Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Robbed, Shot, Killed...

Shift #72

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 -- 16th/Bryant to 25th/Connecticut -- $7.15

I should find waiting in front of the Potrero Center Safeway store -- and there she is. She’s young (under twenty-five, I would guess) and pretty, but -- standing beside a loaded grocery cart in the hot afternoon sun with two young boys (four and three years old, I would guess) swirling around her knees -- she also looks beleaguered, even overwhelmed.

When we’re loaded up and rolling, she tells me she’s going to 950 Connecticut, which I recognize immediately as being dead-center in the Potrero Hill Projects, the hardcore, rundown, gangsta-ridden neighborhood where O.J. Simpson grew up and acquired his family values. I’m no stranger to the place; I was robbed there twenty-two years ago, and I’ve been back many times since. I know what I’m going to see upon arrival: rows of barracks-like buildings painted several years ago in bright happy colors, now faded. There will be windows boarded up with plywood, trash everywhere. The grass in the common areas will be trampled dead. Young men sitting on doorway steps will be pumping out clouds of smoke -- only some of it tobacco smoke.

One of the kids repeats the address for me, loudly, all serious and sober like his mother: “Nine-fifty Connecticut.”

And then the other, serious, sober, louder: “Nine-fifty Connecticut!”

“Hush,” says the mom. “We don’t all have to tell the man!”

The boy directly behind me says, loudly, “I got Ghostbusters!”

I ask the mom, “Is there a particular route you prefer?” On trips that present multiple possible routes, I’ve learned to take whichever one the customer likes.

“Whatever’s fastest,” she says.

“I got Ghostbusters!”

I realize the boy is saying this for my benefit. “That’s great,” I say.

“I’m gonna get gooped,” he says. “Lotsa goop!”

“I got flowers,” says his brother, and a bouquet of orange flowers rises up and fills my rearview mirror.

Me: “Those are beautiful!”

“I got Ghostbusters!”

“I got flowers.”

The woman: “Hush up!”

We’ve been underway barely sixty seconds and already I know: Free ride. It’s not so much that I feel sorry for her, for them -- we all get our lives, we all do our best -- but it’s undeniable that we’re all dealt hands that are tremendously uneven, and I feel better about myself whenever I try to even things out a bit. I was dealt an entirely different hand than these folks and their neighbors in the Potrero Hill nightmare -- I know that only a few will get themselves out, and I know that many more will never leave. I often marvel that anyone survives cards dealt from the bottom of Life’s deck, and I tip my hat to anyone who manages to navigate from hardscrabble beginnings to a more comfortable existence.

I reflect daily -- I swear it: daily -- on the gift my grandparents gave me by walking away from a tiny village in Slovakia one hundred years ago. Too poor to afford transport or lodging, they spent five weeks walking clear across Poland to Gdansk, where they caught a three-week ride on a ship to America, looking for bigger-better lives for themselves and their unborn progeny -- people like me!

“Lots of goo!”

“I got flowers…”

A gust of strong marijuana smoke pours through my open window as I pull up the hill, stop in front of the correct barracks, and set my parking brake. I don’t make eye contact with the six-man crew sitting on the steps. From the backseat, the mom is holding a twenty-dollar bill toward me. I turn around. Up close, she’s strikingly pretty: Amber eyes. Cornrow hair. Milk chocolate skin. Strong young body. Obvious intelligence. If she’d grown up next door to me in the suburbs of Washington D.C., there’s not a chance in hell she would today be living at 950 Connecticut.

When I tell her it’s a free ride, her amber eyes blink once. Her head drops forward, her shoulders follow, and her entire body deflates -- just for an instant. She recovers quickly, looks me in the eye -- really looks -- and gives the slightest nod -- all of this takes no more than three seconds. She withdraws her twenty and reinflates herself. “Come on, boys -- thank the man!”

“I got Ghostbusters!”


Twenty-five years ago, I routinely carried groceries from my cab into the units of my projects-dwelling fares. Then one night, in another equally-grisly housing project on the south side of the city, a fellow cab driver was robbed, shot, and killed while hauling groceries for a customer -- neither the customer or anyone else in the project saw anything happen -- the crime was never addressed. And not long afterward, in broad daylight on this very same hillside, just a few steps from where we’re now parked, I too was robbed.

As I unload her groceries and set them on the sidewalk, the woman again instructs her sons: “Thank the man!”

They both look up at me: the one raises his flowers, the other his Ghostbusters video. Flowers says, “Thank you, mister.” Ghostbusters says it, too, louder, and now a bidding war erupts. “Thank you...!” “Thank you...!” Who can say it more deafeningly?

From the nearby doorway, I feel the eyes of the smoker crew: watching me, watching her, watching another sunny Sunday afternoon drift past and drain away down the side of a steep hill in a part of San Francisco that tourists never see.


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