Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shades of Lovely

Shift #76

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 – McCoppin/Valencia to Fifth/Market -- $6.25

I do what I often do on dead Sunday mornings -- I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, park my cab, and walk on the pedestrian sidewalk out to mid-span. I stop and lean my forearms against the iron railing, which supports my weight without even noticing.

My skin feels clammy on this muggy morning. Muggy? I’m wearing just a tee-shirt and a light pullover top, and I feel like yanking off the pullover. The chill and fog of mid-summer weren’t fatal after all. It’s good to have my preferred San Francisco back.

I’m about two hundred and twenty feet above the water. My hands are folded together out in front of me, and I’m looking past them, above them, toward the East Bay hills, where a new dawn is slowly unfolding. The sun is just now beginning to peek over the ridge tops above Oakland, and, like an artist experimenting with pigments, is dabbing various shades of lovely onto the world famous vista of which I am the merest speck. Should the water be a steely blue this morning? No, let’s go with more of a royal blue! Should those storybook white cottages on Telegraph Hill be eggshell or should they tend toward this quasi-metallic pearl, reflecting the early rays? Should the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts be marmalade, or perhaps gold, like those little nuggets which in 1849 almost instantaneously exploded a sleepy little harbor town of “five hundred and forty-nine souls” into a beehive of twenty-five thousand glaze-eyed fortune seekers?

Roughly one hundred and sixty years later, roughly one hundred thousand vehicles per day cross the Golden Gate Bridge. But early on this Sunday morning there is hardly any traffic at all. Every twenty or thirty seconds, a lone car swishes past me, and every few minutes a pod of bicyclists ticks along by, but now -- What’s this? -- another pedestrian, a woman humping a thirty-pound backpack, comes trucking down the sidewalk.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Mind if I ask what sort of trip you’re on?”

She stops. “Not at all -- I’m headed to Point Reyes Station.”

“Really!” I’m impressed. In 1995 I walked from the Haight-Ashbury District to Point Reyes -- forty-five miles -- but although I’ve since bragged to hundreds of people about that adventure I’ve never met anyone else who’s undertaken it.

She: “I’m hoping to do it in two days.”

Me: “Fifteen years ago I walked up to Point Reyes. I spent five days doing it, and that felt like absolute top speed. I can’t imagine sprinting through this gorgeous scenery…” -- I spread my hands like a preacher and slowly swivel around -- “in two days. You sure you want to go that fast?”

“I’m meeting someone in Point Reyes tomorrow night,” she says, and marches onward.

People spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to glimpse this very panorama, and it strikes me as wrong, or at least unfortunate, that someone would just rush through it. Still, no one appreciates blunt, unsolicited advice. I resume my position at the railing and scold myself for letting such pop out. Ah, well... Next time I’ll be more careful.

My eyes sweep from the Marin headlands, to Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, past all the old bungalows and new highrises, past all the Victorians and apartment buildings, up to Twin Peaks. I find myself wondering whether there is some other city in the world where I might have found happiness, or even an acceptable level of satisfaction, while driving a taxi for twenty-five years. Honolulu and Miami have exotic appeal which I imagine quickly wearing off -- Miami’s within a month, max, I suppose, but Honolulu’s (or Kauai’s or Maui’s) might maintain theirs...two years maybe? New York City is without a doubt the big leagues of cab driving -- of so many other artistic endeavors, too -- and I would definitely like to spend a couple of weeks behind the wheel of a Manhattan taxicab just to be able to say I’d done it. But I’m sure that over the long run (and more likely, in the very short run) New York would chew me up and spit me out like a tiny little apple seed.

I ask my mind to suggest other cities I might find palatable, but a quick scan -- Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston... -- returns zero hits. I can’t imagine what sort of treachery my mind would throw at me on a slow Sunday morning in one of those other, lesser places. But if I semi-regularly found myself driving around empty in one of them, I suspect that I would before long encounter, and succumb to, some desperate moment, would suddenly find myself speeding for the nearest freeway onramp, seeking open highway and new landscapes, and aiming, like so many dreamers before me, toward California. And if I’d never seen it before -- or even if I had -- my specific destination would almost certainly be this very Golden Gate Bridge…

BACK IN THE CAB, I keep my ear on the radio and cruise through the Presidio, through the tony Seacliff neighborhood and past Robin Williams’ old pink house. (Williams had sweeping views of the Bridge and the ocean and the coastline until he recently moved to I-know-not-where -- nor why). I tell myself that someone out in the Richmond District or the Sunset will need to go to the airport, will need to go somewhere this morning, and will wind up in my backseat, but the radio stays dead. I cruise past the Palace of the Legion of Honor, past the Cliff House, and down to Ocean Beach.

