In 1997, back when Willie Brown was still mayor of San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle began to run an every-other-Monday column written by a San Francisco cab driver whose identity was never publicly revealed. Writing in a hard-boiled, seen-it-all tone of voice, the "Night Cabbie," as he called himself, shared his cab adventures, conversations with customers, opinions, philosophies, and bits of his own personal history. He was wildly populareveryone in the Bay Area read the Night Cabbie.
In December, 2004, he quit, saying that he could no longer make a living behind the wheel. Over the years, the Chronicle had published a dozen or so of my cab stories - under my own name - and when I heard that the Night Cabbie was gone, I sent a note and several of my clippings to the Chronicle's editor, Phil Bronstein. Mr. Bronstein responded with a note saying that the Chronicle indeed was going to replace the Night Cabbie, and that I would certainly be considered as an option. I decided to write myself into the job. I started writing cab columns and sending them to the Chronicle. Here they are...
Not the Night Cabbie
Monday, 10 a.m., California and Drumm: For fifteen minutes I've been first up in the Hyatt Regency cab line, reading The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salakmy new favorite travel writerwhen the back door opens. A handsome young power couple is entering my cab. The womanno older than 27, long chestnut hair, sleek black business suitclimbs in first. Her skirt rasps the seat as she slides across.
The mandark suit, dazzling teeth, thick hair, no older than 40lands beside her and slams the door. "Do you know where 400 MacAllister is?"
"MacAllister and Polk," I say. "The courthouse."
"We're in a hurry."
It's the new American Way.
I hang a left onto Sacramento, a left onto Davis, and start slaloming along the streetcar tracks up Market Street. The man is briefing the woman on a meeting they're headed to, and a deal they're cooking up.
"I know both these guys well. You might not like themhell, I don't like thembut don't worry, they're going to like you.... Now, Roberts is the bigger player. He knows the redevelopment people, the real estate people, City Hall. He was tight with Willie. He helped jumpstart the SoMa units, and he says that on this one all we need is to get two, maybe three supervisors to..."
Several seconds tick past... In the mirror I catch him leaning forward. I know what's coming. The Question. Every Caucasian male cab driver in the cityand half of the others, no doubtknow it like they know the numbers painted on the sides of their cabs.
Twelve inches from my right ear the man clears his throat. "You're not the Night Cabbie, are you!"
MY FIRST WIFE and I moved to San Francisco in 1982, just one day before "The Catch"Dwight Clark's famous leap toward a Joe Montana floater at the back of the end zone in the playoffs against Dallas. I could type, which allowed me to find work as a secretary in the credit card division of a legendary, full-gallop local bank.
For two yearsuntil my wife tired of being married to memy social circle intersected with the social circle of a guy named Bob Metcalf. Every couple of months I'd find myself at a party where I would notice Bob standing off to the side, head down, brow tight, puzzling something through. I drew Bob out and found him be very niceand awfully preoccupied. He had started a company named 3-Comsomething to do with computers.
"We're trying to change the fact," Bob told me, "that none of the networks at the big companies can communicate with each otherthey all speak different languages." I had spent the previous eight years living in the Rockies. I had never used a computer. I had no idea what Bob was talking about.
WHEN THE MARRIAGE ENDED I took a trip around the worlda consolation lapand then bought my own computer and spent nine months in the Haight, renting the smallest studio apartment in San Francisco, living on credit card money, and taking a stab at the Great American Travel Memoir.
I hadn't seen Bob in at least a year when one summer evening in 1985 I found myself sitting right beside him in the sand at a beach bonfire near Aptos. I no longer needed to draw Bob out to know what he was up tohe'd solved some of those problems he'd been puzzling, and I could read about him and 3-Com in the business section any day I wanted to.
Bob looked relaxed, happy. "I heard you were writing a book, Brad. Any luck with publishers?"
"I sent it to threeit flew back to me with stunning speed."
"I'm sorry," Bob said. "What are you up to now?"
There were people all around us, having their own conversations or just staring at the fire or the sunset. I lowered my voice: "Two months ago I started driving a taxi."
"Oh, man!" Bob rocked back as though I'd claimed to have patented a chip 1,000 times faster than anything they had over at 3-Com. "I've always wanted to drive a cab. Tell me! What's it like?"
This was way early in my... career? Not even one of my passengers had yet kissed me or offered their bodies or punched me in the face or held a gun to my head. I'd not yet seen anyone naked in the back seat or seen anyone puking back there, either. Nor had I yet even imagined that one day I would have a (world-record?) $20,644.90 cross-country fare...
