Monday, November 1, 2010
* * ALL-RIDES-FREE DAY * *
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2010
(NOTE: I don’t know how to add a caption, but that is NOT my cab in the photo.)
NOT EVERY DAY do I see people waiting in the casual carpool line at 5:45 AM. But this morning, as I’m driving my personal car in to work, I notice the silhouettes of two men who are standing in the shadowy darkness under the designated oak tree a mile from my home. As we cross the Bay Bridge, I tell them about today being All-rides-free Day in my taxi.
One of the men chuckles: “And to think that I was just about to offer you a dollar toward the bridge toll…”
By 6:30, I’m cruising up Van Ness Avenue. It’s drizzling, still dark, and the shiny black streets have a moody, romantic feel. The radio is quiet, and no one is flagging me. I see people huddled around bus shelters, but crowds are always tricky. If just one person is waiting for a bus, that’s easy, but to single out one or two people (maximum four) from a cluster is awkward. It’s easier to just keep rolling…
Fare #1 -- 6:46 AM -- Finally, a radio call in Pacific Heights, a young man going in early to his job at an internet company on the edge of the Financial District. He’s been assigned to manage the re-positioning of the workstations -- all the desks and computers and phone lines -- of the company’s fifty employees, and the task is supposed to be completed before he goes home tonight. He’s a big baseball fan, but says, “During October I had to work until midnight so often that I feel like I kind of missed the playoffs.”
I’m never actually convinced that All-rides-free Day is truly happening until I get the first one under my belt. Until I utter the words and declare it, it’s not actually real. No higher authority is demanding this of me. No one is watching to make sure I follow through on my good intention. If I get cold feet, I can just simply remain silent, crawl back into my little shell, and Earth will no doubt keep on spinning…
But at ride’s end, Body swivels toward the backseat (it seems there may be a higher authority after all) and says, “Today is my last shift of the year, and for several years now I’ve made it a tradition to give all my rides for free on this shift. So -- this is a free ride. Have fun moving everyone’s desks around. I’ll see you next year.”
My fare is extending a bill in my direction, and studying me with an uncertain expression. Is this guy for real? And then he smiles. “Well, thank you.”
Fare #2 -- 7:23 AM -- I’ve grabbed coffee and a bagel at Noah’s and have worked my way through the cab line in front of the Hyatt-Embarcadero. A woman who has just ridden BART in from Concord needs a ride to her job at the Hilton-Fisherman’s Wharf. She tells me that yesterday she braved the DMV: “I’d scheduled my appointment a full month ahead, but I still had to wait forty-five minutes before my name was called. And then the woman behind the counter gave me a form to fill out, and when I asked for a pen, she said, ‘Do you mean to tell me you came to the DMV and didn’t bring a pen!’”
But that was yesterday. When she hears that today is All-rides-free Day she brightens right up: “Well let me a least give you a tip.” I say, “If you must.” She places three one-dollar bills on the console between my front seats. I tell her, “At Christmas, I put my free-ride tips into an envelope and give it to my thirteen-year-old daughter. So, she and I thank you very much.” (Generosity inspires generosity -- by day’s end, fifteen of my twenty-two fares will have given me a total of $78 in tips.)
Fare #3 -- 7:32 AM -- A young guy from Iowa is standing in front of the Hyatt-Fisherman’s Wharf. He’s married, has four- and two-year-old kids, and works for a two-hundred person company that originally manufactured concrete watering troughs for Midwest farmers. Now they sell concrete benches and drinking fountains to municipalities all over the world. Today he’s calling on the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. This is his first visit to “god’s favorite city,” and even with today’s rain and clouds he finds the Bay and the bridges and all the bungalow-covered hills “stunning.” He asks, “How did you wind up here?”
Me: “I visited all fifty States, circled the world four times with my backpack, and then chose the place that most appealed to me.”
He: “All fifty! I’ve always dreamed about that! How’d you do it?”
Me: “In college, two friends and I challenged each other: ‘Who can get to all fifty first?’ By the time we were about thirty years old, we each had about forty-five -- I had forty-seven -- and then one guy went off on a hitchhiking blitz and got his last few and called and told the other two of us that we were playing for second place. In the end, I did manage to come in second.”
Fare #4 --7:47 AM -- A short ride in the Tenderloin District -- a young guy who is planning to spend all day helping a friend move from one apartment to another.
