the spotlight’s blasting in my face I can’t see a thing -- I'm blind -- and when they turn the house lights on again there’s not a military guy within blocks of the place. In two months on the job I never turned in even one person. This was when I was still in denial. I’m so gay it’s not funny, but I didn’t know it yet. I only wound up in the Air Force because in high school I drove a girlfriend to the recruiting office, and the recruiter -- he was good -- he talked me into it. Signed us both up. Two for one. First, though, he asked my GPA [grade point average] and it was 1.85 [way low] and he said ‘Well, there’s no point’ but I said ‘Let’s give it a shot anyway’ and then I tested off the charts -- especially in math. He said, ‘Well, you’re one of the few with a low GPA and a high IQ.’ Well, duh! Anyone with any IQ at all is going to be bored out of their skull by a Cleveland public high school. So here I am, back in the same Ohio I ran away from, and my supervisor's this hot, hot black woman -- she's an Air Force canine handler -- and she is always hitting on me. And I’m still in denial but my body knows and I could never have slept with her...”

“Do you think a heterosexual man would have found her attractive?”

“A heterosexual man would have definitely found her attractive -- you, definitely! She was military, and a canine handler, but my god she was not ugly. And she’s always hitting on me -- when it all blew up she got in trouble for that. When she finally got that I wasn’t interested, she says, ‘If you’re not fucking me, you’re definitely gay!’ And she sends me to our commander, and tells him, ‘He is definitely gay!’ And the commander -- since the time I'd enlisted, 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' had started -- and the commander says, ‘I’m not asking you, so don’t tell me -- but get the fuck outta here!’ And so I pretty much had to leave. The funny thing was, my supervisor and I were good friends. She and I had so much in common. We were basically the same.”

“How do you mean?”

“Black women and gays -- they’re the same.”

“The same? Like how?”

“We get along like brothers and sisters. Or like just sisters.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know why. But I promise you...”

At the corner of Sutter and Hyde I sit behind the wheel and watch him walk down the sidewalk with his sack of groceries squeezed up high on his chest again. He’s wearing big droopy Levi's shorts that reach below his knees -- his bare calves are thick and stubby. His black baseball cap is pushed so far toward the back of his skull that its bill is sticking straight up in the air like a cockeyed tiara. He’s got something the size and shape of a golf ball, a digital gizmo of some sort, hanging from a long silver chain that dangles loose from his belt -- it bangs against his knee with each step. His walk is just a bit off -- his feet don’t track straight ahead, but make loopy little flicks to the outside before coming back toward the middle to land.

He’s thirty yards down the sidewalk now, and apparently his groceries must be slipping -- he gives a little skip, a quick mid-stride leap and shake, and using his whole body he skooches the bag just a little bit higher. This part of Sutter Streeet is downhill for him, and his hop/skip is so vigorous that, for the oh-so-briefest of instants, both of his green Converse basketball shoes lose contact with the cement. And for a fraction of a second he is airborn, he's floating, just above the Sutter Street sidewalk, on a balmy day in San Francisco.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

You'll never look at the Bridge the same way again

(NOTE: For decades now, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Golden Gate Bridge District have held numerous debates about whether or not to install a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. And in 2006, they're having such debates again, in earnest. I can not hear about this debate without recalling a fare, described below, that I had nearly 20 years ago. )

AROUND MIDNIGHT on a Saturday night someone at the Golden Gate Bridge calls for a taxi, and the dispatcher assigns me the order. When I arrive, my headlights illuminate a short, fit-looking man stepping from the shadows near the flagpole. He looks about 35 years old, has thick dark toussled hair, and is game-show-host-handsome. He gives an address in Bernal Heights, five miles away.

“Car break down?” I ask.


“Miss the last bus?”


“Mind if I ask what brings you out here at midnight?”

It takes him a while to respond, but it’s worth the wait -- not just a one-word but a five-word answer: “I come here for inspiration.”

