Tuesday, November 6, 2012

AND I WANT TO DANCE FOR YOU!

Shift #88

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 12 -- Seventh/Mission to Turk/Parker -- $15.25


I HAVE ZERO CREDENTIALS AS AN ARCHITECTURAL CRITIC
, but being a cab driver entitles me to -- in fact it often requires me to -- have an opinion on just about everything. And I think the new Federal Building in San Francisco at Seventh and Mission is just plain off-putting.

When the Transamerica Pyramid was being constructed, many people (including many blowhard cab drivers, I’m sure) decried its weirdness, opined that it was an abomination that would never fit in. But the populace quickly embraced its up-pointing, optimistic design, and within a few months of its 1972 opening, the Pyramid had become a celebrated San Francisco icon. I don’t think the Federal Building is going to be so lucky. It’s a visual head-scratcher with odd, dull coloring and an asymmetrical roof line, and after studying it for the past two years, I hereby pronounce its overall effect jangling. I can’t be the only one wondering, “What were they thinking?”


TOWARD MIDDAY, on the Mission Street side of the Federal Building, I see three young women eyeballing my cab. They are sauntering along all helter-skelter: only one of them is actually up on the sidewalk; a second is walking in the bus zone, a good five feet out onto the Mission Street asphalt; and the third is carefully tiptoeing her way along the edge of the curb as though it were a tightrope.

Their flagging style is as foreign as their pedestrian style -- in fact it takes me a moment to notice that I’m being flagged at all. Each of them is holding one hand down by her thigh and almost imperceptibly wiggling her open palm toward me -- trying to be…discreet, perhaps?

All three of them have the same olive skin and the same jet-black hair, and each of them, I notice, is clutching a phone in her non-flagging hand. All are dressed neck-to-toe in cascading layers of clothing, all of which is either black or white, but the overall effect is black-black-black. Two of them are strikingly short, almost tiny -- at first glance I think they might be identical twins. All are quite noticeably cute.

The taller one sits up front with me, the almost-tiny ones climb into the back.

In clear, lightly-accented English, the one seated in the right rear (I will soon come to think of her the group’s leader) tells me, “We need to go to 388 Beale Street.”

It’s a twenty-story condominium building, almost directly beneath the Bay Bridge, one block from the water. I say, “I know the spot.”

Leader again: “But first we need to go to an ATM.”

While I drive toward the nearby Wells Fargo, they talk excitedly in…Arabic? I stop at the curb at Market and Eighth and activate my emergency flashers. Leader trots over to the ATM.

I ask Upfront, “Is that Arabic you’re speaking?”

Upfront: “Yes -- we’re from Saudi Arabia.” The three of them are on a ten-day visit to America -- today is day four. They are visiting a Saudi friend who attends the University of San Francisco. In three days they’ll fly to LA, and three days later “back to Saudi.”

Me: “Is this is your first trip to America?”

Upfront: “Yes.”

Me: “Have you traveled away from Saudi before?”

Upfront: “Europe -- England, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands…”

The girl behind me speaks up: “Turkey and Egypt, too.”

Upfront looks over at me -- my questions seem to have worn her out: “Can we put on some music?” There is no please, I notice.

I say: “Do you have a favorite station here?”

Upfront: “Ninety-four-point-nine”

It’s a hip-hop station, but the song that’s playing has a tolerable melody. I set the volume toward the low side of middle. Behindme suddenly uncorks an anguished squeal and then a frantic burst of Arabic.

Me: “What’s the matter?”

Upfront says, “She lost her iphone.” Upfront pokes a button on her own iPhone. A ring tone peeps in the backseat. Behindme mutters in Arabic -- Thank friggin’ Allah, I presume.

Upfront and Behindme confer briefly, and then Behindme exits through the right rear door, walks over, and joins Leader at the ATM.

Upfront notices that Behindme has left the rear door wide open, and now she extends her right hand out through the passenger side window to try to swing it closed. Not quite able to reach it, she torques her spine and reaches her right arm back as far as she can. Still, she’s coming up just short...

Given that she and I are almost shoulder-to-shoulder in this little drama, it’s impossible for me to not notice that Upfront’s over-garment -- a thin, black, button-up sweater -- has fallen open. Underneath that, she’s wearing a skimpy top. I catch flashes of orange and green and blue and red and white -- a bright floral design. It might be a halter top, or some item of lingerie, or it could be part of some longer, more complicated ensemble, but whatever its category, this undergarment covers only the lower third or so (my peek is fleeting) of Upfront’s plump young breasts.

I have zero credentials in fashion design, and my anatomy lessons have been strictly amateur, but it seems unquestionable to me that with even the slightest further shifting around -- an inch, inch and a half max -- a nipple’s gonna have to pop loose somewhere.

I say: “It’s okay -- really, it’s okay…” The open rear door is not actually creating a problem.

Upfront glances over at me -- her sweater falls closed again -- and then relaxes back into a forward-facing position.

Every night driver has an extensive backlog of titillating stories, but a low-cut top at Eighth and Market Streets in the full light of day is about as racy as day shift ever gets.

(Okay, okay… Off the top of my head… One night, I heard a customer [it’s quite possible that she was mentally unhinged] call to me, “Look at these, driver!” -- and when I turned around I saw that she had peeled her shirt and bra down around her waist and was lost in admiration of her own, rather amazing, Wonder Woman chest… Another night, a tall and beautiful youngster -- she looked like a track star, a champion high-hurdler perhaps -- stepped from my cab, handed the exact fare through the passenger side window, announced, “And here’s your tip, mister,” yanked her shirt up to her collarbone, gave her bare torso a spirited shimmy, and trotted away into her housing project… And on the night of the Exotic-Erotic Ball, a woman wearing nothing but a sheer, electric-blue, full-body stocking climbed into my front seat… Well, I actually think I’d get back to business now…)

I tell Upfront, “I’m fifty-nine years old. May I ask how old you are?”

“Eighteen.” She tips her head toward the ATM. “My cousins are both sixteen.”

“Are they twins?”

Upfront: “They just look it, but they’re not even sisters. We’re all cousins.”

Leader and Behindme return, and as we head down Folsom toward Beale, the chatter slips between English and Arabic. I hear one say, “Yamma yamma yamma four hundred dollars for three days yamma yamma yamma…”

Another counters, “No, three hundred for four days yamma yamma yamma…”

Behindme places a call to her bank, and I overhear a male customer service rep say, “Because you withdrew $500 last evening…”

Behindme says, “I forgot that one.”

Another ring tone sounds, and Leader swiftly greets the caller: “Ali Baba!” For the next sixty seconds, two loud phone conversations compete for backseat airspace. Upfront’s head is wagging along with a new number on 94.9, a male rapper working a taunt that I can’t fully comprehend: it includes either the word direction or the word erection and the rapper is making what sounds, to me, like a dead-serious vow to “get me some.” Seconds after Behindme hangs up with her bank, Leader dismisses Ali Baba with an arresting lyric of her own -- original? borrowed? -- which she cries out in shockingly clear English: “I love you and I want to dance for you!”

At 388 Beale, I make exact change for Upfront’s hundred-dollar-bill. Foreigners and teenagers are notoriously negligent tippers, and earlier in the ride ($10.75) I’d noted my double jeopardy, and now, when no tip is forthcoming, I roll right on through it.

No one is making a move to leave. Arabic swirls through the cab. Leader makes a phone call: “We’re out front...” And then Upfront tells me, “We’re picking up something here, but then we have to go to USF. Can you wait and take us, or should we get another cab?”

Regulations dictate that a cab driver must wait whenever asked, but most cabdrivers, including me, want no part of waiting. A driver can at least wallow in the illusion of being in control while his/her cab is in motion, but not while waiting for someone else’s dry cleaning, or for their burrito to be wrapped or their potstickers to finish steaming. “Wait-a-bit” rides -- somehow, one way or another -- always wind up being pure aggravation.

I tell the girls, “No problem. Take all the time you need.”

