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.”
Over the years I’ve documented the numerous hardships cab drivers face on the job. The financial struggles. The unjust competition. The traffic. The requisite long hours. The corrupt government agencies. The indignities of this growing belief that robots will one day do our job better.
Well, all that jive is a walk in the park compared to the constant threat of physical harm. And not just the aches and pains of being confined to a small space for hours on end, but the perpetual fear that something could go terribly wrong…
Spending as much time as we do roving the streets of San Francisco, we see more than your average commuter. The high number of accidents that occur throughout The City on a daily basis is terrifying. Not to mention all the near collisions.
I’m often surprised there aren’t more wrecks, giving how most people operate their vehicles. Drivers going the wrong way on one-way streets have become such a regular occurrence it even happens on the freeway.
Two weeks ago, some yahoo in a Tesla drove the wrong way across the entire length of the Bay Bridge through the toll plaza and onto I-880. How nobody was injured or killed along the way is an absolute miracle.
Unlike last Thursday morning, when an intoxicated woman made the fateful decision to drive home to Hillsborough from The City and somehow ended up on the northbound side of 101.
Apparently, several motorists saw her and called CHP. Before they were able to catch up with her, though, she came around the curve at the 280 split, where there is an incline as the roadway curves, limiting visibility, and barely missed an 18-wheeler, colliding head on with a National taxicab driven by Berkant Ahmed, who was transporting a couple from Chicago he’d just picked up at the airport.
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
“San Francisco is a white-collar crime,” the woman in the back of my taxi says, in a machine gun-like monologue. “And Ed Lee is — was — one of the main culprits. It was Ed Lee who sold us out to the tech companies, turning The City into a playground for the rich.”
It seems like the only notable conversations I have in my cab anymore that aren’t long winded jeremiads are the ones that don’t involve politics. Or millennials. Or tech. Or San Francisco.
“Don’t get me wrong though … I didn’t want Ed Lee dead. Just out of office. Or in jail. He should have gone down after the Shrimp Boy case …”
When I pull up to the woman’s building at Bush and Jones, she hands me a $20 bill.
“So yeah … you won’t see me wearing a black armband anytime soon,” she says, as if there’s a moral obligation to mourn the untimely death of the mayor.
Granted, over the past few weeks, there have been countless public memorials, but the majority of the people I talk to in my cab haven’t changed their tunes.
Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum has something nice to say about the guy. Everyone, that is, except the taxi drivers. They still blame Ed for the flood of Uber and Lyft cars that are killing their livelihoods.
Turns out, taxi drivers aren’t the only San Francisco not mourning the death of Lee …
From Bush and Jones, I meander through the Tenderloin and end up at the scene of the crime.
Inside City Hall, several hundred Google developers are having their corporate holiday party. A typical frock-and-jock event, the guys wear the usual business casual, and the women are decked out in festive evening gowns. Slowly, in their high heels, they cascade down the steps, past the assemblage of bouquets and wreaths laid out in remembrance of Lee.
Outside, on the Polk Street side, an ad hoc cabstand is forming.
While the partygoers gather and wait with their phones out like Geiger counters, a bunch of Hackers gather outside our cabs to kvetch about how slow business has been this holiday season.
“Every year, it just gets worse …”
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do, man,” Icarus says. “I have to get out from under this debt. It’s killing me!”
Saddled with a $250,000 loan for a worthless medallion, Icarus works five days a week just to make the monthly payments.
“Am I supposed to declare bankruptcy over this and run my credit until I’m 60 years old?”
Things aren’t any better for Hester.
“I’d be doing so much better as a gate-and-gas driver.”
“Ed Lee ruined my life.”
“Maybe the Credit Union will step in and take these medallions back.”
Not so in Lee’s San Francisco, where, by his proclamation, every July 13 is Lyft Day.
It’s actions like these that helped feed the rumor, mostly spread among taxi drivers, that Lee’s daughter is an investor in Lyft, or works at Lyft or has some connection to the company. Whether or not that rumor is true doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. And there’s no going back now …
It was just like the old days. Before the taxi industry went to shit. Back when people still called cab companies when they needed a ride. Especially on Friday nights, which is when the following aberration occurred.
Of course, as a driver in the post-Uber/Lyft world, the notion of taxis being in high demand is mostly abstract, based entirely on stories form drivers who were around then and still around now.
On this particular night, though, I got a taste of that bygone era…
It happened just after last call. During the transition period between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m., when most cabs are prowling the bars in the Mission, the Castro, Polk Street, SoMa and Union Square, while others begin forming ad hoc taxi stands outside DJ clubs like Public Works, the Great Northern, Audio, the EndUp and the Cat Club.
As I’m cruising down Valencia on my way to check out the line at Public Works, the dispatch radio comes alive.
Sometimes, I forget the two-way is even there, occasionally restarting the device to make sure it’s still functioning. There are nights when the only activity is drivers asking for radio checks. So I’m surprised to hear Jesse’s voice break the silence.
