Category Archives: The Taxi Experience

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: 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.

Bizarre Love Triangle

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Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Feb. 20 2020.

“Wow, I can’t believe I’m in a real taxi,” the girl in my backseat slurs, her words as boozey as her breath. “I didn’t think taxis even existed anymore.”

“Oh, there’s still a few of us around,” I respond absently, wondering how anyone could fail to notice the numerous multi-colored vehicles circling The City all day and night. I resist the urge to point them out as we head down Mission towards Bernal Heights from South of Market.

There’s one… There’s another one… And another…

“So why did you guys flag me?” I ask.

Originally, a guy was with her, but after she turned down his offer to keep the party going, he handed me a $20 bill, told me to drive her home and jumped out at the light to take an Uber instead.

“Getting a cab is just so…” her voice trails off. “Aggressive. We had to yell and wave to get your attention.”

“Well, I wasn’t really expecting to see anyone in front of Moscone at 1 a.m.,” I say in my defense.

Prior to speeding down Fourth Street, I had been working the Dark Star Orchestra show at the Warfield. After taking a fare to Russian Hill and a second to the Inner Richmond, I went back for a triple dip, but only a few deadheads remained, zonked out on hippie crack. A couple so high on mushrooms they couldn’t figure out how to get to the Hampton Inn around the corner wanted a ride though. Since the hotel was just a meter drop away, I declined payment, in cash or psychedelics, decided to call it a night and headed towards the bridge.

I ask the girl again why they took a taxi.

“That fellow who got in with me, Conrad, is the sweetest man,” she tells me. “He’s been in love with me for over a year. And I’ve treated him horribly.”

Her voice quivers and she begins to cry.

Read the rest here.


[Image from the San Francisco Postcard Collection – Street Scenes from Behind the Wheel.]

 


 

 

Death by Airport

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Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Feb. 6, 2020.

Lately I’ve been trying to avoid the airport. Now that we’re even deeper into the thick of winter, taxi business is absolutely dismal. At SFO, the wait times are longer than ever.

There was a momentary respite from the bleakness two weeks ago when the JP Morgan conference rolled into town, but since then, driving a taxi has been mostly an exercise in futility.

I start my shifts before the sun comes up, canvassing the hotels downtown for any signs of life. Without tourists or suits, though, demand is minimal. You take anything you can get, while fighting the urge to deadhead to the airport.

At least you know there’ll be something decent at the end of the queue. If you’re lucky, that is, and don’t get stuck waiting several hours to reach a terminal.

That’s what happened to me last Tuesday night…

After dropping at the W, I check the TaxiQ app that provides information about what’s going on at the airport, including how many cabs are in the holding lots and how many flights are arriving each hour. Since the numbers look good, I jump on 101 and head south.

Three and one half hours later, I finally pull up to terminal two, frantically hoping for a decent fare. Fifteen minutes later, the starter directs someone with luggage towards my cab.

“Where you heading?” I ask the guy.

“The Marriott in Burlingame.”

Crap. A $14 short.

Fortunately, with short rides, you can go to the front of the line upon returning to the airport. But when I get back, there are seven shorts ahead of me. And only a few more flights coming in.

It takes 30 minutes to reach terminal three. This time, though, I get a ride within seconds, but after stashing the woman’s suitcases in my trunk, I’m dismayed to find out her destination.

“San Mateo, please,” she says. “Poplar Ave.”

Another short.

Disappointed, I can hardly talk during the ride. I drop her off and race back to the holding lots.

There’s only one flight left. And the short line is five cabs deep.

After 20 minutes and no movement, I give up and drive home. Dejected and angry.

This is what’s referred to, in Hacker parlance, as “death by airport.”

Read the rest here.


[Image from the San Francisco Postcard Collection – Street Scenes from Behind the Wheel.]

 


 

 

 

“As Far as $53 Will Take Me”

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Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Jan. 8, 2020.

