Category Archives: San Francisco Under Siege

The Billboard Heard Around the City

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“Build the wall on the internet and make Russia pay for it.”

When a bunch of cab drivers stand around talking, the conversation can be like a four-way stop. Everyone waits their turn, but it’s with a lead foot and a rolling stop.

The topic of a recent powwow was the news that a major medical association is moving their convention from San Francisco to Los Angeles, due to its members not feeling safe in The City, citing the blatant drug use on sidewalks outside hotels, the rampant mental illness on display 24 hours a day and the homelessness epidemic that’s only exacerbated by the futile efforts of the SFPD and the SFPW to somehow “sweep” them out of public view. “Futile” because human beings aren’t as easy to hide under rugs and furniture – or in this case, under freeway overpasses – like other things one might use a broom to eradicate …

“Can’t really blame them, though,” Artur says. “I mean, the city has become a shit hole.”

As taxi drivers, we see more than most of the city’s occupants. The average urbanite has the luxury of shielding themselves from the unpleasant realities of city life by not straying from their standard day-to-day trajectories. But when you’re job is moving people from one part of town to the next, it’s hard to avoid certain neighborhoods or streets, or intersections, or corners …

Still, as a way to offer a “no poverty” package, I try to use routes that avoid the more unpleasant sights. But now that everyone has GPS on their phones, you have to be careful not to seem like you’re running up the fare.

So when you pick up at the Orpheum on Market and your passengers are going to the Fairmont, what’s an honest cabbie supposed to do? Take Larkin, of course. Even though you risk exposing visitors to a long stretch of the Tenderloin and can only hope to make it through the timed lights, all the way to Bush, lest you end up stopped for the red at Geary, where the wall of the Motel 6 is one of the local crack depots.

It’s not easy to shield tourists from the madness of the streets. Try as you may.

Then there’s Turk Street, with the outspoken billboard on the corner, connected to the Kahn and Keville tire shop that Herb Caen once called “the world’s largest fortune cookie.”

After Trump got elected, the billboard seemed to reflect the collective despair of all progressive San Franciscans.

A quote from Lily Tomlin was a subtle dig at Trump: “Behind every failure there is an opportunity someone wishes they had missed.”

While the following one, “Where is Mark Felt?” was equally vague, but only insofar as most people had to Google “Mark Felt.”

The one that said, “Build the wall on the internet and make Russia pay for it” is my favorite from that time period.

As much as I’d like to point any of them out to my passengers, you have to be careful, though, in case the person you’re driving doesn’t share your political views. Yes, even in San Francisco. Shit, especially in San Francisco.

Like Artur said the other day, “This city has become a shit hole.”


 

— taken from the forthcoming zine Behind the Wheel 4: The Thin Checkered Line

 

 

Uber/Lyft Drivers Behaving Badly: The Safeway Sleeping Lot

VIDEO: Everybody knows that Uber/Lyft drivers come to San Francisco far off locations like Sacramento and even Los Angeles. This particular impact of the “gig economy” has been covered extensively, from Bloomberg to The SF Chronicle and Business Insider, as well as discussed at length in this Uber/Lyft driver forum.

Due to an oversaturated market, drivers need to work long hours to make decent money. So instead of making the long commute back home, only to turn right back around, they sleep in their cars.

One morning, around 4 a.m., I’d just dropped a fare at Geary and Webster when I happened upon this scene. The Safeway parking lot was full of Uber/Lyft vehicles, many of which had sunshades or towels covering the windows.

I’ve seen this situation elsewhere, in other Safeway parking lots, as well at the rest area on 280, just outside the city. It seems that wherever there’s a place to park, there’s a place to sleep.

What Would Herb Caen Say?

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It may seem impressive: On this Facebook group alone, my column last week garnered 544 Facebook reactions, 332 comments, 44 shares… You’d almost think that these numbers led to a higher than usual page count for my column this week, factoring in my other promotional efforts on Facebook and Twitter… But that wasn’t the case at all.

