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The Behind the Wheel Omnibus

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Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus

The Complete Zine Series about Driving for Hire in San Francisco

The Behind the Wheel zine was created by longtime zine maker Kelly Dessaint to document his experiences driving for hire in San Francisco. The first two issues chronicle driving for Uber and Lyft, before he goes to taxi school and becomes a bonafide taxi driver. The third issue features the unexpurgated “I Drive SF,” based on his weekly column for the San Francisco Examiner. The fourth issues contains five long-form essays about driving a taxi in San Francisco while living in Oakland, writing for a newspaper, dealing with a complicated marriage, hostile encounters with Uber/Lyft drivers and the prospect of bringing a child into a world that’s completely out of whack. Combined, this collection presents a vivid, voyeuristic tapestry of The City, which is a constant backdrop throughout the stories – essentially the main star – followed closely by the author himself.


Available directly from the author:

Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus

The complete zine series about driving for hire in San Francisco... This 364 page paperback contains the definitive versions of all four issues of Behind the Wheel, expanded and updated with new illustrations and additional content. Two-tone cover, fully illustrated in black and white. Free shipping via USPS media mail.

$20.00


Also wherever else books are sold…

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That Time I Was a Lyft Driver for Halloween

Ah, the memories… Even if I try to forget, Facebook always reminds me of the stupid shit I did in the past… And wrote columns about…

The increasingly blurry lines of driving for hire

By Kelly Dessaint 

published on Nov 6, 2015

I was a Lyft driver for Halloween.

The idea came to me at last week’s barbeque. For some reason, driving around San Francisco, picking up fares with Lyft’s iconic trade dress on my cab, seemed like an absolutely hilarious prank. Even if I just caused confusion, at the very least it would be a noteworthy social experiment.

So that Saturday, once it got dark, I fastened the fluffy pink Carstache Lyft sent me when I first signed up to the grill of National 182 and attached the Glowstache I’d received as a top-rated driver to the dash.

I created a Pandora station around The Cramps, Misfits and Ramones.

To augment my trickery, I planned to tell my passengers I didn’t know where I was going and that it was 200 percent Prime Time all night.

I figured everyone would laugh and throw piles of money at me for having such a clever costume.

On 16th Street, a girl dressed as a spider flagged me down.

“Can you take me to Geary and Fillmore, please?”

“Sorry, I’m a Lyft driver,” I said merrily. “I don’t know where that is.”

“It’s easy,” she responded in all seriousness. “I’ll direct you.”

“…”

From Japantown, I crawled down Polk Street behind a beat-up white limo. A few cab drivers looked at me like I was committing the greatest sin by “rocking the ’stache,” as they say in Lyft parlance.

Trevor, the Street Ninja, impersonating Travis Bickle, cruised past me at one point cracking up.

“I’m a Lyft driver!” I yelled out the window. “Where am I? What street is this? Are we in SoMa?”

I stuck to the more congested parts of The City, where I knew my caricature would get the most exposure. Some Lyft drivers scowled at me. Others blew their horns or flashed their high beams.

The majority of my passengers, though, didn’t seem to notice or care. They just told me where they were going, and off I drove with my mouth shut.

So much for being a friend with a cab.

After dropping off a group of revelers at Bar None, I was heading deeper into the congestion of Union Street with The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at full blast when a guy darted out of the crowd.

“You!” He pointed at my cab, laughed and jumped in the backseat.

Barreling down Gough, we talked about irony and thrash metal. When I dropped him off on Valencia, he almost took off without paying.

“Hey, I’m only pretending to be a Lyft,” I reminded him.

On my way to the Haight from the Mission with a fare, Other Larry pulled up next to me on Guerrero in Veterans 233.

“Nice fucking mustache!” he shouted.

“Look at me!” I jeered. “I’m a Lyft driver and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!”

“Does it ever get old?” the guy in the backseat asked.

“What?”

“Making fun of Lyft.”

“No.”

