As I pulled out of the Yellow Cab garage at 4:20 on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, I was a cab driver with a ten-hour mission.
The economy had been clicking along at cyberspeed for a while now, and lately I'd been hearing more and more driversincluding several I actually believedmention that they'd had $300 shifts. But my personal best was still the $268 I'd netted one Halloween Saturday night, and - after a decade in an industry often perceived as the last bastion of the underachiever - I was beginning to feel like a slacker.
If I couldn't crack $300 tonight, on a New Year's Eve in the middle of the biggest stock market run in history...well, maybe I wasn't the cab driver I fancied myself.
My first fare was a radio call a few blocks from the garage, a woman going from Bernal Heights to visit a sick friend at the University of California Medical Center.
Friend's illness aside, my fare said this had been an excellent year; she sold advertising space in computer magazines. When she asked, I said that, yes, it had been a good year for me, too-and I told her how I was hoping to top it off.
She said $300 should be easy tonight, no? No, I said, not at all. Add up my $85 cab rental fee, $20-25 for gasoline, and $10 more for dispatchers' tips and, hey, I was starting my ten-hour shift some $120 in the hole. To take home $300 I would have to gross about $420. Forty-two bucks an hour. Quite a bump from the $25-30 hourly gross of, say, a decent Friday night.
"Hmmm," said my first fare, "I see." And at ride's end she got me off to an excellent start, wishing me a safe shift and leaving me $15 for a $9.20 fare.
Ah, yes, the tip.
I've always ranked having a customer in the cab primary, the tip secondary. If someone tips me, bless them; if not, at least I've got the fare. However, one year I kept careful track and discovered that tips comprised roughly one-third of my take-home. Tips matter, and to have a $300 night I would need a stream of customers like fare number one.
Dropping her at the hospital I was flagged by two young women who looked like sisters but were not. They were headed to Ronald McDonald House, where McDonald's, Inc. "gives something back" by housing, for free, the out-of-town families of hospitalized children.
Only one of the two women spoke English. She said she and her friend lived in far northern California, "but my friend is Mexican and last summer when she came across, the border guards chased her. She was pregnant and she fell and it hurt the baby."
The baby, a girl, was born with serious complications, and recently mother, baby, and friend had all received a 400-mile medical airlift to UC Med, paid for by California taxpayers. Now the baby was undergoing several surgeries, also at taxpayer expense.
But not everything was going smoothly. "The hospital is being stupid," the English speaker said, "hassling my friend because she doesn't have an alien card. American people go to Mexico all the time. They should make American people get alien cards."
I said I was once lucky enough to spend a year in Mexico, and indeed the Mexican government had required me and all other resident aliens to carry alien cards and renew them every sixty days. The rest of the ride to Ronald McDonald House was dominated by a bilingual silence. To cover the $5.60 fare, I was handed a voucher provided by an arm of the San Francisco welfare system. No tip.
Fare number five was a young Dutch couple going from Union Square to the Hyatt Regency. They had flown in from Amsterdam that afternoon to spend two nights in San Francisco before flying home again.
"We just wanted to get away from our families for a little while," they said, laughing, and I laughed with them. But a reflective moment later I said, "I guess you could say that tonight I'm doing the same thing."
My wife had given birth to our first child five weeks earlier, and poor Sarah was colicky. She cried and cried and cried, and, in those rare moments when our little darling was overtaken by exhaustion, my wife, my visiting mother-in-law, and I all tiptoed around the house like cat burglars afraid to squeak a floorboard. Leaving for work that afternoon I had felt like a traitor, but an oh-so-willing one.
My seventh ride was an elderly couple from Cheyenne, Wyoming. The arrest of yet another thug from the University of Nebraska football team was in the news, and now the man had a joke for me. "How do you get the attention of the entire Nebraska football team?"
I didn't know.
"You say, 'All rise and face the bench.'"
I have a friend from Wyoming who, when I once complained about Wyoming's howling winds, told me a joke I hoped this couple would appreciate. "The truth," I told them, "is that Wyoming isn't windy at all. It's just that Nebraska sucks." They laughed as hard at my joke as I had at theirs and left a $5 tip.
By 7 o'clock, two hours and forty minutes into the shift, I had transported ten fares and collected $101. Thirty-eight dollars an hour-off-pace for a $420 gross. But it was still very early and the night still held the possibility of a long fare (my longest ever: SFO to Santa Cruz, $150) or a phenomenal tip (my largest: $103)still held the possibility of just about anything.
Sprinkles were falling at 7:05 when I rang the doorbell for a radio call at 2451 Buchanan. A blond woman wearing a black, spaghetti-strapped party sheath but no shoes came down to say that she and her friends weren't ready. Could I come back in ten minutes? No? Well, could I ask the dispatcher to send another cab in, say, 20 minutes?
Sixty seconds and two blocks later, two men flagged me at Jackson and Fillmore. "Dude, it's only seven o'clock and already it's trippy out here. We've been trying to flag someone for 15 minutes."
I told them about the barefooted woman.
