"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 ---------------------------------