Fare #5 -- 8:00 AM -- At the Hilton on O’Farrell Street, a man from Chicago, an employee of Thomson-Reuters, needs to get downtown to visit a few accounts. “We sell business news and information to financial institutions,” he tells me. I think: Has any large business ever taken a day and given away its products for free? Now THAT would be a business story! I don’t mention this to my fare, but I do tell him about my special day, and he tips five dollars for the $4.90 free ride.
Fare #6 -- 8:24 AM -- Radio call, a young physician, a general practitioner, who one year ago moved from Phoenix to San Francisco. He’s traveling from his Marina District apartment over to his office at the base of Telegraph Hill, where he works six days a week: “Too much!” he says. He remembers having all the time in the world when he spent eight months backpacking around Australia and Southeast Asia in between college and medical school. I say, “Isn’t travel the very best thing?” He says, “My three passions are: the work I do, cooking, and travel. There is no number one. They’re all in first place.”
I stop at the Hotel W to use the bathroom, and when I return to the cab line I’m second-up. I open The Power of Now and before Fare #7 arrives I have just enough time to read this snatch: “There is a novel by Aldous Huxley called Island, the story of a man shipwrecked on a remote island. The first thing that the man notices are the colorful parrots perched in the trees, constantly croaking the words ‘Attention. Here and Now. Attention. Here and Now.’ We later learn that the islanders taught them these words in order to be reminded continuously to stay present.”
Fare #7 -- 8:49 AM -- A young woman from New Orleans tells me, “We’re coming around. A year ago I thought we had hit a plateau, but now we have a mayor and a city council who actually seem to like each other, and things are getting better.” She’s in town for a convention of cognitive behavioral therapists. Over the past few years, she and her colleagues have developed a twelve-to-sixteen-week program that has been successful in treating post traumatic stress syndrome -- a lot of my fare’s work involves veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Once-a-week therapy appointments (combined with certain drugs) have produced positive results for fifty-five percent of the participants. At the end of the ride I thank her for doing the important work she does. She assures me that, “It is my honor.”
Fare #8 -- 9:09 AM -- A paralegal who lives in Burlingame has dropped her car at the Mercedes dealership at Eighth and Bryant and now needs a ride to her job downtown. She can’t believe how much a routine annual maintenance appointment costs: $400. I enjoy telling her, and I think she enjoys hearing: “This’ll bring it down closer to $390.”
Fare #9 -- 9:29 AM -- I stop at the Noah’s Bagels on Battery Street for a second cup of coffee, and then pop next door to Happy Donuts to indulge my weakness for big fat cinnamon rolls, and one block later I’m flagged by a man with a suitcase on rollers. This is the one day all year when I am not thrilled to see an airport fare, but it all works out. The man says, “I’m sorry. I’m only going four blocks, and worse, I’m going to have to pay with a credit card -- I don’t even have five dollars cash with me.” When I explain why none of this will be any sort of problem today, he protests: “Oh, I can’t do that!” I say, “My first eight fares managed.” I hold up my clipboard and point to him the notation following each ride. “Free-Free-Free-Free-Free...,” I say. He slumps into the seat back and surrenders with a simple, “Wow!”
Driving away, I note that eliminating the payment ritual also eliminates much bothersome paper-shuffling -- the time-honored Thank You / You’re Welcomed ritual is so much more streamlined. What percentage of our precious lives do we squander by exchanging currency or credit/debit cards, making change, collecting receipts, and recording and accounting for all of it? During a seventy-year lifetime, how much time do we waste on this? An entire month? An entire year?
I further note how this free-rides business is all starting to seem so normal to me. My recollection is that in past years my free-ride days have seemed surreal, quasi-psychedelic. But today doesn’t seem surreal at all -- it feels absolutely unremarkable, run-of-the-mill even. Perhaps this is a function of my having kept this journal all year, and thereby forcing the practice up toward the surface of my daily consciousness.
Fare #10 -- 9:50 AM -- Downtown. A business consultant who looks like he’s from India tells me, “I grew up in LA, but now I live in San Francisco -- but only on weekends, really. Most weeks I’m on the road Monday through Friday.” Does he see glimmers of hope for the economy? He says: “In the Bay Area, yes. But nationally… That’s going to take a long time.”
