What am I doing at the airport? According to Ben this is where taxi drivers go when they’ve lost all hope. As I idle in a long line of taxis, my initial optimism rapidly dissipates.
I’m not even sure if this line goes anywhere. For all I know, it could lead to the exit.
I try to find a familiar face. Someone to ask, “Am I in the right place?”
The drivers around me are focused, collectively champing at the bit.
When the line moves a little, the promise of a paying fare is restored. But it’s fleeting and movement grinds to a halt.
Then the honking starts. Haphazardly as first, until it reaches a furious crescendo.
Why are they blowing their horns? There’s no indication anyone is responsible for the hold up, so what’s the point of laying on the horn?
This is open lot.
Between 12:45 a.m. to 6 a.m., taxis entering SFO aren’t required to pay the usual fee. And you don’t have to wind through the various holding lots that drivers affectionately call the Donut, the Loop and the Wiggle. None of which are as exciting as their names imply.
During open lot, you drive right up to the terminal.
Even though I’ve never worked the airport in almost three years of taxi driving, last Thursday, I decided to try my luck with open lot.
It was Ben’s idea.
Due to inclement weather, numerous flights into and out of SFO were delayed or canceled, creating a perfect storm for what Ben assured me will be a feeding frenzy …
Hesitantly, I leave The City at 12:30 and head south. Several empty cabs fly past me on the rain-slicked highway. With no clue what to expect, I follow a Flywheel taxi into the Arrivals Level and get in line.
As we continue to move forward, a Town Taxi tries to cut the line. A cacophony of honking and yelling ensues.
Based on my rudimentary observations, once a driver hears a horn, they all seem to start blowing theirs, too, either out of solidarity or a primitive pack mentality.
Finally, up ahead, cabs begin to load. As people depart the terminal, drivers grab luggage and open doors.
Once the taxi in front of me gets a fare, I see my passengers, a young couple moving up the walkway. But a Yellow cab darts over to pick them up, igniting a fury of protestations, not only from other drivers but also from the starters, the SFO employees who coordinate traffic.
The driver is persistent though. He opens the back of his Escape and tries to stow their luggage.
I stare in complete bewilderment.
Eventually, the couple is extracted and brought to my cab. They look just as flummoxed as me.
“What was that all about?” the guy asks.
“That was like being in a third-world country,” adds the girl with a chuckle. “Everyone was fighting over our luggage.”
They’re going to the Marina. A $50 ride.
After dropping them off, I head straight back to SFO. Within five minutes, I have a businessman in the backseat heading to the Palace Hotel. $45. Then, I’m back on the freeway.
My attempt to triple-dip appears futile though. As I start to regret my decision, Ben comes racing around the curve.
“There’s people at Terminal Three!” he yells.
I follow him and a few other desperate cabs. We get into line and wait for almost half an hour.
Just as things seem absolutely hopeless, two girls emerge from the terminal and get in Ben’s taxi. Now, I’m second up after a Max Cab driver.
Neither of us wants to be the last cab standing.
When a guy with a backpack walks up, the Max Cab driver offers him a ride into The City for $30.
The backpacker counters with $20.
“You want him?” the Max Cab driver asks me.
“Hell yeah!” I practically rip the guy’s backpack off and throw it in my trunk.
After dropping him at a hostel in Union Square, I head home to Oakland …
Now I know why it’s called playing the airport: You can easily end up with a $15 short to Burlingame or a $1,500 ride to Los Angeles, which is what happened to a fellow Veterans driver that same night during open lot. Some dude’s flight was canceled and he had to be in L.A. in the morning. So he took a cab.
That white whale of a ride could have happened to anyone.
“The airport game is addictive once you get a taste,” I text Ben later.
“Yeah, but it’ll eventually kill you,” he responds. “Death by airport is no joke.”
Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on October 27, 2017.
[photo by Douglas O’Connor]