Several minutes pass. On the radio, a girl singer repeatedly proposes, “Let’s go aaall the way to-night.” Leader and Upfront and Behindme occasionally break away from their Arabic chit-chat to sing along, with feeling: “skin tight jeans…a teenage dream…aaall the way tonight…”

As I’m musing on the sexual undercurrents; on the odds of me ever traveling to Saudi Arabia; on these kids’ easy mobility in this vast world; on their proficiency in English, their scrubbed accents, the elite schools they must attend; and on how oily rich their parents must be, a young Asian man walks out the front door of 388 Beale. He is wearing blue jeans and a crisp white tee-shirt. Leader joins him on the sidewalk -- he’s not tall, but he towers over her -- and I catch snatches of their conversation: One hundred and ten dollars… We do not have a printer…

Leader pokes her head back into the cab to consult in Arabic with Upfront and Behindme, then informs the young man, We want actual tickets…

He disappears back into the building. Leader slips back into her seat and tells me, “A few more minutes.” When the Arabic starts up again, I step out for some air.

We’ve had a ten-day run of warm, clear, intoxicating days -- in November! -- a spectacular global warming dividend. The cold, foggy crud we suffered during June, July, and August is forgotten, forgiven. Today, the downtown skyscrapers are gleaming in full sunshine, with an unblemished, polished-looking blue sky behind and above it all.

I rotate my trunk fifty times and listen to my spine crackle. I windmill my arms around for a while, touch my toes, stretch out my hamstrings. Life is good. In another nine days, my driving year will be finished. I can go to yoga classes every day, I can spend all of December reading the books that have stacked up.

I leave an I-love-you-and-I-want-to-dance-with-you message on my wife’s office line, do some more stretching, and ponder the future of the world. Next year, I’ll turn sixty. By the time the harem in my cab has reached my age, I’ll be long gone. What sort of world will have emerged? What unimaginable things will these kids, and my own daughter, be dealing with?

I’ve been outside the cab for at least fifteen minutes when the rear door opens and Behindme says, “Can we ask you some questions?”

I sit behind the wheel and twist around. The inside of a Prius is a small space; no more than three feet separates any of our four faces. The two in the back -- Leader and Behindme -- are virtually indistinguishable, and they could both be movie stars. They’re each wearing expensive-looking sunglasses with big, round, chocolate-colored lenses; Behindme’s cover her eyes, Leader’s are cocked up on her head. The task of parting their identical heads of hair precisely down the middle looks as though it’s been performed by a laser tool. And the way it’s been pulled tightly back gives them each a pleasantly fierce look.

Leader lays out the deal: They found the Asian guy on craigslist. He’s got tickets to tonight’s Usher concert at the Oakland Coliseum for $110 each. (I nod, pretending I know who Usher is, pretending that I have even the dimmest awareness that the hottest act in hip-hop is planning, to-night, to come tear up/tear down the town where I live.) The Asian guy wanted to email bar coded tickets to Leader. Leader told him to print them out for her. “You saw him,” Leader tells me. “Do you trust him? Do you think he might just give us copies, and sell the real tickets to someone else?”

They are leaning forward, eyeballing me, almost panting for my wisdom. My god, they’re young! Their dark black pupils are flinting sparks. My god, they’re good-looking! As I eyeball them back, the word spitfires comes to me.

I say, Yeah, I’d trust him -- he looked okay -- and this is how we do it here now -- I’ve bought lots of email tickets and never got burned. “Did you given him any money?”

Leader: “No!”

Behindme: “But he is taking too long.”

Me: “Call him -- tell him the cab driver is wondering what’s going on.”

Leader: “Brilliant!” She touches a button: “Our driver is getting nervous -- he wonders why this is taking so long… Good…good… Okay.”

Then, to me again: “I blamed it all on you!”

We’re all pals now. I ask, “In Saudi do you have to cover up to go out in public?”

All three speak out once: “A scarf… Over the shoulders only… No robes… No burqa… Scarf only… Not over the head… The head is optional…”

Upfront makes a point of catching my eye: “I don’t wear the headscarf” -- she shudders her head from side to side -- “I don’t. I don’t.”

The two in back: “No-no! We don’t either. We don’t either.”

I have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, a blistering account of growing up female and Muslim in the Middle East: perpetual inferior status to males, hot robes even in the sweltering summertime, lack of freedom to come and go, and -- my friggin’ Allah! -- genital mutilation. I know I’m not going to bring up the latter, but I do ask, “At home, if you go out, do you have to be accompanied by a male?”

Them: “That is up to the family -- some yes, some no.”

Me: “What about your families?”

A chorus: “Usually no…” And then Behindme delivers a trump card so perfect that it breaks down all four of us: “We came to America...by ourselves!” She is sixteen years old, shrieking hysterically in the back seat of a taxicab five thousand miles from her parents’ home. It’s crazy-sick.

We’re still recovering when the Asian man returns with the printouts -- and the deal goes down.

After at least a half-hour of down time, I reach up, restart the meter -- “Music too, please,” says Leader, and I do like hearing the please -- and head of toward USF.

A throaty-voiced female is going on and on and on: Like a G-six.. G-six… Like a G-six… G-six… I listen closely but can perceive no guidance as to what a G-six might be. The tone, however, promises a full serving of hotandnasty.

My buds provide lusty backup: “Like a G-six… G-six… Like a G-six…

I ask, “How do you know all these songs?”

“We hear everything in Saudi.”

I imagine them gyrating in an dark underground grotto, shafts of colored light swirling down on them, ecstatic looks on their faces, bodies obedient to a pounding bass beat. I ask: “Do you go to clubs in Saudi?”

“No.”

Me: “Do you have clubs in Saudi?”

Them, laughing: “No!

“Then how do you hear the music?”

“Internet… iPod… MP3…!” Doo-oood, you are so lame!

Me: “What kind of work do your parents do?”

Leader: “My father is in the government, and my mother is a policewoman.”

Me: “A policewoman…?”

Hysteria: “Not a police-woman -- a business-woman! We don’t have policewomen!”

Me: “Do women drive?”

“We are not allowed.”

Me: “I thought I read about some women driving now?”

“That is Kuwait. In Kuwait, since the Gulf War, some women can drive now, they can even run for Parliament. Even in Afghanistan women run for parliament, but not in Saudi…”

We’re driving slowly up Turk Street, past Max’s Opera Café. I lift my hands off the wheel and glance back: “Any of you want to drive?”

They shriek -- they love it, but they know I’m joking. Still, I wonder: What if one of them said yes? I do know a couple of big empty parking lots…

On 94.9 a gangsta has gotten hisself some weed and now he and his posse, “We be smokin…

Me: “Do people in Saudi ever smoke marijuana or hashish?”

Them, subdued: “No.”

Me: “Do any of you?”

Upfront and Behindme scream: “No!” But Leader comes in loud over top of them: “We are too young!”

I suggest: “But you’ve got plans?”

Hard, affirmative laughter -- that subject just may have been discussed a time or two.

Me: “Is Islam a big thing in all of your lives?”

All three, “Oh, yes!” They bleat this with a vehemence I hadn’t expected -- G-six, skin tight jeans, reefer dreams... On jetliners approaching Middle Eastern airspace, chic fashionistas returning from sojourns in Europe -- during which they have lain on beaches half-naked, strutted through shopping malls on high heels, legs showing, shoulders uncovered, and heads bare -- suddenly disappear under long black robes. I have read widely about this phenomenon, and also about the Sufi and the Wahabi sects of Islam, but this ride is my first personal brush with the Hottie branch.

Me: “Do you pray…?”

They sure do: “Five times a day!”

A perhaps-true story comes to mind: Centuries ago, somewhere in India, a powerful mogul was approached by several nervous advisors: “Your Majesty, an army of 20,000 Muslims approaches from the west.” The mogul replied, “Pfft! We have 100,000 soldiers, the finest army in all the world.” The advisers advise, “But you see, Your Majesty, these soldiers all pray together at the same time, five times every day.” The mogul considered this, but not for long, and then said, “We’re doomed…”


THE HIGHEST POINT on the USF campus yields one of the best views in the San Francisco. As we pull to a stop, I see the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods; the long green stripe of Golden Gate Park, a third-of-a-mile wide, flowing like a river toward the sprawling blue Pacific; the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking over the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio. I zap the meter and inform my fares that I won’t be taking any more of their money. I expect them to fight like little desert dervishes, and they do, but I win them over with a line I improvised during a similar tangle with Manu from India back in August. “If you pay me,” I tell the girls, “none of us will ever remember this ride. I want to remember it.”

