Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Shift #15

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 7 -- 6:53 a.m. -- 21st and Mission -- $10.30

AT 6:52 ON THIS QUIET SUNDAY MORNING, I can see no traffic moving in either direction on Mission Street -- and I can see for a long way. Three blocks ahead I spot the morning’s lone pedestrian, a squat, young Latino on the opposite side of the street, standing out in the street, two or three feet from the curb. He’s alternately looking this way down the street, then the other way, then this way again, then the other. I assume he’s looking for something other than a cab or he would have already made some signal to me. After all, mine is the only moving vehicle on the entire street, and I’m highly visible -- he can not have not seen me...

But just as I’m rolling past him he throws up an arm and makes a little stirring motion with his hand to indicate that I should make a U-turn. I scan Mission Street -- no cops, heck, no cars at all -- and then I spin my wheel back in his direction.

“Thank you, amigo,” he says. Amigo -- I like it.

“Sure,” I say, and step on the electricity. “And where are we headed?”

“Folsom and Embarcadero.”

I find myself…annoyed. No, annoyed is too strong. Let’s just say I’m…energetically perplexed. Folsom and Embarcadero is back in the opposite direction, the direction in which I was headed just seconds ago, prior to my U-turn. My fare had two or three blocks to see me coming. If he had just taken the nine or ten easy steps required to cross the road, we’d now be headed in the correct direction. And I wouldn’t have had to risk a U-turn ticket. Well, no big deal. He’s in my cab now.

“Folsom and Embarcadero?” I say, just to make sure I haven’t misheard him.

“Yes,” he says. “I late for work.”

Well, there’s yet another reason why he might have crossed the street and kept us going in the right direction -- he’d be less late for work. I spin another U-turn, and head back down Mission.

He’s silent in the back seat. Up front I’m mulling it over -- I’m not pissed off, not obsessing (not too much, anyway), just mulling. I do understand how, if I’m headed in the “wrong” direction, someone might not want to cross the street (even when mine is the only cab in sight, and even if they are perfectly able-bodied): they don’t want to incur that extra forty-five-cent click of the meter (or maybe two clicks) that would result from my getting us turned around in the right direction legally. But the little stirring motion with his hand puts me in a funny spot. Do I risk a U-turn ticket, or do I stay within the law and watch some other cab slide in ahead of me and snatch the fare (a scenario which happens all too frequently)? Ah, fergeddabowdit…

A block later I call over my shoulder, “How are you today?”

He doesn’t respond for five, six, seven, ten seconds. I turn… His face looks rumpled, furrowed. He looks not well.

I turn forward, eyes on the road, and say it again, louder: “How are you today?”

He answers this time, with a thick south-of-the-border accent: “A leetle hong-over… Now I late for my chub.”

The dashboard clock says 6:53. “You start at seven?”


We fly down Folsom Street in silence. By the middle of a shift, by which time things have usually gotten busy and I’ve become absorbed in the hustle of it all, my free ride? mentality often fades away. Early on, however, it’s always front and center, and now my mind briefly raises the question up for my inspection. But clearly this lowlife with the hangover, this guy who wouldn’t step across an empty Mission Street for me, Nah, he ain’t my free ride today

The traffic lights are all timed just right, and as we sail through them I’m thinking about my morning. My first went to the airport ($40). This guy in my backseat now is just my second ride, and when I drop him I’ll have time to grab coffee and a bagel, and then maybe, if I’m lucky, catch another short fare before 7:40, when I’ve got another airport run scheduled (another $40). Then at 9 o’clock I’m meeting my rock-star friend Marc Gold for breakfast. Marc’s just back from three months in Asia, and he’ll have some stories to tell. By then I’ll have maybe $100 in my pocket, my gates-and-gas for the day, plus a little. This shift is shaping up pretty well…

At 7:02 I stop at Embarcadero and Folsom. I freeze the meter -- $10.30 -- and suddenly… as I turn around to collect my money, and as my fare leans forward to dig his wallet out of his back pocket… suddenly, from wherever it is that thoughts come, I hear this: Free ride…

WHAT! I start to argue: No, not this guy… There must be some mistake...

But I scan my body, which over the years I’ve learned to listen to, and to trust in this particular regard. And Body’s very clear, not confused at all: Free ride…

Before I can press my case (and why would I? Body don’t lie!), my mouth is opening and I hear myself telling my fare, “Every day I give away one free ride… And this is today’s free ride.”

He does not comprehend. He squints at me and studies my face. His own expression is one I might expect if I had blurted that I was his long-lost brother, or maybe his long-departed father, or…?

I switch to Spanish: “Cada dia doy un viaje gratis. Esta viaje es gratis…”

This hits him like a pot of coffee. “Gratis?” His eyes are wide open now, black pupils zeroing in on me. There’s not a line in his face -- all the furrows have disappeared.

Gratis,” I confirm.

Pago nada?” I pay nothing?

Si,” I say. “Paga nada.”

A smile spreads across his face. “Amigo!” He slips his bills back into his wallet. “Muchas gracias, amigo!

I head down the Embarcadero, toward Noah’s, feeling like I’ve been hit by my own pot of coffee. The rains of the last few days have stopped. Soft morning light is smiling on the Ferry Building clock tower. The Ferry Building is smiling back. I note that my own cheeks are drawn back into a grin. I think: “Man, I didn’t see that one coming!


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