Inspiration from the Bridge! -- I know all about this... My favorite solution for writer’s block is to bicycle to mid-bridge and from just five feet away stare into the eyes of hundreds of commuters flashing past at 50 mph -- and then pedal back home and get to work.

“Are you a writer?” I ask.

Slowly: “I’m a painter.”

I know nothing about painting, but the litmus test for all creatives is the same: “Do you make your living at it?”

This answer arrives perceptibly quicker: “For about ten years now.”

“Congratulations,” I say. I’ve got about $100 in my bank account.

A long silence follows, and then finally he just gives it up: “OK. I’ll tell you. The bridge has a crew of workers that paints the bridge all year long. It takes them about a year and a half to go from one end to the other, and then they start all over again. There’s a big steel platform on wheels attached to the bottom side of the bridge. It’s about the size of a railroad car. They roll it along so that it’s always beneath whatever section they’re painting. There is a huge net underneath in case a tool falls -- or a worker.

“Every other year or so I find myself unable to paint, and I can feel a trip to the bridge coming on. On a Saturday afternoon I leave home and start walking. On the way I stop and have a nice dinner, a glass of the best wine in the house. When I get to the bridge, I go out to whatever part of the bridge has the platform underneath it, and the net, and I climb over the side and down under the bridge to the platform. I crawl up as high as I can and cling like a bat to the superstructure under the roadway, and hang there with my back to the water...”

I interrupt him: “Man! Right below the traffic?”

“Tires are pounding away just a couple feet above me. When I’m ready, I let go. It’s a twenty-foot drop, or maybe more. I lie there in the net letting my mind re-set. I watch the ships heading for Japan all lit up, the searchlight from Alcatraz, the moon over Berkeley. Then I climb out. Sometimes I walk back home, sometimes I call a cab.”

“And it always works?”

“Never fails. I always get my inspiration. Sometimes I get it even before the net catches me -- tonight was good -- but sometimes it doesn’t come for a couple of days. But, no, it never fails.”

We don’t speak again for many, many blocks. “Wouldn’t you hate it,” I finally ask, “if they put up a suicide barrier?”

He laughs. “I think I just might have to kill myself.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

If you see me, please wave

(This was written when I was still a night cab driver--since August 2004 I've been a day driver)

In 1982, just after we'd deposited all our possessions in San Francisco, my then-wife and I took a six-month trip backpack trip around the world. For week after week we wandered through exotic cities, beaches, and mountain ranges. Life with a capital L.

We had spent the previous decade living in the Rockies, but when we returned to the States we relocated to San Francisco, a place I had never lived before but which I had always liked visiting.

My most marketable skill was typing, and now I found work as a secretary on the eighteenth floor of a forty-story high-rise downtown. In contrast to the freedom of the Road, I now felt like a prisoner. During morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks I would ride the elevator down to the street, bolt outdoors, and gulp the fresh Bay air.

One day, I arrived at and realized that I had left my wallet at home. In mid-morning I caught a bus toward our apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district. Riding up Market Street, looking out the bus window, I saw dozens of casually dressed people, strolling, chatting, walking dogs, sorting through the bins full of fruits and vegetables in neighborhood produce shops. In scores of coffee shops I saw hundreds of people lounging, reading newspapers, pontificating, scribbling in notebooks. There was a long line of people in front of a movie theater showing first-run movies from 9 a.m. onward. Who were these people? And more importantly, how could I become one of them?

A few months later my wife asked for a divorce. I quit my secretary job and started working as a night cab driver. I’ve been behind the wheel for over twenty years now. If you pass the café where I have my mid-morning coffee, please wave. I’ll understand.

Friday, May 05, 2006


May 5, 2006

12:30 -- Vallejo and Columbus, the heart of North Beach -- The Pyramid Building juts into a foggy sky off to my left, and to my right a thirtyish blonde woman is waving for a cab.

