I was a guest on Tony DuShane’s eponymous podcast/radio show, Drinks with Tony. We discuss the craft writing, how I ended up driving a taxi, my experiences with Lyft and Uber, how I landed a gig writing a column for the S.F. Examiner, the pandemic and how a little bit of success can lead to a whole lot of despair.
I think. We talked for a while, and I kinda hoping he edited a bunch of stuff out…
Anyway. Not sure what Tony was drinking, but I had a seltzer on ice.
Ah, the memories… Even if I try to forget, Facebook always reminds me of the stupid shit I did in the past… And wrote columns about…
The increasingly blurry lines of driving for hire
By Kelly Dessaint
published on Nov 6, 2015
I was a Lyft driver for Halloween.
The idea came to me at last week’s barbeque. For some reason, driving around San Francisco, picking up fares with Lyft’s iconic trade dress on my cab, seemed like an absolutely hilarious prank. Even if I just caused confusion, at the very least it would be a noteworthy social experiment.
So that Saturday, once it got dark, I fastened the fluffy pink Carstache Lyft sent me when I first signed up to the grill of National 182 and attached the Glowstache I’d received as a top-rated driver to the dash.
I created a Pandora station around The Cramps, Misfits and Ramones.
To augment my trickery, I planned to tell my passengers I didn’t know where I was going and that it was 200 percent Prime Time all night.
I figured everyone would laugh and throw piles of money at me for having such a clever costume.
On 16th Street, a girl dressed as a spider flagged me down.
“Can you take me to Geary and Fillmore, please?”
“Sorry, I’m a Lyft driver,” I said merrily. “I don’t know where that is.”
“It’s easy,” she responded in all seriousness. “I’ll direct you.”
From Japantown, I crawled down Polk Street behind a beat-up white limo. A few cab drivers looked at me like I was committing the greatest sin by “rocking the ’stache,” as they say in Lyft parlance.
Trevor, the Street Ninja, impersonating Travis Bickle, cruised past me at one point cracking up.
“I’m a Lyft driver!” I yelled out the window. “Where am I? What street is this? Are we in SoMa?”
I stuck to the more congested parts of The City, where I knew my caricature would get the most exposure. Some Lyft drivers scowled at me. Others blew their horns or flashed their high beams.
The majority of my passengers, though, didn’t seem to notice or care. They just told me where they were going, and off I drove with my mouth shut.
So much for being a friend with a cab.
After dropping off a group of revelers at Bar None, I was heading deeper into the congestion of Union Street with The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at full blast when a guy darted out of the crowd.
“You!” He pointed at my cab, laughed and jumped in the backseat.
Barreling down Gough, we talked about irony and thrash metal. When I dropped him off on Valencia, he almost took off without paying.
“Hey, I’m only pretending to be a Lyft,” I reminded him.
On my way to the Haight from the Mission with a fare, Other Larry pulled up next to me on Guerrero in Veterans 233.
“Nice fucking mustache!” he shouted.
“Look at me!” I jeered. “I’m a Lyft driver and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!”
“Does it ever get old?” the guy in the backseat asked.
“Making fun of Lyft.”
On a ride through the back roads of the Western Addition, I tried to explain to another guy the tension between the Smartphone Hailed Internet Transportation Services and cab drivers and why the Lyft mustaches on my taxi were so hilarious.
“You mean you can’t do Lyft in a cab?” he asked. “I always assumed you guys were all the same.”
Sure, the lines are blurry these days: Flywheel is an app and a taxi company; most Uber drivers are Lyft drivers and vice versa; decommissioned Yellow cabs are used as Uber-Lyft cars; Towncar drivers slap fake TCP numbers on their bumpers to access commercial lanes; out-of-town cabs come into The City all the time and pick up street hails; and now Uber-Lyft drivers are putting toplights on their Priuses.
