Monday, February 1, 2010

* * Valentine’s Day * *

Shift #18

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14 -- Octavia/Market to Geary/Webster -- $6.70

AROUND 10:00 AM, as I’m parking across from Noah’s Bagels in Pacific Heights, I notice a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench in the nearby bus shelter. She’s wearing sunglasses and a pink scarf. Her legs are crossed. Despite her shades, I can see that her head tracking back and forth to study me and my cab. When I emerge from Noah’s a few minutes later, second cup of coffee in hand, she’s still there, legs still crossed, still studying me. I get behind the wheel, pull to the end of the block, do a U-turn, stop directly in front of her, and call through my window, “Every ride...” Etc.

“Oh, thank you very much,” she says, with a thick Latina accent. “But here comes the bus right now.” She nods toward the street behind me.

In the rearview I see a MUNI bus huffing its way down Fillmore, just a block away. MUNI recently installed cameras on the fronts of all its buses, and now $88 bus-zone tickets (mailed-conveniently-to-one’s-home) have become a routine complaint of cab drivers (and civilians, too.) “No problem,” I tell her, and I’m gone.

ALL MORNING I have been feeling a little weird. Until two nights ago, the existence of this journal was my own little secret. I had enjoyed nursing it along, getting the feel of it, but there was bound to come a time when I would share it with others. Two nights ago, in an e-mail to a few friends, I mentioned its existence and asked for feedback.

Reactions have been lukewarm -- no one has raved about my little experiment, but on the other hand no one has said they found it a waste of their (or my) time. A few people wondered if I have a book in mind, but I really don’t. I’m a writer. I’m a cab driver. For years now, the free ride has been a major factor in my work day. Why not take one year and keep a journal? Might be fun... I’m not aware of any specific ambition here, but doesn’t every writer nurture the hope that an audience will ignite around him or her like a grassfire? In any regard, it’s not the tepid feedback that has me feeling weird: ever since I “outed” myself, I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that I’m under some sort of imaginary spotlight...

I created this, there’s certainly no one I can blame, but this morning everything feels different. Scientists say that the very act of observing something causes a change in behavior -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not subtle at all -- in both the Observer and the thing being Observed. I’m not sure there’s a direct analogy between that phenomenon and my journal experience, but this morning I’m aware of a jangling self-consciousness, a sense that I am somehow both Observer and Observed. And I’m mourning the loss of my secret.

AT THE CORNER OF CALIFORNIA AND VAN NESS, a couple in their late twenties flags me down. When I offer, they each choose a chocolate from a bag of assorted Valentine’s Day Hershey’s chocolates I picked up earlier at Walgreens. The couple is meeting a bunch of friends for brunch at a Castro District restaurant named Lime. “The food’s great," the woman tells me. “They serve bottomless mimosas for seven dollars. And the music is good and loud.”

Me: “I’m 58. I can remember liking restaurants with music that was good and loud, but when I go out these days I want a place where I can have a conversation without having to raise my voice or lean forward. I wonder where the cutoff age is?"

The woman: “I’m guessing 35.”

The man: “I think it’s probably having kids. I’ll bet you’re a parent, right?”

It’s a fun ride, but when I check in with Body at ride’s end, the free-ride feeling just isn’t there -- and I don’t know why. Body and I are off our game. The glare of this damn spotlight is throwing weird shadows everywhere.

AT OCTAVIA AND MARKET I pick up a late-30s Latino dressed in black from his engineer’s cap to his motorcycle boots. He says he is going to “Chopantown.” With a grunt, he accepts a chocolate and tucks it into the pocket of his black bombadier jacket -- but I’m not sure he understands my English all that well. When I ask what he’s up to today I receive a one-word answer -- “Restaurant” -- and then we are silent. It’s a short trip (my waybill shows that it lasted six minutes and ticked up $6.70 on the meter), and midway I start wondering whether or not I can possibly make it my free ride. The whole thing is feeling like a burden today, and I can’t wait to get rid of it.

As I’m having this thought, I notice 11:11 showing on my dashboard’s digital clock. In recent years I have developed a fondness for this number, and for some absolutely illogical reason (I do like the way the digits all line up neatly) I have started assigning quasi-mystical weight to its every sighting. (A quasi-mystical aside: When I was buying my chocolates at Walgreens this morning, I noticed a young African-American woman wearing an enormous, powder-blue sweatshirt proclaiming Judgment Day -- November 2, 2010. What? I thought we had until 2012...!)

When we reach Japantown I turn and tell my fare, “Free ride.” He seems to have absolutely no trouble understanding this two-word pronouncement. He folds up his wallet, nods once, and...poof -- he hustles out of the cab as though he’s afraid I might change my mind.


1 comment:

  1. Brad, I love this blog. It's quickly become one of my favorites. It's nice to see someone trying to do something nice, yet being human enough to weigh all the pros and cons. The way that, when you're in doubt, you listen to your body tell you who is to get the free fare has been inspiring to me. It's a reminder that, even when we want to do what's right, sometimes our brains overthink it. And in the end, if you listen to your gut and you're wrong, what is there to lose? $6.70 + tip, maybe. Not so bad.

    Thanks for writing this.