Tag Archives: tenderloin

Secret Lives of Taximeters

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“I Drive S.F.” column published in the S.F. Examiner on Feb. 14, 2019.

“Just so you know,” says the guy in the back of my taxi. “This isn’t what you think…”

Driving a taxi can be dreadfully dull at times. During the day, most of the radio business involves transporting folks from their homes to shopping centers or doctor appointments around The City, and vice versa. A big part of the job is also listening to what passengers had for lunch, the graphic details of their illnesses, or just itemized descriptions of the sale items they scored at Ross Dress for Less.

Still, when a guy with two Pomeranians flags me at Haight and Stanyan, looking for a round trip to Golden Gate and Leavenworth, my curiosity doesn’t exactly go wild.

Nights can be just as predictable.

This isn’t the first time I’ve driven someone to Pill Hill who’s drenched in sweat, despite the brisk evening air. It’s not even the first time I’ve taken someone on what appears to be a drug run while they’re supposedly walking the dogs.

But my current fare does catch me off guard by questioning these kinds of assumptions.

“It’s not?” I reply, more curious to find out what he thinks I’m thinking than what’s really going on.

“Well, I suppose you do see a lot of shit driving a cab.”

Before responding, I flash back to a ride earlier that afternoon with a man going from the Potrero Center to Duboce Triangle who spent the entire time talking about the great deal he got on a package of briefs. “Yeah, but I try not to judge.”

It’s hard to tell if we’re still on the same subject, though, once he starts ranting about health insurance, nurses with vendettas, the stigma of permanent medical records and how single payer will be the end of doctor/patient confidentiality.

“I could have a bullet hole in my chest the size of Arkansas but they wouldn’t give me anything stronger than Advil because my chart says I’ve been to rehab.”

What that has to do with the matter at hand is beyond any hypothesis I care to fathom. I just let him do all the talking.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

The Billboard Heard Around the City

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“Build the wall on the internet and make Russia pay for it.”

When a bunch of cab drivers stand around talking, the conversation can be like a four-way stop. Everyone waits their turn, but it’s with a lead foot and a rolling stop.

The topic of a recent powwow was the news that a major medical association is moving their convention from San Francisco to Los Angeles, due to its members not feeling safe in The City, citing the blatant drug use on sidewalks outside hotels, the rampant mental illness on display 24 hours a day and the homelessness epidemic that’s only exacerbated by the futile efforts of the SFPD and the SFPW to somehow “sweep” them out of public view. “Futile” because human beings aren’t as easy to hide under rugs and furniture – or in this case, under freeway overpasses – like other things one might use a broom to eradicate …

“Can’t really blame them, though,” Artur says. “I mean, the city has become a shit hole.”

As taxi drivers, we see more than most of the city’s occupants. The average urbanite has the luxury of shielding themselves from the unpleasant realities of city life by not straying from their standard day-to-day trajectories. But when you’re job is moving people from one part of town to the next, it’s hard to avoid certain neighborhoods or streets, or intersections, or corners …

Still, as a way to offer a “no poverty” package, I try to use routes that avoid the more unpleasant sights. But now that everyone has GPS on their phones, you have to be careful not to seem like you’re running up the fare.

So when you pick up at the Orpheum on Market and your passengers are going to the Fairmont, what’s an honest cabbie supposed to do? Take Larkin, of course. Even though you risk exposing visitors to a long stretch of the Tenderloin and can only hope to make it through the timed lights, all the way to Bush, lest you end up stopped for the red at Geary, where the wall of the Motel 6 is one of the local crack depots.

It’s not easy to shield tourists from the madness of the streets. Try as you may.

Then there’s Turk Street, with the outspoken billboard on the corner, connected to the Kahn and Keville tire shop that Herb Caen once called “the world’s largest fortune cookie.”

After Trump got elected, the billboard seemed to reflect the collective despair of all progressive San Franciscans.

A quote from Lily Tomlin was a subtle dig at Trump: “Behind every failure there is an opportunity someone wishes they had missed.”

While the following one, “Where is Mark Felt?” was equally vague, but only insofar as most people had to Google “Mark Felt.”

The one that said, “Build the wall on the internet and make Russia pay for it” is my favorite from that time period.

As much as I’d like to point any of them out to my passengers, you have to be careful, though, in case the person you’re driving doesn’t share your political views. Yes, even in San Francisco. Shit, especially in San Francisco.

Like Artur said the other day, “This city has become a shit hole.”


 

— taken from the forthcoming zine Behind the Wheel 4: The Thin Checkered Line

 

 

Waiting for the Man

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I recently discovered that if you park your cab on Van Ness and Oak at 2 a.m., with no headlights and the top light off, while the passenger in the backseat is looking to score drugs, almost everyone who walks past will try to solicit a ride.

First, it was two guys with suitcases, who seemed to emerge from thin air. Standing next to their luggage on the curb, smoking and laughing, they continuously glance inside my taxi. Much to the chagrin of my fare, a guy I picked up in the TL who told me his name was Cricket.

