Saturday, May 1, 2010


Shift #54

SUNDAY, MAY 30 – Laguna Honda/Rockaway to 19th/Hollaway -- $7.60

AFTER AN HOUR EMPTY I accept a radio order from an address on Rockaway Avenue, a short, dead-end street up in the Twin Peaks area. On a clear day, one can see from Twin Peaks all the way to Mt. Diablo (thirty miles to the east) and to the Farallones Islands (twenty-six miles offshore to the west). Today a thin mist hides all of this spectacular geography, but the air is warm and windless and I can tell that before long we’ll be enjoying another pristine day. For weeks now, the populace has been grumbling about the lingering winter/spring rains. But San Franciscans are a forgiving group -- one clear, still day and all is forgiven, and today will be our third beauty in a row.

It’s been at least a decade since I’ve been to Rockaway Avenue, and I feel confident that I can still feel my way right to it. I have yet to meet the cab driver who claims to know every one of the hundreds of short streets and alleys that are sprinkled throughout San Francisco’s forty-nine square miles. Many of these are virtual phantoms -- dead-ends, barely a quarter-block long -- and even after twenty-five years I am forced to consult my cross-street directory about once a week.

In the end, Rockaway defeats me. After wandering in the Twin Peaks mist for several minutes I pull to the curb on Ulloa Street and pull out my directory, which, darnit, shows that I’m stopped just twenty-five yards from the obscure mouth of Rockaway.

MY FARE is ready and waiting -- a bit anxious, actually -- and she thanks me for coming. Previously she has used the services of a bigger, computer-dispatched cab company, but after One time they just never came! she switched to Citywide Dispatch (415-626-4733) and has been a believer ever since -- she likes hearing a live human voice on the other end of the line.

She’s heading to San Francisco State University, out in the southwest corner of the city. She looks like she’s in her late teens or early twenties, and my questions pry loose an interesting tidbit: she is one of the one hundred members of the elite dancer troupe Funkanometry SF. When I ask how long she’s known that she was a dancer, she says, “Since I was in ninth grade.” A while ago friends steered her toward a tryout with Funkanometry SF, and today she and the others are traveling from SF State to a performance at Great America amusement park. She says that, yes, members of the troupe are paid, and when I ask if one can make a living at it, she says, “Some can.” But the ride is a short one, and that’s all I get from her today. Quickly, and with what seems like complete enthusiasm, she accepts my free ride offer.

I HAVE NOTICED THAT SOME LARGE PERCENTAGE of these free rides go to my first ride of the day. I think this is because, really, my inclination is to give away all of my rides for free, and in the early morning, before practical thinking and strong daylight have eroded away my idealism, I have no resistance to the notion. I often reflect on Eckhart Tolle and how, during the two years following his awakening, he sat on a park bench, freed up from practical thinking, impervious to daylight, and enjoying a state of unassailable bliss.

Fresh out of college I spent a couple of years hitchhiking around the United States, which meant spending hundreds of hours watching thousands of cars pass me by. Later, when I came to hold title to automobiles of my own, I became a diligent picker-up of hitchhikers, and I now regard my current so-called career as, somehow, a logical extension of all those hitchhiking experiences. Even if there were no such thing as money, I would still want to spend many of my days driving around San Francisco, gawking at the dance of mist and light on the hills and the ocean and the bay; eyeballing the populace strolling from coffee shop to coffee shop and neighborhood to neighborhood; and chatting up those who wind up in my car.

Over dinner a while back, my friend Nancy Ruenzel, publisher of Peachpit Press, told me that as a result of hearing my cab stories, she has started initiating conversations with the cab drivers she encounters during her frequent business trips. Some don’t want to talk, Nancy told me, but many do. “Do you talk to everyone?” she asked me.

My answer was immediate, but not rehearsed, and the minute I heard it come out of my mouth I fell in love with it. “Yes. I’d hate to think that God got into my cab and I forgot to ask -- forgot to get his life story.”

BACK WHEN I WAS AN AUTHOR I was frequently invited to tell my story to writing groups, book store audiences, and the occasional book club, and I grew accustomed to hearing people of all ages tell me, “You’re lucky -- you always knew what you wanted to be. I don’t know what I want to be.”

For me, writing was and still is hard work. I love having written. I love being a writer. But I can’t say I’m in love with the work of writing. Sometimes I hate it. Cab driving is hard work, too, but I almost always find it about a thousand times easier and more fun than writing. And I do feel lucky to have found a place where I feel appropriately slotted, an activity to indulge my passions for people and stories and motion.

When I worked at Wells Fargo Bank, my estimate was that roughly two or three percent (absolutely no more than ten percent) of the bank’s employees actually belonged there. Very few of us were bankers at heart; the rest of us were there just for the paycheck. Whether we enjoyed our work or loathed it, whether we did an excellent job or a poor one, most of us, if we had won the lottery, would have disappeared in an instant. But those two or three percent who were bankers to the bone would, I believe, have kept right on banking after a lotto shock. They’d have felt lost without their work.

If I win the lottery I will still want to drive a cab once or twice a week -- or maybe I’ll discover that once or twice a month will satisfy me. Whatever the rate, the fact is that whenever I’ve taken long stretches away from cab driving I have ached for it. Without it, I feel cut off from something vital.

The first time I went to apply for a cab driving job, I noticed a coffee mug full of pens and pencils sitting on the desk of the cab company’s head of personnel. Taped to the cup’s lip was a scrap of paper clipped from a columnist’s list of random factoids that used to run in the San Francisco Chronicle every Sunday. At first I didn’t believe this factoid, but I am now part of its proof. Thirty-three percent of cab drivers claim that there is nothing they would prefer to do for a living.

I find myself thinking about this today because, as the school year comes to an end, in order to hang out with my freed up daughter as much as possible, I am now switching over to my “summer schedule.” January through May I work thirty hours a week, in the summer I cut back to just ten or twenty. And already I’m feeling a small hole open up inside me.

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