According to a recent study from Northeastern University, the streets of San Francisco are congested with more than 10,000 vehicles for hire on average. During a holiday like Halloween, that number is considerably higher. But only taxicabs are required to follow rules and regulations. Everyone else is free to play make-believe all they want.
It doesn’t even matter if the portrayal is convincing. The general population just wants the cheapest and most convenient ride available. Who provides the actual service, whether they’re knockoffs or the real McCoy, is completely irrelevant.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t work the DJ clubs, doesn’t troll the bars in the Mission and avoids Polk Street like the plague. He doesn’t play the airport or cabstand at hotels. Most of the time, he sits in front of the Power Exchange or Divas waiting for a call from a regular rider.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco has said, given the option, he’d prefer to exclusively deal with transgender passengers.
“They’re the only normal people around anymore.” He doesn’t mind the patrons of sex clubs, because they don’t expect more than a ride. But he never asks questions. He’d rather not know what goes on inside those establishments.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t collect kickbacks when he drops off at massage parlors or strip clubs. He just moves on to the next fare. “Why would I expect to get paid to take somebody one place and not another?”
The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t make much money, even though he works every day. He hasn’t missed a shift in more than a year, but he only does splits, showing up at the yard around 10 p.m. Sometimes he doesn’t hit the streets until midnight. There are nights when he barely covers his gate and gas, and nights when he’s lucky to go home with $15 in his pocket.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco usually drives the shittiest cabs in the fleet. By showing up late, his options are limited to whatever’s available, and that’s almost always a clunker or a spare. But he’s all right with it …
The worst cab driver in San Francisco isn’t picky. He never complains. And if he does express displeasure, he quickly blames himself. He knows he’s the worst cab driver in San Francisco and isn’t afraid to accept that distinguished role. After all, someone has to be the worst.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco focuses on developing relationships with regular clients and providing safe transport. Once, a woman he’d just dropped off at her apartment returned to his cab and asked why he hadn’t driven away yet. “I’m waiting for you to get inside,” he told her. “Why?” she wanted to know. “Because it’s my job.”
The worst cab driver in San Francisco may be odd, but he is so trustworthy his regular customers have asked him to housesit while they’re out of town.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco will stop and help out any driver in distress, cab or otherwise. It’s not like he has anything to lose by taking the time to jumpstart a stalled vehicle or push it out of the flow of traffic. And if they offer him a tip, he adamantly turns it down.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco once left his cab running outside his apartment while he ran up to use the bathroom. In the few minutes he was gone, someone snatched his pack of cigarettes from the console, the key from the ignition and the medallion off the dash. Figuring the thief would ditch the medallion once he realized it was just a worthless piece of tin, he spent the next morning wandering around the neighborhood looking for it to avoid the fine for getting a replacement. When his search proved futile, he went to the police station to file a report and there was the medallion, sitting right on the officer’s desk. How it got there, no one knew. The key and his cigarettes, however, were never recovered.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco doesn’t charge meter and a half for rides 15 miles outside The City. He’s just happy to get what’s on the meter. And besides, he points out, during the hours he works, traffic isn’t an issue.
The worst cab driver in San Francisco always makes sure to stretch before and after each shift. “I may look silly doing this,” he says while doing crunches on an abandoned bucket seat in the yard with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “But my back feels amazing.”
The worst cab driver in San Francisco, whenever I tell him he might be on to something the rest of us are missing, always says, “Nah, man … I don’t know shit.”
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?”
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.
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
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.
If you dig these short rides, why not consider going for a long haul and buying a zine?
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This week’s column about driving a taxi is about a week spent not driving a taxi…
One advantage of writing this column each week is that I have notes on almost every shift I’ve driven in the past four years. With this plethora (or waste, some might say) of information, I can generally figure out what to expect on holidays based on previous observations. Such as Labor Day.
Of course, the week leading up to Labor Day is also Burning Man, when a noticeable percentage of the population in the Bay Area migrates to the Nevada desert.
