Sunday, August 1, 2010


Shift #65

Friday, August 6 -- SFO to the city of Belmont -- $29.85

FARES LIKE THIS ONE come along only once or twice a year -- or, during many years, not at all.

He strolls confidently out of the International Terminal, wheeling a small suitcase behind him and with a bag slung over one shoulder. He’s in his mid-twenties, handsome, with skin the color of cinnamon, and thick black hair newly brushcut to about an inch and a half in length. He’s wearing a fresh cardinal-red polo shirt and designer blue jeans -- he’s the whole package, meticulously assembled.

Me: “Good afternoon.”

He: “Yes, good afternoon.” He has an Indian accent. “Do you know the Summerfield Suites in the city of Belmont?”

Me: “Right across from the Oracle campus?”

He: “Yes -- that’s it. And may I pay with an American Express Card?”

Me: “Absolutely.” (Most San Francisco taxi drivers, including me, now accept most credit cards.)

He settles into the backseat and, slowly, tentatively, breathes, “Toy-o-tah Pree-uss -- yes?”

The way he draws it out, I think maybe he’s recalling Toyota’s bad publicity from earlier this year. I say: “Yes. It’s a great car. I love it.”

He: “Is it electric?”

Me: “It’s a gas-electric hybrid.”

He: “I wrote a paper on the Toyota Prius... In 2004.” Long before the scandal.

I ask: “Have you ridden in a Prius before?”

He: “No. This is my first time. Actually, this is my first time ever to see one.”

Until now he has seemed so self-assured and worldly that I’ve assumed he’s one of the many Indian immigrants who’ve entrenched themselves in the Silicon Valley computer industry over the past couple of decades.

Me: “You are from India?”

He: “Yes. India.”

Me: “Are you coming from India just now?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “Is this your first time to San Francisco?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “First time to America?”

He: “Yes.”

I absolutely love being the first American a foreigner meets post-Customs. Cab drivers are frequently referred to as “The Ambassadors of the City,” but we also often function as ambassadors for the entire country -- I’ve had maybe fifty “newcomer” fares over the years. I turn, look back, extend my hand over the backseat. “Welcome to America!”

Our newest arrival shakes my hand and allows himself a slight smile: “Thank you. What is your good name?”

“Brad. And yours?”

“Brad…” He rolls my name around in his mouth. “Brad... Mine is Manu.”

Manu says he is a software engineer, employed by Oracle in New Delhi for four years now. He’s come to the States for some specialized training, will stay at the Summerfield Suites for five weeks, and then return home. This is the first time any member of Manu’s family has ever set foot outside of India. He has a younger brother and sister. His father works as a “civil servant.” When I ask about his mother, Manu says, “I lost my mother… Twenty years ago… She got sick and died… Yes, thank you.”

Had Manu been nervous about coming to America?

“Not at all,” he says. “Is there something I should be nervous about?”

Me: “No -- just the ‘normal’ nervousness about leaving everything familiar behind. I was twenty-two when I first left America. I was very nervous -- but I had no job and no money, and you don’t have to worry about those things.”

Manu: “No.”

Me: “I imagine that your family might be a little worried? The oldest son, the big brother... He’s gone off to America!

Manu, soberly: “Yes. They will be worried.”

Me: “I have visited India twice, and I was nervous before I went -- especially the first time.”

Manu: “When was this?”

Me: “In 1982 and 1988 -- a long time ago.”

Manu: “What parts did you see?”

Me: “Delhi, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Bombay, Goa… Oh, and Varanasi -- my favorite.”

Manu: “There have been so many changes. Things are better now.””

Me: “People often tell me that, but I’m not sure what they mean. Better in what way? Newer?”

Manu: “Yes, newer. Buildings, cars... There are many more cars all the time now.”

I do not believe that more cars will possibly be a good thing for India, or for any place. I say: “I would like to go back and see for myself. If I do, will I still see cows in the streets and millions of poor people everywhere?”

Manu: “Oh, yes. We still have those…”

Me: “Have you ever seen the ocean?”


Me: “It’s right over those hills.” I point to our right.

