Tag Archives: dispatch radio

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.

Driving San Francisco, Again

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It’s all about the radio…

Back in the day, Veterans Cab was the premier radio company in San Francisco. Veterans drivers would pass up hundreds of street flags on their way to pick up one radio call. They had accounts throughout the Financial as well as most top-rated restaurants and bars across The City. If you wanted a cab to actually show up, you didn’t call Yellow. You called Veterans.

That’s all history now, though, of course. Over time, Veterans became Arrow Checker when National bought Veterans, then Arrow went under and the last of the Veterans accounts were either squandered or lost to Uber.

What little radio business National was able to hold onto had all but dissipated by the time the new owner decided to implement a Flywheel branded, app-based dispatch system.

When the two-way radios disappeared from all the National/Veterans cabs one day, hardly anyone noticed.

Ever since the idea of transitioning to soft meters was first suggested, I vehemently opposed it. I just want to drive a cab, I repeatedly told the manager at National, equipped with a traditional taximeter. Why fix what isn’t broken? Besides, the countless problems I’d had with the Flywheel phone vastly outnumbered my one incident with the taximeter.

Technology is wonderful, sure. When it works.

Without a radio, you end up just working hotel lines and prowling the streets for random fares, hoping for the occasional Flywheel request. As long as there aren’t any server issues, that is. This strategy can lead to some very boring, unprofitable shifts.

Even though I rarely play the airport, the SFMTA’s new policy determining which cabs get preferential treatment at SFO eliminates another source of fares.

So what’s a cab driver who just wants to serve the people of San Francisco supposed to do?


Read the rest here.

Everything Will Be Illuminated

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on July 5, 2018

I’m rolling through the Bayview on Jerrold, heading back to the Mission after dropping at Third and Newcomb, when the order goes out over the radio.

“11th and Folsom. Drivers, 11th and Folsom.”

Artur repeats the cross streets for several minutes, his voice becoming increasingly irate.

“11th and Folsom, drivers,” Artur pleads. “C’mon! Someone go pick him up!”

I grab the mic. “This is 233. I’m by the yard but can probably get there in 10 minutes.”

“Thank you, 233. Go to 320 11th Street.”

Since rush hour is on the make, I figure Rhode Island over Potrero Hill is my best bet. I down-shift and take the inclines with gusto.

Despite making great time, there’s gridlock on Division. And forget about making a right onto 11th at Bryant. So Harrison it is.

After finally getting through the intersection at 11th, I flip a U-ey in front of Slim’s and pull up to the address.

A few minutes later, a guy emerges from the liquor store. He’s on crutches. His clothes are in tatters. There’s a giant cast on his left foot that looks like a kindergartener’s papier-mâché project gone awry. And he’s holding a gas can.

As he struggles across the sidewalk towards me, I roll down my window.

“You call for a cab?”

“Hell yeah, I called you!” he shouts. “What do you think?”

I jump out, open the passenger door and employ my ADA training. “Do you need any assistance?”

He hands me the gas can, assuring me it’s sealed tight.

While he struggles to get inside the cab, I notice he’s got two black eyes and bandages on the back of his shaved head.

“Man, I hope you know you’re a better driver than the last guy,” he says.

The last guy, he goes on to tell me, was Terek, an Uber driver. It was Terek who left him at the store when they couldn’t find his truck, which ran out of gas next to a BMW dealer.

“I liked Terek,” he says. “Until he ditched me.”

Since the only BMW dealer in San Francisco is around the corner on Howard and he swears his vehicle isn’t in this area, all I can do is pull over and ask him to describe where he left his truck.

“It’s next to a tall parking garage … and there’s a BMW sign, I swear. I was on Vallejo when my truck first ran out of gas. But I got it going again and went a few more blocks. Then it died again.”

“Vallejo? That’s nowhere near here.”

“I know! I kept telling Terek we went too far. There’s no way I walked that long, not on crutches. But Terek swore he knew where he was going … Oh man, I’ve only had the truck for two weeks, after the last one got smashed up. I really hope they don’t tow it …”

I try to get him to focus and describe stores he passed on his way to get gas.

“There was a CVS … a Subway… an art store…”

“Was there a wide street, with lots of construction?”

“Yeah!”

“And lots of traffic?”

“Yeah!”

Now that he’s given me enough clues, I can easily visualize where he left his truck: somewhere around Van Ness. The BMW thing, though, doesn’t ring a bell. But with all the car dealerships on Van Ness, maybe he’s just confused. Given the extreme trauma to his head, that’s not much of a stretch …

As I head north on Van Ness, he talks nonstop, worrying about his truck getting towed, losing all the weed inside and the fistfuls of Vicodin he’s been taking since the accident.