Fare #11 -- 9:58 AM -- As fare #10 exits out the right side of my cab, a man and woman enter through the left side. They’re headed out toward their new home near the University of San Francisco. Just two months ago they moved here from Philadelphia when the man’s employer, an accounting firm, sent him to work on the firm’s Genentech account in South San Francisco. My fares have two adult children living in San Francisco, and this has helped make the move virtually painless. The man says, “We even rooted for the Giants in the playoffs -- they were a much more likable team than the Phillies.” The woman says, “We have liked everything about San Francisco except the bad drivers. But they’re not fast bad drivers like in New York. At least they’re slow bad drivers.’”
Fare #12 -- 10:30 AM -- A hairdresser from the Haight, going to work in the Financial District, says, “I’ve been a hairdresser for, let me count, eight years now -- and I love it! I feel like I spend all day hanging out with friends.” I tell her: “That’s exactly how I feel about cab driving…” Usually I wait until ride’s end to tell a fare about my free rides, but I know this woman’s going to appreciate the concept, and several blocks before her destination I spill the beans. “What a great idea,” she says. “Maybe I should do that…”
Fare #13 -- 10:48 AM -- Two guys who sell bus tours of San Francisco (their biggest bus has forty seats) are heading over toward Pier 33 for a meeting with the folks who run the Alcatraz tours. When I ask how this year has been for their business, one of them says, “It’s been okay” -- his inflection is hey-not-bad okay as opposed to just-so-so okay. The other one tells me, “You look familiar -- I must have ridden with you before…” Back during the spring, my Green Cab and I were the stars of a Toyota commercial that bombarded northern California television viewers for three straight weeks. It disappeared for several months, then unexpectedly returned just two weeks ago, and customers have again been commenting on it. But I’m not exactly sure what to make of this fellow’s comment. “This is a small town,” I tell him. “I do get a lot of repeat business…” And we leave it at that.
Fare #14 -- 11:39 AM -- A fifty-seven-year-old woman from Bakersfield, in town to visit one of her three adult daughters, says, “Tomorrow, rain or shine, we’re going to ride bicycles across the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. And this winter we’re going to Peru to hike the Inca Trail.” I ask if she likes to read travel books, and when she says yes, very much so, I dig a gift copy of my first book out of my trunk and wish her happy travels.
Fare #15 -- 11:48 AM -- A woman taking a short ride from the Parc 55 to Bush and Stockton, tells me, “Don’t go up Powell Street. Something bad happened there. Did you hear all those sirens?” I had noticed distant sirens, but I’d dismissed them.
Moments after I drop her, I check in for a downtown radio order. Today’s dispatcher -- T.O. -- says, “Brad, if you’re empty, can you go over to Sutter and Powell? A Green Cab driver was in an accident there and he’s gone to the hospital in an ambulance. I need someone to get his things out of the cab.”
A police van is parked across the cable car tracks, blocking Powell Street at Post. I park illegally in a red zone right on the edge of Union Square, one short block downhill from the accident. I scrawl an explanatory note for the parking control police, slip it under the cab’s windshield, and walk up the cable car tracks.
The event has reached its chaotic conclusion directly in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The entire site is marked off by yellow crime-scene tape behind which at least one hundred onlookers -- hotel guests and others -- are gathered. Two badly banged up cars are splayed out in the middle of the intersection with their hoods popped straight up in the air. Over by the curb, our Green Cab looks like an accordion that’s been tossed from a speeding train. A fourth car has also been damaged, and to me all of them look like total losses. Fifteen police officers are searching through the vehicles, kicking debris out of the way. A boxy red ambulance is just pulling away and a tow truck is maneuvering backwards down Powell Street. As I duck under the tape, I’m thinking: “Attention. Here and Now. Attention. Here and Now.” And: “Nothing run-of-the-mill about this free-rides day!”
I show the badge hanging from my neck to the officer in charge, and tell him I’m with Green Cab. He says, “Your driver looked like he was basically okay. With all this stuff lying around, you’d think maybe fifteen people got killed here, but all the airbags went off, and really, I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.”
I find our driver’s briefcase and red lunchbox (hummus and pita bread, untouched) in the cab’s back seat, and lots of broken glass everywhere. Another officer tells me, “The guy in the white car said he lost his brakes coming down Powell. Witnesses saw him catch air two blocks back up the hill. By the time he hit this intersection he was really flying. He smashed into that other car and then he hit the cab. Your guy was stopped at the curb -- he’d just picked up a passenger -- nothing he could have done.”