When they assure me that, yes, they do read books in English, I pull a copy of Take Me With You from my trunk and hand it to Leader. Upfront and Behindme lean in from either side of her, and the three of them study the cover. Leader murmurs, “I have never met a real writer.” She looks up at me with -- may I say it? -- awe.

“I swear to you,” she says, “we will always remember this ride!”

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

OVERVIEW: “And WHY is he doing this?”

JANUARY 1, 2010


THANK YOU FOR FINDING YOUR WAY HERE. -- Brad

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage -- as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. --Thomas Cahill



I STARTED DRIVING A SAN FRANCISCO TAXICAB ON JUNE 8, 1985. Twenty-five years ago. I enjoyed it from the start, but right away discovered that -- for me, at least -- the worst part of the job was driving around empty. After just ten empty minutes I would start scolding myself for all of my poor life choices, would start questioning my worth as a person, my reason for living, etc. But find my next passenger and, ah, well, suddenly everything was just fine.

After considerable stewing, I eventually stumbled upon the thought, “Next time I’m in one of those demoralizing empty periods, I should just pull into a bus zone and offer someone a free ride. At least I won’t be empty.”

And at some point, empty and frustrated, I impulsively swept into a bus zone and offered a free ride to whoever was standing there (the exact memory escapes me). Before long I began to do this semi-regularly, and doing so almost always broke whatever bad mood I’d talked myself into. With a passenger in the backseat, any mini-depression would invariably vanish. Here we were, a couple of human beings, talking -- what could be better than that? Almost always, my day became more fun. Better. It was like magic. And the key was always at my fingertips.

Over the years, things evolved, and for at least fifteen years now (it might actually be closer to twenty) I have consciously given away (at least) one free ride per shift. I don’t tally them, but I’m sure I’ve given away more than a thousand so far.

For the past decade or so, I’ve celebrated my final shift of each year by giving away EVERY ride for free -- and this has become my favorite day of the year. After ten or twelve rides, after just two or three hours of basking in the surprise and delight and the smiles of all my free-ride passengers, I feel like I’ve been injected with a drug more powerful than anything I’ve ever known. Just imagine driving around San Francisco, sharing happiness with everyone you encounter! Think about it... Please.


EVERY CAB DRIVER I KNOW gives away an occasional free ride (I don’t know any others who do it as a practice), but I haven’t heard any of them spell out their criteria. Nor do I have any particular criteria. I’ve given free rides to people who’ve made me laugh, to newlyweds, honeymooners, people who’ve told me it was their birthday, or people who have somehow made me feel good about life. Also to people who tell me about a bad turn their day has taken, or who simply look like they could use a break. To people whose life stories make me feel sorry for them, or who are obviously underprivileged or underfunded. People on crutches, people with limbs embedded in casts, people in wheelchairs.

I’ve given free rides to people who have just arrived in San Francisco and are enduring the frustration of trying to find an apartment. To people I spot wandering the street with heavy backpacks and lost looks on their faces. To people who prattle on and on about how much better taxi service is in New York or Chicago (or wherever) than in San Franicsco -- and I love hearing these people say, if they do, “Well, this certainly never happened to me at home!”

I’ve given free rides to members of the military, to people who can barely speak English, to people who have suffered through one of my many long stories or who have laughed at one of my attempts at humor. And sometimes, when I find myself revolted by someone, when I catch myself despising him or her, I decide to blow my own mind by making their ride free -- and I almost always learn something surprising about them, or about myself, this way.

Sometimes I give my ride to the first person who gets into my cab, just to get things rolling. Sometimes, late in my shift, if I remember that I haven’t yet given away my ride, I give it to the next person to climb in. And if it’s getting way late, there’s always the stranger in the bus zone, minding his or her own business. In November 2008, during the two weeks immediately following Barack Obama’s election, I pulled to the curb each time I spotted an opportunity to offer a free ride to a black person -- and was that ever fun!


I’VE ALWAYS ENJOYED CAB DRIVING, but this daily, free-ride practice has made it even more enjoyable, made it a bit of a game, added an element of play. And sometimes I suspect that it has transformed my whole relationship with Money Itself (but that’s another story).

For years, this practice was not something I talked about very much. It was my own little secret. But lately I’ve been talking about it more. And in late 2009 I decided that during the year 2010 I would keep a journal of each day’s free ride. My intention is to keep it up all year long, but we’ll see...

My sense is that cab stories are a bit like potato chips -- tasty at first, but they can become less-interesting if you eat (read) too many. I would recommend reading a few at a time, maybe a month’s worth. I intend to post them as soon as possible after each shift, but you might be better off coming back here about once a month. Or maybe not.

However you approach these stories, thanks for reading even this far. And for those of you who have been encouraging my writing for years -- and for some of you it’s been decades now -- thank you doubly. Triply. Freely.

AND to the first person who mentions this journal to me from the back seat of my cab (I drive Green Cab #914, roughly 4 AM to 4 PM on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays), well, YOUR ride is definitely free!

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Monday, November 1, 2010

WORLD CHAMPS

Shift #86

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 5 – Bernard/Jones to Market/Sanchez -- $11.20


LATE LAST MONTH
-- way back during that distant, almost-forgotten, long-ago era before the San Francisco Giants beat the Texas Rangers four-games-to-one in the World Series and became the world champions of baseball! -- I gave a free ride to a fresh young Asian woman who called from a house on a narrow two-block alley on Russian Hill. And now, just ten days later, I’m back, summoned by a radio order from that very same address.

It’s a small, two-story, hundred-year old house squeezed into a wall-to-wall row of others much like it. This one was long ago divided into two rental units, each with its own separate buzzer. I press the appropriate buzzer and wait in the doorway, thinking: Will she even remember the free ride…? Will she expect another…?

But when the door opens, instead of the fresh young Asian woman I’m anticipating, a fresh young blond woman emerges. She’s heading to the Castro District, and tells me, “I usually take the bus, but this morning I chose to sleep in. Today is my birthday.”

I coo and wish her a wonderful day, and think, Birthday... Probably a free ride after all…

She runs a reading program at a public elementary school, coordinating sixty “community volunteers” who once a week read aloud, one-on-one, to fifty-five students who struggle with reading. Each session lasts approximately forty-five minutes. “It’s an AmeriCorps program,” she says. “There are similar programs in about forty schools around the Bay Area.”

I tell her that on the bulletin board in front of the public school down the street from my house in Oakland, I have noticed just such a program advertised, and in the back of my mind for quite a while now I’ve been telling myself that this would be a sensible place for me to volunteer. My fare encourages me wholeheartedly.

Me: “What did you study in school?”

She laughs. “Human biology -- and then I started focusing on the brain.”

“Where did you go to school?”

“Stanford.”

Me: “Well, that is one high-powered address back there -- your roommate went to Northwestern, right?”

She, briefly puzzled, but deciphering quickly: “Oh no -- the two girls downstairs went to Northwestern. My own buzzer doesn’t always work, but theirs always does, and I can easily hear it up in my apartment. So this morning, since I’d already heard them both leave for work, I gave their address to the dispatcher. It’s more reliable this way.” The sort of very clear answer -- and the sort of creative solution -- we’d expect from a Stanford grad.

Me: “Where did you grow up?”

“Austin, Texas.”

Me: “So who did you root for in the World Series?”

“Oh the Giants, of course! And wasn’t that fun?”


THE GIANTS HAVE BEEN WORLD CHAMPS FOR ALL OF THREE AND A HALF DAYS NOW. Cleanup crews have barely had time to sweep up the tons of confetti that fluttered down onto Montgomery Street during Wednesday’s victory parade, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of people -- some reports say a million!

