Monday, March 1, 2010

Born Again Green

Shift #31

SUNDAY, MARCH 21 – Greenwich and Broderick to Valencia and Duboce

MY MOVE TO GREEN CAB three years ago has been like a cab industry re-birth for me. Back in 2005 I began telling my friend Richard, the owner of Metro Cab, where I previously worked, that I wanted to drive a hybrid, preferably a Prius. Back in 2005, the cab industry's shift towards hybrids hadn't yet begun, and Richard wasn’t on board yet (today Richard’s fleet is 80% hybrids), so when I heard that a bunch of cab industry veterans I’ve known and been friends with for twenty years were starting a company committed to alternative fuel vehicles I gave them a call. In April 2007, after a couple of years of talk and planning and paperwork, the new company, Green Cab, went live with one Prius. The following month I became the first cab driver to “defect” from the greater industry, shifting my medallion from Metro over to Green, giving us two cabs. Soon there was a third, then a fourth, and today we have twelve.

Since the start we’ve been a huge hit with the public. It seems unthinkable now, but even three years ago the “greening” of America’s businesses had not yet swept the commercial landscape, and when our snappy looking green-and-white Priuses first hit the streets the populace went a bit wild. For a while we Green drivers felt like rock stars. All day long we’d see pedestrians grabbing friends’ elbows and pointing us out. On warm, windows-down days we would hear a seemingly constant murmur from the sidewalks: “Green Cab…! Look, Green Cab…! Green Cab…” One day while I was waiting at a red light at Fourth and Howard, a woman stopped in the crosswalk, five feet directly in front of my hood, turned her body so that she was squared-up toward me, planted her feet side by side, extended her arm and index finger straight at me like Uncle Sam, and then started clapping her hands together in front of her. And several times people approached my cab in the manner of directions-seekers, leaned down, and surprised me with: “Thank you. I just came over here to say thank you. I read about you guys in the paper, saw you on the news, and I want you to know we’ve been waiting for a company like yours for a long time.”

Me, too. The worst thing about cab driving for me (other than having an empty backseat) has always been the knowledge that I made my living by pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. And not just the average amount. For twenty years I drove cabs that got 10 miles per gallon, and to suddenly be getting 40 or 45 mpg, or more on some days… well, this was new. And a whole lot better.

MY THIRD FARE THIS MORNING is waiting in front of her Cow Hollow apartment, smiling broadly as I pull up. “You guys are so great,” she says. “You always come right away.” Her call is only about two minutes old -- I am one of five drivers who “checked in” for it, and the dispatcher judged me to be closest. My fare says she used to call (a larger company) -- “They were horrible,” she says. “Horrible! But ever since I found Citywide, I never call anyone else. You guys even came on New Year’s Eve!

That, I tell her, actually is rather unbelievable! On New Year’s Eve all bets are off.

This morning she’s headed to pick up her boyfriend in Pacific Heights and then the two of them are going over to the U-Haul place in the Mission, and then they’ll be moving stuff out of their respective apartments and into a new apartment in which they’ll be living together henceforth and maybe even unto forever. “He’s been in his place for fifteen years,” she says, “so you can imagine the job ahead.”

“Oh, boy,” I say. We talk about the joys and anxieties of moving in together. (Last week a twenty-something fare, a banking consultant who travels the world, told me he was engaged, but he and his fiance aren’t setting a date until they’ve moved in and lived together for a while. When I was in my twenties, moving in with someone was still scandalous, but this man assured me that, “These days people in my age-group consider it a weakness, a liability, if you get married without first having lived together.”) My fare asks me if I think she'll have trouble getting cab service at their new place on an obscure street out in the obscure Golden Gate Heights neighborhood ("Not if you call Citywide," I tell her), and then her boyfriend joins us. We talk some more about cabs, and he notes that so far Citywide has sent them only one grumpy cab driver. “But,” he says, “she might have had good reason to be grumpy. You never know what happened with the fare just before us.”

Me: “Oh, that’s brilliant. People can be awful to cab drivers, and, really... You never know what happened with the fare just before. I like that…”

He says, “I actually think it’s a pretty good way to approach all of life.” And I get a sense of why his girlfriend might have been smiling as I pulled up.

She, to him: “Tell him what happened on New Year’s Eve.”

He: “We had just come home on New Year’s Eve, and we see this cab stop right in the middle of the street -- it stops hard and the back door flies opens and we hear this sound that’s exactly like what you’d hear if you opened a quart of milk and just dumped it out onto the street…”

Me: “Oh, no -- that’s the cab driver’s nightmare…” It’s happened a few times to me, and not always outside the cab, but it’s been a few years now."

“You never know,” he says.

He’s an attorney focusing on employment law and he tells me that a lot of California law regarding employee/independent contractor status has developed from cases involving San Francisco taxi drivers. I tell him that the people who started Green Cab are responsible for many of those cases, and our conversation goes off in that direction for a while. I am feeling the full effects of the coffee I bought just before this ride started, and now I get gabbing about myself a bit too much, and all too soon we’re at the U-Haul place and this sweet couple pays me, tips me nicely, and heads off to their new life together and suddenly, two blocks later, it dawns on me that free ride was so, so obviously right there, and somehow I spaced it out, completely forgot about it.

I give away my next two rides for free trying to make up for it.


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