Once I started reading the comments on the post in San Francisco Remembered, it was obvious the group members weren’t clicking the link, just sharing their memories and feelings about Herb Caen and how they think he’d view The City today. Had they read the column, though, they’d see that Herb Caen was discussing the same issues we’re dealing with now in the early 1960s. That’s what I meant by “My discoveries may surprise you…”

Whatever. More than anything, I just wanted to get that question out there and see how people would respond.

To see what Herb Caen might say, click here.

Mr. Judy Gets Clean

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“I’ve been feeling so much better since laying off the drugs,” says Mr. Judy. “I’m on top of my game and totally killing it, man.”

While describing the benefits of a steady diet of poke and quinoa salads in between text messages, I respond with vacant grunts. It’s hard to concentrate on much but the spectacle of absurdity surrounding us.

Traveling eastbound on 16th past Guerrero, we’re trapped behind an Uber/Lyft that stopped suddenly halfway through the block. Even though there’s an open space in front of Katz and vacant parking spots further down the street, the driver just put on his hazards, impeding half a dozen vehicles. Including the 22-Fillmore, which ended up stuck in the intersection once the light turned red. Since the westbound lanes on 16th are clogged with commuters and more double-parked Uber/Lyfts, the entire corridor is on lockdown until the person who ordered this ride shows up.

A salvo of blaring horns does little to dissuade the driver from staging in the flow of traffic.

Finally, Judy looks up from his phone and asks, “Why aren’t we moving?”

“Uber driver.”

“No surprise there,” Judy responds and snuffles twice.

When the light turns green, westbound traffic begins to move slowly. I see in my rearview that the intersection at Guerrero is congested with vehicles that can’t get past the bus.

“These maggots have no respect for anyone but themselves,” Judy continues. “It’s just me, me, me … Someone needs to do something.”

“You’re right,” I mumble, noticing a Sentra in the opposite lane hesitate, giving me a split-second opportunity to bypass the gridlock.

Of course, like most Bay Area drivers, the guy in the Sentra sees my move as an act of aggression and tries to play a game of chicken.

“YES!” Mr. Judy shouts in excitement. “FUCK YEAH!”

Now, I’m not driving like a maniac for the thrills. Besides thousands of hours of experience working the mean streets of San Francisco, I’m in a multicolored vehicle with a “TAXI” sign on top. Everyone else on the road should just assume I’m liable to do some “creative” maneuvering. But I’m also acutely aware that the thought of a hard-working cabbie doing his job is more than most drivers in San Francisco can bear.

As he lays on his horn, flashes his high beams and screams out his window, I careen through the logjam onto Albion.

“That was awesome,” Judy bellows with laughter.

Compared to the pandemonium of 16th Street, 17th is like Golden Gate Park after hours. At South Van Ness, I go left and take 14th to our destination: Best Buy.

Mr. Judy wants to buy a TV. Part of his new, wholesome lifestyle. No more staying out late at the bars, doing tequila shots and playing pool. From now on, he’s going home at a respectable hour to get enough sleep.

It’s all about reaching his full potential.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Shaun Osburn]

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

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When it’s raining, people like to complain. As if, once the waterworks start, you can’t hold back the deluge …

Heading to the Dogpatch down 16th Street, I take full advantage of the new taxi/bus lanes, while the girl behind me talks about growing up in San Francisco.

“I remember being a kid and going to my grandparents’ house,” she says. “Right where you’re taking me now. 16th was a completely different street back then. My grandfather built the house right after the earthquake and fire in 1906. Over the years, the area got worse, but he never left. Since then, it’s all changed, and I often wonder what he would think of what’s become of this neighborhood …”

She takes a long pause. It’s hard to know what to say. As the windshield wipers scrape across the glass, I look around at the ultramodern condos, the state-of-the-art UCSF Medical Center and children’s hospital and, looming in the distance, the menacing shell of the new Warriors stadium in mid-construction.

What do you say about unbridled progress?

“I’m sure he would have hated it,” she asserts.

Read the rest here.

