Monday, March 1, 2010

* * The sky is the only limit * *

Shift #33

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31 -- W Hotel to Market/Van Ness -- $7.15

IT RAINED HARD DURING THE NIGHT but it has stopped now, and as I drive into the City at 5:15 AM I see broken clouds in the overhead darkness. Through the cables and towers of the Bay Bridge I notice that someone using invisible string has hung an enormous, silver-dollar full moon so that it dangles in the sky above Twin Peaks.

Yesterday was my once-a-month-or-so fast day, and I didn’t eat a thing -- one cup of coffee, lots of water -- and by 5:50 AM I’m at Noah’s on Mission Street for a true break-fast: coffee, a banana, and one unadulterated whole wheat sesame bagel, the best-tasting bagel of my entire life.

As I’m pulling away from the curb, a man in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and running shoes emerges from the sidewalk shadows and asks to go to the Federal Building at Golden Gate and Larkin. For two years he’s managed the building’s gym and a staff of ten, his first gig as a federal employee. Lunch hour is the busiest time, with maybe thirty or forty people huffing and puffing through their workouts, but even now, before six AM, the gym is already open, and my fare says he expects to find at least several people already there exercising.

A few minutes later, at the East Bay Terminal, I pick up a cook from El Salvador who needs to get to work at the Flower Market CafĂ©, Sixth and Brannon. He says he is “sleepy” this morning -- “and cold!” and he asks how I am. El Salvador’s soccer team did not qualify for this year’s World Cup, which starts, my fare says, on June 10. It’s been sixteen years since El Salvador last qualified. El Salvador’s neighbor and rival, Honduras, has qualified yet again this year. Other 2010 qualifiers from this hemisphere include Argentina, Mexico, Los Estados Unidos, and… “Brazil!” My fare laughs. “Of course, Brazil!

I join the slow-moving cab line in front of the W Hotel. (I see that one of the Brazilian drivers is wearing a green World Cup tee-shirt sporting the Brazilian flag.) The sky has brightened toward a medium-dark purple, and someone has re-positioned the silver dollar moon a good bit lower in the sky so that it now dangles just above the Moscone Center. For an hour I read Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” and hope for an SFO, but when I’m finally first up, my fare, even though she has luggage, is only going to Fourteenth and Folsom. She is a computer consultant who has been commuting from Chicago (weekends) to San Francisco (weekdays) for twenty months now. On the night Barack was elected president she was in San Francisco, staying at the Westin St. Francis. “It was crazy,” she says. “The streets were just crazy that night.”

Three blocks away, at Sixteenth and Mission, I’m flagged by another young Salvadoran man, this one wearing a knit hat, shades, and smelling faintly of pot. This morning he found his bicycle's front tire flat this and now he needs to get to work at a Presidio Heights restaurant. “My job is bus tables and make coffee... I been in the States for three and a half years." Chawb. Jeers. He says, “When I come, my English is nothing -- but I go to classes and now I can talk at least a little… My friends say when I get drunk, no English, no Spanish -- I invent a new language...”

The moon and the darkness have all disappeared now. From the sidewalk in front of Noah’s Bagels in Laurel Village (more coffee), I can see, out toward Ocean Beach, an armada of white-sailed, man-of-war clouds chugging through a blue sky. The radio is dead. I troll through Pacific Heights, down through Cow Hollow, and at the corner of Greenwich and Steiner I’m flagged by a young man who says, “I left my white Volkswagen Jetta somewhere around here last night, and I just need you to drive me around until we find it.” A block and a half later there it is. The meter hasn’t even budged from the initial $3.10.

Me: “Free ride…”

He: “No, you saved me, dude…”

Me, laughing: “Gedouttaheeeer…

He, laughing, drops some crumpled ones onto the passenger seat, and he’s gone.

During just half an hour the sky has again changed. I look out past the Golden Gate Bridge and see a solid wall of clouds over the Pacific, looming, dwarfing the bridge. It looks as though someone -- the same person who does the hanging of the moon, maybe? -- has drawn a laser-straight line, horizontal, about a third of the way up in the western sky. Above the line everything is mostly blue, but below the line the entire the sky is filled by a frothing, fast-moving cloud bank -- like an epic tidal wave about to crash over the city.

I’m fleeing toward downtown when a woman flags me at Chestnut and Scott. She’s headed to Two Embarcadero Center where she manages the office of a venture capital firm. The firm has managed to hold its own through this Great Recession, but my fare hasn’t heard the firm's rainmakers talking about anything really interesting lately -- "there's no Next New Big Thing.” She has been in San Francisco for, “Gee -- more than twenty years now. Almost exactly the same amount of time I lived in Texas. Half my life.” This starts me down the path of a silent rumination: I arrived in San Francisco in 1982, one day before “The Catch” -- Joe Montana’s floating pass to the leaping Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone to beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the playoffs and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. That was twenty-eight years, two months, and some days ago. I’m fifty-eight now. Sometime…next year?...the year after? I will have spent half my life calling San Francisco home. Stopped for a red light on Colombus at Green, I do some calculations in my head, but am then distracted by three small, evenly spaced, nearly-identical clouds -- they look like three little puffs of smoke -- that seem to have popped from the tip of the Pyramid Building, and I remind myself, yet again, that I simply gotta start bringing a camera to work… (Today, after work, the Internet has helped me determine that on May 5, 2012, by which time I will have turned sixty years old, I will have spent exactly half my life calling San Francisco home.)