On a ride through the back roads of the Western Addition, I tried to explain to another guy the tension between the Smartphone Hailed Internet Transportation Services and cab drivers and why the Lyft mustaches on my taxi were so hilarious.

“You mean you can’t do Lyft in a cab?” he asked. “I always assumed you guys were all the same.”

The same?

Sure, the lines are blurry these days: Flywheel is an app and a taxi company; most Uber drivers are Lyft drivers and vice versa; decommissioned Yellow cabs are used as Uber-Lyft cars; Towncar drivers slap fake TCP numbers on their bumpers to access commercial lanes; out-of-town cabs come into The City all the time and pick up street hails; and now Uber-Lyft drivers are putting toplights on their Priuses.

According to a recent study from Northeastern University, the streets of San Francisco are congested with more than 10,000 vehicles for hire on average. During a holiday like Halloween, that number is considerably higher. But only taxicabs are required to follow rules and regulations. Everyone else is free to play make-believe all they want.

It doesn’t even matter if the portrayal is convincing. The general population just wants the cheapest and most convenient ride available. Who provides the actual service, whether they’re knockoffs or the real McCoy, is completely irrelevant.

Especially on Halloween.

____________________

Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner.

New Site Edits and Back End Revisions

Oh my. I’ve been going through this blog updating links to the S.F. Examiner pages where many of these posts originally appeared. It seems the management has rearranged their servers and subsequent urls. Not that exciting, but I’m trying to breathe some life back into this site. If for anything, just to keep it from disappearing into the web-oblivion. All links to buy books, zines or other ephemera still – theoretically – work perfectly.

The Worst Taxi Driver in San Francisco

The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t work the DJ clubs, doesn’t troll the bars in the Mission and avoids Polk Street like the plague. He doesn’t play the airport or cabstand at hotels. Most of the time, he sits in front of the Power Exchange or Divas waiting for a call from a regular rider.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco has said, given the option, he’d prefer to exclusively deal with transgender passengers.

“They’re the only normal people around anymore.” He doesn’t mind the patrons of sex clubs, because they don’t expect more than a ride. But he never asks questions. He’d rather not know what goes on inside those establishments.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t collect kickbacks when he drops off at massage parlors or strip clubs. He just moves on to the next fare. “Why would I expect to get paid to take somebody one place and not another?”

The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t make much money, even though he works every day. He hasn’t missed a shift in more than a year, but he only does splits, showing up at the yard around 10 p.m. Sometimes he doesn’t hit the streets until midnight. There are nights when he barely covers his gate and gas, and nights when he’s lucky to go home with $15 in his pocket.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco usually drives the shittiest cabs in the fleet. By showing up late, his options are limited to whatever’s available, and that’s almost always a clunker or a spare. But he’s all right with it …

The worst cab driver in San Francisco isn’t picky. He never complains. And if he does express displeasure, he quickly blames himself. He knows he’s the worst cab driver in San Francisco and isn’t afraid to accept that distinguished role. After all, someone has to be the worst.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco focuses on developing relationships with regular clients and providing safe transport. Once, a woman he’d just dropped off at her apartment returned to his cab and asked why he hadn’t driven away yet. “I’m waiting for you to get inside,” he told her. “Why?” she wanted to know. “Because it’s my job.”

The worst cab driver in San Francisco may be odd, but he is so trustworthy his regular customers have asked him to housesit while they’re out of town.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco will stop and help out any driver in distress, cab or otherwise. It’s not like he has anything to lose by taking the time to jumpstart a stalled vehicle or push it out of the flow of traffic. And if they offer him a tip, he adamantly turns it down.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco once left his cab running outside his apartment while he ran up to use the bathroom. In the few minutes he was gone, someone snatched his pack of cigarettes from the console, the key from the ignition and the medallion off the dash. Figuring the thief would ditch the medallion once he realized it was just a worthless piece of tin, he spent the next morning wandering around the neighborhood looking for it to avoid the fine for getting a replacement. When his search proved futile, he went to the police station to file a report and there was the medallion, sitting right on the officer’s desk. How it got there, no one knew. The key and his cigarettes, however, were never recovered.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t charge meter and a half for rides 15 miles outside The City. He’s just happy to get what’s on the meter. And besides, he points out, during the hours he works, traffic isn’t an issue.

