Category Archives: The Taxi Experience

When the Wheel of Fortune Takes You for a Spin

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I Drive SF column published in the S.F. Examiner on May 1, 2019.

“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel… Do not crush me beneath your spokes.”

— John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

My first day back in a cab after a month long sabbatical transpired with more than a few bumps in the road. Ninety minutes into my shift last Thursday, I’m rolling down Castro towards Market, where a big rig is blocking the lane. Undeterred, I follow a minivan around the massive obstruction, but misjudge the amount of space between my taxi and the vehicles in front of me.

To avoid impeding traffic, I veer to the right as much as possible, until my tire scrapes the side of the truck’s loading ramp. Seconds after feeling the thud, my dashboard lights up and the distinctive whomp-whomp-whomp reverberates off Hot Cookie’s glass storefront.

I mutter a string of expletives and find a safe place to pull over. While waiting for the tow truck, I wonder what the universe is trying to tell me. As much as I want to give up and scamper back to Oakland, the rent isn’t going to pay itself. So after the tow truck takes me and the cab to the Yellow garage, where one of the mechanics immediately replaces the tire, I start all over again.

This time, Fortuna smiles on me. I get a ride from the Mission to the Omni hotel. From there, I fight traffic through the Financial to the Hyatt Regency. I hear the doorman’s whistle from a block away and charge into the hotel driveway. When I pull up, a couple is waiting with suitcases.

Read the rest here.

The Last of the Late Night Cab Drivers

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I Drive SF column published in the S.F. Examiner on May 9, 2019.

There for a while I seriously questioned my decision to leave National to drive for Yellow, even though the defection was far from spontaneous. Prior to walking down Upton Alley to try my luck at another cab company, I mulled over the prospect for several months. Like Gregory Hines in the movie White Nights, as he planned an escape from the Soviet Union, I wasdetermined and reluctant at the same time.

Unlike most Refuseniks, though, I was riddled with regret and consternation shortly after making the switch, convinced it was a huge mistake. The transition to Yellow has been anything but smooth. Besides the flat tire and broken window detailed in last week’s column, I had a blowout on the Bay Bridge during my first shift in a Yellow cab. Three weeks later, I got into a minor no-fault accident on Mission Street.

Then there were the Yellow policies, which took some getting used to. Unlike National, everything at Yellow is by the book. Taped to the cashier windows are signs with statements like “No exemptions!” That’s how I ended up over-drafting my bank account in February: paying up front for 24- hour shifts and not getting reimbursed for credit card/Paratransit transactions until a week later.

Once my finances were completely out of whack, the despair and economic hardships overwhelmed me and I had to take a break to regroup. At first the anonymity of driving a Yellow cab was appealing. But I quickly began to feel isolated. Whenever I ran into a National/Veterans driver on the streets, I eagerly inquired about the company. Who’s still in the office? What’s going on with the meters? Have they fully transitioned to Flywheel yet?

The Flywheel deal was always a dealbreaker for me. When rumors first to began circulate that National was going to replace their hard-wired taximeters and two-way radios with the Flywheel app, I railed against the idea of an app-based dispatch system and letting a third party take over the mechanics of running a cab.

Nowadays, if you don’t want to run the Flywheel app, you need to be in a Yellow cab.

Still, I don’t handle change well. I’m a very habitual person. Part of growing up a welfare case: after bouncing around foster homes, group homes and relatives’ homes as a teenager, I craved stability as an adult, always seeking a temple of the familiar.

Read the rest here.

Remembrance of Things Taxi

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My column for the SF Examiner published on March 27, 2019 is about regulars from the past. 

Regulars come and regulars go. Sometimes the memories of them linger on, long after the final whiff of their stinky feet in the back of your taxi is gone.

The reality is, you can only tolerate so much of anyone’s presence for any considerable amount of time. Not just the guy whose MO was to impersonate a petri dish of party favors doing acid while stoned on another daylong Mission bar crawl.

Although the body odors of long-gone passengers may not inspire much nostalgia, flashbacks of the sweaty-palmed $20 bills I’d shove in my pockets at the ends of his rides can definitely lead to a prolonged search of lost time.

