Thursday, April 1, 2010


Shift #43

FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2010 -- Priceless

UPON EACH OF OUR DEATHS, I suspect we’re going to discover that our just-completed lives were in fact no-brainers, that everything would have worked out pretty much the same even if we’d devoted a lot less time and energy to worrying about all of it. I actually used to worry about my free rides -- did I have permission to do this? was it ok? was I being a fool? -- but now that seems ridiculous, not worth a single thought.

Today’s first free ride requires no mental activity whatsoever -- it's pure Body. Sixty seconds after I leave the yard, she flags me from the bus zone at Fourteenth and Mission. I tell her I’m on my way to pick up a pre-scheduled airport customer, but maybe we’re both headed in the same direction…? She says she’s just going four blocks, right along my intended route. She’s running late to her new job at the Martha’s Coffee shop which opened nine days ago at Tenth and Mission. The lights are all green, we’re there in two minutes. She loves the free ride, and says if I have time to stop by later, the coffee’s on her…

THAT FIRST RIDE is not flavored by The Commercial, but the rest of my shift is marinated in it. Ten days after It began airing, I’m starting to relate to Bill Murray's character in the movie “Groundhog Day.” At least once an hour I find myself having the same Ad-centric conversation, and rarely is it initiated by me, but by my fares -- or by sidewalk pedestrians or other cabdrivers or, say, by the two lunch-eating guys sitting in the cab of a furniture delivery truck parked at the corner of Sutter and Sansome around noon today: “Hey, that was you in the Green Cab ad -- right?” I forget about The Ad for increasingly shorter stretches of time, and then, there I am again, addressing the two main comments, “How did you wind up in it?” and “I hope they’re paying you a shitload of money?” [NOTE: It wasn’t until ten days after the ad began saturating the airwaves that the ad agency and I had any sort of discussion about money. A woman from the ad agency telephoned me and apologized for having forgotten to get my permission and payment papers taken care of in advance. Now she had put sent them in the mail to me, and could I please sign and return them as soon as possible. I told her I was having the time of my life, and I would be absolutely happy, in fact, I’d really prefer, to do the ad for free. Over the phone I heard her gasp, an intake of air. “Oh, we have to pay you. We actually...have to pay you!” In the end, I received a total of $4,500 and an invitation to join the Screen Actors Guild.]

Late in the day I’ve completely forgotten the Ad, but then at Sacramento and Hyde a young man jumps into the backseat: “Hey, that was you…!” He repeats a head-spinning comment, variations of which I’ve grown accustomed to hearing during the past twelve days: “Man, I’ve seen that ad too many times to count now! And for days I’ve been scanning the streets, looking for Green Cabs, and hoping maybe I’d see you at the wheel.”

As we head downtown I tell my increasingly polished story: How I recognized the huge disconnect between the headlines -- “Toyota Unsafe!” -- and the things people in real life were saying: “Man, I love my Toyota, and I’ve never had a single problem with it!” And how I approached Toyota’s ad agency and suggested they interview the grizzled, veteran Prius cab drivers of San Francisco, with the drop-dead-gorgeous city as a sexy backdrop.

My fare says that, in retrospect, it looks like a pretty obvious idea -- actually, he calls it “a no-brainer” -- and all that was lacking was someone to point it out. We talk further about what an incredibly powerful medium television is; about how visible this little Green Cab venture has become (we started three years ago this month with one Prius -- today we have thirteen); and about how much fun this whole thing is on so many levels for so many people -- “We’re all into the green movement,” he says -- and perhaps most especially fun for me.

At ride’s end I see that I’ve forgotten to start my meter. Free ride, I tell him. “Oh, man,” he says. “I gotta take your picture -- do you mind?” He aims his cell phone, and I don’t have a bit of trouble working up a smile.


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