I can't remember what stories I told around the bonfire that nightI must have mentioned picking up Hall of Fame basketball player Rick Barry on my third day on the job and being so nervous that I almost killed us both by turning left in front of an oncoming Muni bus and that as Rick fled my cab after a $2.90 ride he didn't even wait for the dime he had coming which under the circumstances I considered lavish overtippingbut as I talked I did notice that one by one all the other conversations around the fire stopped, until Bob's voice and mine were the only ones left.
Driving home I did my own puzzling. Had Bob been patronizing me? Nah! It was easy to see how a guy with huge responsibilities in the world might fantasize about cruising the world's prettiest city all night, just an anonymous, ordinary guy swapping stories with strangers. No boss over the shoulder, no sullen employees, no feisty stockholders.
Most people imagine the cab world the same way I had once imagined itan unexplored foreign land populated by modern-day pirates, Good Samaritans, and assorted other untamed characters, where incredible things, good and bad, can and do happen all the time. Since my initiation I was finding that the fantasy was indeed pretty accurate. The cab world was as intoxicating as any country I'd ever visited.
For years I had been trying to carve a career as a storyteller, and had met mostly frustration. But upon becoming a cab driver I suddenly found myself feeling more popularand more comfortable with myselfthan ever before. Experiences like the one at the bonfire were becoming typical. The general public has an unquenchable curiosity about the cab world, and now everywhere I went people wanted to hear my stories. After a month behind the wheel I began telling people close to me that I would be a cab driver for the rest of my life.
BY 1996 I HAD BEEN juggling cab driving and writing for more than a decade. My first book had long ago been publishedit disappeared in a New York minuteand now my agent was shopping my second. I wrote three cab stories into column length pieces and sent them to Rosalie Wright, Datebook editor at the Chronicle. She wrote back immediately: she loved them and would run them as soon as Jon Carroll or Adair Lara took a day off. I told Ms. Wright that I dreamed of a regular gig, one cab column every two weeks. She said, "First let's see how these three go over."
Every morning for two weeks I ripped open the paper, until one day I ran across a (to me) tragic, freakish, heartbreaking story. Ms. Wright had left the Chronicle to take charge of Sunset Magazine.
Her successor agreed to run one of my stories, just one. After it ran, I approached him again. He asked me, politely, to please quit bugging him. A reporter friend of mine quoted him as saying: "No one is interested in cab stories."
SIX MONTHS LATER I picked up the more enlightened Examiner, and right there on the front page were a photo and story inaugurating the "Night Cabbie" column.
Soon, hardly a shift went by without a fare blurting, "Are you the Night Cabbie? No? Well, I just love his stuff!" Whenever I met someone new, the Question was a given. Since the publication of my second book I have spoken at bookstores, schools, libraries, bookclubs, and never once has it not been asked.
Then, at a New Years party a few weeks ago, I met a cellist who told me that the Night Cabbie had announced that after eight years he'd written his final column...
THE POWER COUPLE: I'm finessing the streetcar tracks. The man is leaning forward, clearing his throat. "You're not the Night Cabbie, are you!"
"I wish I had twenty dollars for every time I've been asked that."
"The night what?" the woman asks.
"Cabbie!" the man says. It comes out a bark.
(Deep irony: the one column of mine that the Chronicle had run was about cab drivers' distaste for that dreadful little word. "During my ten years of hanging around cab yards," I wrote, "not once has any of my esteemed colleagues called me 'cabbie'unless attempting sarcasm.")
The woman: "Oh, that guy with the column..."
The man is still at my ear. "Well, are you?"
I give him a line I stole from a Night Cabbie column: "You won't believe me either way."
One second, two seconds, three seconds pass. The man snaps open his briefcase and starts to rustle papers that no one is reading. He starts talking to the woman in a faint whisper. On this ride, my eavesdropping is finished.
But my dream gig has just begun.
(A few days after I sent this first column to the Chronicle, I called Mr. Bronstein's office from my taxicab. His assistant told me that my column had indeed been received and read by the paper's managing editor. "Let me connect you," she said. And suddenly, as I was steering my cab down the Mason Street hill with one hand, and using the other to hold the phone to my ear and talk to Mr. Robert Rosenthal, the number two guy at the Chronicle.
Mr. Rosenthal said that he certainly thought I could write. But, no, my dream gig had not just begun. "What you've sent is almost too clean," he said. "We're looking for something a little darker, a little more 'noir.' You might want to try a different voice." I told him I'd take some more whacks at it, and a few days later I sent him this column...)
I Just Might Have to Kill Myself
SOONER OR LATER absolutely everyone winds up in a taxi.
Even the guy standing on the sidewalk in the heart of North Beach, screaming. His long hair is stringy and dirty looking and hangs in his face. His arm is upraised, and in his fist is a scrap of paper that he is thrashing through the air over his head. He might be a prophet.
