Thursday, April 1, 2010

* * My mouth gets into the act * *

Shift #35

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7 – Bush/Polk to SFO -- $34.60

I DON’T KNOW WHY I wake up two hours before my alarm is set to go off. It’s 3 A.M. and the house is silent, but I soon have an awareness that my mind is inventorying all the problems and situations in my life. I roll onto my back, focus on my breaths, scan my body toes-to-tip-of-head, and then ask, “So, are we awake now, or should we try to get some more sleep?”

Body says, Watch this, dude...! and then slowly rolls us off “our” side of the bed and plants his feet on the floor…

By 4:20 I’m cruising up Van Ness, wondering if I can make it without coffee for another hour-plus. My favorite Noah’s Bagels store at Mission and Fremont doesn’t open until 5:30. Maybe I should head toward the twenty-four-hour Starbucks out at Laurel Village? I’ve got my ear on the radio, wondering if I’m going to score an early airport ride or is this going to be one of those demoralizing mornings where I drive around empty for two or three hours? Many veteran cab drivers claim they’ve developed a sixth sense about where to find business, and while experience does count for a lot, simple coincidence plays a role, too. I have no conscious thought about what, if anything, causes me, this morning, to turn the steering wheel away from Laurel Village, away from coffee, and down Bush Street instead, but after a quick block and a half, just past Polk Street, I see a young man with a world-travelers’ backpack. He’s standing between two parked cars, hand in the air, and behind him, in the sidewalk shadows, I see a young blond woman with her own backpack...

At the back of the cab, I take the weight of the woman’s backpack in my arms and wait for her to slip its straps, a maneuver that became second-nature to me thirty years ago during a six-month, round-the-world journey with my then-wife. These two folks are from England, can’t be more than 25 years old -- well, maybe 30 -- and are in the fourth month of their own six-month, round-the-world trip. They spent the first three months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, their first visit to southeast Asia. Highlights? The woman mentions the tranquil Vietnamese beach town of Nha Trang. The man mentions an attraction in northern Thailand that allows willing humans to spend time in a pen with non-drugged, fully-clawed, full-sized adult tigers -- these particular kings of the jungle were raised in captivity and are docile enough that you can lie down with them. So far, San Francisco has been the highlight of the American portion of their trip, “But,” says the man, “the only other place we’ve seen is Los Angeles.” The woman says they were warned not to leave their hotel room in downtown LA at night, and so they spent several evenings in a windowless room listening to sirens, distant and up-close, and thinking that LA was probably not a place they would want to live.

Things were much better here in San Francisco -- they enjoyed the four or five nights they spent at the Encore Express hostel on Bush Street. Now they’re off to SFO and Florida via a cheap US Air flight (so cheap that they added Florida to their itinerary just yesterday), and later they’ll be visiting the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and then it’s back to England. They both recently completed the years-long coursework necessary to “qualify” in their respective professions -- she’s a child care provider, he’s a plumber -- and back home they both have positions they believe are rather loosely being “held” for them. They started dreaming about this trip a year ago, and bought their air tickets last July. The economy in England has been horrible, and this seems a convenient time to be out seeing the world. In Southeast Asia, their money seemed to last forever. The woman: “In Cambodia, air conditioned rooms cost four dollars...

My “traveling self” easily remembers the alarm one experiences when moving from a poor country to a rich one and suddenly saying money fly from one’s pocket. A part of me is dying to make this my free ride. Another part of me doesn’t want to give up such a big fare. My ego wants these two kids to grow old and someday fondly remember magical San Francisco and the cab driver who drove them to the airport long before the sun came up -- for free! And the loudest part of me says, “You are such an ignorant fool!”

On the approach ramp to the airport, I have no idea how it’s all going to go down. I tell Body and my mind to sort it out and let me know, but I don’t think they actually do reach an agreement. They are both still yapping at each other when -- surprise! -- my mouth steps in and takes control. We’re at the terminal now. I pull to the curb and stop the meter, and the deed unfolds right under my nose. My lips part, my voicebox rumbles to life, my ears register the sound waves, and my brain interprets them: “Every day, I give away one free ride, and today…”


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