Thursday, April 1, 2010


Shift #42

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27 – W. Hotel to Van Ness and Myrtle -- $7.60

IN THE DARKNESS OF 5 A.M, the full moon hangs over the city like an aluminum trash can lid nailed halfway up a garage wall. By 8:30 it’s already a distant memory, replaced by a skyfull of high cauliflower clouds, warm wind gusts, and occasional sprinkles. I’ve just dropped a fare at St. Mary’s Hospital, right on the edge of Golden Gate Park, and one block away, on the unlikely corner of Hayes and Shrader, I’m flagged by a white guy who has a vaguely ghost-like air. He’s about forty, and strands of brown hair spill from under his “US Marine Corps” baseball cap and hang down on either side of his face, like window curtains.

When I start with my questions, he says, “My grandmother has recently gone blind from diabetes and I just stopped by the hospital for a few minutes to give her a kiss.” Now he’s headed to 16th and Valencia to meet a buddy for breakfast. He works nights as a stage hand at the Fillmore Auditorium, running cables and doing whatever else needs done. He grew up near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

That last tidbit jars loose something I haven’t thought of since last night: “After breakfast with your buddy,” I ask, “what does the rest of your day hold?”

“Well, I’ve got no plans, really…”

Me: “I’m not one hundred percent positive, but I think I have two tickets to today’s one o’clock Giants game in my trunk, and if I do, and if you want them, there all yours. Free… No, I’m not kidding… They’re playing Philadelphia.”

He: “The Phillies! I grew up watching the Phillies. Oh, man -- and you don’t want anything for them? Are you sure?”

Me: “I’m working. I can’t use them. Like I said, I’m not absolutely sure I have them, but if I do, really, they’re yours.”

“Oh… Oh… You can’t believe how wonderful that would be… I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been to a baseball game…” Something catches in his throat; he pauses, and I feel certain that if I turn around I’m definitely going to see at least a tear or two. Then he continues: “This would be so perfect. I have never been to the new stadium. And I’ve been having such a rough time lately…”

“Your grandmother?”

“That’s just part of it all… I was in Tikrit…”

Me: “You were in the Marines?”

“Army Air Corps, but I was with the Marines in Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown in Iraq) -- they gave me this hat. We were on a patrol with some of the Air Corps' Stinger missiles, and we got hit. Four of my guys died but by some miracle I lived. I spent two and a half years at Stanford Hospital…”

We’re stopped for a red light at Masonic and Haight, and my fare extends his hand between the two front seats, palm up, and pulls back his sleeve. At first glance the hand looks pretty normal, but then he points to a couple of places where, yes, I can see some crooked joints. And the skin of his forearm is bumpy, extra pale, and dotted with odd dark spots. “The doctors took tons of shrapnel out of my body, but there’s still a lot left. I’ve got a half-grapefruit size tumor near my spine, but it’s too hard to get to, at least for now... I’ve been out about a year... Just a few months ago I lost a good buddy, he died... And now my grandmother…”

At Haight and Central I pull to the curb: “Man, I gotta get out and make sure I have those tickets.” A moment later, very much relieved, I pass them into the backseat. He whimpers several thank yous and I think he might cry again.

He: “These tickets are my first break in a long time… I joined the Army at 17, but I never expected that by forty I’d be this beat up… While I was at Stanford I read the book Halliburton’s Army. You wouldn’t believe what our government is doing… They’ve got this whole rigged system -- completely, completely corrupt. Bush, Cheney, all those guys, they’re just part of a long line that goes back all the way to Lyndon B. Johnson... There’s this whole network of people who are getting rich off the war. It’s not really even a war -- it’s just a big business, biggest in the world. I had no idea how it all really worked, but now it all makes sense. They don’t even have military people serving food any more. No one cooks, no one cleans toilets. That’s all done by some private company with a big contract. Haliburton's Army -- you read that book, you won't believe it! They're making money by the shipload, by using up guys just like me...”

ALMOST THE ENTIRE REST OF MY SHIFT is dominated by The Commercial. It’s not that everyone in the world has seen it, but in each of the four shifts I’ve driven since It started airing, there have been at least ten or fifteen mentions. Today, bright and early, as I leave my cab, in search of coffee, a man on the sidewalk -- he’s about my own age, a nice-looking, gray-haired guy wearing a blue blazer and tie -- looks me briefly in the eyes, glances behind me toward my cab, then back to my face. Then his head tips back and his face breaks into a smile. To myself: Don’t jump to conclusions -- this is San Francisco… But I’m pretty sure…

At Post and Lyon, I pick up one of Citywide Dispatch’s regular callers. Right off: “Hey, it’s you -- they ran you on Channel 2 again this morning.”