Good-paying customers always have peculiar demands, idiosyncrasies or preferred routes. Besides Mr. Stinky Feet, there was Sir Shop A-Lot and Miss “I’ll gladly PayPal you next Friday for a ride to Oakland today.”

That was my problem, actually, for being too accommodating. And not just with regulars. I’ve been kidnapped by random passengers several times.

Once, forced into giving this visiting artist a tour of The City at 1 a.m. Literally compelled by her local host, under threat of not leaving the cab without one. Since they were so nice about it and told me to keep the meter running, the only charges I pressed were in my Square app.

Sadly, the problem with good-paying customers is they usually make bad-paying friends.

Read the rest here.


 

The Loneliness of the Late Night Taxi Driver

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My weekly column for the S.F. Examiner published on March 14, 2019:

In the small hours, Howard Street can be the loneliest stretch of asphalt in The City.

Driving through the quiet streets of SoMa after midnight is like starting into an abyss. Behind you are the glass high rises of downtown and straight ahead, the rowdy clubs on 11th Street. Beyond that, the hustle and bustle of the Mission.

Between those two points, there isn’t much activity and I tend to drift into despair. Especially when it’s my last chance to redeem another pilfered shift.

With only eleven hours to make gate and gas, I spend the first half of the night in the red. Once I have my nut, then it’s my turn to earn a little scratch.

But one false move and I’m chasing the shadows of fares until I have to turn in my cab.

Maintaining a positive outlook isn’t easy when there’s so much at stake.

Even though the clubs are all hopping and partygoers are spilling out onto the sidewalk and into traffic, scoring a live one is tricky. And despite the doom and gloom that can overtake you on nights like these, you still have to be ready to force a smile once someone does flag you down. Because no one likes a party pooper.

So you just keep circling and hoping for the best …

After popping and locking up Valencia, followed by a creepy crawl down Mission, I cross myself at 13th and drive-by Monarch at Sixth. I circle the block in case the signs of life aren’t just my imagination, then head towards 11th. From there, I do the Folsom Street shuffle.

At Eighth, a line of cabs is wrapped around the Cat Club and F8 like a birthday gift that no one wants to open. Outside 1015 Folsom, the doormen point flashlights at the drivers who try to stage.

At Fifth, I take a right and cruise Blow Buddies on Harrison, where there’s always at least one cab posted up. I investigate the End-Up and consider whether to circle back to Union Square or head to the Mission.

Waiting for the light, I gauge my level of desperation and decide whether it’s worth the effort to troll Polk Street.


Read the rest here.

AND

while I have your attention…

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If you dig these short rides, why not consider going for a long haul and buying a zine?

Or two?

Or four?

Each issue of Behind the Wheel is jam packed with ribald tales, cheap thrills and personal insight from the manic streets of San Francisco, illustrated with city scenes, maps and retro graphics. Also, stickers!

Help keep print media alive and support your local word-slinging cab driver!

Click here to order.


[photo by Christian Lewis]

When Uber Drivers Attack

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From my weekly column for the S.F. Examiner published on March 7, 2019:

Well, it happened again.

Seems like no matter how hard I try to avoid choleric interactions with Uber/Lyft drivers, the odds are always against me.

On the streets of San Francisco, their numbers alone are reason enough to steer clear, but also why getting tangled up with one of these inexperienced drivers for hire is almost inevitable …

Last Friday night, with Hamilton back in town for a second run, I head towards the Orpheum around 9:45 p.m.

Right as I pull up on Hyde, the theater breaks. Insta-load. Two ladies going to Parc 55. Along the way, they ask to stop at the Walgreen’s on Powell.

Racing down O’Farrell on the red carpet, dodging potholes and double-parkers, their conversation comes and goes like a bad signal from a talk radio station. On the sidewalks, dark figures huddle and conspire in the shadows.

“I was here 10 years ago,” one tells the other. “And never hesitated to walk through Union Square. Now…”

“I know what you mean…”

They discuss the virtues of Denver and Phoenix as we hit a bit of congestion.