“Really?” Manu studies the green coastal range for a few moments. Today’s sky is the famous California blue, but a low, almost unnoticeable, stripe of bright white fog hovers at the ridgetop. I wonder if Manu’s ever seen fog before, but I find myself hoping he doesn’t ask me about it. How do you explain fog?

Manu: “I may need a taxi later in my stay. Might you be available?”

I tell him that I’m only licensed to pick up passengers at the airport or in the city of San Francisco, which is about 20 miles back up the freeway now, but I’m sure that one of the taxi drivers from Belmont will be happy to help him. Does he drive a car?

Manu: “Yes, but everything is on the other side. I think I will probably not try it very soon here.”

Me: “I’m fifty-eight. May I ask how old you are?”

Manu: “Less than half. Twenty-seven.” Hahff.

A couple of blocks from the Summerfield we stop behind a gleaming, silver gasoline tanker whose entire backside is an enormous oval mirror, convex, so that our reflection is enlarged as in a fun house mirror. As I make a slow turn to the left, I see the image of our green-and-white-checked Toyota Prius, a long, distorted side view, from the front of the snub-nosed hood all the way down the tapered back. The cab looks huge, as though it’s been blown up and we’re now seeing ourselves on a big, garish roadside billboard. The front seat area is obscured in shadowy darkness -- I can’t see myself -- but at the right rear window it’s easy to see Manu, life-sized plus a bit, in full color, and smiling broadly.

Me: “Look -- there’s Manu in America!”

It cannot be denied. He laughs: “Aghh -- yes!

IN FRONT OF THE SUMMERFIELD, as Manu is sliding his American Express card from his wallet, I place his luggage at his feet.

Manu: “How much…?”

But I cut him off: “Welcome to America, Manu -- this is a free ride.”

I reach my hand out toward him -- he takes it, and we shake again, but I know he is not yet understanding -- of course not. He’s looking at my face, expectant, awaiting my pronouncement of the total.

Me: “This is a free ride, Manu. Welcome to America -- it has been my pleasure to meet you. I don’t want any money. ”

As this sinks in, a shot of panic shows on Manu’s face. “No, please…” He had imagined his journey correctly up to this point: the long flight, the customs agents, the cab to the hotel -- but not this free ride business. “No please,” he says, holding out his credit card. This wasn’t in the script. “Please. Take the money…”

I step back. “Many people in India were very kind to me, Manu. This is my way of saying thank you.”

The panic recedes from his face, but it’s not okay yet. “You should have the money… Please.”

“It’s more fun this way,” I tell him, smiling. “And no one will ever believe it…”

His eyebrows lift. His mouth falls open and freezes that way. He sees the truth in my words -- no one ever will believe this -- back home it will sound like he has gone off to America and learned the telling of tall tales, and maybe this worries him a bit. He wants to say something to me, but he doesn’t know what. He’s out of his element. New Delhi is far, far away.

Me: “...but you and I will know it's true.”

I wish for a camera. The photo would show Manu standing in his red polo shirt in bright sunshine at the entrance to the Summerfield Suites lobby. His hands are extended out to his sides, palms up -- in one hand is his credit card, in the other his wallet. His knees are slightly bent and his feet seem to be groping the ground in search of something solid. There is no danger that he’s going to buckle, but he does look dumbstruck. His mouth is still open, although no noise is coming out -- yet. And now he’s smiling.

Me: “If you were to pay me for this ride, Manu, I would never remember it, and you probably wouldn’t either. But this way, I think we’ll both remember it forever.”

He straightens. He nods. His arms drop toward the ground, and now he starts to laugh. His head tips back so that he’s looking up at the California sky, then it rocks forward so that he’s looking down at the Belmont asphalt. His laugh is all the payment I could ever hope for, and now he pays me over and over again and tips me handsomely on top of it. I can’t restrain myself either -- and why would I? -- and now we’re both roaring at each other, just like when former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown was in my cab. There is something universal, something compelling and very touching about the free ride.

I leave Manu standing there in the Summerfield’s driveway, his bags at his feet, a huge holy-shit smile on his face. Through my open window I call out once more, “Welcome to America, Manu!”


No comments:

Post a Comment