The worst cab driver in San Francisco always makes sure to stretch before and after each shift. “I may look silly doing this,” he says while doing crunches on an abandoned bucket seat in the yard with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “But my back feels amazing.”

The worst cab driver in San Francisco, whenever I tell him he might be on to something the rest of us are missing, always says, “Nah, man … I don’t know shit.”

______________

Originally published by S.F. Examiner. Photo by Trevor Johnson.

Let’s Lynch The Landlord!

My column for the S.F. Examiner this week is about unscrupulous landlords…

It’s not a good time to be a landlord…

In January, the state of California passed Senate Bill 91, the Tenant Relief Act, to help renters and landlords financially impacted by the pandemic. Besides extending the eviction moratorium, the bill also devotes $2.6 billion to reimburse property owners for unpaid rent.

Even though most landlords will benefit from the bill by getting 80 percent of money they might otherwise never see, according to Apartment Owners Association News, a trade publication that showed up in my mailbox addressed to a previous occupant or current resident, the AOA is opposed to SB-91 because it challenges a cornerstone of their industry: controlling tenants.

Rent is a form of blackmail, a quasi-protection racket that ensures you pay your landlord a tribute each month in exchange for shelter, i.e., protection from homelessness. Within this system, there is a major imbalance of power between the tenant and the unscrupulous landlord, since the latter has the control. The only way for the tenant to resist this disparity is to not pay rent. But then you’ll end up homeless.

No matter what, a landlord is gonna landlord.

Read the rest here.

The Story of Owl Cab: A Black-Owned Taxi Company in 1940’s Pittsburgh

Interesting article from 2015 about a Black-owned cab company in 1940’s Pittsburgh that rose up from the jitneys that served the African-American population and neighborhood. [Includes more great photos from the era.]

In an Era of Segregation, Owl Cab Mobilized Black Pittsburgh

“Owl Cab Company was started by former jitney driver Silas Knox because Yellow Cab refused to come to the Hill,” says Kenneth Hawthorne, guest curator of the exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars.

The history of Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District and its ever-changing social climate are issues with which Hawthorne is intimately familiar. After all, he started his career by working as a mechanic at Hawthorne’s Esso, his father’s service station on Wylie Avenue in the Hill, before eventually going on to become a vice president at Gulf Oil. Owl Cab Company, as well as their competitors and local jitney drivers, all had their cars serviced at Hawthorne’s.

While Yellow Cab’s refusal to provide service to residents of the Hill was just one example of the many ways African Americans were discriminated against during an era of segregation, it also revealed a longstanding problem: the transit gap in black communities. Before Knox established Owl Cab Company in the 1950s, jitneys were a mainstay on Hill District streets. The creation of a black-owned cab company, however, was a major development—not to mention an investment risk for Knox.

Read the rest here.

My Birthday Present from the SFMTA

Every year I have to get drug tested to renew my A-Card, and every year I bitch about it in the newspaper. The above image is from the first column I wrote about dragging my weary ass to the clinic to get tested.

My column for the S.F. Examiner this week is about getting older, pissing in a cup and Prop 22. In that order…

This time of the year always fills me with dread. Not just because I’m one year older, but as a taxi driver, I get a special birthday present from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: the onerous task of renewing my A-Card, the permit that allows me to operate a taxicab on the streets of San Francisco. The process includes, among other indignities, pissing in a cup.

Each year, I dutifully go down to the Concentra Medical Center in Potrero Hill and sit in their crowded lobby, squirming on a chair with a throbbing bladder, waiting for my turn to donate a specimen. The ordeal usually takes over an hour.

It’s humiliating. Demeaning. A violation of my privacy.

And for what?

According to the SFMTA, the Drug and Alcohol Testing Program for taxicab drivers was implemented in 2015 to comply with state law. I guess mandatory drug testing is supposed to convince the public that taxis are safe, and drivers – at least for three days out of the year – are drug free. But hardly anyone cares. It’s just another hurdle you have to jump through for the privilege of being a taxi driver.