(My personal mental image of the months of September and October shows me in a crowd of thousands and thousands of people, screaming as loudly as any of them and waving something orange over my head. My wife and daughter and I watched the final pitch in our living room on Monday night, and then I drove alone in to San Francisco and joined tens of thousands of high-fiving, beach-ball punching, electric-smiling fans outside the ballpark. But on Wednesday I just didn't have anything left. I skipped the parade and instead drove to Point Reyes (photo, right), hiked out to Arch Rock [below], and took a short cold swim in the Pacific.)

The entire region is still stunned, still pinching itself. I sense that we’re only now -- and perhaps just this morning -- starting to catch our breath, preparing to think about moving on. But a thrill as electric as this thrill -- the almost-complete surprise of seeing “a bunch of castoffs, misfits, and mercenaries” win a World Series, the Giants’ first World Series victory since the team moved to San Francisco fifty-two years ago -- does not pass through the collective psyche of a populace overnight. I believe that the feeling in the streets, on the airwaves, and in my backseat so far this morning must be the feeling that swept this same city during the now-fabled Sixties. I suspect that this stunned, warm, borderline-psychotropic feeling will last a while -- it will morph and twist and will seem to disappear and then it will flare back up again and again, and this will continue to some degree for the next couple of years. It’s going to take a while for us to get over, to get used to, this one…

Birthday girl asks: “Where are you from?”

Me: “I grew up near Washington, D.C. -- Alexandria, Virginia.”

My Stanford fare is still with me: “How did you wind up in San Francisco?”


IN 1974 I SPENT TWO MONTHS traveling from Athens to Afghanistan and back with an elite basketball player friend of mine, Bird Nietmann. Bird was one of just sixty-four players invited to try out for the 1972 US Olympic basketball team, and in 1974 we had to time our Afghanistan venture to take place during the off season of the French professional leagues, where Bird was being paid a (to me) fabulous amount of money to score a (to anyone) fabulous number of points.

Along our journey -- on trains, on buses, in cheap hotels -- we found ourselves in conversations with hundreds of other travelers. Our compatriots painted exquisitely detailed portraits of their hometowns, their schools, their parents and siblings and grandparents, their pets, boyfriends and girlfriends, their health, and the jobs they’d worked (or the trust funds they’d tapped into) to pay for their travels. But as I recall, only once did anyone ask the basic questions that would provoke Bird into telling his unusual story. (And I don’t remember anyone ever soliciting the details of my ordinary life.) What this says about human nature, I’m not quite sure, but I do find it at least…well, fascinating.

By my own rough estimate, somewhere between half and two-thirds of my cab fares never ask a single question about my life. This doesn’t much bother me (it’s my cab and I still get to talk plenty -- if you’ve ever caught me right after my morning or afternoon coffee, you’ve probably regretted it), but I do find this lack of curiosity puzzling. In general, people seem flattered, even sort of thrilled, when I pepper them with my questions. Most often they will, with enthusiasm, sketch out their entire life histories, and some will share shockingly intimate details of their lives. But many of these very same people express no interest in hearing anything whatsoever about me.

I notice that among the people I’m most comfortable with -- my friends -- it seems that there is always a rough parity in the amounts of time we each spend talking to and listening to the other. It doesn’t have to be an exact fifty-fifty split (and there are certainly times when something dramatic will require one or the other of us to do ninety-five percent of the talking during a particular get-together), but my experience is that if the airtime ratio regularly drifts beyond, say, sixty-forty, the friendship will not survive.

If, over lunch or dinner or out on a hike, I find myself talking too much, I believe I’m quick to create a conversational opening for my companion(s). I’m hardly unique -- many people are the same way. Often, while I’m watching the face of a friend who is sharing a story, I will see something uncomfortable flash across his or her face, and will know that they will soon be soliciting something -- almost anything -- from me.


“HOW DID YOU WIND UP IN SAN FRANCISCO?” the Stanford-grad with the birthday has asked me. I meet a fair number of Stanford students (and alums and faculty) in my cab and I am always impressed. Many college graduates will look back on their school years as perhaps the best years of their lives. And often they will do this with a wistful sense: Too bad I didn’t realize at the time just how good I had it. But anyone currently attending Stanford seems to already appreciate their good fortune, seems to understand that he or she is currently in the midst of a peak experience. They’re not going to have to let several years pass so that they can look back, rosily, on their college days. They’re into it all right Now. In my next life I plan to go to Stanford. Had I applied during this lifetime, I would most definitely have not been accepted. Next lifetime, I’m be ready.

I tell my fare about having visited all fifty of the States, about having circled the world with my backpack four times, etc.

She: “What were your favorite places?”

Me: “Whenever I get that question, I always start with India…”

She: “India-- I was just there last summer!” She tells me she worked in an orphanage in Chennai for six weeks, during which she simultaneously contracted both dengue fever and some other grizzly-sounding disease of which I have never heard and of which I want no part. My fare looks and sounds and claims to be fully recovered, and maintains that even the illnesses didn’t ruin her experience. “I loved India,” she says. “It is so different...”

No one ever forgets their time in India, where today eight hundred million people are living on less than two dollars a day and doing whatever they can to get by. I say, “Imagine the things we’d be seeing out the window right now if this taxi were in India…”

For the duration of the ride, we share India stories, pretty much fifty-fifty. At the end she briefly protests my free ride offer, but I don’t take it seriously. I’ve noticed that people’s resistance to my free rides -- and to Life itself -- is always lower on their birthdays.

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Eight Hundred Hours

Shift # 87

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 7 -- Post/Powell to Broadway/Gough -- $8.50


TAXI INDUSTRY REGULATIONS
specify that in order for me to keep my permit -- the infamous “medallion” that gives me (or any other permit holder) the right to put one cab on the streets -- I must personally operate my cab for at least eight hundred hours each year.

This works out to roughly two ten-hour shifts per week, which I do not consider to be an onerous requirement. During the first few months of each year I usually work three shifts-per-week, then at the beginning of the summer I drop back to two shifts-per-week. Sometime around Thanksgiving I knock off for the year, and then I start back up again in early January. When I’m not behind the wheel, Green Cab rents out “my cab” (Green Cab #914) to drivers who are not medallion holders (every medallion holder has roughy this same arrangement with the cab company of his or her choice). For the use of my permit, Green Cab pays me about $2,000 per month, twelve months a year.

I hear you thinking: Pretty sweet deal! And I reply, “You too can have this very same deal -- all you have to do is spend approximately fifteen years (or maybe, as in my case, twenty years) in a job that pays about $15/hour and has precisely zero benefits -- no vacation, no sick pay, no 401-K, nothing -- and then if you’re lucky, you might wind up with a medallion...” (But that’s another story.)

In late October, just as the Giants were going gonzo, I surpassed the eight hundred-hour mark for this year. Each year, just to be on the safe side with the regulators, I usually work about eight hundred and fifty or nine hundred hours, and now the end of my 2010 driving year is looming. Whenever I see it coming at me, I always get a little melancholy. On a day like today -- a Sunday that has been hopping from the very first moments -- there are, honest to god, few things I’d rather do than drive a cab around San Francisco and meet strangers.

For years I’ve believed that I could craft an entire book around any single shift (and perhaps around any single ride), and sometimes I find myself doing darned near exactly that, and all the typing involved has been taking a repetitive-stress toll on my body. My mind is not yet ready to call it quits on this year, but my shoulders-arms-hands are ready for a break. Today’s entry is going to be a short, first-draft deal.


IF THE CONVERSATIONS I’M HEARING ARE REPRESENTATIVE, the city is full of several thousand audio engineers who have taken over Moscone Center to celebrate the return of vinyl records to the music industry. The city’s residents are still agog over the Giants’ astounding run-the-table postseason. The hills around the Bay are nicely greened-up from a right-on-schedule, first-of-November drenching earlier this week. This annual greening, which seems to happen virtually overnight, always seems like a trick, a marvel -- and today’s sky is bright and filled with fluffy, snow-white clumps of cartoon clouds.

With about an hour to go in my shift I pull to the curb in Pacific Heights to deposit two middle-aged folks and their adult daughter. For decades they lived right here in San Francisco, but seven or eight years ago they “moved back” to the town in Italy from which one set of grandparents had emigrated. During the whole ride we’ve been yacking away, with them listing all the things they miss about the City and singing about how wonderful it is to be back, and isn’t it great that the Giants -- finally! -- won the whole darned thing?