I park in the exact same spot where I parked my tool-laden personal car on the morning of the first Beach Impeach event. I walk across the sand down to the surf and dip my finger into the foam at water’s edge. As I’m straightening back up I see a huge ocean animal break the surface about seventy-five yards offshore -- it’s a good twelve-to-fifteen feet long, jet black, and is moving right to left across my field of view (from Seattle down toward San Diego). It briefly shows its whole black, shiny-wet self, rotating up out of the water, counter-clockwise, as smoothly as I might twist a radio dial. And then it is gone, back beneath the blue again.

“Dolphin!” Just a few feet away from me are a couple about my age, and the woman has shrieked an ID.

“Not a shark?” I say. “Not a whale?”

“Dolphin,” she says with a confidence I don’t question.

We stand beside the fizzy surf for a while, searching the vast ocean, trading stories (they’re visiting from Holland, she’s a marine biologist), and hoping for another sighting, but there isn’t one.

AS I HEAD BACK DOWNTOWN, I promise myself that my last shift of the year -- my All-Rides-Are-Free shift -- will not be a Sunday. I want that last shift to be jumping from start to finish. We’re coming down the home stretch of the year now, and I can feel The Day coming, and I don’t want it to be one of these funereal Sunday mornings.

Three full hours after the start of my shift, I finally hit upon a string of fares. A woman flags me from the bus zone at 25th and Fulton -- she’s running late to her two-decades-and-counting gig in the choir at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church at Bush and Stiener. A Latino man is headed to work at a restaurant in the Marina -- he blasts music through his earbuds during the entire ride and doesn’t respond when I float a How are you today? toward him. A sommelier on his way to work at the Hotel Vitale agrees with my contention that Charles Shaw Merlot ($1.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s) is as good as any just about any under-$20 bottle of red wine out there. A therapist in her fifties tells me that she’s devastated over a recent DUI that may wind up costing her her livelihood -- I’m thinking she will be my free ride today, but Body says No, which I find a bit odd.

A twenty-two-year-old, UC-Berkeley student, about to complete his degree in “social welfare,” is heading over to Noe Valley to drop in on his parents this morning.

Me: “Do they live in the house where you grew up?”


Me: “I’m fifty-nine, and I’ve been driving a cab since a few years before you were born. That means you were one of those little kids I used to notice running around the Castro...” During the eighties and early nineties, I also saw gaunt, sore-ridden men walking the Castro’s streets, but they’ve long ago disappeared. “I always wondered about you kids.”

“It’s ironic,” he says. “I received my early education in human sexuality on my way to school every morning, and it was quite an education. Now I have a part-time job teaching sex-ed to grade schoolers. It doesn’t pay much, but it is interesting.”

Me: “In 1980, before I moved to San Francisco, I went to a six-day seminar up in the Sierras. There were a lot of people from San Francisco there, including many gays. I’d had no real experience with gay people before, knew nothing about them, and was kind of afraid of them. But during one of the meals, I found myself sitting next to a gay man -- very nice, very open... The seminar had a phenomenal way of getting people to open up with each other, and I took a chance and told him, ‘The things I imagine that you guys do with each other… Just thinking about that makes my stomach turn.’ We were sitting side by side, elbow to elbow, and he looked at me and said, ‘I get it.’ He didn’t try to ‘defend’ himself, didn’t try to explain anything, didn’t tell me a story. I kept expecting something more, but that was it. I get it. And it seemed like about the biggest gift I’d ever been given. In that moment, about ninety percent of the charge I had about gay people just disappeared. It totally changed, on some fundamental level, forever, how I looked at gays. What did it matter what I thought about whatever they wanted to do?”

My fare: “I have this friend who moved here from Chicago, and he was the same way. When he moved here he always felt threatened by gay men -- felt the same way you did. It took him about six years, but one day he told me, ‘I haven’t changed the way I feel -- the thought of gay sex still disgusts me -- but what I can’t imagine is why I ever cared, why I had so much energy on it. What a waste of my time!’ He couldn’t even explain where all his animosity had come from -- or why. But you grow up in the Castro, you don’t grow up with any of that.”

I’m so caught up in the conversation that Free Ride? doesn’t even occur to me until he’s already paid me and split, and I decide, in advance, to give it to the next fare, no matter who...

It’s a young couple from England on day eight of a three-week driving tour through the West. At their starting point, in Phoenix, they rented a Ford Mustang convertible and now they’ve driven it to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and along the coast highway up to Big Sur. “It was foggy some, but it was sunny a lot, too,” the woman tells me, “and we had the top down most of the way.”

This morning they’re going to catch a cable car over to Fisherman’s Wharf. Tomorrow they’ll be driving north across the Golden Gate Bridge, on their way up to Canada. They haven’t yet set eyes on The Bridge, but, says the man, “Ever since we started planning this trip I’ve been envisioning us driving across the Golden Gate with the top down and the wind blowing through our hair.”


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