Category Archives: The Best of I Drive SF

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]

The Best of I Drive SF: Guilty of Driving a Taxi I no

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Even though this is the fourth column I wrote for the Examiner, the sensation of feeling “guilty” was prevalent throughout my taxi “career.” I could have updated this material monthly.  

The Examiner actually printed the above image of Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver in the newspaper with this column. Probably the coolest one they ever used. 

 


 

Driving a cab in San Francisco is like wearing a target around your neck. It’s always open season on taxis. On good days, the contempt most people have towards the taxi industry misses its mark. But on the bad days, it’s a shot straight to the heart.

In the four months I’ve been driving a cab, I’ve been disrespected as a matter of course. Honked at more times than I can count. As if I’m asking people to sacrifice their first-born to let me change lanes in front of them. Nobody cuts me any slack. During rush hour, I have to fight for each one-fifth of a mile to get passengers where they’re going.

I was driving up Kearny last Saturday night and a guy in an Uber SUV spit on my cab. The tourists in my backseat were horrified. “Oh, just part of driving a taxi in San Francisco,” I joked.

A month ago, while picking up a fare on King Street, some joker knocked my side mirror off and drove away. I spent two hours at the police station filing a report. “Won’t be the last time,” the officer doing the paperwork told me nonchalantly.

This week I paid the city of San Francisco $110 for “obstructing traffic” in front of a strip club at 1:30am. The SFMTA mailed the citation to my cab company. Claimed I was a “drive away.” Of course I drove away. I’m a taxi driver. That’s what I do. I drive, I stop, I pick up passengers and then I drive away.

From City Hall to fresh-faced transplants, everyone hates cabs. And yet, I can’t help but wonder, whatever happened to the mythology of cab driving?

My earliest memory is being in a taxi. The family station wagon was in the shop. I remember sitting in the backseat with my mother. The driver was listening to news radio. Something about President Ford.

As a child of the 70s, glued to the TV set, I never missed an episode of Taxi. I couldn’t wait to see what shenanigans Latka and Iggy would get into. I’d laugh as Louie berated all the drivers who hung around the garage solving each other’s problems. In Taxi Driver, there was Travis Bickle, the loner moving through the streets of New York like a reluctant servant to the night and all its proclivities. Even D.C. Cab portrayed a struggling taxi company as the ultimate underdog, with Mr. T. the baddest cab driver who ever lived.

As fascinating as cabs were to me growing up, I didn’t use them much until I moved to New Orleans, where most of the drivers doubled as tour guides, concierges of vice or therapists. I’ve sighed more than once in the back of a New Orleans cab and had the driver say, “Lay it on me, baby.”

I never thought I’d drive a taxi myself. In my illustrious career as an overeducated slacker, I’ve worked as a cook, painter, flea market vendor, book dealer and personal assistant. Taxi driving wasn’t much of a stretch. So when the Wife and I ended up in Oakland last year, with no other prospects, I decided to do the Uber-Lyft thing.

Before I ever hit the road, I pinned a map of San Francisco to the wall. I studied the streets and how they intersected each other. For two weeks, the Wife and I drove around The City figuring out major thoroughfares and how to get from one neighborhood to the next.

After a few months, it was obvious app-based transportation is only a simulacrum of taxi driving. But I’d learned enough to know I could do the real thing.

Switching to a taxi was an intimidating proposition, though, based on all the horrible things I’d heard from my passengers. San Franciscans love to complain about transportation. And the only thing worse than the Muni and Bart are taxis.

I thought it would be different for me. Despite the muddied reputation I’d inherited. I wanted to be a great taxi driver. I still do. But it doesn’t matter who’s behind the wheel. In this city, a color scheme and a top light will always be targets for disdain.

[Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on May 22, 2015]

Published in the Dispatches from Behind the Wheel Omnibus. Available here.