“Ever had a black eye before?”
SUNDAY, Oct 5, 2008
RIDE # 1 -- 25th and Potrero -- 6:25 a.m.
My first fare has four heavy suitcases and is heading to SFO, but she’s not sure if she’s flying to Detroit today or to Delaware. “I’ve been traveling so much lately," she explains, rummaging in her purse. "I know it starts with a D. If I can find my itinerary, I can tell you.”
I say: “Oh, I’m just making conversation. You don’t have to find it for me.”
“I just got back from Atlanta yesterday morning. I’m a trainer of trainers for Paul Mitchell Hair Systems. Paul Mitchell is opening 100 new stores around the country, and I train the people who train the hair stylists who use the products. Let’s see. Here it is. I’m going to Detroit. Actually... Dearborn, Michigan.”
To become a licensed hair stylist (or a barber) in California requires 2,000 hours of training, a fact that always amazes me. I tell my fare: “When I started driving a cab, I had to attend a four-hour class given by the police department and, at the end, pass a simple written test.” (Back in 1985, many cab driver applicants, most of them recent immigrants, told me they slipped the instructor a $20 bill: a t.i.p -- To Insure Passing)
I continue: “And suddenly I was a licensed cab driver. Four hours for a cab driver, 2,000 for a hair stylist. Now if a hair stylist messes up, someone has a bad hair day, but if a cab driver messes up, it can be life-altering.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s good. I’m going to remember that.”
RIDE # 2 -- North Beach -- 8:32 a.m.
Sunday mornings can be deathly slow. Back in the City, I grab a bagel and a cup of vanilla/hazelnut coffee at Noah’s Bagels near Potrero Hill, then roll through the Mission to the Castro (the police have barricaded the street, vendors are setting up for today’s Castro Street Fair) and then downtown (all the hotels have long lines of cabs out front) and over through North Beach (about 50 Chinese are doing tai-chi in Washington Square) to the Marina (scattered young professionals, most of them male, are pushing strollers and cuddling coffee cups) and then, just for fun, out to the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s wearing a thin fuzz of fog today). Back to the Marina, back downtown, on and on… One can drive a long way on a Sunday morning in San Francisco, when the streets are empty and no one’s out looking for a cab, no one's calling...
I finally give up and head for the Wharf, to watch the runners in KFOG's annual Bridge-to-Bridge Run stagger along the waterfront. As I’m turning from Colombus onto Mason, I stop for a pedestrian passing through the crosswalk. He strikes me as out-of-place: the clubs have all been closed for many hours, but he is still dressed for a night of jazz-joint hopping. His brown hair is slicked straight back. He’s wearing a turtleneck -- probably not a full turtleneck, just a turtle-collar, I tell myself. Also, slacks and a sport-coat that are two different shades of gray-green -- maybe it was the closest thing to a suit he could find in his closet. And black loafers, not shiny.
At first he doesn’t see me (and he doesn’t seem to hear my motionless, noiseless Prius), but then he turns. His movements are slow, stiff -- instead of turning directly toward me, he turns the “wrong” way, so that his body makes a complete revolution (a couple of moments later I will understand this awkwardness), and then he raises an index finger toward me. After one hour and 50 minutes, my ride drought has ended.
He’s headed to the Marina District, and I again aim the cab back toward the Golden Gate Bridge. “How are you this beautiful morning?” I ask.
“I got jumped by some black guys last night.” He says these words distractedly, and I instinctively disbelieve them. They sound rehearsed, prepared -- a sort of racist shorthand that any fellow white person, and certainly a white cab driver, should unquestionably swallow. I imagine that he's actually suffered some embarrassing incident he doesn't feel like revisiting, so he's lobbed this at me instead.
“Where’d it happen?” I ask.
“Back over that way.”
“Did you see it coming?”
“No.” He seems particularly distracted now.
I glance at the rearview, and I see that my fare has positioned himself so that he can study his face in the mirror, which the two of us are now sharing. For the first time, I see that his left eye is swollen completely shut. The area around the socket is puffed up into a perfect roundness, as though, somehow, exactly half a ping pong ball has been slipped over it. A thin black line, a horizontal slit, stretches across the exact middle of this swollen eye -- it looks like someone with a ruler and a thin-tipped Sharpie has carefully inked it in. The damage is very fresh: the surrounding skin is still flesh-toned, not discolored, but oh, very soon that's gonna change.
His story still rings false to me, and instantly I invent two alternate versions, both involving a woman. In the first version, my fare is standing at the bar in a jazz club sometime last evening, ordering his fourth martini, when he impulsively suggests something snappy to a young woman who appears at his elbow, a young woman whose nearby boyfriend takes immediate fistic exception…
The second version: to my fare’s surprise and delight, he has awakened in bed this morning, maybe just fifteen minutes ago, beside a young woman he met just last night, and now this woman, sobering up, seeing my fare in her bed, wants him gone; he wants something more, please. Pointed discussion. Short wrestling match. Woman grabs clock-radio from nightstand and smacks my fare in the face…
I ask him: “Have you ever had a black eye before?”
