ON A CHILLY Saturday night a few weeks before Christmas, a young woman flagged my cab near the Fairmont Hotel. She lived in Chicago and was in town for a convention of dentistsshe worked for a company that sold dental supplies, but right now she was skipping out on a cocktail party in favor of a movie at the Kabuki Cinema.
Cruising out Pine Street, she told me that, no, she wasn't all that excited about the upcoming holidays. Christmas was so commercial, so stressful. She didn't have any kids, but her sister had three of the little monsters and watching them gorge on presentsso many presents!made her sick. She no longer liked Christmas with her familyall the eating, all the gifts, it wore her out. This year was the first year she wasn't going back to the annual gathering at her parents' home in New York; she was going to Puerto Vallarta to lie on the beach for a week and she sure was looking forward to that...
The signal at Pine and Gough went green just as we reached it, and I swung into a left. Gough's one-way traffic usually clips right along, but as I rounded the corner this time I was forced to a dead halt.
All three lanes were clogged empty cars, abandoned in midstreet at skewed angles. Their drivers and passengers were all hopping around between vehicles, bobbing up and down like robbins in the yard after a rain, stabbing at scraps of litter that fluttered in some profusion along the asphalt.
"Twenty dollar bills!" I cried out. There were dozens of greenbacks skittering along the pavement, alighting here and there until snatched up by someone's fingers.
I saw my own fingers closing around a 20, then another and another and, thenwhat's this?a one dollar bill! OK, so they weren't all 20s, but they were all money, and disappearing fast.
In 15, 20 seconds at most, the street was picked clean. I straightened up and looked around. People were scurrying back to their cars, giggling. I heard someone say, "There's our rent money!" And then they all screeched off.
I imagined that I would now see the bereaved former owner of this money-wandering the asphalt, tearing at his hair-but the street was again empty. I was not, actually, disappointed.
My fare had jumped out of the cab right behind me, but now she was in the back seat again, a little breathless.
"How much did you get?" she asked.
I began unraveling the cash wad balled up in my fist. Eleven separate bills: eight twenties, a ten, two ones. "A hundred and seventy two dollars," I told her. "How'd you do?"
She had exited on the less-littered, right side of the cab, and the difference had been crucial. "I got onea 20," she said, grinning, and held it up for me to see.
When we pulled up in front of her movie theatre the meter read five dollars even. I punched it off, and said, "You don't owe me anything. I'm glad you were headed this way."
"Oh," she said, surprised. "Thanks." She got out of the cab, but leaned back in. "You know," she laughed, "I think I'm starting to catch the Christmas spirit after all."
San Francisco Examiner, December 15, 1996