Abandoned in the void are the alleged beneficiaries of the holiday — the workers. Especially those who toil in service, including numerous drivers, who, desperate or just overly habitual, spend the weekend struggling to make a couple bucks on the otherwise empty streets of The City.
Over the past four years, I have been one of those hungry and habitual motorists for hire, albeit mostly un-hired and oh so bored… until the only thing left to do was practice your road rage … Wheelin’ & dealin’
With past column headlines like “Burnt out without the Burners,” “The top light is on but I’m not” and “Hell is other cab drivers,” I don’t need to browse old Word files on my computer, search the Notes app on my phone or exhume discarded Moleskins from the Filing System of Hell to get a sense of the impact that Burning Man and Labor Day will have on cab driving.
You know it’s a slow night in The City when practically every taxi not at SFO is queued up outside Davies Symphony Hall waiting for Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” to break.
As I roll up onto the scene, the line stretches from the entrance on Grove to the corner and then across Franklin. While I’m assessing the situation, the first cab in the second line starts blowing his horn, presumably, to prevent me from usurping his position. But I have no interest in this line.
Turning right on Grove, I head to the Van Ness side of Davies, to the actual cabstand for the venue. The one with signs indicating that only taxis are allowed to park there from 9 p.m. to midnight.
Very few taxi drivers, it seems, have faith in the Van Ness side of Davies. While I’m waiting, a taxi will occasionally stop, lose patience a few minutes later and speed off around the corner.
Eventually, Late Night Larry pulls in behind me, followed by a few more taxis.
Then concertgoers emerge en masse from the symphony hall. As the first cab in line, I get a fare right away going to Market and Castro. While the light at Hayes is red, I slowly wedge my front end between a minivan and a pickup truck so that when the signal turns green, I’m able to speed away.
All the way up Market, the lights are on my side. After dropping my fare at Catch, I hightail it back to Davies, hoping for a double-dip. At the very least, I’ll get a decent spot in line at the Orpheum for when “The Book of Mormon” breaks.
While fighting the congestion on Franklin, I see a woman on the corner of Hayes with her arm in the air. I flash my high beams and, once there’s an opening, swoop in.
She’s heading to the Richmond District.
“Thanks for stopping,” she says. “The security guard back there kept telling me he would help me catch a cab, but I’ve been taking cabs in San Francisco for 35 years. I may be old, but I can still hail a taxi.”
“You’re flagging skills are impeccable,” I say. “I spotted you from blocks away.”
“There is skill to hailing a taxi, isn’t there?”
“There is,” I respond, about to proffer one of my favorite lines: “You want to put your arm out like you — ”
“Like you own The City,” she says, snatching the words right from my mouth.
It’s late. Wednesday night. I’m making one last round through the Tenderloin before taking the bridge home to Oakland.
While driving past the usual clusterfuck of SUVs, towncars and taxis double-parked in front of the New Century, two women flag me on the corner of Geary.
Despite the weather, they’re scantily clad. And what clothes they are wearing only seem to emphasize their Rubenesque figures. With them is a tall gentleman who looks like he stumbled out of a sales conference. He seems to be shielding his eyes from the glow of the streetlight.
As the women slink into the backseat, the guy gets up front, much to their dismay.
“Come sit back here with us?” they whine.
“I’m all right,” he replies in an English accent.
I try to show him how to adjust the seat, since it’s pushed all the way forward, but he ignores me and remains scrunched up with his knees against the dash.
“Acer Hotel, driver,” says the woman on my right.
“Where?” I ask.
“The Acer. It’s in Union Square.”
“O’Farrell and Mason,” the woman behind me clarifies.
“You don’t know the Acer?” the first lady asks. “How long you been driving taxi?”
“Couple years,” I say.
“Don’t worry, baby, you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”
I turn right on Post and take Hyde down to O’Farrell. Meanwhile, the women fawn over the guy, who doesn’t seem to be interested.