“I just need to hit a lick or something, and everything will be OK,” the guy in the back of my taxi tells me, bringing a torrent of dismay to a semi-conclusion. “It’s not like I’m asking for the world, you know? I mean, something’s gotta give. I can’t keep building cardboard forts to stay out of the rain. You know what I mean?”

Even though most of his statements end with questions, I realized soon into the ride that he wasn’t seeking affirmation. He just wants to talk. Been on a roll since I picked him and his black Labrador up outside the Whole Foods on California Street.

At the time, I was on a radio call, looking for someone named Sylvia. While he didn’t fit the description, he was the only one around who wanted a taxi.

I sensed right away that he was on the skids. A reality he also knew was unmistakable, which is why, after making sure I was cool with the dog, he immediately handed me a wad of cash.

“How far south can I go for $53?” he asked. “That’s all the money I have to my name.”

Read the rest here.


[Image from the San Francisco Postcard Collection – Street Scenes from Behind the Wheel.]

 


 

 

 

The Lost Art of Getting Around

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Originally appeared in the S.F. Examiner on Dec. 27, 2019.

She gets in the back of my taxi at the United terminal, wearing Beats headphones. A clear signal: do not disturb. Which is fine. After finding out her destination — the Proper hotel — I keep my mouth shut. I don’t feel like talking anyway. Until the freeway turns into a parking lot and I kind of need to explain why we’re taking an alternate route.

According to the electronic traffic sign right before the split, it’s 50 minutes to downtown.

Fortunately, I know a shortcut.

In the age of Google Maps, Waze, et al., there aren’t many secret ways to get around The City anymore. Almost everyone relies on GPS nowadays. I use it too, but only to find out which way not to go.

When Google Maps suggests a route, I know that’s the one to avoid, because if they’re telling me to go that way, they’re directing every other driver that way too.

It’s a no-brainer, really. If you want to beat traffic, you have to carve out your own trajectory.

Read the rest here.


[Image from the San Francisco Postcard Collection – Street Scenes from Behind the Wheel.]

 


 

 

Banging My Head Against a Taxi Shift

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner
on July 11, 2019.

There was something in the air last week, and not just the glow of fireworks pulsating through the dense fog that shrouded most of The City on the Fourth of July…

Equally ominous, but even more unsatisfying, are all the empty streets, devoid of fares. Except in the Wharf, where thousands of visitors congregate for the official pyrotechnic display, only to leave disappointed.

Before the show is over, a mass exodus begins. Around 9:45 p.m., I head up Columbus, hoping to pick off from the herd without venturing too deep into the morass of vehicles for hire operated by drivers just as confused as the erstwhile spectators wandering the streets like refugees from an active war zone.

“You can’t see a thing!” exclaims a group of women from West Virginia.

“Happens every year,” I tell them.

“So what’s the point?”

“No clue.”

After depositing them at the St. Francis, I head back to the Wharf for another load.

“The fog’s too thick to see the fireworks,” complains a mother of two sons.

“But you can hear them,” points out the younger one.

“It’s like this every July,” I say.

Read the rest here.


Wanna Go for a Ride?

Just released: Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus –
The Complete Zine Series about Driving for Hire in San Francisco

A Phony Lid paperback original. Includes all four issue of Behind the Wheel, revised and expanded with additional content. A Lyft Driver’s Log • Notes from an Uber/Lyft • From Uber/Lyft to Taxi • The Thin Checkered Line

Get all the details here.

 


 

 

Playing the Airport

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on June 12, 2019.

I’ve never been much of an airport player. I prefer to work The City.

Even before the new system limiting which medallions can operate at SFO, I lacked the patience required to wait three hours in the holding lots, hoping for a decent ride once finally reaching the terminals.

Even though the prospect of a long haul can be tantalizing, you’re just as likely to end up with a Burlingame. And while a short allows you get to cut to the front of the line on returning, if the airport isn’t moving, it’s a small consolation.

Plus, I get restless easily. Back when I used to try my luck at the ‘port, I’d go stir crazy idling in the wiggle and donut lots, while drivers stood around discussing their ride prospects like oddsmakers at an OTB.