“What are these assholes doing?” Cricket wonders aloud. “They’re going to spook my guy! Get rid of them!”

“Me?” I ask. “How?”

“Tell them to fuck off!”

So far, I’ve just been avoiding eye contact, figuring they’ll get the message eventually. A few seconds later, one of the guys steps into the street and flags a passing cab.

“See, they just needed a taxi,” I say. Then add, wistfully, “Perhaps to the airport …”

A few minutes later, an old man approaches my taxi.

“Cabbie!” he yells across the street. “Cabbie! I need a ride!”

“Now what?” Cricket moans. “Goddamn it!”

I roll down my window and tell the old man, “I’m not available. Sorry.”

“C’mon! I got money!” He pulls out a wad of cash.

“But I already have a fare,” I explain. “Another cab will come by shortly.”

“Ah, these motherfuckers won’t ever pick me up!”

I try to offer some reassurance but he brushes my comment away with a wave of his hand and wanders down the street.

Who knew this seemingly desolate spot in The City would be such a hot spot for rides?

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

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When it’s raining, people like to complain. As if, once the waterworks start, you can’t hold back the deluge …

Heading to the Dogpatch down 16th Street, I take full advantage of the new taxi/bus lanes, while the girl behind me talks about growing up in San Francisco.

“I remember being a kid and going to my grandparents’ house,” she says. “Right where you’re taking me now. 16th was a completely different street back then. My grandfather built the house right after the earthquake and fire in 1906. Over the years, the area got worse, but he never left. Since then, it’s all changed, and I often wonder what he would think of what’s become of this neighborhood …”

She takes a long pause. It’s hard to know what to say. As the windshield wipers scrape across the glass, I look around at the ultramodern condos, the state-of-the-art UCSF Medical Center and children’s hospital and, looming in the distance, the menacing shell of the new Warriors stadium in mid-construction.

What do you say about unbridled progress?

“I’m sure he would have hated it,” she asserts.

Read the rest here.

The Tenderloin is for Lovers

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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.”

Read the rest here.

[photo by Trevor Johnson]

The Slumlord of Haight-Ashbury

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I try not to take it personally, but it’s been over a week since my last Flywheel order. Even though I log in to the app at the start of each shift religiously and stay “available” the whole time, except when I already have a passenger or if I’m unable to accept orders, the Android phone attached to the vent next hasn’t chirped in so long I almost forget it’s there.

So after dropping off my first fare of the day in Cow Hollow and tapping the Flywheel app to go online, I’m not only shocked to get an immediate ride request for Beach and Cervantes, but one with a $9 guaranteed tip! I quickly hit “accept” and head toward the part of the Marina that looks like it was designed by a drunken cartographer.

When I pull up, an older gentleman is outside waiting for me.

“Market and Jones,” he says curtly.

“No problem,” I say, hitting the meter. “By the way, thanks for the $9 tip.”

“That’s to make sure you fuckers show up!” he snaps.

I respond with an audible gulp.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Domestic Disturbances in Transit

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I’m determined to get a ride out of the Great American Music Hall after the Murder City Devils show. Or watch the last rocker wander off into the Tenderloin night.

I’ve been waiting for almost fifteen minutes when my door opens and a guy shoves a girl roughly into the backseat.

“I swear to god, Jill!” the guy says. “I can’t take you anywhere!”

“I don’t understand why you’re making a big deal out of this?”

He recounts the incident for her: They were in the mosh pit when some girl told Jill her boyfriend grabbed her ass. Knowing this to be a lie, Jill slapped the girl. A row ensued, and the band stopped playing. Just as the lead singer had smoothed things over, Jill ran up to the girl and socked her in the eye.

“I knocked that bitch the hell out!” Jill laughs.

“You just don’t get it! I’m sick of you getting into fights!”

“Is that why you never fuck me anymore?”

“What are you talking about?”

As things get more personal, I cringe internally. Still, this couple’s squabble isn’t as bad as the that time I drove a couple all the way to Milpitas as they broke up in my backseat. I was pushing the cab as fast as it would go down 880 before the guy started crying. And then we hit traffic.

This guy, on the other hand, is definitely the aggressor. I want to tell him to chill out so badly. Dude, go home and make love to your girlfriend like you used to, back when you got off on her beating up other girls.

Read the rest here.

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Marilyn Monroe exiting a NY cab in 1956

Crackheads are People Too

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is a night in the life of a crack baby…

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.

Read the rest of the column here.

From the Wrong Sex Club to the Right Sex Club

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In San Francisco, you might need the right cab driver to get you to the right sex club…

In this week’s column for the S.F. Examiner, I write about getting misguided passengers where they want to go:

I’m cruising down Folsom Street on a quiet Thursday night at about midnight. An arm goes up in front of Powerhouse. I pull over. A man with a strong accent gets in the back of my taxi. 

