Monday, February 1, 2010

Speed Dating

Shift #20

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18 -- Cortland/Gates to 30th/Mission – Bus zone

IT’S ALMOST THE END OF THE SHIFT, and I’ve just driven from downtown to SFO with a woman has been in town to attend an AIDS-prevention convention. Now she's headed back to her home in Southern California. “My husband,” she tells me, “is in the Industry… He wrote, directed, and produced a film named Stripper Academy… It sold out on Amazon. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know it’s good... Now he’s writing a script titled Disability Man.” She summarizes the plots of both dramas for me, and when she's done I tell her a little bit about my writing past…

Sometimes I think that cab driving has similarities to speed dating. I imagine that when speed dating is going well, it is probably lively and entertaining, as is cab driving at its best. Also, they both share a rat-a-tat, keep-it-short sensibility, which I like -- I think that we’re all probably most appealing in ten- or fifteen-minute doses. Maybe you are different, maybe the people you meet just can't get enough of you, but I don’t think prolonged exposure to me improves my attractiveness quotient. People usually do seem to enjoy their time in my cab, but I fear that whenever a conversation slips past the fifteen-minute mark, my personal flaws, my cracks, start to look like crevasses. And after an hour of one-on-one with just about anyone, I find myself completely drained of energy -- unless we’re out in the woods somewhere. So, for me, a cab ride seems just about perfectly structured for conversation -- and the SFO cab ride conversation does have that lovely $40 kicker…!

BUT NOW IT'S ALMOST 3 O’CLOCK. My cab is due back soon and I haven’t given away my free ride. I take the Alameny exit off 101, and head up Cortland. Up in Bernal Heights there’s always someone waiting for a bus. In the first shelter I see, two people are smoking cigarettes. But at Cortland and Gates a middle-aged woman wearing brown-tinted prescription glasses is sitting on the bus stop bench and staring off into the distance. I brake quickly, stop right in front of her, and call through the passenger window, “Everyday I give away one free ride. I’m at the end of my shift, and today I haven’t given one away...”

Her face lights up before I can get all these words out. What fun! she says. Her body goes from slack to coiled, and she leans forward, needing just one last spark to lift her into motion. She says, “I’m only going to Mission and Cortland…”

“Perfect…” Mission and Cortland is just a few short blocks away -- I’m glad she’s not headed to, say, the Golden Gate Bridge.

She’s shoots up off the bench, two quicks steps across the sidewalk, and into my backseat. “This is great,” she says. “How long have you been doing this?”

“I’m not exactly sure, but between fifteen and twenty years -- a long time.”

“I love it,” she says. “Why do you do it?”

“You know the feeling you’re having right now? I get to witness someone having that feeling every day…”

She says, “The Chronicle should write about you..."

I try to deflect this. I tell her that I’ve been “blogging” about my free rides for the past few weeks without telling anyone, but then a week ago I told some friends and now I'm feeling a little funny about it all… I kind of miss the anonymity, but…

“Do you ever hear from people you've given a free ride to?"

“Well, not really. It’s usually just...over.” Then: “Oh, yes -- there was one woman... About ten years ago I used to drive a ‘ramp cab’ that could accommodate wheelchairs -- and I met a lot of people from the disabled community that way. And one day last year I ran into this woman I’d given rides to from time to time -- I think she had cerebral palsy -- and she remembered that I’d once given her a free ride. I couldn’t remember it -- I’ve given away at least a thousand -- but I was glad I had given away that one. She was still very happy about it, still remembered it even years later...”

She asks for the name of my blog, and I promise to write it down at ride’s end.

Me: “What’s your work?”

“I work at Fitness San Francisco.”

“In what capacity?”

“I’m a senior citizen fitness instructor…”

Me: "Now there's a growth industry!”

She: “Oh yes it is!”

And already we're at Mission and Cortland.

She asks, “Are you going past Walgreen’s?”

Me: “I’m going wherever you’re going.”

“Well, then you can drop me at Walgreens. Thank you.”

I pull to the curb in front of Walgreens and am writing down this blog’s address when she spots someone across the street.

“Oh, there’s my friend!” She opens the backdoor and jumps out. “Hey, Wen…!” she calls to a woman across the street. She pops her head back into the cab, says, “I’ve got to tell Wendy about you!” She takes the card I’ve written on, says, “Thank you so much," and then pops back out. “Wen-dee!

Across the street I see Wendy looking our way. Bewildered.


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