Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Shift #73

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10 -- SFO to Menlo Park -- Peace of mind

cold-cocked the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, which flows along the flat areas and then climbs up into the hills west of SFO. Around 6 P.M., near a ridgetop two crow-miles from the airport, something inside an underground, high-pressure, thirty-inch, natural gas pipeline went horribly wrong.

Investigators speculate about a weakened pipe joint, a leak that may have lasted hours, or even weeks, and then a spark… An instantaneous fireball left a fifty-foot crater where a couple of houses had just been. The explosion was heard for miles (although not inside my windows-closed kitchen in Oakland, about ten crow-miles distant).

Nuclear bomb was the first thing I thought,” one survivor told a reporter. Residents of nearby neighborhoods thought, “Earthquake.” For nearly two hours, flames shot out of the ground and hundreds of feet into the air, sounding like “thirty high-speed freight trains having a race.” Before emergency crews could shut the gas off, fifty-three houses were destroyed… This morning a door-to-door search of the area is being conducted -- the death count currently stands at four or six depending on which radio station I’m listening to…

The longer one lives in the Bay Area, the more it shrinks. A few months ago, a different media drama unfolded when a crumbling cliff forced the evacuation of an oceanside apartment building in the town of Pacifica; days later I learned that a friend I’d met through the Beach Impeach events lived in that building. But I don’t think I know anyone living in San Bruno. One afternoon about three weeks ago, I dropped a former Jesuit priest at his home in the very area being discussed on this morning’s news. He told me he was planning to grab a drink, sit on his deck -- “Spectacular view of SFO,” he said -- and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing by watching planes take off and land. But that’s as close as I come to this pipeline drama...

AFTER AN EMPTY HOUR, my first fare goes to SFO. The freeway passes two miles from the devastated neighborhood, and my fare and I both scan for some sign of the incident, but…nothing. No hovering helicopters, no blackened areas, just rows of streets and houses basking on the hillsides under a perfect blue September sky.

From the airport I pick up the CEO of a software company (“This is my fourth or fifth start-up,” he tells me). He’s returning from a three-day trip to Japan and after I fill him in on the explosion in San Bruno our talk goes to the weather. “I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, so I’m accustomed to lousy weather,” he tells me, “but this summer, this bogus summer in San Francisco... This one just about did me in.”

September and October are big convention months in the City, and today twelve thousand people are arriving for a dental industry get-together. After I drop the software CEO, I drive right back to the airport, take my spot at the end of the cab line, and head over to use the bathroom.

Several years ago, two picnic tables and a large-screen tv were installed adjacent to the cab lot’s food truck so that waiting cab drivers can watch sports or Chinese-language soap operas or whatever strikes the fancy of the truck’s operators. Returning to my cab, I see Barack Obama on the screen -- he’s called a press conference to discuss the economy and the November elections and, among many other things, the idiot fundamentalist Christian minister in Georgia who’s promising to burn a pile of Korans tomorrow, September 11.

Gathered around the television with me are a dozen other men. One is a black man with a shoulder patch identifying him as part of the SFO maintenance staff, but the rest of us are all cab drivers. At my right elbow is a Sikh with an orange turban and a gray beard; beyond him, another grizzled white guy like me; to my left, one driver from Yemen and one from Jordan, both Muslims; seated side by side at a picnic table, two Asian men are eating vegetables and rice; I nod hello to Afran, a Filipino friend of mine, who is wearing his beloved red 49ers jacket.

There are times when I’m frustrated with Obama. I wish he actually were a socialist. I fear that if he doesn’t stop trying to talk sense into those mean old, stone-headed, tax-the-poor, Republican bullies, he is going to be a one-term president. Why can’t he just go ahead and stop this crazy nine-year-old war in Afghanistan and transform our military-industrial complex into a renewable-energy/feed-the-people complex? But when I see and hear him -- this intelligent, earnest, reasonable-sounding, most powerful man in the world -- I can’t help but root for him. And I feel that the men around me are all pulling for him, too. No one is applauding, and no one is hissing; we’re all just attentively watching. And I sense -- or I imagine that I sense -- an atmosphere of respect and approval.

The dispatcher’s buzzer summons me to move my cab forward. To reach it, I have to walk down a long row of other cabs, a walk that will usually bring to my ear a smattering of different sounds: Lebanese hip-hop; Sufi dance tunes; sports talk radio. But this morning, emanating from each cab I pass, I hear only one voice: Obama’s.

MY NEXT CUSTOMER is headed twenty miles south to the town of Menlo Park. When I ask What’s your work? he says, “Software.” He chuckles for me when I deploy one of my newer bon mots: “I think I might just start asking people, ‘So, what branch of the software industry employs you?’”

He is the CEO of a one hundred-person software company, and is just now returning from a three-week trip to Russia. He finds the workforce in Russia poorly motivated: “My biggest problem over there is getting anyone to work,” he says. He laughs hard when I tell him about the ditty I heard when I visited the old United Soviet Socialist Republic, back during the pre-capitalist 1980s: “As long as they pree-tend to pay oss, we will pree-tend to work.” He asks me to repeat it -- he wants to remember this one.

It’s 2:10 P.M. when I roll up the driveway and across the bridge over the creek that passes through the front yard of my fare’s house -- his mini-estate. I haven’t given a way a ride yet today, and I’m beginning to suspect this might turn out to be one of those no-free-ride days that just winds up happening once every year or so. The prospect of giving away a big fare like this one, to a guy as well off as this guy, who lives in a house as magnificent as that big old thing, does not thrill me -- but I am willing. I check in with Body.

Body, quickly: No friggin’ way, dude! You nuts?

By the time I collect my fare’s eighty bucks, drive back to the airport, and again pull up to the end of the airport cab line, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be giving away a free ride today. Already it’s 2:39, and I may or may not even be able to get a ride out of the airport. The cab line can be slow here, and if it doesn’t move along fast enough I’ll have to give up and drive back to the city empty. The night driver, Fred, is due the cab at 4 P.M. I owe him one dollar for each minute I’m later. But I’ll at least stop here a few minutes, use the bathroom, look for something sweet on the food truck, and ask some of the other drivers how the line’s moving...

I put the cab into Park, open my door and swing my feet out onto the asphalt... And that’s when, from the corner of my left eye, I spy something that’s not right: an iphone sitting on my backseat...

Last month, after one of my shifts, I accidentally left my laptop in the Green Cab office -- I went four straight days with no laptop, missed it badly, and the memory is still very fresh...

I pull my legs up off the asphalt, swivel back inside the cab, and drive back to Menlo Park. By the time I again reach my fare’s house, a bit more than an hour has passed since I dropped him off. I can detect no signs of life from the palace, and it is absolutely silent. I imagine my fare several layers down into his post-trip sleep. I tuck his iphone into a corner of the porch with a note attached.

The fastest route back to the Green Cab lot is up Highway 280, which passes within half a crow-mile of the site of yesterday’s explosion. Flying along at sixty-seven miles an hour (cruise control), I again scan the hills, and again I see nothing. But I have my window down this time, and for thirty seconds my nostrils are filled with a strong, rancid, scorched smell -- like an electrical cord overheating and about to ignite. Perspective, my mind tells me. A little perspective.


(NOTE: Fred doesn’t come in to work on this day. I don’t see him again until Sunday. How are you, Fred? “Brad, I am a mess. I live in San Bruno. Eight blocks from the explosion. My son is at the library that afternoon. He is with a girl he’s known since they are in kindergarten. They’re both nineteen now. The girl finishes her work, says good-bye to my son, and goes home. Ten minutes later, boom! The girl and her mother, both are killed. Brad, I am a mess.”)


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