Wednesday, September 23, 2009



A quarter-century ago...

I was standing by the side of a two-lane highway in the Japanese countryside, a full day’s hitchhike west of Kyoto, and holding up a cardboard sign onto which I had inked the Japanese characters for “Hiroi" (broad) and "Shima" (island). It was dusk and I was still a long way from Hiroshima, and it was just starting to rain. In my book All the Right Places I wrote about what happened next:

An enormous silver tanker truck with a Mobil Oil logo on the side slowed to a stop right next to me. The driver smiled and nodded me up into the cab. He was perhaps the friendliest-looking person I’ve ever seen, one of those rare gentle people who seem not to have a mean or aggressive vein in their entire being. A white sports shirt and tan skin gave him the relaxed air of a cruise ship tennis pro. Of all the Japanese I met, this man, with lean face, high cheekbones, bright, perfect teeth, round eyes, and no glasses, would be the country’s best representative…

We knew only a few words of one another’s language, but we used them at lot. I was able to determine that he had two jobs; for every 10 days he worked for ‘Mobil Company,’ he also served five in the navy. West of Hiroshima, the Japanese Navy and US Marines share an air station, at Iwakuni, and after delivering his load of gasoline to the Hiroshima airport, the driver would report for duty. He was thirty-two -- my own age -- married, with a girl, ten, and a boy, seven. He lived in Tokyo and his name was Kanemoto. Kanemoto said we would cover the 97 kilometers to Hiroshima in two hours.

And we did. While a torrential rain lashed the truck, I sat high up in the cab, warm and dry, using my guidebook Japanese and plenty of hand gestures to trade stories with Kanemoto. He drove me all the way to Hiroshima and veered out of his way, maneuvering his giant truck down small side-streets, to drop me as close as possible to my chosen hostel. (Chapter 18 of All the Right Places is a full, four-page account of our ride.)

FAST FORWARD: March 2009

I’m 58, a seasoned professional driver myself now, and one day I receive an e-mail with the subject line, “COINCIDENCE!

The writer tells me his name is Rick Wilson. Rick is 35 years old, and a native of New Zealand. He is married to a Japanese woman, and now the two of them are living in Hong Kong, where Rick teaches English as a second language.

Rick tells me that he recently asked some friends in Hong Kong where he might find some travel memoirs written in English, and they directed him to a particular library along a particular Hong Kong subway route, where he came across a copy of All the Right Places. “Imagine my surprise when I read on pages 82/83 about an amazingly friendly and gentle MOBIL company driver named Kanemoto. SOUNDS LIKE MY FATHER-IN-LAW!!!! My wife Maho rang Japan and spoke to Kanemoto (her father)!!!! He remembers you well and it made his day.”

Over the next few weeks Rick and Kanemoto and I exchange letters expressing our astonishment and delight, and we also exhange gifts –- I send them copies of my book, and Kanemoto sends me a beautiful silk scarf and two exquisite tapestries which now grace the wall of my studio (I see them as I type this).

TODAY: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

At noon I park my taxi near Pier 33, from where tours to Alcatraz Island are launched, to have a cup of coffee with Rick's parents, Eva and Bill, who are visiting San Francisco. Rick's whole family, including Kanemoto, is getting as big a kick as I am out of this small-small-world connection -- 25 years down the long twisty road. And today Rick's mom shares another interesting twist: 
“When Rick first showed his wife, Maho, what you had written in your book, Maho telephoned her father in Japan and asked him, 'Did you pick up a gaijin (foreigner) hitchhiker on your way to Hiroshima in1984?' And Kanemoto-San, said, ‘How did you know? I never picked up a single hitchhiker before that, and I never picked up a single hitchhiker after that. Just the one. How did you know?’ He couldn't believe it when Maho told him she'd read about it in a book! At what makes it even more interesting is that it was absolutely against the company's rules for Kanemoto to pick up hitchhikers -- and Kanemoto is a rule-conscious, straight-laced guy.”

Rick’s dad, Bill, laughs: “Until we’ve all had a couple of beers!”

We sit in the Pier 33 café, a scoured blue sky overhead, and talk about our lives. Bill and Eva both grew up in New Zealand, met when they were quite young, married when they were 21, and have raised two sons. I ask what kind of work Bill and Eva do, and Eva says she used to work in a law office where Bill had once been a lawyer. I ask Bill if he is still a lawyer, and he says he is a judge now. I ask how judgeships work in New Zealand, and he says there are four levels of judgeship. I ask which level is he? Bill says, "I'm a Supreme Court justice now..."

