Looking for a Story with Wheels

i-drive-sf-column-examiner

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.]


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