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.


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