As I’m pulling to the curb I find myself hating to see this ride, like this year, come to an end, and as I pause the meter I suddenly remember... And then, while quickly informing my fares about my free ride tradition, I keep on punching buttons until the numbers clear from the screen.

The man is protesting but his wife is telling him to “Hush up, just say thank you, and get out of the cab, dammit,” but he keeps on protesting until I reach back and yank the handle and swing the door open and say “I ain’t taking your money -- geddouddamycab!” and the next thing I know I’m glancing back in the rearview -- they’re standing on the sidewalk, watching me drive away, all three of them looking at each other and flapping their hands and shaking their heads and laughing laughing laughing. As I roll down Gough Street, straight out ahead and down below me I can see a couple dozen boats with full white sails scooting across the bay in full glorious California sunshine.

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* * AND I WANT TO DANCE FOR YOU! * *

Shift #88

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 12 -- Seventh/Mission to Turk/Parker -- $15.25


TOWARD MIDDAY
, on the Mission Street side of the new Federal Building, three young women flag me. All three of them have the same olive skin and the same jet-black hair. All three are dressed neck-to-toe in cascading layers of clothing, all of which is either black or white. And each of them, I notice, has a cell phone in her hand.

The tallest one sits up front with me, and the other two climb in back.

In clear, lightly-accented English, the one seated in the right rear (I will soon come to think of her as the group’s leader) tells me, “We need to go to 388 Beale Street, but first we need to go to an ATM.”

While I head for a nearby Chase branch, the three of them chatter in Arabic which occasionally morphs seamlessly into English and then back to Arabic. The girl right behind me says, “Yamma yamma yamma three hundred dollars for four days yamma yamma yamma…”

The one up front counters, “No, four hundred for three days yamma yamma yamma…”

I stop at the curb on Market at Eighth and pop my emergency flashers. Leader and Behindme trot over to the ATM.

When I ask, Upfront tells me, “We’re from Saudi Arabia.” The three of them are on a ten-day visit to America. Today is day four. They are visiting a Saudi friend, a student at the University of San Francisco. After three more days they’ll fly to LA, and after three more, “back to Saudi.”

“Is this is your first trip to America?”

Upfront: “Yes.”

“Have you traveled away from Saudi before?”

“Europe -- England, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands… Turkey and Egypt, too.” She looks over at me -- my questions seem to have worn her out. “Can we put on some music?” she asks. There is no please, I notice.

Me: “Do you have a favorite station here?”

“Ninety-four-point-nine.”

It’s a hip-hop station, but the song playing has a tolerable melody and nobody’s spewing curse words. I set the volume toward the low side of middle.

Upfront suddenly notices that Leader and Behindme have left the rear door wide open, and now she extends her right hand out through her open window to try to swing it closed. She torques her spine and reaches her right arm back as far as she can, but can’t quite reach that back door...

She and I are almost shoulder-to-shoulder in the front seat of my narrow Prius. Her head is turned away from me, and now it is impossible for me not to notice that her over-garment -- a thin, black, button-up sweater -- has fallen open. Underneath, she’s wearing something with a floral motif -- I catch a flash of orange-green-blue-red-white. This undergarment might be a halter top or an item of lingerie or it might be part of some larger fashion ensemble, but whatever its classification, it only covers, and just barely, the approximate lower third of Upfront’s plump young breasts. Any more stretching, any more shifting around, and I’m afraid we’re about to see wardrobe failure…

I say: “It’s okay -- really, it’s okay…” The open rear door is not actually creating a problem.

Upfront turns back around and glances at me -- her sweater falls closed again -- and then she relaxes down into her seat again.

I recall reading about a phenomenon that occurs as jetliners from Europe begin their descents toward airports in the Muslim Middle East. Chic fashionistas who have just spent days or weeks lying half-naked on beaches, or strutting through shopping malls on high heels -- legs showing, shoulders uncovered, heads bare -- suddenly begin to disappear under long black robes… Wahabi, Sufi, Sunni... Hottie?

I tell Upfront, “I’m fifty-nine years old. May I ask how old you are?”

“Eighteen.” She tips her head toward the ATM. “My cousins are both sixteen.”

“Are they twins?”

Upfront: “They look like twins, but they’re not even sisters. We’re all three cousins.”

When the other two return, we head down Folsom toward Beale, and suddenly Behindme uncorks an anguished squeal and then a frantic burst of Arabic.

Me: “What’s the matter?”

Upfront says, “Lost her iphone,” and then she pokes at her own phone. A ring tone peeps in the backseat. Behindme mutters in Arabic. Thank friggin’ Allah, I presume.

Apparently the stop at the ATM didn’t go so smoothly for Behindme. She calls her bank, and through the phone I can easily hear a male customer service rep say, “Because you withdrew $500 last evening…”

Behindme says, “I forgot that one.”

A different ring tone sounds, and Leader swiftly greets the caller: “Ali Baba!” For the next sixty seconds, two loud phone conversations compete for backseat airspace. Next to me, Upfront’s head is wagging along to another hip-hop number, a male rapper working a taunt that I can’t fully comprehend: it includes either the word direction or the word erection and the rapper is making a dead-serious vow to “get me some.”

Seconds after Behindme hangs up with her bank, Leader dismisses Ali Baba with an arresting lyric of her own -- original? borrowed? -- which she cries out in shockingly clear English: “I love you and I want to dance for you!”

In front of 388 Beale, Leader makes a phone call: “We’re out front...”

Upfront tells me, “We’re picking up something here -- just a few minutes -- and then we have to go to USF.”

Arabic swirls through the cab’s interior. On the radio, a girl singer proposes, “Let’s go aaall the way to-night.” Leader and Upfront and Behindme occasionally break away from their Arabic chit-chat to sing along, with feeling: “skin tight jeans…a teenage dream…aaall the way to-night…”

As I’m musing on the sexual undercurrents; on the odds of me ever traveling to Saudi Arabia; on these kids’ easy mobility in this vast world; their proficiency in English; their scrubbed accents; the elite schools they must attend; and on how oily rich their parents must be, a young Asian man walks out the front door of 388 Beale. He is wearing blue jeans and a crisp white tee-shirt. Leader joins him on the sidewalk -- he’s not tall, but he towers over her. He is just out of my earshot, but I can still catch snatches of Leader’s side of the conversation: One hundred and ten dollars… We do not have a printer… We want actual tickets…

The Asian man disappears back inside the building. Leader slips back into her seat and tells me, “A few more minutes.” When the Arabic starts up again, I step out for some air.

We’ve had a ten-day run of clear, intoxicating, seventy-degree days -- in November! -- a spectacular global warming dividend. The cold, foggy crud we suffered during June, July, and August is forgiven, forgotten. Today, the downtown skyscrapers are gleaming in full sunshine under a dome of unblemished blue.

I rotate my trunk fifty times and listen to my spine crackle. Life is good. In another nine days, my cab driving year will be finished. I can go to yoga classes every day. I can spend all of December reading the books that have stacked up.

I leave an I-want-to-dance-with-you message on my wife’s office line, do some more stretching, and ponder the future of the world. Next year, I’ll turn sixty. By the time this harem in my cab has reached my age, I’ll be long gone. What sort of world will have emerged? What unimaginable things will these kids, and my own daughter, be dealing with?

The cab’s rear door opens. Behindme smiles and says, “We would like to ask you some questions…”

I slide behind the wheel and twist around. The interior of a Prius is a cozy space; no more than three feet separates any of our four faces. At this distance, the two girls in back -- Leader and Behindme -- are virtually indistinguishable, and they could both be movie stars. They’re each wearing expensive-looking sunglasses with big, round, chocolate-colored lenses; Leader’s shades are cocked up on her head, Behindme’s hide her eyes. The black hairs on their nearly-identical heads look like they’ve been parted precisely down the middle with some sort of tonsorial laser tool -- and the way that hair has been pulled tightly back gives them each an alluring, semi-fierce look.