Two police officers are walking away from him, down the sidewalk, ignoring his cries. I'm stopped for the signal at Union and Columbus and can hear snatches: "...Gentrification!...YUPPIE SCUM!...what about ART?"
With the officers getting distant, he begins scouting for someone to meet his eye, and he spots me.
"Will you take me to the Golden Gate Bridge?" he puffs. "I'm gonna jump."
"If you've got the money..."
As we zip past the police officers, he rolls down his window and screams, "I'll DIE for my art, you (rectal openings)!" He rips his scrap of paper into confetti and throws it at them. I speed through the yellow light at Green Street and head west.
"That big folder they were carryingthey took my ART!"
"I think it would be good if you try to calm down."
He scales back to a simple shout: "This city has lost its soul! A ticket for illegal vending!that new café owner keeps complaining about me. But that's why people come to North Beachto see ART! I'll die for my art! I'm going to jump."
People close to me have been threatening suicide ever since I was a kidat least two have pulled it off. "Why not," I say. "Looks like it's going to be a beautiful sunset."
"You don't believe me!"
Near the Palace of Fine Arts the meter clicks past seven dollars. "I've only got eight bucks," he says, quietly now. We're still a long way from the bridge.
"It's okI'll get you there."
"Oh, thank you, sir!"
"How long have you been an artist?"
"Since I could hold a crayon. It's the only thing I've ever been any good at. I'd show you if those (penis tips) hadn't taken everything. That was my third ticketthey said next time I'm going in."
Near the bridge I say, "You know, the view is really much better from the far side."
"Oh, sir! That would be so great, sir!"
On the Marin side he gives me eight crumpled onesabout half what the meter readsand walks toward the overlook with an eager flip in his step. I watch him and think: "Only depressed people kill themselveshe's just angry." Still, on the way back into town I mention him to the toll taker. She asks for a description and grabs her telephone.
I scan the papers for a few days, but if he jumped it isn't news.
TWO MONTHS INTO HER WIDOWHOOD, my mother came out from Virginia to spend some time with me in my tiny studio. She and my father had been married 39 years, raised four kids, and had assumed they had at least one good decade remaining in which to enjoy life. But one Sunday afternoon, just as he was settling onto the couch for the Redskins vs. Dallas, my father, 71 and seemingly healthy, suddenly quit living. All the way out in the kitchen Mom heard his death rattle. When she landed at SFO, the world's biggest basket could not have accommodated the case she had become.
I moved to the floor, my mother slept in my bed. The nights were long and uncomfortable, the days excruciating. Mom obsessed over the unfairness of it all. A great crime had been committed, and Mom was convinced thatsomehowshe had been the perpetrator. She tied up the suicide hotline for hours. She dreaded being left alone. The only time she was calm was when we went cab driving together.
"This is my mother, Margie," I would tell my passengers. "She's riding along tonightI hope you don't mind."
You would never doubt the goodness of human beings if you could have seen the way people treated my mother. She sat up front with me, rapt, as the music of strangers' tales washed over her from the backseat. Every now and then some jokester would make her laugh. Several fares asked about her life, and I noted that sometimesnot very often, but sometimesshe forgot to say, "Bradley's father died two months ago."
My cab driving had always been an acute embarrassment to my motherbut now it was her own lifeline. It seemed to ground her, it brought her out of her grief, gave her something in the day to look forward to. She began trying to spot flaggers before I couldand I let her. Soon she assumed the job of collecting payment at ride's endif someone tipped ungenerously she'd shoot them a look. Sometimes, in the cab, she seemed like her old self.
But my off days were grueling work. If I left to go to the store or for a head-clearing walk in the park, I'd come back to a note saying, "I've gone to the bridge." Half a dozen times she walked the eight miles from the Haight to the middle of the bridge and back.
"What do you do out there?" I asked her.
"I lean over the railing and think about Dad."
One day I parked the cab at the bridge, and together we walked out to the middle. If you stare down long enough from 220 feet, the water's ripples begin to flicker like static on a TV screen. Spittle wobbles downward like a knuckleball for ten, maybe fifteen secondsjumpers are advised to expect a 75-mile-an-hour trip that will be over in just four.
After a while Mom flew back to her empty four-bedroom house in Virginia in the middle of a cold winter. Eventually she pulled out of it.
AROUND MIDNIGHT I take a radio call for the flagpole at the Bridge. A short, fit-looking mangame show host-handsomesteps from the shadows. He gives an address in Bernal Heights, five miles away.
"Car break down?" I ask.
"Mind if I ask what brings you out here at midnight?"
He takes a while to answer. "I come here for inspiration."
Inspiration from the BridgeI know all about this! My favorite solution for writer's block is to bicycle to mid-bridge and from just five feet away stare into the eyes of hundreds of commuters flashing past at 50 mphand then pedal back home and get to work.