We pass a raucous hour together, and by the time they go off to their Alcatraz tour and I head off for the last couple of hours of my shift, I'm buzzing like a cheap alarm clock. But this ain't no coffee buzz. It's LIFE.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

$16 Million In My Backseat

"Kasan, a Zen teacher and monk, was off to officiate at a funeral of a famous nobleman. As he stood there waiting for the governor of the province and other lords and ladies to arrive, he noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty.

"The next day he called his disciples together and confessed he was not yet ready to be a true teacher. He explained to them that he still lacked the sameness of bearing before all human beings, whether baker or king. He was still unable to look through social roles and conceptual identities and see the sameness of being in every human. He then left and became the pupil of another master. He returned to his former disciples eight years later, enlightened."

— Eckart Tolle
“A New Earth”

-- Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It’s near the end of my shift on yet another breathtaking September afternoon in God’s Favorite City, and I’m trolling near Union Square, looking for one last fare. Rolling downhill on Powell Street, with my cab’s tires jostling against the cable car tracks, I hear a short low whistle from across the street.

I shoot a look back over my left shoulder and see a guy standing in front of the Union Square Hotel, a guy who could be a fashion model. He’s got his hands tucked confidently into his pockets, waiting for the world to come to him, as he knows it certainly will. He has thick black hair and a formidable, neatly trimmed, black goatee. He’s wearing shades, an expensive black suit, and a crisp white shirt open at the collar -- no tie. And not a cab driver in the world would miss the small black suitcase at his feet: airport -- forty bucks! If I hustle I’ve probably got just enough time to zip him out to SFO, gas up, zip back to the garage, jump out of my cab, jump into my own car, jump on the Bay Bridge and be waiting in Oakland when my daughter jumps down off the school bus at 4:15 PM sharp.

I snap him a nod, and the guy reaches down for his luggage. I stop mid-street, right on the cable car tracks -- in the entire block, not another vehicle is moving -- step out, and go around back to open the hatch. “I’m going to the ballpark,” the guy says, and lifts his suitcase.

“Are you a player?” I ask him.


The Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants are locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the wild card spot, and the Rockies are in town for a three-game series. The Giants have won the first two, and tonight they’re going for the sweep.

"Which team?" I ask.



Behind the wheel, weaving my way across Market Street, I ask, “What’s your name?”

“Todd Helton,” he says.

Todd Helton is one of the best players of the modern era. In the summer of 2000 he riveted sports fans nationwide by making a serious run at Ted Williams’ record batting average (.406), but wound up at .372 -- best in the majors that year. Todd Helton is not just a star, he’s baseball royalty, and I notice my mind start to grapple with the commoner’s anxiety. But almost the instant I notice it, it passes: over the years lots of celebrities -- athletes, politicians, comedians, actors, and even one Nobel Prize winner -- have ridden in my backseat. By now I understand that they are all just people, people needing to get from point A to point B. Sooner or later everyone winds up in a taxicab.

“How old were you,” I ask Helton, “when you first realized, ‘I might have a shot…?’”

“College,” he says. “No, I was drafted when I was in high school, so I knew it was a possibility. But I wanted to play college football.”

“You played both?”

“Football and baseball,” he says.

“Where’d you go to school?”

“The University of Tennessee.”

Now the rest of his story starts coming back to me. Helton was a two-sport star at Tennessee -- starting quarterback, All-American outfielder -- and for a while the sports world was abuzz with speculation over whether he would play professional baseball or professional football.

I ask, “Did you grow up in Tennessee?” His mainstream accent and clear diction expose my own prejudice -- he doesn’t sound like someone from Tennessee.

“I did,” he says. The conversation has been one-sided, with me firing questions at him, and now, sensing this, Helton slips in one of his own: “Are you from San Francisco?”

I usually answer my passengers’ inquiries with more information than they’ve requested, just in case they really do want a conversation. If I give a one- or two-word answer, a conversation usually fizzles, but if I give a little bit more a fare has some places to start, if he or she cares to. But I’m much more eager to hear Todd Helton’s story than to, yet again, hear my own. I tell him, “I grew up outside Washington DC, rooting for the old Washington Senators,” and then before he can muster a follow-up, I blurt, “I’ve got a sister in Littleton (a suburb of Denver) who is a big Rockies fan. She’s coming out for a visit in mid-October, and I’m glad the playoffs will be decided by then. It would be no fun if we were both pulling for opposite teams. But I imagine you’re having fun right now?”