“Guys, there seem to be orders on the board,” he says. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I have phone numbers. If anyone wants to check them out …”
He starts listing off cross streets.
Since I’m only a few blocks away, I check in for Duboce and Valencia. I pull up outside Zeitgeist and ask for a callout.
“Hold on, 182.” After a short pause, Jesse responds, “On the way out.”
A few minutes later, a guy gets in the back of my cab, and I take him to Bernal Heights. I want to ask questions, figure out what’s going on with the sudden demand for taxis, but he isn’t chatty.
This was a very interesting project I participated in with a few other cab drivers. The idea, as conceived by creator Lexa Walsh, was to have people from diverging points of view get together over tea and hors d’oeuvres and talk things through.
The project gathers artists, writers, tech workers, “sharing economy” laborers (Uber and Lyft drivers, AirBnB hosts) and their critics (taxi drivers, tenants rights activists) together in a hospitable environment so each may share their positions in a safe yet open and critical dialogue. Each position will be respectfully held in the space.
Besides taxi drivers, there were supposed to be a few Uber/Lyft drivers, but she wasn’t able to find any willing to participate. So we sat around the table, drinking tea and talking about the problems we face because of the onslaught of unregulated/untrained drivers.
Some of the quotes were commemorated on plates that hung in the backroom gallery at Adobe after the talks.
I never thought having a child would help me deal with driving a taxi. But the shrieking of an infant reminds me of those impatient cab drivers who use their horns to communicate …
A few weeks ago, I’m lining up on Market Street waiting for the Orpheum to break.
Several cabs have already queued. I pull behind an unmarked SUV with its hazards on. I don’t know if it’s an Uber, so I keep my distance. A Flywheel cab gets behind me and starts blowing his horn. Several taps at first, but then he really lays on it.
Is he honking at me? I wonder. And if so, why?
Finally, the guy gets out walks to the front of my cab. He starts gesturing at the space between the SUV and me. In broken English, he tells me to pull up. I try to explain that I don’t know what the SUV is going to do and want to avoid getting stuck. But he keeps shouting at me, so I just move up grudgingly.
He bellyaches all the way back to his cab.
A few minutes later, the show lets out, and people start getting in cabs.
The Flywheel driver, who doesn’t seem to know how to work the theaters, starts blowing his horn again and trying to get around me on the left. I see people get into the taxis in front of the SUV, which, predictably, doesn’t move. As a couple heads for my cab, the Flywheel is angled on my left so that when a lady tries to get into his cab, he’s too far away and she gets into the Fog City behind him.
I hit reverse to move around the SUV to escape the melee.
When it comes to an 8-month-old, screaming pretty much gets the desired result. According to baby experts, she doesn’t understand “No!” yet and, well, we really don’t want our neighbors to hate us too much. For taxi drivers who use their horns to communicate, though, it doesn’t always pay…
My column for the Examiner this week is about the Hyatt Regency taxi stand, more daytime observations and a near collision with a BMW.
Usually, the EC5 cabstand moves at a decent clip. Besides the Regency and Embarcadero Centers, you get people hopping off BART and from the Ferry Building, as well as various randos.
But that’s the way of the taxi stand.
One second it’s moving, the next you’re just watching the world stream past.
After advancing two spaces, an Uber pulls over next to me. Instead of proceeding to the driveway that leads to the front of the hotel, a family of four disembarks right in the middle of Drumm Street. The driver, working hard for those five-star ratings, helps set their suitcases on the asphalt. Says goodbye and drives off. The tribe of fresh-faced tourists, slightly discombobulated, manages to gather their belongings and haul them between the line of taxis, across a jam-packed sidewalk and the driveway.
This is a common scenario at most hotels these days. As soon as visitors enter SFO, they are accosted with advertisements for Uber and Lyft, which both offer $50 in free credit for new users. Why not take advantage of an offer like that?
They’ve no doubt heard of Uber. Now they can experience it firsthand and tell their friends and family back home about the “future of transportation.”
Plus, it’s $20 from the airport into the city, which is cheaper than a cab, cheaper than BART, cheaper that Super Shuttle and almost cheaper than the bus. They still have more free rides to take. And hey… if Mom downloaded the app on her phone at the airport, can Dad also download the app and get $50 in credit? Sure he can. All the kids too!
So now tourists are taking Ubers and Lyfts instead of taxis. But what kind of experience are they having if their drivers come from Sacramento or out of state and have no clue how to assist them navigate The City? They’re essentially tourists themselves. Talk about the blind leading the naked.
And when it comes to hotels, there are many reasons why you rely on doormen. Making sure guests have — at least — the opportunity to show some class is one. Preventing fuckups is another.
A few nights back, while languishing in the Fairmont taxi stand, I saw a girl get her fingers caught in the door of a Lyft car. As her howls echoed off the façade of the luxury hotel, the clueless driver began pulling away. Her friends had to bang on the side of his car to make him stop…