Then there’s the hassle of getting a medical marijuana card. Even though weed is legal in the state of California, Proposition 64 doesn’t change the transportation code. Since my preferred CBD tincture includes a small percentage of THC, during the next few weeks, I’ll have to hunt down a shady doctor somewhere who still offers marijuana referrals. Already tedious challenge before COVID, now it’s surely to be a major headache. In fact, every step of this entire process will be more of a hassle because of COVID. You can’t even go grocery shopping nowadays without encountering various aggravations.

So yeah… happy birthday to me.

Meanwhile, Uber/Lyft drivers only need a pulse and a smartphone to perform the same job. Even Assembly Bill 5, which made Uber/Lyft drivers – according to state Law – employees, doesn’t require them to adhere to the same standards as taxi drivers. No, they don’t have to piss in cups or do rigorous background checks. It doesn’t make the ride any safer. AB5 just guarantees app-based drivers minimum wage, health care, worker’s comp and other benefits that employees enjoy.

Sounds awesome.

For Uber/Lyft drivers.

No wonder Uber and Lyft are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get an exemption from AB5, inundating social media and other markets with ads, urging people to vote yes on their Proposition 22.

Even though we’re exempt from AB5, it shouldn’t be surprising that most taxi drivers are opposed to Prop. 22. Forcing Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers like employees just might create a level playing field for taxis to survive. The companies will undoubtedly raise the rates, and maybe they won’t have as much freedom to flood the streets with inexperienced drivers. If Prop. 22 passes, though, it could be another deathblow to the taxi industry.

Still, AB5 is a garbage bill. Although its author, Lorena Gonzalez, has insisted vehemently on Twitter that it wasn’t specifically directed at Uber and Lyft, et. al., why have so many other industries been able to carve out exemptions? Even freelance writers, including myself, who were initially hit hard by AB5, are finally getting an exemption, along with many other occupations that traditionally have been performed – happily – by independent contractors who ended up as collateral damage in the passing of AB5.

That just leaves Uber, Lyft and all the assorted delivery companies in the crosshairs of AB5.

There was never any discussion, of course, except among ourselves, that taxi drivers were misclassified as independent contractors. Oh no, no, no. One just needs to glance at the letterhead in the paperwork the SFMTA sends you to renew your A-Card. There, at the top, is London Breed’s name. Since taxi drivers fall under the jurisdiction of San Francisco, the burden would fall on The City to provide benefits to taxi drivers. And nobody in Sacramento or City Hall wants that.

I guess we should just be grateful we don’t have to pay a renewal fee for our A- Cards this year. That would be the ultimate degradation now: paying for the luxury of being a taxi driver.

_________________________

Originally published by S.F. Examiner.

Other columns about the SFMTA drug tests:

Between a Jackhammer and a Piss Cup

The SFMTA Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack

How I Became a Self-Loathing Pandemic Hoarder

Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on April 16, 2020.

It’s hot in the sun. In the shade, it’s cold. I can’t seem to catch a break with the weather today. Standing in line outside Trader Joe’s with 50 other people, I begin to question my resolve.

According to the sign, the wait time is approximately 30 minutes. The line stretches from the entrance around the side of the store, through the parking lot and down a residential street. It’s only gotten longer since I showed up, enviro-sacks in hand, 10 minutes ago. As we get closer, another sign informs potential shoppers that personal bags aren’t allowed anymore. Cashiers must use fresh paper sacks. For safety reasons. I survey the other people in line. Everyone is carrying reusable bags.

A dutiful lot, we diligently maintain the requisite six feet of space. Every few minutes the line moves forward solemnly and I take my place on the next strip of duct tape.

Facemasks are the hot new fashion accessory. Some folks have the standard surgical models, but most are wearing decorated cloth wraps. Unable to find anything else, I’m rocking the bandito look with bandana and gloves.