Leader lays out the deal: The Asian guy has tickets to tonight’s Usher concert at the Oakland Coliseum. He wants $110 each. (I nod, pretending I know who Usher is, pretending that I have even the dimmest awareness that the hottest act in hip-hop is planning -- to-night -- to come tear up/tear down the town where I live.) The Asian guy wanted to email bar coded tickets to Leader. Leader told him to print them out for her. “You saw him,” Leader tells me. “Do you trust him? Do you think he might just give us copies, and sell the real tickets to someone else?”

They are leaning forward, eyeballing me, almost panting for my wisdom. My god, they’re young! Their dark black pupils are flinting sparks. My god, they’re good-looking! As I eyeball them back, the word spitfires occurs to me.

I say, Yeah, I’d trust him. He looked okay to me. This is how we do it here now -- I’ve bought lots of email tickets and never got burned. “Did you given him any money?”

Leader: “No!”

Behindme: “But he is taking too long.”

Me: “Call him -- tell him the cab driver is wondering what’s going on.”

Leader: “Brilliant!” She touches her phone: “Our driver is getting nervous -- he wonders why this is taking so long… Good…good… Okay.”

Then, to me again: “I blamed it all on you!

All four of us laugh.

I ask, “In Saudi, do you have to cover up to go out in public?”

All three speak at once: “A scarf… Over the shoulders only… No robes… No burqa… Scarf only… Not over the head… The head is optional…”

Upfront makes a point of catching my eye: “I don’t wear the headscarf” -- she shudders her head from side to side -- “I don’t. I don’t.”

The two in back: “No-no! We don’t either. We don’t either.”

I have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, a blistering account of growing up female and Muslim in the Middle East: perpetual inferior status to males; hot robes even in the sweltering summertime; lack of freedom to come and go; and -- my friggin’ Allah! -- genital mutilation.

I ask, “At home, if you go out, do you have to be accompanied by a male?”

Them: “That is up to the family -- some yes, some no.”

Me: “What about your families?”

A chorus: “Usually no…” And then Behindme delivers a trump card so perfect that it breaks down all four of us: “We came to America…by our-selves!” She is sixteen years old, shrieking hysterically in the back seat of a taxicab five thousand miles from her parents’ home. It’s crazy-sick.

We’re still recovering when the Asian man returns with the printouts. The deal goes down.

As we head off toward USF, Leader says, “Can we hear the music again, please.”

On the radio, a throaty-voiced female is going on and on and on: Like a G-six…G-six… Like a G-six…G-six… I listen closely but perceive no guidance as to what a G-six might be. The tone, however, promises a full serving of nasty.

My new pals provide lusty backup: “Like a G-six…G-six… Like a G-six…

I ask, “How do you know all these songs?”

“We hear everything in Saudi.”

I imagine them gyrating beneath swirling shafts of colored light in an dark underground grotto, ecstatic looks on their faces, bodies obedient to a pounding bass beat. I ask: “Do you go to clubs in Saudi?”

“No.”

Me: “Do you have clubs in Saudi?”

Them, laughing: “No!”

“Then how do you hear the music?”

“Internet… iPod… MP3…!” Doo-oood, you are so lame!

Me: “What kind of work do your parents do?”

Leader: “My father is in the government, and my mother is a policewoman.”

Me: “A policewoman…?”

Hysteria: “Not a police-woman -- a business-woman! We don’t have policewomen!”

Me: “Do women drive?”

“We are not allowed.”

Me: “I thought I read about some women driving now?”

“That is Kuwait. In Kuwait, since the Gulf War, some women can drive, they can even run for Parliament. Even in Afghanistan women run for parliament, but not in Saudi…”

We’re driving slowly up Turk Street, past Max’s Opera Café. I lift my hands off the wheel and glance back: “Any of you want to drive?”

They shriek -- they know I’m teasing, but they love it. And I wonder: What if one of them said yes? I do know a couple of big empty parking lots…

A gangsta on 94.9 has gotten hisself some weed and now he and his posse, We be smokin…

Me: “Do people in Saudi ever smoke marijuana or hashish?”

Them, subdued: “No.”

Me: “Do any of you?”

Upfront and Behindme scream: “No!” But Leader comes in loud over top of them: “We are too young!”

I suggest: “But you’ve got plans?”

Hard, affirmative laughter -- this very subject just may have already been thoroughly discussed a time or two.

Me: “Is Islam a big thing in all of your lives?”

All three, “Oh, yes!” They bleat this with a vehemence I hadn’t expected -- G-six, skin tight jeans, reefer dreams...

Me: “Do you pray…?”

They sure do: “Five times a day!”

A perhaps-true story comes to mind: Centuries ago, somewhere in India, a powerful mogul was approached by several nervous advisors: “An army of 20,000 Muslims approaches from the west, Your Majesty.” The mogul replied, “Pfft! We have 100,000 soldiers, the finest army in all the world.” The advisers countered, “But you see, Your Majesty, these people all pray together at the same time, five times every day.” The mogul considered this, but not for long, and then said, “We’re doomed…”


THE HIGHEST POINT on the USF campus yields one of the best views in San Francisco. As we pull to a stop, I see the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods; the long green stripe of Golden Gate Park flowing like a river toward the sprawling blue Pacific; the burnt-orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge poking above the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio. I zap the meter and inform my fares that I won’t be taking their money.

I expect them to fight like little desert dervishes, and they do, but I break down their resistance with this line: “If you pay me, none of us will ever remember this ride. I want to remember it.”

“But I swear to you,” Leader says, “we will always remember this ride!”

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One hundred and eleven words

Shift #89

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 14 -- California/Davis to California/Mason -- $5.35


A MARRIED COUPLE FROM MODESTO.
A weekend getaway in San Francisco. Headed to the Top of the Mark for an afternoon drink. In the Mark’s driveway, I think: “I’ve learned almost nothing about them. There’s no story to tell. Perfect!” I wrote 4,500 words about Friday’s shift, and after twenty drafts got it whittled down to 2,500. Today my arms feel like they’ve been strung with barbed wire. Coming up next is All-rides-free Day, and who knows how many words and how many drafts that’ll take! I turn to my passengers: “Free ride!” But it’s really a gift to my aching arms. One draft. Bam! Let’s count: One hundred and...eleven words.

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* * ALL-RIDES-FREE DAY * *



Shift #90

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2010

(NOTE: I don’t know how to add a caption, but that is NOT my cab in the photo.)


NOT EVERY DAY
do I see people waiting in the casual carpool line at 5:45 AM. But this morning, as I’m driving my personal car in to work, I notice the silhouettes of two men who are standing in the shadowy darkness under the designated oak tree a mile from my home. As we cross the Bay Bridge, I tell them about today being All-rides-free Day in my taxi.

One of the men chuckles: “And to think that I was just about to offer you a dollar toward the bridge toll…”

By 6:30, I’m cruising up Van Ness Avenue. It’s drizzling, still dark, and the shiny black streets have a moody, romantic feel. The radio is quiet, and no one is flagging me. I see people huddled around bus shelters, but crowds are always tricky. If just one person is waiting for a bus, that’s easy, but to single out one or two people (maximum four) from a cluster is awkward. It’s easier to just keep rolling…


Fare #1 -- 6:46 AM -- Finally, a radio call in Pacific Heights, a young man going in early to his job at an internet company on the edge of the Financial District. He’s been assigned to manage the re-positioning of the workstations -- all the desks and computers and phone lines -- of the company’s fifty employees, and the task is supposed to be completed before he goes home tonight. He’s a big baseball fan, but says, “During October I had to work until midnight so often that I feel like I kind of missed the playoffs.”

I’m never actually convinced that All-rides-free Day is truly happening until I get the first one under my belt. Until I utter the words and declare it, it’s not actually real. No higher authority is demanding this of me. No one is watching to make sure I follow through on my good intention. If I get cold feet, I can just simply remain silent, crawl back into my little shell, and Earth will no doubt keep on spinning…

But at ride’s end, Body swivels toward the backseat (it seems there may be a higher authority after all) and says, “Today is my last shift of the year, and for several years now I’ve made it a tradition to give all my rides for free on this shift. So -- this is a free ride. Have fun moving everyone’s desks around. I’ll see you next year.”