“I’m going up near Coit Tower,” she says from the back seat, and then her cell phone rings. I can hear a female voice through her earpiece. “The bad news,” my fare tells her, “is my grandfather died last night. The good news is I’m not going to miss Mexico... I come back from the funeral Thursday night, and we fly to Cabo on noon Friday, so I'm cutting it close, but I’ll make it. No, I’m fine, really -- I hardly cried at all. I think it was because there’ve been so many false alarms. But it really hit me when I called for my bereavement fare and the clerk asked me for the name of the deceased. That’s when I lost it a little bit… that’s when it was suddenly real...”

I think about making this my free ride for the day -- the ultimate bereavement fare -- but the woman talks all the way to her door, right near the place where the movie “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” was filmed. It would be awkward to interrupt her to tell her about my little free-ride tradition, and in fact I never get the chance. Still talking, she gives me a ten for a $4.60 fare, mouths ‘Thank You,’ and she’s gone...

I swing through the parking lot at Coit Tower. Even with the fog, I can still see the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge, and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Last Sunday’s sunshine, the perfect afternoon at Ocean Beach with my wife and daughter and mother-in-law seems like a long time ago.

I’ve almost hit my money goals for the day -- just another two or three short fares will do it, but it’s getting late in the shift and I still haven’t given away a free ride. It’s no big deal if I don’t give away a ride every single day -- it’s my own little tradition, there’s no one it matters to except me. But when I say to people, 'Every shift, for over a decade now, I’ve given away one free ride...' well, I want to be telling the truth. The literal truth is that there have probably been two or three or four or maybe even five shifts where it just hasn’t worked out for me to give away a ride (it’s not as easy as most people might think), but we’re talking at least a thousand shifts here, and during some of those shifts I’ve given away ten or fifteeen free rides, so, you can keep score however you want, if you want...

12:45 -- Green and Hyde, Russian Hill -- Today's dispatcher, David, sends me to an address along the Hyde Street cable car line to pick up one of our regulars, an older guy who walks very slowly, very laboriously, with two forearm-braced crutches and with an assistant who walks behind him and keeps a grip on the man’s belt to steady him or to propel him forward as the occasion requires. The assistant and I team up to help the man into the cab: I open the rear door, and the assistant and I position ourselves at the man's opposite elbows and maneuver him down off the sidewalk a couple of inches at a time; we turn him around so that he's standing, facing away from the cab, with his rear end hovering over the backseat; he lowers himself until his thighs can't support his weight anymore; and finally drops down onto the seat, making a plop/whoosh sound upon landing.

We talk about the weather, grumbling about all of March’s record rainfall and today’s clouds, but we revel in the fading memory of last Sunday’s intoxicating sunshine. This fare always pays with city-issued paratrasit scrip (it’s the same as cash when presented to a cab driver), and I typically reserve my free rides for people paying with their own money. I drop the man and his assistant at a medical office near Nob Hill, tell them I’ll see them another day, and cruise toward Nob Hill...

1 p.m. -- California and Jones, atop Nob Hill -- From a full block away I see the Huntington Hotel’s doorman standing out in the middle of the street, and I hear his whistle. There’s a woman standing on the sidewalk behind him. I hit the gas and flash my headlights twice, and the doorman flashes me back a thumbs up. The signal at Taylor goes red just before I reach it, and I have to hit the brakes. While I’m stopped at the light, waiting, poised, another cab cruises up California from the opposite direction. The other driver has probably heard the whistle, too, and now he whips an (illegal) U-turn and stops in front of the Huntington's doorman, just thirty or forty yards in front of me. But the doorman waves him off, shrugging, and pointing toward me: 'Sorry, bro -- I’ve already got a binding visual contract with that driver over there...' My competitor slinks slowly away, back down California Street in the direction from which he’d come.

The signal goes green. As I’m rolling up I see, for the first time, the pile of luggage at the woman’s feet. Airport -- forty bucks!

“Pop your trunk, driver,” says the doorman. “SFO.”