Fully succumbed to quarantine life, I haven’t showered in three days. My parenting skills are evident in the grime on my pants.

As we move into the shadow of the building, I zip up my jacket with a white stain on the sleeve that I hope is toothpaste and try to remember my list, which is, of course, dependent on what’s in stock.

Read the rest here.

Looking for a Story with Wheels

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Five years ago, on May 1, 2015, the first I Drive SF column appeared in the S.F. Examiner. Below is an excerpt from the zine Behind the Wheel #4: The Thin Checkered Line about how I landed the column…


Looking for a Story

After my horrendous first night as a Lyft driver, back in February of 2014, I just wanted to give up, go home and fill out an application at Trader Joe’s. But the decision to use my personal car as a taxicab in San Francisco was about more than just making a few extra bucks.

I was looking for a story.

What started out as a lark rapidly took on a life of its own. Originally, I wanted to document the Uber/Lyft trend, explore San Francisco, have some interesting adventures to write about, make a zine about the experience and move on with my life. But as I delved further into the vehicle for hire debate, I found myself in the front seat of a story that was bigger than just gypsy cabs.

The city was going through a period of major upheaval. The extravagant displays of tech money only served to magnify the abject poverty that was laid bare.

The tension was palpable. On my first day driving for Lyft, there was a five-alarm fire in the Mission Bay. As I desperately tried to navigate the city and figure out the app, a small trail of smoke over a construction site quickly spread across the sky from Mission Bay into SoMa, downtown and the Mission.

It all seemed to make sense.

The confusion. The madness. The fires.

San Francisco had become a war zone.

There were battles raging across the city. Between long-term residents and fresh transplants. Between tech workers and non-tech workers. Between renters and owners. Between people leasing their apartments to strangers on the internet and the neighbors who didn’t want to live next door to Airbnb flophouses. And between tradition taxicabs and these new services that paired random drivers and passengers through apps.

Inspired by Gonzo Journalism, I charged headlong into the fray, with a stack of Moleskins. The narrative practically wrote itself. Like a prospector who’d struck it rich, I just held my pan in the creek and collected nugget after nugget of golden material.

My passengers had no clue their words and actions had any significance to me. But they were actually telling the story of the new San Francisco as they complained about the weather, the fog, the hills, the filth, the bums, the dating scene and how there aren’t enough restaurants open late at night when the bars close.

Most of all, they talked about money. VC capital. Billion dollar valuations. Funding rounds.

Everyone had an app.

It was 2014 and startup culture was all the rage. Overly hyped apps were popping up weekly to make people’s lives more convenient. And commerce was the driving force behind this new tech boom.

One night I was driving up Franklin and this guy stuck his head out the window and screamed into the wind, “I’ve made thirty million dollars so far this year!” Then he commandeered my stereo and really got the party started…

Despite its popularity, I assumed the whole “rideshare” phenomenon was a passing fad. Since it was technically illegal, how long could it possibly last?

Around the time I was finishing up the first Lyft zine, I had a dream that City Hall passed a law outlawing Uber and Lyft. I woke up in a panic. All my work! The writing! Designing a 60-page zine! Wasted!

In reality, this was only the beginning of a massive shift in public transportation, as well as employment, by changing how those two things are defined.

The rise of Uber and Lyft was founded on a semantic loophole. By creating a new denotation for taxis – ridesharing – they were able to barge into cities around the world and disregard local regulations. Since they claimed to be a technology company and not a taxi company, the rules governing taxicabs, they argued, didn’t apply to them.

Utilizing doublespeak, these young entrepreneurs disguised their nefarious intentions behind innocuous smokescreens. Like, “sharing.”

Of course, nothing is shared when you Uber and Lyft. Or when you Airbnb. If you’re paying someone to drive you to work, whether it’s in an unmarked sedan or a multi-colored vehicle with a toplight and a phone number on the side, if a meter is running, you’re taking a taxi. The same is true if you’re charging people money to sleep in your bed.