“Can you take me here?” He shows me his phone with the Google details for the Power Exchange on the screen. 

As I head up 7th Street, I ask nonchalantly, “Not the crowd you’re looking for back there, huh?” 

“Too many problems!” he exclaims. “I’m looking for women.”

“Well, you’re going to the right place now.”

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photo of the entrance to the Power Exchange courtesy of S.F. Weekly

Racing through the littered streets of the Tenderloin, I can’t help but wonder how this guy ended up at a gay cruising bar instead of the hetero sex club he was looking for. Poor communication with a cab driver? A mix up in a Google search? 

Whatever. These things happen. A few months back, I had a similar situation, albeit in reverse, while driving past the Power Exchange …

A guy flags me down and immediately tells me he’s a tourist and has ended up at the wrong place. 

“The doorman told me I should check out Blow Buddies,” he says. “Do you know where that is?”

Of course. I’m quite familiar with the place, I tell him. But instead of assuming that, as a night cabbie, I know where all the sex clubs are in San Francisco — gay and straight — he thinks I’m a regular and grills me on the details. 

“It’s all gay, right? Is it OK to just watch? Do I have to take off all my clothes? Are there condoms available? Showers?” 

“All I know is that, once you’re inside, they’ll explain everything.”

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When I pull up to Blow Buddies, which is a shuttered storefront on a dark street, my misguided fare is understandably nervous. I assure him they’re open and that I’ll wait to make sure. As he enters, he turns to flash me a Cheshire grin and then recedes into the flaming red light.

Not all mistaken forays into the sex positive climate of San Francisco have happy endings though …

Two or three weeks ago, I’m heading back to the National yard, about to hit the Chevron on Bayshore, when a tall man runs toward my cab, flailing his hands in the air.

First thing I notice are his pink shorts, white shirt and topsiders. Did he just fall out of a J. Crew catalogue into the industrial part of the Bayview?

I stop. More out of curiosity than anything.

“I need to get to the Westin,” he gasps. “Don’t worry, I have money.”

“Union Square?”

“No, in Milanbay, I think.”

“What?”

“Hold on, I have a card.” He reads off the address for the Westin by the airport.

As I circle back to the freeway, I ask, “Why are you wandering around the Bayview?”

“It’s a long story.”

“We got a little time before we reach your hotel,” I point out.

“Well … I’m only here for one night on business. So I figured I’d head into San Fran, get something to eat and have a couple drinks. My cab driver recommended Polk Street. After getting a decent steak, I walked down to Jackalope. I was smoking outside and this hot chick approached me. She invited me to a bar across the street. A place called Divas. Everything was going great. We were totally hitting it off. Then she wanted to go back to her place. Awesome. We get in her car and start driving. At a red light, I lean in and …” He pauses. “That’s when I figured out something wasn’t right.”

His eyes are full of despair as they meet mine in the rearview, and I quickly stifle my laughter.

“I’m from Detroit, man! I was in the Marines!”

“What did you do after that?” I’m almost afraid to ask.

“I jumped out of her car! Just started walking. I would’ve walked all the way back to the hotel. I don’t give a fuck. I was a Marine!”

I’m inclined to tell him it’s not his fault he didn’t know Divas was a transgender bar, but would it even matter at this point?

“I just wanted to have a little fun in San Fran …”

Slowly, his voice fades, and I leave him to his thoughts. He’s got a long night ahead of him, and a long flight back to Detroit, which might be enough time to sort out all these new emotions.

Originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner

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SF Taxi Views: Finding Old San Francisco in the New

Sometimes in a taxi, if you squint your eyes just right, you can see traces of what used to be…national-cab-polk-street

Like smoking next to my cab with this homeless guy outside the Hilton in Union Square when a group of tourists fresh off a tour bus offer us their Buca di Beppo leftovers…

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Or giving a skanky hooker a free ride from Mason to Polk as she propositions me the whole way and then, after I repeatedly reject her offers for “sexy time,” bums my second to last cigarette and insists I drop her off right on the corner so the other girls can see her get out of a cab…

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Or waiting for the green light at Market and 5th next to a burning trashcan, pretty as you please, like that’s just what trashcans on Market do…

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Or cab-standing in front of the Gold Club at 2am, only to get a businessman burning the midnight oil who walked down from New Montgomery because he knew he could always catch a cab that late in front of a strip club…

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Or hanging out at a taxi driver cocktail party in yard, which is a cross between a hobo campfire and a bunch of pirates getting drunk after a night of pillaging and plundering…

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Or driving to Tiburon as the fog rolls through the Golden Gate and you can’t even see the bridge, but still confident that somehow you will make it to the Marin Headlands safe and sound…

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And especially, coming back to the city on the 280 after an airport run, taking the 6th Street exit and seeing San Francisco spread out across the sky, not like a patient etherized, but a stately pleasure-dome… an ascetic’s Xanadu.

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