"Are you a writer?" I ask.
Slowly: "I'm a painter."
I know nothing about painting, but the litmus test for all creatives is the same: "Do you make your living at it?"
This answer arrives perceptibly quicker: "For about ten years now."
A long silence follows, and then: "OK. I'll tell you. A crew paints the bridge all year long. It takes them a year and a half to go end to end, then they start back the other way. There's a big steel platform on wheels attached to the bottom side of the bridge. It's about the size of a railroad car. They roll it along so it's always beneath whatever section they're painting. There is a huge net underneath in case a tool fallsor a worker.
"Every other year or so I find myself unable to paint, and I feel a trip to the bridge coming on. On a Saturday afternoon I leave home and start walking. On the way I stop and have a nice dinner, a glass of the best wine in the house. When I get to the bridge, I go out to wherever the platform is and climb over the side. I crawl up as high as I can and cling to the bottom of the bridge, like a bat, and hang there with my back to the water."
"Man! Right below the traffic?"
"Tires are pounding away just a couple feet above me. When I'm ready, I let go. It's a twenty-foot drop, or maybe more. Sometimes I get my inspiration even before the net catches metonight was good. Sometimes it takes a couple of days, but it never fails. I lie there in the net until I'm ready. I watch the ships heading for Japan all lit up, the searchlight from Alcatraz, the moon over Berkeley. Then I climb out. Sometimes I walk back home, sometimes I call a cab."
We don't speak again for many, many blocks. "Wouldn't you hate it," I finally ask, "if they put up a suicide barrier?"
He laughs. "I think I just might have to kill myself."
(Within a few hours Mr. Rosenthal sent a short email: "That's more like it." But he didn't offer me the job. A few days later I sent him another column...)
Five a.m., Third and HowardI'm at my current favorite morning spotthe cab line in front of the hotel "W." The doormen here don't squeeze you for bribes like the jackals at some of the sleazy big-name joints nearby. The W staff doesn't hassle you for using the lobby restroom. And in the early morning about half the fares are airports.
Most of the other drivers trolling the W this and every morning are Brazilian. They stand in a mirthful circle, so at ease with each other that I sometimes wish I'd been born in RioI too could wave my hands and fire off staccato Portuguese that ignites laughter all around.
If you're born in America you're not allowed to aspire to be a cab driver. But some of these guys tell me that back in Brazil they heard what a great gig driving a cab in San Francisco is, and they did everything it took to get here. Some of it was even legal.
They're friendly toward meif I slip inside to use the john, I leave my key in the ignition and someone will automatically move my cab up for me. But I know only one word of PortugueseCiao!so I spend most of my time here alone, reading. Today I'm enchanted with Kate Wheeler's novel "When Mountains Walked." I read a paragraph and think: "Who am I kiddingcalling myself a writer!"
MY FIRST FARE goes to SFO. I ask where he's flying.
"Back home to ManhattanI don't know whyit's 10 degrees with snow on the ground there." We're expecting another 72-degree February day in San Francisco.
I ask, "What's your work?"
"I'm a consultant."
I've always considered thisI'm a consultanta rude answer. It says nothing, and to get a real answer you have to ask more questions: "Who actually pays you? What do you actually DO?" But I don't askwe're not even to the freeway yet and he's already poking at his Blackberry, gone. We ride to the airport in silence. Dawnscribbles of orange and purple in the sky above Hunter's Point, reminiscent of my daughter's crayon workis my consultant.
THE AIRPORT is deadthe lot is packed with two hundred motionless cabs and two hundred lurking drivers. I drive the twelve miles back to the W. Celebrities frequent the Wjust recently Tiger Woods, Marilyn Manson, and the entire Phoenix Suns basketball team, according to J.D., the doorman. At 9:20 a young man with a British Empire accent and movie star looks climbs into my cab. Chiseled chin, perfect teeth, short platinum hair, an athletic body tucked under casual business dress. He's wearing shades, but he has no Blackberry and he doesn't stiffarm my questions.
He needs to go to Fulton Street near City Hall to powwow with some financiers. He's "working on a little real estate development" near his home in "SoCal" but he grew up in Johannesburg. I tell him I hitchhiked from Joburg to Capetown back during apartheid, and ask why he left.
"I went to Europe to race motorcyles when I was 17."
"How long did that last?"
"Until I was 27."
"Let me guessthere was a crash?"
"No. I just couldn't give one hundred percent any more. I could give ninety, but I couldn't give one hundred."
"What would ninety percent get you?"
"Top five, a million dollars a year."
"You were making a million dollars a year?"
"Yes," he says, calmly. "I was." Wozz.
"Was there a highlight?"
"Winning the US national championship1999."