Now that it’s been a few years, anyone with half a brain knows the “sharing economy” is just a predatory business model designed to push workers’ rights back to the 19th century. But its proponents were able to sustain their bullshit long enough until the services were entrenched in the public mindset. By the time politicians were able to include these new definitions in transportation laws, the concept of riding in strangers’ cars had become such a huge part of daily city life that it was too late to eradicate Uber and Lyft.

The will of the people ensured their success.

While this drama played out in the media and in courtrooms and boardrooms and wherever else dirty deals go down, I tried to document the experience on the street through zines and multiple blog posts.

After blogging on several platforms, the editor at Disinfo.com approached me about contributing to their site. Then, a few months later, I started writing for Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.

When “Night of the Living Taxi,” a blogpost about Flywheel’s successful attempt to beat Uber and Lyft at their own game on New Year’s Eve went viral, several media outlets contacted me, including Joe Fitzgerald-Rodriguez from the San Francisco Examiner.

We must have had a good chat because a few weeks later, he asked if I was interested in writing for the newspaper.

Michael Howerton, the Editor in Chief at the time, was looking to revive the Night Cabbie, a column from the Nineties written by an anonymous taxi driver. Howerton’s idea was to present a modern take, from the perspective of an Uber driver.

By this time I’d already switched a taxi. And it was becoming obvious that nobody cared about taxi drivers. People wanted to read about Uber and Lyft drivers. The hip new thing.

I didn’t want to lose my shot at a column, though. So I read everything online by the Night Cabbie. Most taxi drivers around the National/Veterans yard were familiar his work. As it turned out, he actually drove for Veterans. Used to be finance guy. Late Night Larry, who also worked in the Financial prior to driving a cab, was the one who encouraged him to drive a taxi when he got burnt out and needed a change.

Once I revealed the possibility of reviving the column, everyone had advice, usually criticizing some aspect of how the Night Cabbie documented the taxi driving experience and pointing out what not to do.

Since the only way to pull off the column would be to present both sides of the reality, I cobbled together a counter pitch:

“I Drive SF is a hard-edged take on the current state of driving for hire in San Francisco, from the perspective of a nighttime taxi driver who chose the cabbie’s life after ten months of driving for Uber and Lyft. With comparisons between the ride-hail and taxi experiences, interesting rides and encounters, unavoidable commentary on the impact of the latest tech boom and various historical and cultural observations on the changing city. Sprinkled with maybe too much personal information: accepting a life in Oakland, my high blood pressure, thrash metal, manic interactions with longtime cab drivers and the wife’s existential quest to find a job with meaning… A portrait of the Bay Area in flux.”

Two weeks later, I met Michael for coffee in Mint Alley.

The first installment came out on May Day. We both agreed that May Day was the perfect date to inaugurate a newspaper column about driving a taxi.

Just like that, I had my story, along with a forum to reach a wider audience. And that’s when things got really ugly …


[Excerpted from the zine Behind the Wheel 4: The Thin Checkered Line, available here. Also compiled in the Dispatches from Behind the Wheel Omnibus, available here.]


The Best of I Drive SF: Crackheads are People Too

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This column originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Nov. 4, 2016. One of the more provocative headlines from the glory days when the Editor in Chief gave me a very long leash to write about whatever I wanted. A year or so after he quit the paper, we met for coffee. He really had to fight to get this headline in print.

I’m sure when sending in my copy I mentioned something about the headline not being very family-friendly, so it was surprising to see that he used it. I didn’t realize at the time just how controversial that decision was. 

The image they used is comical at best. A weed pipe with a rock in it. This is not how you smoke crack. It’s obviously a composite. Despite being inaccurate, I thought it was hilarious.  

 


 

It’s been a weird night. I’m still waiting to hear back from the lab about my drug test to renew my A-Card, which is about to expire in a few days. In the meantime, my cab has become a mecca for dope deals.

