By Brad Newsham
IN MY 15 YEARS as a cab driver, I have never once taken a customer "for a ride." I have always returned correct change down to the last nickel. Whenever someone accidentally slipped into a wad of bills an extra $5 or $10 or even, once, a $50! I've always given it back.
A Saturday night, around midnight, I'd just dropped a fare in front of the "Beach Blanket Babylon" show in North Beach when I was flagged by two men wearing tuxedos and two women in evening gowns. Three of them looked to be about 45 years old. The fourth, a portly, balding man with a horseshoe of white hair hooked around his ears, looked about 60.
As they arranged themselves in my cab, the woman nearest me said, "The St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, please, sir." She spoke precise English with an accent I couldn't be certain of.
"Where are you folks from?" I asked.
"CHEE-lay!" they chorused, as practiced as a cheerleading squad.
"Chile!" I said. "I don't hear that answer very often."
The older man, seated right behind me, said, "I should think not." His accent was stronger than the others.
"Is this a vacation?" I asked.
"We are trying to make it a vacation," said one of the women, "but really we are here for work."
"What kind of work?"
The older man named a credit-card company. "You should be accepting our card," he said, lightheartedly.
"We do!" I said, tapping the credit-card processor on my dash. "There is a $10 minimum."
"Oh, then we'll pay cash tonight," he said, "since it's a short ride."
"How are things in Chile these days?" I asked.
"Excellent," the older man replied.
"Is the U.S. government leaving you folks alone?"
They all laughed, but one woman said, "They were giving us a bit of a hard time during the Pinochet thing. I can't remember exactly what it was, but something."
I'd followed the saga of Gen. Augusto Pinochet for a long time. Chile's iron-fisted dictator from 1973 to 1990, Pinochet, now 85, was arrested in Britain in October 1998 on charges of genocide, torture, kidnapping and murder filed in the World Court. The charges stemmed from the disappearance of thousands of opponents of the military regime after Pinochet seized power. But the British released him, citing health reasons, and Pinochet returned to Chile in March of this year. Although the Supreme Court dismissed kidnapping and murder charges against Pinochet on Dec. 20, it ordered psychological tests and suggested that Pinochet could be re-arrested and charged agin.