You hear all sorts of bull in a cab, but still, I want to believe this guy. Later I stop by the Kinko's on Second Street and google "1999 united states motorcycle championship" and find myself staring at a screen showing my fare's million-dollar grin.
THE DISPATCHER sends me south of Market. "He'll be standing in front of the church across from the old Anchor Steam brewery," he tells me. I'm reminded of the Garrison Keilor line that I use to needle my Texan relatives: "The problem with Baptists is that if you invite a few of them fishing, they won't drink any of your beerbut if you just invite one, he'll drink it all."
My fare is heading to Union and Montgomery up on Telegraph Hill.
"What's your work?"
"I'm a freelance advertising writer."
If my knees or back ever give out, my backup plan is to go set the advertising world on fire. "How does it work?" I ask. "What do you actually DO?"
"For example," he says. "Yesterday I got a call from Keebler's back in Cincinatti. They're launching some new breakthrough packaging for their cookies and need a name for it. They'll pay $500, but here's the catchthey need it tomorrow. My schedule is really packed and I told them I could only work on it for one nighttonight. I usually like to give 250-300 names, but they said to just give them whatever I can. They'll still pay $500."
"What's the breakthrough?"
"If you open the box you won't find the usual two trays of cookies, but six individual foil bags with a few cookies in each one. It's designed for someone who's packing lunches."
We've just crossed Market, we're weaving up Kearney through the Financial District. Coit Tower dead ahead. I flip open my notebook on the seat next to me.
Atop Telegraph Hill, he gives me fifteen dollars even for the $12.75 ride. I rip a page from my notebook and pass it back to him.
He scans it. He laughs. He says, "Really, you don't want to get into advertising." I take this as a comment on the industry, not on my potential I notice that he isn't handing my list back to me. And if a few months from now I see bold new packaging in the snack aisle"Joey Six-Pack'" or "Who's Packin'?" or "Foils" or "Foilz" or "Foylz" or, my favorite, "Bag-ettes"I think I deserve at least a couple of cookies.
I'M CRUISING NORTH on Van Ness, when a man at the corner of Post lifts his hand. A woman wearing a sari and brandishing an unlit cigarette is standing behind him. The man says, "Market and Montgomery."
If you aim a laser beam straight down Post Street it will hit Montgomery about twenty yards from Market. I hang a right onto Post. Two blocks later I smell smoke.
I zap all the windows down. "Sorrynot in here. I'm allergic." That may not be clinically verified, but heyI can't stand the stuff.
"Oh," says the woman through a gray haze, and tosses it.
This is almost impossible to believe now that we've got smokers on the runand let's keep firing at their backsides, I saybut until fifteen years ago the chief of police had regulations saying that any passenger who wanted to smoke in a cab was entitled tono matter what the driver said. City code. In writing.
As I'm ruminating on this, I hear the couple discussing one of their friends. "He drinks too much, he smokes too much, he's killing himself," says the woman who has just moments earlier pitched her own butt. "They've already got him on the carter-zone and now he has to go down to the Stanford for more tests." I make mental notes: The carter-zone. The Stanford.
At Union Square a tour bus has traffic snarled. "You should have taken other street!" the man grumbles.
"If I had, you'd have said, 'Why are taking the long way?'" With the one-ways, any route but Post Street adds at least four blocks to the trip.
"You're right," he says. "Sorry. I just hate this (feces)."
At Montgomery the man says "Pay him" and bails. The meter reads $6.90the woman gives me a ten and follows him. As I pull away I check the rearview. They're both hunched over on the sidewalk, furiously lighting fresh cigarettes.
I'm just three blocks from the W, and I gotta pee bad.
(I took great hope from Mr. Rosenthal's quick email response: "I'm showing this to Phil." I waited for a couple of days, and then called to chat. His assistant told me that Mr. Rosenthal had indeed read my new column, but he was now on vacation. [His assistant sounded distinctly more friendly toward me than the last time we'd spoken - she said that she, too, had read all my columns.] He would return next week. The next day I took notes during my shift, wrote them up that night, and when Mr. Rosenthal returned from vacation the following column was waiting for him...)
Come on, and take a free ride
6:34 a.m.Army and Evans: All sorts of drivers bail out when the slow winter months roll around. Some head back to families in India, Brazil, Morocco, Ethiopia... Others take long vacations in cheap places like Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. I wouldn't mind joining them.
For five straight shifts now I've failed to break the $100 mark. I'm not especially crimped for money these days, but hey, everyone needs a little self-respectand today I'm going to get some.
As I pull out of the yard in the pale morning light, I'm thinking: "If I can't make a hundred bucks todaywith 40,000 people in town for the gift showI've got no business in this business."