So far tonight, my backseat has hosted transactions of heroin, weed, molly and blow. Hey, it’s San Francisco. Everything’s cool, unless you’re a taxi driver who smokes a little pot during his free time. Then you have to jump through a bunch of regulatory hoops to keep your job…

Bill Graham is breaking. As M83 fans pour out of the auditorium past the metal barricades into the steady rain that hasn’t let up all evening, I wait in the intersection of Grove and Polk for a fare. But there are no takers. I swing around to the Larkin side and strike out there, too.

As I head down Grove, I hear, “Taxi!”

I look around.

“Taxi!”

On the other side of Hyde Street, I see two guys and a girl pushing a stroller with a clear plastic sheet draped over it. They’re flagging every taxi that goes by, even though none have their toplights on.

When they spot me, the mother and her companions cross the street. I pull over and hit my hazards.

A sense of civic duty kicks in. It’s my job to get this family out of the elements. But as they get closer, I realize this isn’t your typical family out for an evening promenade in the pouring rain. They all have scarred faces, missing teeth, hollow eyes and dingy clothes that suggest they spend most of their days sitting on the filthy sidewalks of San Francisco.

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s really even a baby in that stroller.

I pop the trunk anyway and roll down the passenger side window.

One guy leans in. “Hey, can I charge this ride to meth?”

“What?”

“I have crank if you’re interested …”

“Uh, no. I’m fine.”

The girl reaches into the stroller and removes an infant.

“We need to get to Hayes and Central,” she tells me once she’s inside the cab. “We only have 10 minutes to get there.”

While the second guy tries to break the stroller down, the first one climbs into the backseat. He shoves something under the girl’s ass and starts groping her. She holds the baby tightly and kisses him, glancing out the back window at the other guy struggling with the stroller.

“Go help him,” she says finally.

Together, they wrestle the stroller for a few minutes. Then he returns.

“Is there a button we’re supposed to push?” he asks, squeezing her right breast.

She kisses him lightly and smiles. “I can’t believe you guys are having such a hard time with this. It’s just a stroller.”

He tries to get another kiss, but she rejects him.

“We only have seven minutes left.”

He goes back to work.

“Sorry about this,” she tells me, rocking the baby in her arms. Throughout the entire ordeal, the kid hasn’t made a peep.

Outside, the two guys are wedging the entire stroller into the trunk as hard as they can.

“Do you have a rope or bungee cord?” the first one asks.

“No.”

“Can you just drive like this?” the girl pleads.

“It’s not going to fall out?” I ask.

“No, it’s jammed in good.”

“OK.” What other choice do I have?

The first guy says goodbye, and the second one gets in. I take off down Market and turn onto Hayes.

“I don’t understand,” the guy says. “Why couldn’t one of us have held the baby while you broke down the stroller?”

I was actually thinking the same thing at one point.

“It’s been six months,” she snaps.

“But we’ve only had this one for two weeks.”

“Try two months.”

When I pull up to their building, I get out to dislodge the stroller. I expect the guy to help but neither he nor the girl is exiting the cab. I walk around to see what’s up.

They’re searching for something underneath the seat.

The girl tries to make an excuse, but I know it’s either a bindle or a rock.

“Get out,” I say. “I’ll help you.”

I pull out the vinyl seat to reveal what’s collected underneath. Among the dust, the crumbs, a tree air freshener, various pieces of papers, a couple business cards and a rubber band, there’s a small rubber ball.

The guy quickly snatches it up.

The girl hands me two wet fivers.

Just as I think my job is done, she asks if I can do them a favor.

“This is an assisted living facility, and we’re past curfew … So can you tell the manager why we’re late?”

Sure. Why not? I follow them to the door.

“It’s all my fault,” I tell the manager. “The rain. Traffic. Sorry.”

I rush back to my cab and out of the weather. I’m soaked but still ready to serve.

The Best of I Drive SF: The Misanthropic Drug Dealer

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This column was originally published in the S.F. Examiner on Mar 17, 2017. In it, I introduce Mr. Judy, the drug dealer I drove daily for over a year. He appeared in the column multiple times. Much to his delight.

He never seemed to worry that I was writing about him in the newspaper. He even wanted me to use his real nickname. All his customers at the bars where he hung out knew him as Judy.