Out of curiosity, while stopped at a red light, I furtively pull out my tattered cross-street index guide and look up the Acer. There’s no listing. But when we get to the place, it’s apparent why. The Acer isn’t a hotel. It’s an SRO.
Whatever. The meter reads $9.55.
As the women exit curbside, the guy takes out his wallet and hands me $20 from a fat stack of bills.
I give him back a creased five and five wrinkled singles. He tips me two bucks and opens his door before I have a chance to tell him it’s clear. Fortunately, there’s very little traffic at this hour.
Before heading toward the freeway, I take a moment to text the wife. Then, I hear, “Taxi!”
It’s the threesome. They’re walking back to my cab.
“What happened?” I ask.
“It’s fine,” the woman says. “We just need to go somewhere else.”
Everyone returns to their original positions.
“Where to now?” I ask.
“Just drive toward the Civic Center Inn,” the woman behind me commands. “You know where that is?”
“Oh sure,” I say confidently and glance over at the guy. He’s slouched forward, absolutely reticent, as if none of this was really happening.
The women, however, are frantic.
“Call Felipe,” one whispers to the other. “He’s got to have a room we can use.”
“I’m calling Serena. She must know something.”
As they furiously text and make phone calls, most of which go straight to voicemail, they try to put the guy at ease.
“How are you doing, sugar? You seem tense. But we’ll take care of that for you. Once we get to the room, we’ll get in the bath. Doesn’t that sound nice and relaxing?”
The guy merely grunts.
At the Civic Center Inn, he hands me another $20 bill. I give him back $12 in change. This time, he tips me a dollar.
“Maybe don’t drive away just yet, sweetie …” the woman behind me says while getting out.
Three minutes later, they’re all back in the cab, and we’re heading toward McAllister and Hyde.
“Call Felipe again,” one of the women seethes. “That motherfucker needs to answer his goddamn phone and get us a goddamn room.”
“This is some bullshit right here. We’ve got to find a room.”
Meanwhile, they continue trying to keep the guy at ease, even though he’s just sitting there, bent forward, awkwardly staring out the window.
Finally, they reach someone with a room.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” they gush into the phone.
“Driver, take us back the Civic Center Inn,” commands the woman on the right.
I hit Turk and drive back to Polk and Ellis.
“We can never talk about this,” one woman says to other with a giggle. “Like, ever.”
When all else fails, there’s always the SFO casino …
On most nights, deadheading to the airport is a gamble. But with taxis sandbagging every hotel, bar, strip joint and DJ club in The City, a Hail Mary seems like the only option.
On my way to the freeway, I stop by Mythic Pizza for a couple slices. Not much is happening on Haight Street. The only customers inside the restaurant are two young ladies sitting at a table having a very loud, profanity-laden conversation about their personal lives.
When my slices are ready, I look for the parmesan, but the container isn’t with the other condiments — it’s on the table where the young ladies are sitting.
I ask if they’re done with the cheese.
“Do your thing,” one says snidely.
Uh, OK. I carry it back to the counter and sprinkle the cheese liberally over my pepperoni slices.
As I’m heading out the door, the girls yell at me:
Slowly, as the holiday season recedes like a bad memory and 2018 offers a plethora of new reasons to be outraged, San Francisco begins to show signs of life again. The weekends are still quiet, and there’s not much action in any particular neighborhood, but at least you get the sense that The City is not officially dormant. Yet.
Last week, the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference rolled through town, with several thousand deep-pocketed attendees who seemed to have no problem throwing money around. I was only able to take advantage of one day of the convention, but if my experience on Wednesday was any indication of the previous two, the event more than made up for a lackluster New Year’s Eve and the dismal December that preceded it.
Most rides are short, but as one fare ends, another begins. And a light drizzle means even more potential rides. All those $7 and $10 rides quickly add up. Then, just as I’m feeling lucky, I get pushed out of the loop and wind up in the Mission.
OK. Just a minor setback, I tell myself. It’s not like I’m going to turn down fares …