Outside the Hilton, I surreptitiously eyeball a streetwalker prowling the cold, wet night in a flimsy miniskirt.

When I pull up across the street from the drugstore, they ask me to wait. I’m not surprised.

“Just keep the meter running.”

“Uh, sure.” As long as they’re fast, I’ll still have time to hit Golden Gate

Theater in ten minutes. “I’ll either be here or…”

Just then, a space opens up in front of Walgreen’s.

“… over there.”

Once the coast is clear, I flip a U, which becomes a three-point turn due to the horrible turning radius on the Fusion.

As I attempt to straighten up, a Camry pulls in behind me, seemingly out of nowhere, and prevents me from fully accessing the space. In my rearview, I notice the U symbol on their windshield.

Oh, great.


Read the rest here.

Stuck Inside a Taxi with the Wintertime Blues Again

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This is my 200th column for the S.F. Examiner, published on Feb. 28, 2019.

February is a bust.

I only worked three shifts this month. Which is the longest I’ve gone without driving a cab since getting my a-card four years ago.

Even when my daughter was born I skipped just two weeks. Of course, back then, with one source of income, we needed the money. And driving a taxi was still viable in 2017. Somehow. Despite the long, cold winter.

Two years later, in the midst of another long, cold winter, that’s no longer the case. Now you’re barely making minimum wage on an eleven-hour shift.

That’s why, when Irina landed a big project a few weeks ago paying five times what I make behind the wheel, it was a no-brainer who would be on toddler wrangling duty.

Instead of chasing fares on the streets of San Francisco, I’m chasing a naked two-year-old around the apartment, pleading with her to take a nap, as she screeches at the cat in the litter box, “Kitty go poo poo, Dada! Kitty go poo poo!!”

So it’s not much different from driving a cab in The City, really. Except the late night crowd tends to be messier and more demanding.

Read the rest here.

The Taxicab Hustle

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“I Drive S.F.” column published in the S.F. Examiner on Feb. 21, 2019.

Last Thursday was my first taxi shift in two weeks. After failing to come up with my share of February’s rent, the powers that be, i.e., my wife, issued an official proclamation, stating that taxi driving shall no longer be considered a real job, and shall be referred to henceforth as my “hobby.” According to this decree, I’m only allowed to “goof off in the cab” when it doesn’t interfere with Irina’s workload. Fair enough. Who am I to contest the will of the people? All I can do is hope business picks up when baseball season starts and the tourists return.

In the meantime, there’s the occasional convention. On Thursday, the IMB Think conference hosted a special event at Pier 39. 10,000 people were supposed to have attended. On top of which, Yellow had an exclusive arrangement to provide transportation for the employees staying out of town, issuing 1800 vouchers for rides to hotels in the Peninsula and East Bay that only Yellow drivers could accept. Since the prospects seemed decent, Irina granted me a temporary furlough to “work” that night.

Like almost every day this month, it rains. Traffic is a nightmare. Despite a late start, I scour the wet streets for rides.

Around 9:30, my dispatch tablet starts blowing up.

“CABS NEEDED PIER 39!”

“PIER 39 NEEDS CABS!!”

From SoMa, I deadhead to the Wharf. The sky is pissing rain. With the wipers slapping the windshield like a dominatrix on meth, I try to navigate the congestion of shuttles and buses among the hordes of Uber/Lyft ninnies doing their best to muck things up.

People are running everywhere, trying to find their drivers or take shelter.

On Powell, a guy with a lanyard bangs on my window. “Are you free?”

I lock the doors. Confused, he walks away. Another guy takes his place. I ignore him until he leaves.

Across the street, in the Yellow designated staging area, people in orange safety vests are yelling at me, “Yellow, over here!”

As more desperate conventioneers approach my cab, I pretend my English is too limited to understand them.

Do I feel sorry for turning down these bullshit fares? Not at all. Because no one is looking out for me. And if I don’t take care of number one, who will? I have a family. A child. But more importantly, a pissed off spouse. If there’s anything in this world that takes precedence over everything else, it’s pissed off spouses.

Read the rest here.