The Ebb and Flow of City Life


In my rickety National taxicab, I own the streets of San Francisco. I take my turns with a vengeance. I converge on Union Square at full tilt. Like all cab drivers, I follow the rules of the road that were lain down by the cab drivers who preceded us.

After six months, I can usually predict what another taxi driver will do, because we are all part of the same hive mind. We run the streets. Everybody else is just in our way.

I watch other cabs constantly. Even in my Uber-Lyft days, if I was on a street and there were no taxicabs, I knew I was on the wrong street. Still, to this day, I try to learn from the maneuvers of other cabs. I pay particular attention to top lights in relation to mine. So if I’m driving northwest on Columbus and most of the cabs going southeast have their lights off, I figure I might be heading in the right direction.

Who drives the streets of San Francisco more than cab drivers? Who else knows the shortcuts and the fastest way to get from any point A to any point B? We’ve been trained and licensed by The City to transport its citizens and visitors across the entire Bay Area. That’s our job. We move people around.

For better or worse, the map of San Francisco is permanently tattooed into my brain. Even in the haze of my post break-up blues, I know where I’m going. Sure, there were a few times last week that I froze up. Like when I was idling in front of the Intercontinental on Howard, pondering the bleak prospects of living alone on a cab driver’s earnings, and two women opened my doors abruptly.

“Where going to Mighty. Do you know where that is?”

Under normal circumstances, I would have driven straight down Howard, taken a left at 10th, crossed Division to Potrero, hung a left on 15th and another left onto Utah to drop them off proper, but with my head in a fog of despair, I momentarily forgot where I even was.

Sensing my confusion, one of the women fired up her GPS. By the time I crossed 5th, I’d regained my sense of direction. But I still had to listen to Siri guide me the rest of the way, her robotic voice like a ruler across my knuckles at each turn.

It’s hard not to get lost in your thoughts while moving through the ebb and flow of city life. I have a 4:45 cab. I hit the streets at the peak of afternoon rush hour and fight the gridlock in SoMa and the Financial until traffic lightens up a bit for the evening crowd. Once it’s dark, there aren’t as many buses and tech shuttles, very few bicyclists and fewer jaywalkers—I mean, pedestrians—jumping in front of my cab even though I have a green light (AKA, Vision Zero). But as people head to restaurants, concert venues and bars, there are still pockets of congestion. It’s not until after midnight that the streets are deserted enough to drive without restraint.

Amid the belly to the bar slump, though, things get quiet and my mind invariably drifts to my impending divorce. I feel the desperation of the indigents crawled up in doorways and against the sides of buildings. I’m not sure yet whether I can afford my Oakland apartment or if I’ll end up living in a wrecked cab in Upton Alley with two cats. I keep thinking about that Bukowksi line: “Many a good man has been put under the bridge by a woman.”

During my third week back from “vacation”—you know, that tropical resort in the second circle of Dante’s Inferno where you don’t send “Wish you were here” postcards to friends—I have my head screwed on tighter. And while I’m not firing on all cylinders yet, I run the streets like I’ve been trained and I actually made some money. Not enough to pay rent. But enough to remind myself there’s still money to be made driving a cab in San Francisco.

Maybe even enough to keep a roof over my head.

Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on August 6, 2015.

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