My next fare is Warren Hinckle, a local character who made a national splash back in the 1960s. He’s seventy-some years old now, a regular caller to Citywide Dispatch, and I’ve had him in my cab before, but not for a couple of years now. This chilly morning he’s wearing big gray shorts, sandals, blue socks that stretch all the way to his knees, and a brown suede coat. I tell him that I’ve been hoping to see him ever since I finished reading “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” which mentions Hinckle’s first national splash. Back in the 1960s, when Hinckle was editor of the small left-wing magazine Ramparts, he broke the story that the CIA, against its charter, had infiltrated many student groups in the US, and, unbeknownst to the groups themselves, was even funding some of them. The CIA furiously denied the story, of course, and the mainstream press accused Hinckle of insanity and worse, of course, and then it all turned out to be true, of course. Hinckle tells me that for the past two years he’s been working on a book, a gonzo biography of sorts about an old friend of his: “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?” I can hear another national splash coming.

Before Hinckle’s body heat has even begun to dissipate from the backseat, a young couple jumps in. San Franciscans think this day is a cold one, but these folks -- they're from still-wintry Calgary, Canada -- find it nice and toasty. The man is a fourth grade teacher and this week is his spring break. He and his…wife? are on their first trip to San Francisco. Today they’re going to Alcatraz, tomorrow they’ve got other tourist stuff planned, and on the next night they're planning to go see the San Francisco Giants play the Oakland Athletics in a preseason baseball game. When the Giants' new stadium opened, in March, 2000, I bought a season ticket for a single seat, the first season ticket of my life. I kept it until the whole sick Barry-Bonds-steroids-and-lies mess was revealed; quit paying attention to baseball for a few years; got re-interested after the Giants cut Bonds loose; and three weeks before the start of this season I took a deep gulp and went down to the stadium and bought season tickets for an entire row.

My old seat was in the lower stands, between the pitcher’s mound and third base, but my new seats are in an area less-coveted by most people. To reach them, you climb to the upper deck and head down the right field line; you walk until you’ve reached the end of the stadium, and at the last aisle leading upward you climb until you can’t climb any more. The highest seats, the very last two seats in the entire house, constitute a two-seat row, my row, with what I believe is the very best view in the stadium. My old single seat cost about $35/game, as I recall. Maybe more. My entire new row costs $20/game. I’m not using my row on Friday night. I ask the young couple from Calgary if they’ve bought tickets yet. They haven’t. I pass two tickets over the seat back. “Really?” they ask. If I were writing a book about this year (I’m not) I think I might call it, “My Year of Giving Stuff Away.

At the W Hotel I pick up a woman headed to Van Ness and Market. We’ve only gone one block when, in response to my questions, she allows that she is the head of Microsoft’s Department of Corporate Responsibility. We’re stopped for a red light at Fourth and Howard. I turn around and look at her. “That’s got to be a great gig!” She nods. She’s smiling, smiling big. Yes, great gig. She knows.

Oh, am I ever looking forward to the next eight and a half blocks of this ride -- I hope every light is red. But when I slide a couple more questions over the backseat, she says, “I really would love to talk, but I’ve just got to check my messages.” I do understand, but…bummer, man, bummer -- Microsoft’s Director of Corporate Responsibility is in my backseat, and I’m not even going to get to talk to her!

I hear her tapping at her phone and out of the corner of my eye see her hoist it to her ear. She’s young and lovely, another in a string of very well put together, very impressive, very successful-looking African-American people I’ve had in my cab lately. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1950s and 1960s, and back then I just never saw black people maneuvering their ways through the System as easily and is comfortably as the black folks who pass through my backseat these days. Times have indeed changed. Recently I took to the airport a young black man who lives in Alexandria -- 30 years old, very polished, very confident, law degree, head of some department in the General Services Administration, briefly here in San Francisco to give a speech. I asked him how he saw his future. He enumerated several offers and options that have been presented to him lately, and it sounded to me like the sky was his only limit.

“Hi, it’s Celeste…” My fare is leaving a message condolence for a friend of hers who has just now left Celeste a voicemail message about the sudden death of the friend's husband. All of this eats up five blocks of the ride. Celeste closes her phone.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“This is the third death in my circle in the last two weeks,” she says.

We spend the last three and a half blocks talking about death and also about life -- about the inexplicable, absolutely miraculous nature of these brief body-rides we are each given -- and then we’re at Van Ness and Market, Celeste's destination, and she immediately “gets” and graciously accepts my free ride -- I tell her, “I think this is my first ‘condolences’ free ride...” -- and then I’m driving up Van Ness Avenue, alone, mid-morning on a Wednesday, the last day of March. Above me the sky is completely covered with a rumpled sheet of tortured gray clouds. Looks like everything's going to bust loose any second now.


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