“I just don’t get it. I was walking around asking people for gas, but nobody would help me, acting like I was some kind of murderer or something.”

When we pass Washington, he leans forward.

“It’s definitely around here,” he says. “All this looks really familiar.”

Since the streets east of Van Ness are more commercial, I take Pacific to Polk. When I turn onto Jackson, the guy shouts, “There it is! You found it!”

In the right lane, blocking traffic, is a green Tacoma.

No wonder he was worried about getting towed. It’s not even in a parking space.

Across the street, partially blocked by the 12 bus, is a BMW mechanic.

“See, BMW,” he points out. “I was right! Stupid Terek!”

With that mystery solved, I still have one question …

Pocketing the $15 he offers me on the $14.50 fare, I ask, “So, why did you call Veterans Cab Company?”

“Cause, man, I was in ‘Nam. Infantry. I can still see all the carnage and destruction … every time I close my eyes …”


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Felicia the Freeloader

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I’m sitting on the throne at the Hilton Union Square, watching the madness of rush-hour traffic in front of the hotel as cars trying to drop off and pick up contend with a single interloper who didn’t utilize the loading zone properly, forcing every other vehicle behind him to wait in the street akimbo while the 38 bus, followed closely by a 38R, comes barreling down O’Farrell with horn blasting, and all the stymied doormen can do is push around empty luggage carts hoping that somebody — anybody — will need help checking in, but the tourists move through the bedlam fearlessly, phones held aloft, like seasoned globetrotters.

Then, Artur calls out a radio order for Market and Sixth. Since there’s a break in the congestion, I check in.

“233. O’Farrell and Mason.”

“233. Check. Go pick up Felicia.”

Artur sends the order to my tablet, and I head down Ellis to Jones. As soon as I cross Market, a woman waves me down.

“I need to go to the Travelodge on Valencia and Market,” Felicia tells me.

“Sure thing,” I say, merging into traffic and taking a right on Mission.

“Hey, aren’t you the guy who writes for the paper?”

“Oh, you read the Examiner?” I respond.

“Oh wow! I can’t believe it’s you!”

I’m never sure what to say when passengers recognize me from the column. It’s not something I advertise in the cab and rarely — if ever — bring up.

“You better not put me on blast!” she says with a protracted cackle.

“Now, why would I do something like that?” I laugh.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

Playing the Radio

I play the radio loud. Which is the only way to decipher cross streets when Artur calls out dispatch orders in his overworked and underpaid drawl.

The Russian accent doesn’t help. Especially when the two-way starts cracking up.

Believe it or not, National/Veterans still has regular customers. And Artur will browbeat drivers on the air to get them filled, calling out orders repeatedly and even singling out cabs he can tell are nearby, like a school teacher trying to get the class to answer a question nobody knows …

Last Friday, after dropping in The Castro, I’m inbound on Market while Artur is trying to fill an order for Geary and Webster. A regular customer at the Safeway needs a ride, but there are no takers.

For the next several minutes, Artur’s voice gets increasingly choleric: “Drivers! Geary and Webster! Somebody go pick her up! This is a regular customer! Come on!”

Even though I’m not close, I check in. “This is 233. Market and Sanchez.”

“233. God bless you. Go get her, please. I’ll give you a bonus load.”

With the promise of $10 off my gate, I get in the left turn lane. I figure Steiner through the Western Addition is my best bet. But there’s an Uber with Nevada plates in front of me, and when the light goes from green to yellow and then red, the driver doesn’t move.

Read the rest here.

[photos by Christian Lewis]

The Story of Magnificent Meg and the Taxi Dispatcher

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The dispatch office at National/Veterans Cab Co.

From this week’s I Drive S.F. column in the S.F. Examiner:

“You’re with National,” she states the obvious, slurring her words. “I used to call you guys all the time to order a cab, and the dispatcher always said, ‘Hey, Magnificent Meg! Where you going tonight?’ You guys made me feel so special. And always made sure I got a cab. Sometimes it would take a while, when it was busy, but you’d call me back and let me know when the driver was going to show up.”

“Why’d you stop calling?” I inquire, anticipating the answer.

“Well … I started using Uber … Just at first, you know, to check it out. Then, later, it was easier to use the app than make a call. And it’s cheaper. But I hate Uber now. The drivers don’t know where they’re going and they’re creepy. It’s just, like, a habit.”

She pauses for a few seconds.

“Still, I miss the old days when I’d call National and I was ‘Magnificent Meg,’” she said. “That’s why, when I saw you parked there, I wanted to tell you how much it meant to me.”

Read the rest here.

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