He’s patting at it, tenderly. “Not like this.” His other eye is open extra-wide, as though it’s trying to collect extra light, extra data. Feed enough data back to the brain, and maybe the brain can make some sense of all this. The black pupil is centered dead-middle in his good eye, completely surrounded by stark whiteness. “Have you?” he asks.
“No," I say. We address each other via the mirror, like we’re sharing a bathroom somewhere. “Not like that.”
“At least I can see,” he says, tentative, a question mark in his voice. He seems to want my medical opinion.
“Can you see through the swollen one?” I place my palm over my own right eye. In the mirror I see him cover his good eye with his palm; the back of his hand is a web of stringy blue veins.
“Can you see?” I ask.
He says, “Hmmnnn…”
We drive in silence. I consider whether or not to give him a free ride. No matter that I’ve judged him a liar -- “jumped by some black guys” -- and probably an unrepentant racist. (I judge myself as being, like most of the people I know, at least a semi-repentant racist.) Still, he’s human, and no matter what has really happened to him, and no matter my judgments or fantastic inventions about his life, he’s obviously in some distress. And I do like to give my free rides to folks experiencing rough patches -- I like to think that my little free ride gifts can bust loose a rusted chain; can improve the flow of karma; can perhaps allow the giftee an opening in which to maybe turn things around: “Hey, there still is some good in the world… My little dilemma ain’t so bad… I’ll survive… Maybe this is the point where things start to go my way…”
I scan my body and spot a light, flickering turmoil in my stomach, as though the edge of a single sheet of newspaper is just catching fire. No, says my body. Wait.
I think: “‘Some black guys…’ ‘Back over that way…’ Hah! Was it two black guys? Four black guys? Seventeen? Were they lurking on the sidewalk out front of Pearl’s Jazz Club? Packed into a stall in the men’s room at the Hustlers’ Club?
At Chestnut and Divisadero the meter reads $8.05. My fare gives me two fives and says, “Keep it. Thanks.” He seems permanently distracted now, as I would be if I were in his spot.
“Good luck with the eye,” I tell him, as he eases himself up out of my cab. “I think you’ll be fine.”
RIDE #3 -- Chestnut and Scott -- 8:41 a.m.
Less than a block later I see something that immediately stretches my cheeks into a grin. A tall young white guy, maybe 25-26, is standing in the bus zone at Chestnut and Scott, one arm held high and still in the air. A large white rectangular bandage covers most of his forehead; it’s plastered just above his eyebrows, like a window into his skull. Small, fresh-looking, red-black scabs surround his eye sockets and cheeks. His nose is skinned. Individual cab shifts often develop their own themes – three different fares paying with $100 bills, four different fares from London, five fares who've been to the chiropractor today – but rarely do these themes develop in the space of two, early, back-to-back rides.
This fellow is headed, not surprisingly, to California Pacific Medical Center, up in Pacific Heights.
“So what happened?”
“I went to Octoberfest yesterday,” he says, “and a girl jumped on my back and I did a face-plant right into the pavement.”
“Oh, man! Lots of pain?”
“Yeah, I was in pretty bad shape. I’m going to be ok, but I was hurting bad for a while there.”
“Did you know her, or was she a stranger?”
“I know her. It was a date.”
“A first date?”
“Our first.” He’s able to chuckle.
“Do you like her?”
“A lot. She’s great. And she was great about this. She spent eight hours at the hospital with me yesterday.”
“I suppose that during eight hours you were able to find some ways to laugh about it?”
“We laughed a lot!” In the mirror I can see him smiling, amused, oblivious to his wounds and the big white flag of a bandage pasted to his forehead. I think: Someday, some advertising whiz will think of a way to sell ads on marquee injuries. My fare and his date had met about a month ago, at work, in a software company of some 500 people. The two of them work in different sections, but they’d bumped into each other, and there had been an attraction.
I say, “No matter how things turn out, this could be a great story. Already it’s a great story.”
“I know.” He’s tickled. “Great first date. I’m already looking forward to the next one.”
At the hospital I kill the meter ($6.70). “Free ride! To your new relationship -- and a quick healing!”
He gets it immediately. “Thanks, man!” He peers at me from under his empty white billboard. His fresh young scabs can’t keep him from smiling, nodding. “That’s just great,” he says. “Thanks.”
Although he doesn’t actually say it, in his eyes I can read what he’s thinking: “Oh, I can’t wait to tell HER about THIS!”
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