Last Thursday night, though, after the theater crowd dissipates and my only shot at a fare is a random flag or a radio order while circling through SoMa, the TL and the Mission, I see an unusual post on Hackers: “Cabs needed at SFO!”

Read the rest here.

[photo by Douglas O’Connor]


Wanna Go for a Ride?

Just released: Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus –
The Complete Zine Series about Driving for Hire in San Francisco

A Phony Lid paperback original. Includes all four issue of Behind the Wheel, revised and expanded with additional content. A Lyft Driver’s Log • Notes from an Uber/Lyft • From Uber/Lyft to Taxi • The Thin Checkered Line

Get all the details here.

 

A Long Day’s Journey into the Night

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner
on December 11, 2019.

Sometimes getting out of The City is just as hard as getting in.

You know what to expect with morning traffic. It’s always bad. If you don’t get across the bridge before 5:30 a.m., it’ll take over an hour just to reach the toll plaza. But once you’re past the metering lights, it’s a race to the finish line.

The commute home, though, is a total crapshoot. Lately, there’s been construction on the bridge at night that causes a backup to the Fourth Street exit. Instead of idling in the congestion, I usually take surface streets to the First Street onramp. Me and several hundred other drivers. While it’s probably quicker to stay on the freeway, nobody wants to feel like a sucker.

When I don’t have the cab, getting home to Oakland at night can be a long, arduous journey. Add some inclement weather to the mix and things get really ugly.

For almost 10 days, it’s been raining cats and dogs. And people haven’t been behaving much better.

Traffic was a nightmare all week. Despite the constant downpours, Christmas shoppers poured into downtown from all points north, south, east and west. It was impossible to get anywhere fast, especially now that most streets in Union Square and South of Market have been reduced to one lane. City planners seem determined to punish drivers for bringing their cars downtown. Since people aren’t going to stop driving into The City, this passive-aggressive way of controlling congestion only makes it worse.

You know traffic is bad when getting through the holding lots at SFO takes less time than dropping off fares at the hotels in Union Square.

Read the rest here.


Wanna Go for a Ride?

Just released: Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus –
The Complete Zine Series about Driving for Hire in San Francisco

A Phony Lid paperback original. Includes all four issue of Behind the Wheel, revised and expanded with additional content. A Lyft Driver’s Log • Notes from an Uber/Lyft • From Uber/Lyft to Taxi • The Thin Checkered Line

Get all the details here.

 


 

 

In Traffic We Become Something Bigger

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on August 14, 2019.

Everything hit at once last weekend. Besides Outside Lands, the Giants were at home and, on Saturday, there was the Pistahan parade and festival.

Combined, it made for a hectic few days of cab driving…

I started my week on Thursday afternoon. Caught a Millbrae train to New Montgomery, and surfaced just as a 9R is idling a few blocks away. I luck out with a seat in the back. As we pass Civic Center, though, a person nursing a crushed can of Old E nods off and hits the deck.

A woman looks up from her iPhone and screams, “Somebody call 911!”

“Forget that!” the guy next to me shouts. “I’m gonna be late for work.”

“But he could be dead!”

The guy shrugs.

Just as the passengers begin taking sides, the bus turns onto 11th Street and comes to a stop. Even though the man is back in his seat, sipping on what’s left of his beer, the operator refuses to continue.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

The grumbling grows louder, until the lights flicker off and it’s obvious we must disembark.

A few minutes later, another 9R turns off Market. Circumventing the first bus, I notice the man has followed us. Barely able to stand, holding onto the back of a seat precariously…

Read the rest here.

[photo by Douglas O’Connor]


Wanna Go for a Ride?

Just released: Dispatches from Behind the Wheel: The Omnibus –
The Complete Zine Series about Driving for Hire in San Francisco

A Phony Lid paperback original. Includes all four issue of Behind the Wheel, revised and expanded with additional content. A Lyft Driver’s Log • Notes from an Uber/Lyft • From Uber/Lyft to Taxi • The Thin Checkered Line

Get all the details here.