Downtown with my window open, I hear people, sometimes twice in one block, call out to me: “Something-something tv!” And: “Something-something commercial!” An hour before the ballgame, two men wearing Giants jerseys wave me down. “Green Cab! I just saw an ad on tv about these Green Cabs!” It goes on and on… Sitting at a red light at the corner of Sacramento and Drumm, I find myself looking down at my clipboard, feeling self-conscious, avoiding eye contact with the ranks of pedestrians stopped just outside my window, waiting for the WALK signal. I know I asked for this, the limelight -- on some level I’ve ached for it forever -- but the reality can be unnerving.

When I drop her near St. Mary’s Hospital, I stop for three people clearing a crosswalk. One of them is an elderly, white-haired woman whose head slowly swivels to track my cab, and then, satisfied that it’s a confirmed sighting, she stops, grabs the elbows of the two men on either side of her, and points at me -- it’s the same motion moonlight strollers use when they’ve just seen a shooting star. Her lips move -- I can’t read them, but I don’t need to…

In the mid-1990s, during the same shift in which I drove the actor Danny Glover to the airport, I also gave a lift to the political consultant James Carville. I recognized Carville because on election night in 1992, I had watched a broadcast of Bill Clinton addressing a whooping crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas; for a full 30 seconds the camera lingered full-frame on Carville’s beaming face, while the network commentator gave him full credit for engineering Clinton’s victory. In my cab, I asked Carville if fame had been problematic for him. “The only problem,” he said, “is that every damn cab driver in the world recognizes me now... And out at the airport yesterday, I’m having an argument about my ticket -- is there anyone who hasn’t sometime or other found himself yelling at some poor clerk at the ticket counter? Only now, I notice there’s a crowd gathered around me, people going, ‘James Carville… James Carville… That’s James Carville making a damn fool of himself…’”

I’d be a damn fool to overblow my one tv commercial -- and I know this little storm will pass all too soon and I'll wish for it to come back -- but the Commercial is a reminder of how attention can make one’s head spin. Show me the cab driver, show me the person, who doesn’t believe that his or her views on the world are at least as valid as the views of those people whose voices and decisions actually shape events, actually change the world. When the signal on Drumm goes green I turn left onto Sacramento. In motion again, my composure returns. Unnerving or not, it will be just fine with me if this commercial somehow gives me permission, gives me a platform from which to dispense some of my views on things beside my Prius. I hope that sucker goes national. I hope it goes global.

AT THE W HOTEL I pick up a woman who for a decade lived in the Piedmont Avenue section of Oakland, just a couple hundred yards from the house where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. Six years ago she moved up into the Oakland hills. Since the housing meltdown started, her new home has lost about $40,000 in value, but that’s okay, she says -- her job as a nurse has kept her fairly insulated. She’s five years from retirement and now she can smell it. She likes her new place -- it has a view. The only drawback is that she needs to get into her car for everything now. Back in the old neighborhood she could walk to the grocery, the dry cleaners, the movies, half a dozen coffee houses, a dozen good restaurants… At the end of the ride, Body doesn’t even consult me. He’s sick of all the preoccupation with The Commercial, and he’s pleased to see the boy from the ‘hood back again. Body turns toward the backseat. Body says, “Every day I give away one free. Today this is my free ride...”

My fare smiles. She likes this quite a bit, it seems, from strangers... -- it’s tricky. “Well, thank you very much,” she says. “But will you let me at least give you a tip?”

I feel my shoulders slump forward. Body and I really don’t want to bully anyone with our free ride thing. If someone has to tip, ok, we do understand. But Body wants to have some fun. Body smiles. I hear gentle pleading in Body’s voice. “Go on, just take a free ride… You can take a free ride, can’t you?”

And that does it.

(UPDATE: At shift’s end, as I head back across the Bay Bridge, I flip on the baseball game. The Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, has pitched eight innings of eleven strikeout, three-hit baseball. But in the top of the ninth, with the Giants leading 4-1, Lincecum starts off by issuing a four-pitch walk. Manager Bruce Bochy pulls Lincecum and brings in the Giants All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, who loads the bases, and then, with two outs and a full-count on the batter, induces a pop fly that heads toward the right field stands. But a gust of wind -- a gust which seems to take even the announcers by surprise -- blows the ball back toward the field, back just far enough so that it finds a spot on the right field line on which to land, kicking up chalk dust. Fair ball! Three runs score. The game is tied, 4-4. As much as I hurt for my Giants, I can’t help smiling for that guy up there in my seats, way up above the right field line, blowing with everything he’s got, blowing that ball back toward fair territory.)



  1. I don't know if it's because I grew up outside Philly or because I have such respect for the hard work our military does or maybe just because I love this blog so much, but this has been my favorite post so far. The world is a better place for having people like you in it, Brad. And even more so because you think nothing of your generous acts.

  2. Thank you very much, Nicole -- I would respond directly to you, but being a tech-idiot, I'm not sure how (or if I can, from here). I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate (your reading and) your very kind words. This fellow touched me deeply, too -- I started to choke up myself when telling the story to my wife over dinner. BUT... Go Giants! (smiley face) Brad (