6:42Third and Howard: Downtown is still sleepy. Four security guards loll in front of the otherwise deserted Moscone Center. Ten cabs are lined up at the hotel Wnobody's moving. Coffee zombees are on the march in the Financial Districtbut they don't take cabs. As I cruise up Kearney the doorman at the Chinatown Holiday Inn is waving a suitcase, but a National cab just ahead of me veers into the driveway. Shoot.
I slide up Columbus through North Beach, still sleepy myself. My body wants coffee. I climb Union Street to the top of Russian Hill. A Hyde Street cable car with just two passengers clangs right-to-left across my path. The last wink of a waning moon hangs over the Golden Gate Bridge. I follow a slow patrol car down Union, through Fajita Hollow, and just as I'm about to park at Noah's Bagels on Chestnut, the dispatcher calls "Casa and Retiro"three blocks away. I'm there in 60 seconds.
7:11Casa Street: There is no response when I press the buzzer. I visualize a businessman inside, stuffing things into a garment bag, late for his flight. I do toe touches to stretch my hamstrings.
Casa Street is just a block long, one-car narrow, and lined with tidy, three-story Mediterraneans. The sun's first rays nick the red-tiled roofs above me. A sidewalk rhododendron blossoms pinkin February. When people imagine San Francisco, this neighborhood where Joe Dimaggio lived his latter years is what they're imagining. At the end of the block I can see the Marina Green, the bare masts of a hundred docked yachts, the Bay, and looming over everything, the incomparable Bridge.
7:18Blond and Beautiful: A young woman descends the stairs, slender in her jeans, stepping daintily on fancy sandals with two-inch heels, hair still wet. When people fantasize the residents of this neighborhood, this is who they're fantasizing: a supermodel heading for a sunrise shoot.
"Union and Hyde, please."
"What's your day hold?" I ask.
"In about fifteen minutes all hell's gonna break loose. I'm in sales, and I can't wait to get today over with. Plus, I'm really sick."
For more than a decade I've been giving away one free ride per shiftmy nod to Goes-Around-Comes-Around. It's also a selfish little habit, delivering a personal boost that coffee can't touch. I have no criteria for who it's going to be. I let my body tell me. "This woman?" I ask. Body says no.
My sales supermodel gives me ten dollars for her $6.90 ride. I'm on the board.
7:32Sacramento and Polk. Two Asian women and a young girl step from a bus shelter and wave me down. "California and MapleChildren's Hospital." They chat about recent trips to visit relatives in China and the Philippines. "Four night package in Hong Kongone-fifty only." One woman exits at the hospitalthe other woman and the girl continue two blocks to Claire Lilienthal Elementary on Sacramento. The girl hands me two fives that her mother has slipped her, and gives me a sweet, wordless smile. She's about the same age as my own daughter. I check with my body. Body says Coffee.
7:48California and Presidio. As I pull away from the Noah's in Laurel Village, I'm juggling a large cup of vanilla/hazelnut coffee and a bageltoasted whole wheat sesame with tomato, mushrooms, and spinach. Two blocks away a young man, under 30, steps from a bus shelter. Every shift develops its own theme.
"I need to go to Haight Street. It's near Masonic, I think."
I make a guess: "You left your car there last night?"
He laughs. "I had some beers with friends. Then I did the right thing."
He's the PR director for a company that's teamed up with T-Mobile on a new wireless gizmo. "Maybe you've seen our billboards with Paris Hilton and Snoop Dog?"
"I thought Snoop Dog got shot?"
"That was TupacTupac and Notorious B.I.G."
The coffee's kicking inI'm firing questions, he's firing back answers. Tomorrow he's going to London on business for two weeks. He studied poli sci at UC-Santa Barbara. He grew up in Calistoga.
I ask, "Do you know Harbin Hot Springs?" It's a clothing optional community hidden in a canyon half an hour north of Calistoga.
"I know it well," he says.
"I met my wife in the warm pool around midnight on a full moon seventeen years ago."
"That," he says, "is awesome."
We find his dark green Mazda in front of Ben and Jerry's at Haight and Ashbury.
7:58The Haight: I impulse cruise through my old neighborhood. Up Belvedere, past Hamilton Methodist Church, where I used to volunteer at the homeless shelter; past the tiny ground floor studio I rented when my first marriage fell apart; past the Casa Madrona on Frederick where people say Dimaggio and Marilyn Monroe kept a secret, pre-marriage love nest.
The radio is silent. I park at Carl and Cole and hope that one of the twenty-five commuters waiting for the streetcar will commit a "cab of opportunity." It works the other way, toowhen things are excruciatingly slow I'll sometimes swoop into a bus zone and offer a free ride to whoever wants onejust to break the drought.
The N-Judah rumbles down Carl and hauls everyone away. I finish my bagel, wash down my Lyme pills with the last of the coffee, and roll.