I don’t much appreciate the doorman brotherhood. Most of the hotel doormen in San Francisco run a cruel racket on cab drivers -- if they allow an airport fare into your cab, they expect a tip of at least one dollar from you. Some doormen charge in the $8-10 range -- what sort of warped self-image does someone on the next-to-last rung of the tourist industry have after a lifetime of extorting money from those of us on the bottom rung? Any hotel with classy management -- and the Huntington is one of the classiest -- puts a stop to this thievery the minute they hear complaints from cab drivers. But there are very few classy hotels in San Francisco, and the doormen and the management at the city’s two Hiltons, three Marriots, all four of the Hyatts, and countless other supposedly professional, quality places, have front doors that are as corrupt as your average White House administration.

The Huntington doorman helps me load the woman’s luggage, and snorts when he spots the Impeach Bush placard resting in the bottom of my trunk. “We get our share of Bush fans around this joint,” he says.

“It’s a free country,” I say, but still, I angle the placard so that the woman standing a few feet away can't read it. Somethings are best left unsaid.

“In twenty years of cab driving,” I tell the doorman, “this is only the third time I’ve ever tipped a doorman.” I peel two ones off my wad and give them to him. “Thanks for what you did.”

“You don’t need to,” he says, “but thanks. And her husband will be right out.”

They’re in their early thirties, I’m guessing, younger and more casually dressed than the typical Huntington clientele. They're easy to talk with and seem not at all full of themselves. By the time we’ve dropped the ten downhill blocks to Market Street I’ve learned they were both born and still live in Houston; she left the business world (accountant for a national firm) to become a public school kindergarten teacher; he is a commercial real estate broker (the Houston market is hot, but not, he says, as hot as the San Francisco and D.C. markets, which are the hottest markets in the country). They arrived last Sunday, our perfect weather day, and they spent most all of their time this week in the wine country. Their favorite area was the Russian River valley, and their favorite winery was Porter Creek. The cardboard box sitting on top of my Impeach Bush placard holds four bottles of their favorite Porter Creek wine.

I have numerous practiced, still-evolving raps that I have honed during conversations with passengers. I rotate them, add new ones to my repertoire from time to time, drop old ones. One that I’ve been voicing quite a bit lately is my rap about all the liars I encountered in Texas when I was serving eight months of hard labor (asphalt paving) in Dallas in 1971-73. It’s absolutely incorrect and stupid to generalize about, to indict, the entire population of a state -- and the truth is, at different times in my life I’ve been best of friends with maybe a dozen different Texans -- but, even thirty-some years after the fact, I’m still amazed at how many people I met in Dallas who seemed to relish looking me in the eye (this was a crucial part of their game), invoking the name of the lord (equally crucial), and then telling me some of the biggest whopping, and frequently vicious, lies I’d ever heard. And often, after the fact, I would find out that these scalawags had sought me out, and had all along had the conscious intention of feeding me these lies. I was but twenty years old, young, green, naïve (at 54 I'm more seasoned, but pretty much just as naïve), and I found myself defenseless against this tactic. Exactly what sort of human being are you if you can look people in the eye, get all red in the face by gawd, and lie so blatantly -- and with such throbbing enthusiasm? I came to regard this heated bluster as a form of regional sport, a popular competition -- not engaged in by everyone in Texas, of course, but by more than enough of them to make a visitor wonder about his sanity. And now that one of their regional lying champions has been elected, first as governor, and then later as President of the United States... Well, I didn’t think this particular cab ride was the best time to launch into my rap about Texan liars, including the crew from Houston’s Enron Corporation, who robbed us Californians blind a few years ago, before their tower of lies tumbled into bankruptcy...

“Have you been to San Francisco before?” I ask.

The woman: “I was here once, briefly, on business.”

The man: “This is my first time.”

“Do you two travel a lot?”

They share a quick laugh. “Actually,” says the woman, “this is our honeymoon.”

