Saturday, October 27, 2007

Riding the crest of my latte...

FRIDAY MORNING -- First Ride -- 16th and Folsom

It’s still a few minutes until 7 a.m, and I’m not actually mentally prepared for customers just yet. Four or five thin quills of light -- orange and blood-red -- have formed a series of hairline cracks in the eastern sky, but a purple darkness still rules.

I'm stopped for the red light at Sixteenth and Folsom. A warm, half-eaten Noah’s bagel with tomatoes and mushrooms and spinach is spread out on a wrapper on the seat beside me. My fingers are curled around a Peet's Coffee paper cup containing a hot latte with a tiny dash of hazelnut and another tiny dash of vanilla.

(I picked up the latte habit about two months ago, and every time I buy one I can’t quite believe it -- including tip each latte costs $5! And now I’m buying one of these things at least two or three mornings a week, and sometimes I go back in the afternoon for another. It’s an expensive habit, a hundred bucks a month or more, and I think about how far $100 would go in the socalled Third World, say in a village in the mountains of the Phillipines. But I love these drinks -- love the taste, love the buzz. The Dalai Lama has famously said, “My religion is kindness.” Well, I certainly do aspire to be Dalai Lama-ish myself someday, but truth be told, presently there is no religious debate in my life. Each and every morning my religion is COFFEE!)

Rush hour won't kick in for another half hour, and I’m not at all expecting to find a fare out here on this quiet, brooding, semi-industrial, old-warehouse-filled section of the Mission District. Nonetheless, in the corner of my right eye, over toward the sidewalk, I see a faint glimmer -- something pale -- moving slowly back and forth. It takes a moment to interpret the data, but then it registers that this is the palm of a young man's hand. He has understood that I can't easily see him in the early morning dimness, so he's leaned down from the curb and is slowly rotating his open hand, which is incrementally lighter than his clothes and the rest of him, and now he's caught my eye.

As he's settling in, he says, “Seventh and Folsom, please." Most of the young dark-haired guys I pick up during mornings in the Mission have thick, or sometimes less-thick, Latino accents. They’re most often headed to restaurant jobs downtown or at the Wharf or in the Marina or the Upper Fillmore, and they often seem a little tentative, as I would be, no doubt, if I found myself living in a culture other than the one where I was born and raised. But this guy’s accent is absolutely mainstream, even kind of polished -- the voice of a native -- and in those first four words I hear a deep confidence.

I place my latte in the dashboard cup holder, slide aside my bagel and wrapper to uncover my clipboard and waybill, and, per SFPD Taxicab Detail regulations, I jot down the time (“6:55 a.m.”), the trip’s origin (“16/Fols”) and destination (“7/Fols”).

“What’s your day hold?” I ask my fare.

“I’m headed to work.” There is a definite eagerness in his voice. Maybe he’s already had a latte of his own.

“What’s your work?”

“I’m a residential counselor,” he says.

“What’s that mean exactly?”

“I’m a counselor to 15-to-18 year olds who’ve wound up in the junvenille detention system -- at the jail, at halfway houses, and at a couple of other city facilities, too.”

“Do you like your work?”

“Very much.”

“What’s your background?” When I ask this standard question of mine, most people tell me where they went to school and what they studied.

My fare says, “What do you mean?”

“How’d you get credentialed for this job?”

Without hesitation, and with a chuckle: “Life.”

“Ah,” I say. “The best teacher…”

“The best teacher,” he echoes. “I didn’t get a diploma, but Life has credentialed me. I’ve been fully stamped, endorsed, certified, validated, graduated…”

He’s got me chuckling along with him now. I can imagine the teenagers he works with finding themselves instantly at ease with him, falling naturally into his orbit. And I imagine that he can, and does, with complete credibility, tell them, “I’ve been where you are, brother. I know what you’re going through. There IS a way forward. I’ve walked it, bro.”

“I’m fifty-six,” I say. “May I ask how old you are?”


"Twenty-three," I echo. Even younger than I'd have guessed. “Absolutely GREAT time of life, as I remember.”

“I’m liking the way things are working out right now,” he says. “My boss has an MFT -- a Marriage and Family therapist degree -- and a couple of other degrees, too, and I imagine I’ll have to start getting those things to continue in this field. If you want to advance -- and I do -- you need the paper. But right now I’m just doing the work and enjoying it. I see people come out of school with degrees, and… well... they... well…”

“I imagine you’re way ahead of them,” I say.

“I do think some of them have learned some things from me,” he admits.

It’s been a short, sweet ride. Already we’ve traveled the nine blocks down Folsom and are sitting at the red light at Seventh Street. As soon as the signal goes green I will cross the intersection and drop him on the far side, where he’ll get out, walk a block and a half up Seventh (Seventh is one-way here, and by having me drop him right here my fare has shaved three blocks from the route and has saved himself at least 45, or maybe 90, cents on the meter) to start his day at the San Francisco City and County Jail.

I’m staring at the signal, waiting, thinking what a great start to my own day this has been, when this polite young twenty-three year old in my back seat asks, “How long have you been driving a cab?”

I say, “This is my twenty-third year…”

There’s an almost-audible ‘Ding!’ sound inside the cab. I hear it, my fare hears it -- if you’d been in the cab you’d have heard it, too -- I swear! A smile rips across my face and I turn around and see that my fare’s face also has a great big smile. We both know the next line in this script. It’s sitting right there, as clear as the traffic signal. It’s MY line, but even though we’ve never rehearsed, my fare knows exactly what words are coming -- and now he’s waiting, grinning, amused in advance. My line is so completely obvious, and even though it’s not completely true, I absolutely have to deliver it. Life demands this scrap of dialogue from me…

I deepen my voice a register and try to affect a gravelly, seen-it-all, tough-guy tone. I look him in the eye, and even though I haven't yet opened my mouth I can see that he's almost laughing out loud. I crank up my speaking volume, and I say it: “I’ve been out here driving this rig every day since you were born, KID!”

And now we’re both roaring. Six-fifty-nine a.m. and we’re sitting at the traffic light at Seventh and Folsom, a block and a half from the City and County Jail, just howling at each other, our bodies rocking backward and forward. If you were a cop standing on the corner and witnessing this unlikely scene, your instinct would be to investigate.

A few seconds later we’ve cleared the intersection and have stopped at the curb. He extends green currency in my direction, but I wave him off. “Free ride!” I say.

“Oh, no way...!” he says, and pushes the bills closer toward me.

“It’s my little tradition,” I tell him.

About 15 years ago, when I started this tradition, I used to debate with myself: “Should it be THIS person? Or should I wait? Maybe there’ll be a ‘better’ one later on...?” But over the years I’ve learned to let my body decide, and there’s been no debate this morning -- my body congress has reached a unanimous, filibuster-proof, final decision. “Every day I give away one free ride, and today you’re it...”

“You can’t do that!” he says. “You gotta make a living...!” But his smile is huge.

I reach past him, yank the latch and throw open the back door. “Out!” I say. “In the next half-hour you’re gonna run into at least a dozen people who need that money worse than either of us. Give it to one of them.” Checkmate! The door is gaping, wide open at his elbow. The rest of his day awaits him, out there on the sidewalk...

He throws his head back in involuntary surrender. “Aghh!” he screams. He's laughing.

“Aghh,” I scream back. Laughing.

As I pull away, I’m about popping out of my skin...

“Oh, man!” I say aloud to my latte, which has found its way back into my hand. “Who’s next?”

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

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