8:17Haight and Cole: A pedestrian in the crosswalk twitches his eyebrows. I nod back.
He's going to Civic Center to catch BART to Oakland, where he programs computers for the County of Alameda.
I say, "I live over in Oaklandnear Piedmont Avenue."
"My job's downtown, two blocks from Lake Merritt."
"Do you like your work?" I ask.
"No, but it pays the bills. How about you?"
The morning coffee buzz is my second-favorite part of the dayand the time when I'm my most insufferable. "I love my work," I say. "And it helps that my wife pays all our bills." This is not technically trueI do pay the phone bill. And my own life insurance premium.
8:31Grove and Market: The programmer hasn't even closed the door, when a disheveled woman named Gloria rushes the cab.
"Fourteenth and Mission as fast as humanly possible."
"Five minutes," I say. We catch two lights, we're flying up Mission. Three minutes looks possible. Or maybe two. "What's up?" I ask her.
"I'm just one step above homeless and for three months I've been paying $500 to a horrible woman who only speaks Spanish and lets me live in a tiny room with a hole in the window and no heat and she won't let me use the space heater unless I pay her another $60 up front but now the Iris Center this place that helps women in trouble has got me an 8:30 appointment with Catholic Relief Services who might help me get me an apartment in a residential hotel at 16th and Mission I know it's a terrible neighborhood but believe it or not it's a very nice place just remodeled and I really really want it and I just really really need to get to this appointment..."
I pull into the Arco station on Fourteenth. Gloria lifts a stack of bills over the back seat. I punch the meter once to stop it, and once more to disappear the $5.55 fare. "This ride is free."
"Oh, no..." she says. "You can't... You've gotta make a..."
It's a common reaction, but one I really really didn't expect from Gloria. I go to my practiced rap: "Every day I give away one free ride. It's my favorite part of the day. And if you're willing, I'd like this to be that ride."
For two seconds she is speechless. Then: "My name is Gloria. God bless you God bless you God bless you..."
8:34: I'm gliding back downtown on Mission, scanning the sidewalk, ear on the radio. I've got eight hours left on my shift and forty-three new dollars in my shirt pocket, and my body is cool with that.
(I was proud of this column, and I liked that it had only taken three or four hours to write and polish. I felt I was getting a feel for this thing, was even developing a slightly new voice. But I also was afraid that it might again fall under the "too clean" category. So after my next shift I wrote the following column and sent it right in. I thought: "Tthey won't be able to resist me much longer...")
F-Bombs Blanket South of Market
nothing else they would consider doing for a living."
I FIRST READ those words in 1985, when I sat in supplication across the desk from a cab company vice president. He had once been a driver himself, but now he wore a white shirt, flashy tie, gray suit, suspenders. He had scissored that lone sentence from a newspaper article and taped it to the rim of the ceramic cup holding his pencils. Giving me a job was the final kindness he ever showed me.
Twenty years later I can vouch for the assertion on that cup. I now know hundreds of people who are cab drivers for life, and I'm one of them. Most shifts I come home snickering: "I can't believe I get paid for this!"
But not all shifts are glorious. Sometimes things can go bad in a hurry.
Fourth and Howard, 3:45 PM: With 45 minutes left, I've still got an outside shot at $150. At Moscone Center two mid-size, mid-40s white guys flag me down. They look harmlesslike avid golfers who excel at the 19th hole.
"The Hilton on Ofarrell."
I think: Eight blocks, six bucks, and still time for one or maybe two short rides. I roar off down Howard.
"That f-bomb Johnson!" one of them says. "He f-bomb told that f-bomb Parks that we're doing fifty f-bomb percent of the whole f-bomb deal!"
"No f-bomb way!" says the other.
I think: Seven and a half blocks... I speed up and catch the yellow at Fifth Street. Six and a half...
"Oh, yeah. And that scumbag prances over and tells me they're goin' after the other f-bomb fifty."
"Parks! That f should keep his m-f-bomb nose to his m-f-bomb self."
"PLEASE...!" I shout. At Sixth Street a construction crane is hoisting two mammoth industrial fans on a palette dangling twenty feet above both right lanes. I slide beneath them to catch this yellow, too, and tip us into a skittering right turn. "My ears!"
They go silent. I'm not watching the mirror, I'm watching the streetwe're flying up Sixth toward the green at Missionbut I know they're trading looks.
One, loudly: "He sounds like my f-bomb wife!"
The other: "My f-bomb wife is a f-bomb c-bomb!"
Scrreeeeeeeecchhh! The signal is still green when we skid to a stop at the corner of Sixth and Mission. If this isn't the hands-down "seediest intersection in San Francisco," the road to the title certainly runs through here. Glassy-eyed men are leaning against the brick wall next to Lulu's Barber Shop, committing to memory our sudden, unscheduled arrival. A resting hiker, so overheated that he's had to remove his shirt, lifts his head from the sidewalk to see what's the commotion. Fares coming in from the airport often ask me, "What part of town do you call this?" And I usually get a big laugh when I say: "The Wine Country."