My fare is extending a bill in my direction, and studying me with an uncertain expression. Is this guy for real? And then he smiles. “Well, thank you.”

Fare #2 -- 7:23 AM -- I’ve grabbed coffee and a bagel at Noah’s and have worked my way through the cab line in front of the Hyatt-Embarcadero. A woman who has just ridden BART in from Concord needs a ride to her job at the Hilton-Fisherman’s Wharf. She tells me that yesterday she braved the DMV: “I’d scheduled my appointment a full month ahead, but I still had to wait forty-five minutes before my name was called. And then the woman behind the counter gave me a form to fill out, and when I asked for a pen, she said, ‘Do you mean to tell me you came to the DMV and didn’t bring a pen!’”

But that was yesterday. When she hears that today is All-rides-free Day she brightens right up: “Well let me a least give you a tip.” I say, “If you must.” She places three one-dollar bills on the console between my front seats. I tell her, “At Christmas, I put my free-ride tips into an envelope and give it to my thirteen-year-old daughter. So, she and I thank you very much.” (Generosity inspires generosity -- by day’s end, fifteen of my twenty-two fares will have given me a total of $78 in tips.)

Fare #3 -- 7:32 AM -- A young guy from Iowa is standing in front of the Hyatt-Fisherman’s Wharf. He’s married, has four- and two-year-old kids, and works for a two-hundred person company that originally manufactured concrete watering troughs for Midwest farmers. Now they sell concrete benches and drinking fountains to municipalities all over the world. Today he’s calling on the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. This is his first visit to “god’s favorite city,” and even with today’s rain and clouds he finds the Bay and the bridges and all the bungalow-covered hills “stunning.” He asks, “How did you wind up here?”

Me: “I visited all fifty States, circled the world four times with my backpack, and then chose the place that most appealed to me.”

He: “All fifty! I’ve always dreamed about that! How’d you do it?”

Me: “In college, two friends and I challenged each other: ‘Who can get to all fifty first?’ By the time we were about thirty years old, we each had about forty-five -- I had forty-seven -- and then one guy went off on a hitchhiking blitz and got his last few and called and told the other two of us that we were playing for second place. In the end, I did manage to come in second.”

Fare #4 --7:47 AM -- A short ride in the Tenderloin District -- a young guy who is planning to spend all day helping a friend move from one apartment to another.

Fare #5 -- 8:00 AM -- At the Hilton on O’Farrell Street, a man from Chicago, an employee of Thomson-Reuters, needs to get downtown to visit a few accounts. “We sell business news and information to financial institutions,” he tells me. I think: Has any large business ever taken a day and given away its products for free? Now THAT would be a business story! I don’t mention this to my fare, but I do tell him about my special day, and he tips five dollars for the $4.90 free ride.

Fare #6 -- 8:24 AM -- Radio call, a young physician, a general practitioner, who one year ago moved from Phoenix to San Francisco. He’s traveling from his Marina District apartment over to his office at the base of Telegraph Hill, where he works six days a week: “Too much!” he says. He remembers having all the time in the world when he spent eight months backpacking around Australia and Southeast Asia in between college and medical school. I say, “Isn’t travel the very best thing?” He says, “My three passions are: the work I do, cooking, and travel. There is no number one. They’re all in first place.”

I stop at the Hotel W to use the bathroom, and when I return to the cab line I’m second-up. I open The Power of Now and before Fare #7 arrives I have just enough time to read this snatch: “There is a novel by Aldous Huxley called Island, the story of a man shipwrecked on a remote island. The first thing that the man notices are the colorful parrots perched in the trees, constantly croaking the words ‘Attention. Here and Now. Attention. Here and Now.’ We later learn that the islanders taught them these words in order to be reminded continuously to stay present.”

Fare #7 -- 8:49 AM -- A young woman from New Orleans tells me, “We’re coming around. A year ago I thought we had hit a plateau, but now we have a mayor and a city council who actually seem to like each other, and things are getting better.” She’s in town for a convention of cognitive behavioral therapists. Over the past few years, she and her colleagues have developed a twelve-to-sixteen-week program that has been successful in treating post traumatic stress syndrome -- a lot of my fare’s work involves veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Once-a-week therapy appointments (combined with certain drugs) have produced positive results for fifty-five percent of the participants. At the end of the ride I thank her for doing the important work she does. She assures me that, “It is my honor.”

Fare #8 -- 9:09 AM -- A paralegal who lives in Burlingame has dropped her car at the Mercedes dealership at Eighth and Bryant and now needs a ride to her job downtown. She can’t believe how much a routine annual maintenance appointment costs: $400. I enjoy telling her, and I think she enjoys hearing: “This’ll bring it down closer to $390.”

Fare #9 -- 9:29 AM -- I stop at the Noah’s Bagels on Battery Street for a second cup of coffee, and then pop next door to Happy Donuts to indulge my weakness for big fat cinnamon rolls, and one block later I’m flagged by a man with a suitcase on rollers. This is the one day all year when I am not thrilled to see an airport fare, but it all works out. The man says, “I’m sorry. I’m only going four blocks, and worse, I’m going to have to pay with a credit card -- I don’t even have five dollars cash with me.” When I explain why none of this will be any sort of problem today, he protests: “Oh, I can’t do that!” I say, “My first eight fares managed.” I hold up my clipboard and point to him the notation following each ride. “Free-Free-Free-Free-Free...,” I say. He slumps into the seat back and surrenders with a simple, “Wow!”

Driving away, I note that eliminating the payment ritual also eliminates much bothersome paper-shuffling -- the time-honored Thank You / You’re Welcomed ritual is so much more streamlined. What percentage of our precious lives do we squander by exchanging currency or credit/debit cards, making change, collecting receipts, and recording and accounting for all of it? During a seventy-year lifetime, how much time do we waste on this? An entire month? An entire year?

I further note how this free-rides business is all starting to seem so normal to me. My recollection is that in past years my free-ride days have seemed surreal, quasi-psychedelic. But today doesn’t seem surreal at all -- it feels absolutely unremarkable, run-of-the-mill even. Perhaps this is a function of my having kept this journal all year, and thereby forcing the practice up toward the surface of my daily consciousness.

Fare #10 -- 9:50 AM -- Downtown. A business consultant who looks like he’s from India tells me, “I grew up in LA, but now I live in San Francisco -- but only on weekends, really. Most weeks I’m on the road Monday through Friday.” Does he see glimmers of hope for the economy? He says: “In the Bay Area, yes. But nationally… That’s going to take a long time.”

Fare #11 -- 9:58 AM -- As fare #10 exits out the right side of my cab, a man and woman enter through the left side. They’re headed out toward their new home near the University of San Francisco. Just two months ago they moved here from Philadelphia when the man’s employer, an accounting firm, sent him to work on the firm’s Genentech account in South San Francisco. My fares have two adult children living in San Francisco, and this has helped make the move virtually painless. The man says, “We even rooted for the Giants in the playoffs -- they were a much more likable team than the Phillies.” The woman says, “We have liked everything about San Francisco except the bad drivers. But they’re not fast bad drivers like in New York. At least they’re slow bad drivers.’”

Fare #12 -- 10:30 AM -- A hairdresser from the Haight, going to work in the Financial District, says, “I’ve been a hairdresser for, let me count, eight years now -- and I love it! I feel like I spend all day hanging out with friends.” I tell her: “That’s exactly how I feel about cab driving…” Usually I wait until ride’s end to tell a fare about my free rides, but I know this woman’s going to appreciate the concept, and several blocks before her destination I spill the beans. “What a great idea,” she says. “Maybe I should do that…”

Fare #13 -- 10:48 AM -- Two guys who sell bus tours of San Francisco (their biggest bus has forty seats) are heading over toward Pier 33 for a meeting with the folks who run the Alcatraz tours. When I ask how this year has been for their business, one of them says, “It’s been okay” -- his inflection is hey-not-bad okay as opposed to just-so-so okay. The other one tells me, “You look familiar -- I must have ridden with you before…” Back during the spring, my Green Cab and I were the stars of a Toyota commercial that bombarded northern California television viewers for three straight weeks. It disappeared for several months, then unexpectedly returned just two weeks ago, and customers have again been commenting on it. But I’m not exactly sure what to make of this fellow’s comment. “This is a small town,” I tell him. “I do get a lot of repeat business…” And we leave it at that.