“It is fun,” he says. “Not last night, but this time of year.”

This morning I only glanced at the sports headlines, so all I know is that the Rockies had a terrible night, an ugly 10-2 loss to the Giants -- but maybe Helton had his typical two-for-four or three-for-five?

“How did you do last night -- personally?”

“Terrible,” he says. “I struck out three times. That’s only the… fourth time in 13 years I’ve done that.”

“Ouch,” I say. “I didn’t know -- honest.” And then I change the subject: “Do you have kids?”

“My wife and I just had a girl five days ago.”


“Thank you,” he says.

“First kid?”

“We’ve also got a boy. He’s seven.”

“It must be tough to be away so much.”

“That is the toughest part of being a ballplayer -- but it’s tougher on my wife.”

“I imagine there are…” -- I smile into the rearview -- “compensations?”

Helton’s shades are off now. His eyes twinkle. “Oh,” he says, “many.” (Wikipedia: Over his career, Helton’s baseball contracts have so far earned him a total of $96 million. His salary in 2009 is $16.6 million.)

I ask if there is a particular pitcher he hates to hit against. He thinks for a moment and says, “No, not really.” Then: “There was one guy. He was a Giant...” (Attention, Dear Reader -- I’ll pause in case you want to guess. Hints: relief pitcher, now retired.)

It is a long-lingering regret among Giants fans that during Game Six of the 2002 World Series, when we were leading the Angels, 5-0, with two outs in the seventh inning (we were up three-games-to-two, and thus within seven outs of being World Series champs), manager Dusty Baker brought a lesser pitcher out of the bullpen instead of bringing in our All-Star closer.

“Do you remember Rob Nenn?” Todd Helton asks me.

Who in San Francisco doesn’t? Robb Nenn could spot a 95-96 mile-an-hour fastball just about anywhere he wanted (several times I saw him ping the radar gun with a 100), or he might just shoot you a 90-something sinker that pretends to be a fastball until precisely one-thousandth of a second after you’ve committed to swing, and then it dives straight down into the dirt, and you walk back to the bench, cursing. Giants fans always considered the game over, won, if we could get Nenn out to the mound.

“I was always surprised,” I tell him, “that the rest of the league didn’t declare Rob Nenn illegal.”

“He was no fun to hit against.”

We’re pulling up in front of the stadium now. I stop the cab and kill the meter, which reads $6.75. “Here you are,” he says, distractedly, and I see his hand lay a $10 bill onto the armrest at my right elbow. “It’s yours.”

“Thank you.” I turn the bill “heads-up” and as I’m slipping it in between my 20s and my 5s (it’s the only 10 in my wad today), I say, “Could I ask you to sign a postcard to my sister, Nancy?”

I’m not looking back at him as I say this, and, when a short silence ensues, my commoner’s anxiety returns in a panicky rush, full volume. Oh, no -- I’ve offended him! There we were, just a couple of guys talking, and now I’ve gone and crossed that invisible but unmistakable line. He is an Olympian god and I’m a cab driver -- and such a dumb shit cab driver sometimes. Geezus -- what was I thinking!

I say, “It’s okay -- if you don’t…”

“Oh, no problem,” he says quickly. “I was just checking a message.”

I turn around and see him folding up his cell phone and tucking it away. In a tone that could not have been any nicer, he says, “I’d be happy to sign a card.”

I pass him my clipboard and one of the Beach Impeach postcards I keep in my glove box. He signs, and hands it back. (Before mailing it to my sister I made a copy of it, and I’m looking at that right now. Helton has a beautiful, crisp signature, full of neatly parallel lines and looping swirls and one long flourish that my ruler measures at just over two inches long.)

“Thank you,” I say.

“My pleasure.” Helton’s not making any move to leave. He’s just sitting there, at ease, waiting for something, it seems. He can’t possibly be expecting some… payment, can he?

I offer up this: “If you make it to the playoffs, I hope you go all the way.”

“Thank you,” he says, but he’s still sitting there, composed, going nowhere. This is awkward. And then, to my great relief and further embarrassment, he says, “I was hoping you could pop the back open -- so I could get my suitcase.”

“Oh god...” I throw open my door and throw my feet out toward the asphalt. “I forgot all about your luggage!”

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

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