Their wedding was six days earlier, on Saturday, and they flew into San Francisco on our perfect Sunday. All of their siblings and cousins and everyone else in their extended families came to the wedding -- 160 people in all. “We didn’t really get to talk to anyone,” says the woman.

The man says, “We’ve spent the last week asking each other, ‘Did you see so-and-so?’”

The woman says she is looking forward to getting back to her class of four- and five-year olds, all of whom speak English as a second language. “For months they’ve all been asking if they can call me Ms. Parker yet. They didn’t really understand until I brought in a calendar and marked our wedding date -- but then it made sense to them. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss them.”

“Teachers are the real heroes,” I say, and I launch into another of my raps, the one about how, when I became a parent, I quickly learned just how over-archingly important it was -- and still is -- to be able to each day send your kid off to people you know will respect, nurture, educate, and protect that kid.

I briefly flirt with the idea of a free ride. A teacher on her honeymoon... But in my decade-plus of free rides, only four or five have been airports. It's against my loose, unenforced, unenforceable policy. Forty bucks is a lot of money, and besides, these guys are probably flush with wedding cash.

As we pass Candlestick Park, the man asks if that is where the 49ers play football. “I’ve seen it on Monday Night Football, the shots from the blimp with the downtown and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Beautiful.”

We talk earthquakes -- I tell them my wife and I were sitting down the first-base line at Candlestick, waiting for Game 3 of the 1989 World Series to start, when a 7.0 earthquake struck, killing 70 some people in the Bay Area, and postponing Game Three for 10 days. “Do you ever have tremors in Houston?” I ask.

“Never. But we dodged a bullet with Hurricane Rita last year,” says the man. “It looked like it was coming right for Houston, but at the last minute it veered over toward the Texas-Louisiana border.”

The woman says: “We had all the people from my family in one house just in case something really bad happened. We played cards, had drinks, went to bed, and then in the morning we saw just a few downed limbs. All we had to do was clean up the mess from our party.”

As we near the terminal the man says, “This ride is quite a bit cheaper than the one we had coming in from the airport.”

The meter reads $33.(something?). “How much cheaper?” I ask.

“That one was nearly fifty dollars.”

“I hate that,” I say. "That driver cheated you.”


I explain that if a driver knows he has newcomers in his cab, he can take a looping route into the city, adding four miles and about $12 to the fare, and all along the way his passengers will see reassuring freeway signs indicating SAN FRANCSICO is eight, then five, then three miles away. “But in twenty years of cab driving, I’ve only heard two drivers admit to doing this. Most of us would never even consider it. I’m so sorry. Do you remember anything about him?”

“Well,” says the woman, "he was just... kind of quiet.”

In front of Continental Airlines the meter reads $34.(price?). The honeymooners gather themselves on the curb, checking tickets, counting belongings, while I pull out their two suitcases, two duffels, and the box of Porter Creek wine from off of my Impeach Bush placard, and place everything on the curb. The man steps toward me with a single bill, a fifty-dollar bill I can see, but as he begins to speak I press my palms together at my chest, say, “Folks, you have a great life together. I’m not taking any money for this one.”

I’m sure they will recover quickly; I’m sure that before long they will have some fun reconstructing our conversation between themselves, but my exit is a quick one. Three steps and I’m at the driver’s side door. Across the top of the cab I give them a quick grin.

They are both leaning forward, toward me, a picture of shock. They are also leaning in toward each other, as though for support or for a consultation. Their faces are barely six inches apart and as white as if they've spent the last week without emerging from their hotel room. Their mouths are hanging open -- actually hanging open -- and the two of them are so close together that their open mouths form a sideways figure-eight. I think: "Same expression I'd expect to see if I'd pulled a gun on them."

“Are you sure?” the man asks.

“Absolutely...” I say.

My wife tells me that I laugh at inappropriate times. She speculates that it’s an odd form of release for me. I’m not sure what’s appropriate in this particular situation, but now I’m alone in the cab, and it’s my cab anyway, dammit, and I’m almost back to Candlestick before I can stop myself from laughing.