"Dude, she must be new in town. What she shouda said: 'Please Mister Cab Driver, I'm kicking you down this ten, no this twenty, just for an advance tip. Please, turn on your meter and give us a few minutes.' Then she shoulda flashed you."
When I dropped my perceptive friends at the Abbey Tavern at Fifth Avenue and Geary, ten people bolted out of the drizzly darkness to fight over my cab. I delivered the three winners to the downtown Hilton, where the person at the head of the long queue beside the doorman was a large, happy-looking man wearing a black and gold letter jacket.
He announced his destinationAlemany and Leo streets, a $12 freeway farein such a thick accent that I realized we'd do better in Spanish, which, at my request, we spoke very slowly.
He said he was from Cuba and had escaped en un barco, in a boat, on his second attempt. His first attempt failed because the boat was too small, too leaky. But a year and five months ago he and nine amigos had found a bigger, less porous boat, a rowboat no larger than our taxicab, and this time they rowed to within ten miles of Florida before a cruise ship picked them up.
Three days later Catholic Relief Services flew him from Miami to San Francisco. In a few months his wife and two children were able to join him, and now they were expecting a third. He worked in a Cuban restaurant in the Tenderloin district, and was feeling muchas felicidades, much happiness, about life in America. On Leo Street he gave me $16 and wished me a "Feliz Ano Nuevo."
For much of the year a cab driver can feel invisible, his or her struggle to find fares seemingly ignored by the entire population. So it comes as an annual relief to be so popular, so sought after, even if it lasts but one night and is simply a function of supply and demand.
Back downtown at 8 p.m. I found a New Year's Eve to match any cab driver's dreams: half a million revelers trying to squeeze into San Francisco's 1,400 taxis. Doormen's whistles shrieked from every direction, and the sidewalks were jumping with wild-eyed cab-flaggers, some waving umbrellas, some flapping the ever-popular greenbacks overhead like mistletoe.
Rain and rides now arrived in torrents: a Polish-American man who had been in San Francisco for nine years and now owned a computer store near the corner of Bush and Sansome, and whose date was distraught over having broken the heel on her pump; a woman who asked me to interpret a dream she'd had about Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman (I wasn't much help); four middle-aged people wearing identical Planters Peanuts costumes (I didn't ask); a 13-year-old boy whose father had sent him to rent Amadeus but, since the video store had been out of Amadeus, was returning home with New Jack City; and a woman from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania who said, "If there is a nice god, this rain will stop."
At 10:45 I used my cell phone to order a Chicken-Caesar salad from a restaurant at Sacramento and Polk. Nearly every corner now held huddles of wet revelers trying to get somewhereperhaps anywhereby midnight, and dozens of them struck poses of livid indignation as I sailed past.
One block from my salad I pulled over to a well-dressed couple gesturing at me from under a one-person umbrella and told them they could wait in my cab while I ran in and grabbed dinner. They did not repeat the blunder of the barefoot woman, whom I imagined still sitting in her Buchanan Street doorway, surrounded by dejected, carefully-groomed friends. This couple gladly spent three dry minutes in my cab, parked in front of a fire hydrant, and when I dropped them at Pine and Leavenworth, a $2.70 fare, gave me a $10 bill. All of it.
By 11:00, six hours and forty minutes into my shift, I had collected $253 from thirty faresstill averaging $38 an hour. During my remaining time I would need to average $45. The night, like the year, seemed not so youthful anymore.
And now I was beginning to feel the first fingers of fatigue sneaking up my spine. And to miss my family. I pictured Rhonda and Sarah cuddled up in our big bed and Gloria asleep in the guestroom. I could have phoned, but if my call woke Sarah I knew no one would be wishing me Happy New Year.
At 11:38 the nice god abruptly stopped the rain. And almost immediately some lesser deity sent me a couple in their early twenties. The woman resembled Winona Ryder, but I'll bet Winona would have done more talking.
The man read my name off the picture ID mounted on the dash and even before his rear end hit the back seat he chirped, "So how's your night going, Bradley?"
Without waiting for my response, he said, "We want you to find us a nice coffee house, kind of classy, not too expensive, not too far away, a place that'll be open for a couple of hours. Can you do that, Bradley?" I said North Beach was full of coffeehouses and was about five-dollars distant. "Sounds good, Bradley."
I cocked my head toward the woman and asked, "Where are you from?"
The man answered. "I own a software company in San Diego. Started it myself last year. Yep, now I've got eighteen employees. Things are going pretty well"I cringed, I saw it coming"Bradley."
I made the trip at speeds exceeding the limit and dumped them in front of "Live Nude Girls" in North Beach. The man handed me four singles and three quarters for a $4.70 fare.
The populace was hunkering for the countdown, and it took a couple of minutes to find my midnight fare. At 11:52 I was flagged by a bartender coming off his shift at Anthony's. Thirty-two years old and a native of Michoacan, Mexico, Angel was a university-trained architect. He was also the oldest child in a large family, and at his graduation ceremony his parents had asked for his support. Nine years ago Angel had come north.
"No," he said, when I asked if he'd resented his parents' request. "Things are different in Mexico. I never thought twice about it. I still dream of working as an architect, but my family needs the money I send. My time will come someday."