When his name appeared in print, he’d carry the paper around and proudly show everyone.

Once, I was waiting for the light at Church and Market with Judy in the backseat when a lady waiting for Muni recognized me.

“Are you the guy who writes for the paper?”

“Yeah, how’s it going?”

Just then, Judy stuck his head out the window and shouted, “I’m Mr. Judy!”

He reveled in the notoriety.

Anyway, this is how it started. (The photo above was actually taken at Delirium, the bar in the Mission where Judy spent most of his time plying his trade.)

 


 

“There’s no hope, I’m telling ya. All that’s left is total destruction.”

Mr. Judy has been ranting since I picked him up at a dive bar in the Mission, where he peddles his wares, and tried to drop him off at another. But as I idle in front, he just sits there, eyeballing the crowd of smokers on the sidewalk.

Randomly, he singles out a girl in ballerina flats and three chuckleheads with matching spectacles and beards fawning over her. “I hate those shoes. They’re awful. Her pants are too tight. And look at that hair … Well, at least she’s the queen of the sausage party tonight.”

“Dude, I think you’re way too judge-y to go in there right now.” I offer to drive him somewhere else, but he just wants to hang out in my cab for a while. Since I’m not feeling very servile myself, I don’t mind driving around aimlessly. At least the meter’s running.

Sensing Mr. Judy’s high level of agitation, I put on some Grateful Dead. In between tirades, he sings along to Jerry, then critiques the bars we pass on our way downtown, describing the owners, the bouncers, the bartenders, the type of clientele and what kind of music they play. His knowledge of watering holes in the Mission is impressive, though it makes sense for a bar-to-bar salesman to know his territory.

One thing I’ve learned from driving Mr. Judy is that selling drugs isn’t as easy as one might think. You have fierce competition for both customers and suppliers, you have to control your personal intake while dealing with people you’d rather see skewered in a cannibalistic ritual, 12 hours a day, just to make a buck. Which is a lot like taxi driving. Except the money’s not as good.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I say during a brief moment of silence.

“It gets really fucking boring,” he admits. “But just when you’ve had enough, someone gives you money and you feel good. So you wait around, until you can’t take it anymore. Then, right before you bail, someone gives you money. And you feel good. So you keep waiting …”

Again, sounds like cab driving.

After snorting something, Mr. Judy returns to his bitter soliloquy.

“Sometimes I hate this city as much as I hate myself. I feel like Colonel Kurtz, you know? Just send in the air raid already! Exterminate the brutes! These kids today … I can’t stand them. If they’re the future, we’re fucked! Doomed! There’s no hope. I’m telling ya … None at all. Might as well give in to total destruction. It’s the only solution.”

After a while, I lose track of his jeremiad, so just drive and grunt on cue.

“Do you have a five-year plan? No? Do you even know what you’re doing next week? I don’t … Life has no meaning. None of our lives matter. Today is all we have. There is no future. We’re living our future right now … Look at all the madness. It’s everywhere … I’m losing it. It. It. I don’t even know what ‘it’ is. But I want to know, don’t you? I want to find a way to harness the madness. I need to become a cash cow … Look around you. Madness disguised as cheap consumerism. All our needs monetized. Ad machines fueled by our complacency … That’s why we need total destruction …”

As if realizing the world outside the bars might be worse, he decides to go back to the first place I picked him up.

“Orwell was wrong,” he continues. “We don’t have to fear Big Brother. Our only fear is that Big Brother isn’t watching us … We surrender our privacy for the allusion of choice. We feed the marketers until they know everything we want, how much we want and when we want it … But they won’t sell us what we really need: total destruction.”

I pull up to the bar, and Mr. Judy looks out the window for a few minutes, making up his mind.

“I’ll call you in a bit,” he says finally, hands me a wad of bills and slowly exits the cab. Before closing the door, he leans back in. “Remember, the future is now.”

I drive away, back to my own grind, waiting for someone to give me money before I embrace total destruction myself.


 

[Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Mar 17, 2017.]

[photo via]