Now I say, "You need a different cab." I punch the meter, erasing $3.75.
They don't hesitate, but step out, scattering a-bombs and f-bombs behind. They leave the door gaping... broken glass on the sidewalk... the stench of urine... Sixth and Mission is timeless. I'll bet it looked just like this back when Jack London lived in the neighborhood.
And now I notice two elderly African American womenchurch ladies --right there on the sidewalk like an apparition. One of them leans on a walker with green tennis balls stuck on its legs. "Oh, we've been trying for a cab!"
I get out, go around, fold up the walker, stash it up front with me, help them settle in back. I see the conventioneers scuttling across Mission Street toward the Hilton, still five long blocks away. They're trying to ignore the helpful young gentleman scuttling after them, barking, "Whachuneed, man? Whachuneed?"
Fifth and Howard3:53: I'm headed back toward Moscone, calmed down now. When I told the church ladies about all the cussing, one of them said, "They were just the Lord's way of getting us home, honey!"
I'm cruising past the Chieftan Irish Pub, where writers from the Chronicle hang. Years ago I picked up Leah Garchick here one nightnice tipper. On the sidewalk ahead I see a white guy, about 30, humping a daypack and dragging a suitcase on wheels. Even before he spots me, I'm pulling over.
I keep a friend's borrowed laptop in the trunk. Now I slide it to the side to make room for my fare's luggage.
"The train station, please." He grew up in Palo Alto, lives now in Boise, works in software development, just finished a few meetings in San Francisco and is catching a train to Palo Alto to spend the weekend at his parents' house. I hope all their friends and neighbors read this.
The commute is underway, traffic is thick at the station. To get the guy as close to the entrance as possible, I stop in the bus zone, pop the trunk, hit my flashers. We hear the measured ding-ding-ding of an arriving train. My fare pays me, thanks me, says, "I can grab my stuffyou don't have to get out."
He unloads in a flash, slams the trunk, gives me a nod in the side mirror. I watch him walk toward the station. Backpack... suitcase... laptop! I jump out and look. Trunk has never been so empty.
"Sir!" I yell at his back. But he's thirty yards away, and in the din he couldn't hear me even if he wanted to. He's disappearing into the commute crowd. I'm sprinting. He ducks behind a tall schedule board and sets his suitcase on the ground. People flow around him. He adjusts the laptop's strap, hangs it from his shoulder, picks up his suitcase, resumes his march. He doesn't seem to recognize me, standing right there in his path.
"That's my laptop."
"Oh." He hands it right over, not even a glance down, not a whimper of protest. "It looks just like mine."
A parking enforcement buggy is stopped behind my flashing, trunk-popped, bus-zoned cab, but pulls away when I come running.
Third and Market4:11 pm: I've just dropped a fare who got off the train. I've wrung $156 out of the city today. I have nineteen minutes to gas up and get the cab to the night driver waiting back at the yardif I'm late I owe him a dollar a minute. A red light stops me at Lotta's Fountain. I grab my clipboard and start recording the end-of-shift numbers from the meter onto my waybill. The back door jerks open and a man drops onto the backseat.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir. My shift is over."
He's disgusted. "Come on!"
"I'm headed to the gas station at Ninth and Howard, then the garage at Army and Evans. Are you headed that direction?"
"I've gotta get to the Castro."
Add twenty minutes. "I'm sorry, man. Can't do it."
He sighs, he opens the door"It's because I'm black!"and slams it so hard my daughter's photograph falls off the dashboard.
(I waited until Mr. Rosenthal had been back from vacation a few days before I called again. His assistant said, "Oh, hang onhe just walked out to go to a meeting... maybe I can catch him." When she came back to the phone she said, "He told me to tell you that he's read all your columns and now he and Phil are going to discuss their options."
I thanked her. I pondered whether or not to flood them with more columns, but decided not to. I had done a credible auditionI'd given it my best. Some things you can't control. I waited a couple of weeks before I called a friend who works at the Chronicle. She told me that Mr. Bronstein and Mr. Rosenthal had some things on their plates that might distract them from making a decision on replacing a taxicab columnist. The internet was sucking up advertising dollars that used to go to the Chroniclea spending and hiring freeze was in place. The union contract was due to expire soonalthough I shouldn't look for this to be reported in the paper, a strike was a distinct possibility. Big organizations can be terribly slow in reacting to events. I shouldn't take it personally.
A couple of months have now passedtoday is April 12, 2005. I'll let you know if anything develops...)