Car horns blared, firecrackers blew. I turned up "Auld Lang Syne," which was playing on nearly every radio station, and stuck my hand over the back seat. Angel and I shook on the New Year.
At 12:10 a.m., at 16th and Mission, two women on high heels skittered down the slick sidewalk and the instant Angel exited they dived into my back seat, gasping. "Dios mio, dios mio!" My God. They were calling it an early night"Too many drunks out there"and were heading home to Daly City. Freeway. $25.
By 12:45 I had logged 35 trips and stashed a total of $318 in my right sock and various pockets. But in an hour and 35 minutes my cab was due back to the garage, and I was still $102 shy of a $420 gross. Unless someone said something irregular, perhaps "Take me to Palo Alto," and said it soon, I wasn't going to net $300. Even $250 was going to be a stretch.
A sudden tired mopiness settled on my shoulders, but I shrugged it away. In the grand scheme I had no right to complain: I'd had a good year in a good, mostly easy life. My parents had never needed a dime from me. My biggest current complaint was a daughter who cried a lot, but there were worse thingslots worse. The very next baby delivered in the hospital room where Sarah was born never drew a breath. I should be glad Sarah's little lungs worked like bellows, should be glad she was alive, glad I was alive, alive and well in the world's best city, in the middle of one of the world's best parties. I had wads of cash, a highly coveted ride, and the masses waving at me, screaming, "You the Man!"
One-twenty-nine a.m., fare number 40. A man, woman, and two sleepy kids headed home from a private party in the Mission District. A block from their house: "Hey, bro! I heard on the radio that if you're drunk, taxis have to take you home for free. Well, I'm drunk!"
I told the man I had no connection to that program.
"No, I heard it, man. If you're drunk, any taxi has to take you home free."
We were stopped in front of his house now. The meter read $3.50. His wife was pulling on his arm, his kids were both snuffling. "Step out on the sidewalk, pal," he said, "and we'll settle up."
I picked up my microphone. "Marian, I'm being threatened by a no-pay on 20th Street between Capp and Mission and I might need the police." Marian's voice crackled back: "Say the word."
The woman started shrieking in Spanish at the man. He produced a roll of bills larger than any of my own, found a five, waited for his $1.50 change, and slammed the door so hard my picture ID fell to the floorboard.
Half a block away, in front of Bruno's bar, fifteen wobbly patrons waved at me like bidders at a Beanie-Baby auction. Down Mission Street I could see this scene repeated kaleidoscopically.
When I stopped for the nearest group, a woman from across the street ran up to my driver's side window, face twisted in full alcoholic glory. "Get on your god-damn radio and tell him to send some more fucking cabs out here!"
"I'm sorry, but tonight she'd just laugh at me."
"You son-of-a-bitch. I've got your fucking number! I'm reporting you to the fucking police!"
Nonetheless, it's in a cab driver's blood to get people home. And at 2:20 a.m., my ten-hour mark, with thousands of people still out and about, I didn't have it in me to turn in and park the cab. I quit obsessing over my wads, decided to quit counting them and just drive until I gave outand to absorb Yellow's $10 per hour late fees.
Even a cab driver has to give something back.
A lone woman going from Harry Denton's bar to Pacific Heights told me, "I hope you're in love with someone." From Geary and Mason two hookers named Cookie and Denise"We need chocolate bad!"went to Sparky's Diner on Church Street. Low on gas, I stopped at the ARCO station at 17th and Castro and pumped $10 worth. Spotting my empty cab, two men sprinted over from Little Orphan Andy's restaurant; on the way to the club Pleasure Dome they stopped making out in the back seat and instead started arguing:
"I'm sorry! Hell-oh! Naomi Campbell is not supermodel material."
"Oh, Reggie, pull-eeez!"
From Pleasure Dome two British men went to the Hotel Marilyn on Dashiell Hammett Street. Two Japanese men went from the Hyatt-Union Square to the Holiday Inn-Chinatownnine quick blocks, but I had to shake both of them awake on arrival. A woman named Celeste and four of her friends went from Happy Donuts in Chinatown to the club End Up, where Celeste announced, "This cab driver rules! Rules!"and slobbered onto my cheek (a kiss?). A blur of other people went to a blur of other places, until at 4:07 a.m., spent, I dropped my last fare at 23rd Avenue and Irving and flew back across town to the garage in time to punch in and avoid being charged for a third late hour.
At Yellow's gas pump I calculated that during my twelve hours I had booked 51 fares and driven 182 miles. I tipped the gasman his nightly dollar and parked the cab. I pushed $119.30 in cash and vouchers through the slot in the cashier's window: $85 for the cab, $20 for late charges, $13.30 for the fillup, a dollar tip for the cashier. I stuffed several singles into the dispatchers' tip envelopes and swept a mound of coins into my wallet. I jammed my jumper cables, back support, maps and San Francisco telephone book into my locker, scrubbed blue-gray money filth from my hands, sorted my bills and began counting.
I counted them once, and then again. And almost disbelievingly, again. Each time it came out the same. Two-ninety-eight, two-ninety-nine...Dios mio...