Ed Lee’s Legacy of Grievances

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“San Francisco is a white-collar crime,” the woman in the back of my taxi says, in a machine gun-like monologue. “And Ed Lee is — was — one of the main culprits. It was Ed Lee who sold us out to the tech companies, turning The City into a playground for the rich.”

It seems like the only notable conversations I have in my cab anymore that aren’t long winded jeremiads are the ones that don’t involve politics. Or millennials. Or tech. Or San Francisco.

“Don’t get me wrong though … I didn’t want Ed Lee dead. Just out of office. Or in jail. He should have gone down after the Shrimp Boy case …”

When I pull up to the woman’s building at Bush and Jones, she hands me a $20 bill.

“So yeah … you won’t see me wearing a black armband anytime soon,” she says, as if there’s a moral obligation to mourn the untimely death of the mayor.

Granted, over the past few weeks, there have been countless public memorials, but the majority of the people I talk to in my cab haven’t changed their tunes.

Despite Willie Brown’s observation in his column for the Chronicle last week:

Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum has something nice to say about the guy. Everyone, that is, except the taxi drivers. They still blame Ed for the flood of Uber and Lyft cars that are killing their livelihoods.

Turns out, taxi drivers aren’t the only San Francisco not mourning the death of Lee …

From Bush and Jones, I meander through the Tenderloin and end up at the scene of the crime.

Inside City Hall, several hundred Google developers are having their corporate holiday party. A typical frock-and-jock event, the guys wear the usual business casual, and the women are decked out in festive evening gowns. Slowly, in their high heels, they cascade down the steps, past the assemblage of bouquets and wreaths laid out in remembrance of Lee.

Outside, on the Polk Street side, an ad hoc cabstand is forming.

While the partygoers gather and wait with their phones out like Geiger counters, a bunch of Hackers gather outside our cabs to kvetch about how slow business has been this holiday season.

“Every year, it just gets worse …”

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do, man,” Icarus says. “I have to get out from under this debt. It’s killing me!”

Saddled with a $250,000 loan for a worthless medallion, Icarus works five days a week just to make the monthly payments.

“Am I supposed to declare bankruptcy over this and run my credit until I’m 60 years old?”

Things aren’t any better for Hester.

“I’d be doing so much better as a gate-and-gas driver.”

“Ed Lee ruined my life.”

“Maybe the Credit Union will step in and take these medallions back.”

Just days after Lee’s passing, KPIX ran a story about the San Francisco Credit Union suing The City over defaulted medallion loans because the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency did nothing to stop the illegal taxis that flooded the streets. And since The City is in the business of selling taxi medallions for $250,000, maintaining the value of those medallions would seem like a no-brainer.

Not so in Lee’s San Francisco, where, by his proclamation, every July 13 is Lyft Day.

It’s actions like these that helped feed the rumor, mostly spread among taxi drivers, that Lee’s daughter is an investor in Lyft, or works at Lyft or has some connection to the company. Whether or not that rumor is true doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. And there’s no going back now …

Read the full column here.

Where Have All the Good Rides Gone?

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Without the fireworks and traffic along The Embarcadero, last Sunday night would have felt like any other weekend night. That it was New Year’s Eve only seemed incidental…

By midnight, I’ve already forgotten about the holiday. Walking into the Hilton on O’Farrell, I’m taken aback by the small but rowdy crowd in the bar/reception area counting backwards.

In the restroom, it hits me.

“Oh yeah,” I say aloud, my voice echoing off the tile.

I’m not alone though, as a flushing toilet drowns out the cheers from the lobby.

Back on the street, the doorman at the Nikko flags me and deposits an older couple in my backseat.

“What’s going on?” the gentleman in the leather suit asks me.

“It’s the New Year,” I reply.

“Yes.” He laughs. “But where are all the people?”

“Still home for the holidays?” I suggest.

They’d been at Bix, where they’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve for the past 20 years.

“We always book months ahead of time,” he says. “But this year, the bar was only half full.”

“It was very odd,” the woman adds. “We left early, thinking the traffic would be dreadful.”

Ahead of us, Market Street is wide open, hardly a vehicle on the road and barely a soul on the sidewalk.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]