Fare #14 -- 11:39 AM -- A fifty-seven-year-old woman from Bakersfield, in town to visit one of her three adult daughters, says, “Tomorrow, rain or shine, we’re going to ride bicycles across the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. And this winter we’re going to Peru to hike the Inca Trail.” I ask if she likes to read travel books, and when she says yes, very much so, I dig a gift copy of my first book out of my trunk and wish her happy travels.

Fare #15 -- 11:48 AM -- A woman taking a short ride from the Parc 55 to Bush and Stockton, tells me, “Don’t go up Powell Street. Something bad happened there. Did you hear all those sirens?” I had noticed distant sirens, but I’d dismissed them.

Moments after I drop her, I check in for a downtown radio order. Today’s dispatcher -- T.O. -- says, “Brad, if you’re empty, can you go over to Sutter and Powell? A Green Cab driver was in an accident there and he’s gone to the hospital in an ambulance. I need someone to get his things out of the cab.”

A police van is parked across the cable car tracks, blocking Powell Street at Post. I park illegally in a red zone right on the edge of Union Square, one short block downhill from the accident. I scrawl an explanatory note for the parking control police, slip it under the cab’s windshield, and walk up the cable car tracks.

The event has reached its chaotic conclusion directly in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The entire site is marked off by yellow crime-scene tape behind which at least one hundred onlookers -- hotel guests and others -- are gathered. Two badly banged up cars are splayed out in the middle of the intersection with their hoods popped straight up in the air. Over by the curb, our Green Cab looks like an accordion that’s been tossed from a speeding train. A fourth car has also been damaged, and to me all of them look like total losses. Fifteen police officers are searching through the vehicles, kicking debris out of the way. A boxy red ambulance is just pulling away and a tow truck is maneuvering backwards down Powell Street. As I duck under the tape, I’m thinking: “Attention. Here and Now. Attention. Here and Now.” And: “Nothing run-of-the-mill about this free-rides day!”

I show the badge hanging from my neck to the officer in charge, and tell him I’m with Green Cab. He says, “Your driver looked like he was basically okay. With all this stuff lying around, you’d think maybe fifteen people got killed here, but all the airbags went off, and really, I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.”

I find our driver’s briefcase and red lunchbox (hummus and pita bread, untouched) in the cab’s back seat, and lots of broken glass everywhere. Another officer tells me, “The guy in the white car said he lost his brakes coming down Powell. Witnesses saw him catch air two blocks back up the hill. By the time he hit this intersection he was really flying. He smashed into that other car and then he hit the cab. Your guy was stopped at the curb -- he’d just picked up a passenger -- nothing he could have done.”

I click a few pictures with my cell phone. I call T.O. and tell him everything’s okay. I call Green Cab’s general manager, Athan, and tell him it wasn’t our fault. I thank the police, and I have just started walking back downhill toward my cab when one of the officers calls, “Hey, just a minute -- aren’t you the guy in the commercial?”

One of his partners says, “Yeah -- it’s you!” And he pulls out his camera and records the scene: me and his partner standing on the cable car tracks, smiling at each other, with four smashed up vehicles and a tow truck in the background. Behind us I hear one of the onlookers telling someone else, “The Green Cab guy from t.v. -- I knew it was him!”

Fare #16 -- 1:06 PM -- A full hour and fifteen minutes have passed between rides. (Another big cup of coffee and a Subway sandwich have helped me reflect on chaos theory, airbags, and my own mortality). On Langton Alley I pick up one of our regular radio callers who usually goes to her job at Momo’s Restaurant, directly across the street from the Giants’ ballpark, but today she’s going to Seventeenth and Church for a haircut. She says she loved the whole World Series buzz, but she’s also glad to see things quiet down just a bit.

Fare #17 -- 1:19 PM -- One block later I’m flagged by an architect headed back downtown. A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to buildingwhat.org, an organization in New York that is trying to get that city’s officials to open an investigation into how Building Seven of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. Twelve hundred architects and engineers have joined the effort. The truth is that I have no idea what happened that day, but every time I watch a video of Building Seven collapsing I’m dumbfounded. Even though I know I’m going to sound like an off-the-rack, crackpot-conspiracy-theorist-cabdriver, I mention buildingwhat.org to the architect in my backseat. He takes it well -- he’s one of the few people I’ve met who even remember that a third skyscraper, the 47-story Building Seven, fell out of the sky that day -- and he seems to have an open mind about it. But I know I’ve talked too much and too excitedly (I blame all the coffee), and I’m relieved to not be taking his money for this ride.

Fare #18 -- 1:29 PM -- She’s waiting eagerly as I drop Fare #17 at Market and New Montgomery. Just moments ago she finished a pharmacology exam and now she’s in a hurry to meet a friend who is driving her to the airport. She’s flying home to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving. She looks like a poor student, but insists on leaving a $10 tip for a $6.25 free ride.

Fare #19 -- 1:37 PM -- California and Polk. My only bus zone rider of the day seems delighted by my offer. She’s majoring in business at San Francisco State, and right now she’s headed to her job at a tanning salon at Union and Fillmore, and this ride will get her to work early.

Fare #20 -- 2:22 PM -- It’s raining steadily now, and I see her sauntering through the crosswalk at 10th and Mission, umbrella-less, smiling my way and nodding as though she’s been expecting me. When I ask how she’s doing today, she says, “Honestly? I’m a bit hung over, I’m feeling guilty for drinking too much wine last night, and I had a bit of an argument with my boyfriend.” I assure her that we’re all human and that these things do happen. She needs to stop by her apartment in the Panhandle to change shoes -- she’s been wearing sandals and now her toes are cold and wet -- and then I drop her near City Hall. We’ve had an easy and fun sixteen minutes together, and when I tell her about today’s deal she dissolves into I-can’t-believe-it laughter which I can still hear even when she’s three car lengths down the sidewalk from my cab, even though my windows are rolled up tight, and even though noisy traffic is zipping down Gough Street.

Fare #21 -- 2:50 PM -- A flag at 12th and Folsom. A moment after he has settled into the back seat, he says, “I saw your ad on TV…” I spend the entire eight-minute ride giving long-version answers to the two short questions he, and most ad-viewers, ask: 1) “How’d you get the gig?” (Short answer: Last winter, when Toyota started getting all its bad publicity, I sent their ad agency a two-minute, homemade video of five Green Cab Priuses rolling single-file down the crooked portion of Lombard Street, and one thing led to another…) and 2) “Did you get paid?” (Answer: $3,000)

[Years ago, two high school classmates of mine (Karen and Larry, still married even today) sent a note to the organizers of our 20th class reunion, and the organizers included it in our class newsletter. Karen wrote: “We’re not going to be there. Larry says that at this stage of the game all anyone really wants to see of you is a naked picture and a financial statement.”]

Fare #22 -- 3:08 PM -- My cab is due in at 4 p.m., and now, with time for one last ride, I spot a shrunken elderly woman standing in the late-afternoon drizzle in front of the Market Street Safeway, waving a cane over her head. I load her five bags of groceries into my trunk and head up toward Twin Peaks. “I’ve been waiting for a cab for over an hour,” she tells me. I pass her a card with Green Cab’s phone number (415-626-4733) and tell her, “You won’t wait an hour any more.” At the end of the ride she says she will pay extra if I will please carry her groceries to the top of her steps. I tell her that won’t be necessary, in fact nothing will be necessary, as all my rides are free today.

Like all of us, this woman has heard a lot of bullshit during her lifetime. She studies my face with the same dubious look Fare #1 gave me back during the dimness of early morning. And then a smile spreads slowly across her own face. “My goodness,” she says. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

“Well,” I say, opening my door and getting ready to step around back to get her groceries, “now you have.”

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