I click a few pictures with my cell phone. I call T.O. and tell him everything’s okay. I call Green Cab’s general manager, Athan, and tell him it wasn’t our fault. I thank the police, and I have just started walking back downhill toward my cab when one of the officers calls, “Hey, just a minute -- aren’t you the guy in the commercial?”
One of his partners says, “Yeah -- it’s you!” And he pulls out his camera and records the scene: me and his partner standing on the cable car tracks, smiling at each other, with four smashed up vehicles and a tow truck in the background. Behind us I hear one of the onlookers telling someone else, “The Green Cab guy from t.v. -- I knew it was him!”
Fare #16 -- 1:06 PM -- A full hour and fifteen minutes have passed between rides. (Another big cup of coffee and a Subway sandwich have helped me reflect on chaos theory, airbags, and my own mortality). On Langton Alley I pick up one of our regular radio callers who usually goes to her job at Momo’s Restaurant, directly across the street from the Giants’ ballpark, but today she’s going to Seventeenth and Church for a haircut. She says she loved the whole World Series buzz, but she’s also glad to see things quiet down just a bit.
Fare #17 -- 1:19 PM -- One block later I’m flagged by an architect headed back downtown. A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to buildingwhat.org, an organization in New York that is trying to get that city’s officials to open an investigation into how Building Seven of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. Twelve hundred architects and engineers have joined the effort. The truth is that I have no idea what happened that day, but every time I watch a video of Building Seven collapsing I’m dumbfounded. Even though I know I’m going to sound like an off-the-rack, crackpot-conspiracy-theorist-cabdriver, I mention buildingwhat.org to the architect in my backseat. He takes it well -- he’s one of the few people I’ve met who even remember that a third skyscraper, the 47-story Building Seven, fell out of the sky that day -- and he seems to have an open mind about it. But I know I’ve talked too much and too excitedly (I blame all the coffee), and I’m relieved to not be taking his money for this ride.
Fare #18 -- 1:29 PM -- She’s waiting eagerly as I drop Fare #17 at Market and New Montgomery. Just moments ago she finished a pharmacology exam and now she’s in a hurry to meet a friend who is driving her to the airport. She’s flying home to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving. She looks like a poor student, but insists on leaving a $10 tip for a $6.25 free ride.
Fare #19 -- 1:37 PM -- California and Polk. My only bus zone rider of the day seems delighted by my offer. She’s majoring in business at San Francisco State, and right now she’s headed to her job at a tanning salon at Union and Fillmore, and this ride will get her to work early.
Fare #20 -- 2:22 PM -- It’s raining steadily now, and I see her sauntering through the crosswalk at 10th and Mission, umbrella-less, smiling my way and nodding as though she’s been expecting me. When I ask how she’s doing today, she says, “Honestly? I’m a bit hung over, I’m feeling guilty for drinking too much wine last night, and I had a bit of an argument with my boyfriend.” I assure her that we’re all human and that these things do happen. She needs to stop by her apartment in the Panhandle to change shoes -- she’s been wearing sandals and now her toes are cold and wet -- and then I drop her near City Hall. We’ve had an easy and fun sixteen minutes together, and when I tell her about today’s deal she dissolves into I-can’t-believe-it laughter which I can still hear even when she’s three car lengths down the sidewalk from my cab, even though my windows are rolled up tight, and even though noisy traffic is zipping down Gough Street.
Fare #21 -- 2:50 PM -- A flag at 12th and Folsom. A moment after he has settled into the back seat, he says, “I saw your ad on TV…” I spend the entire eight-minute ride giving long-version answers to the two short questions he, and most ad-viewers, ask: 1) “How’d you get the gig?” (Short answer: Last winter, when Toyota started getting all its bad publicity, I sent their ad agency a two-minute, homemade video of five Green Cab Priuses rolling single-file down the crooked portion of Lombard Street, and one thing led to another…) and 2) “Did you get paid?” (Answer: $3,000)
[Years ago, two high school classmates of mine (Karen and Larry, still married even today) sent a note to the organizers of our 20th class reunion, and the organizers included it in our class newsletter. Karen wrote: “We’re not going to be there. Larry says that at this stage of the game all anyone really wants to see of you is a naked picture and a financial statement.”]
Fare #22 -- 3:08 PM -- My cab is due in at 4 p.m., and now, with time for one last ride, I spot a shrunken elderly woman standing in the late-afternoon drizzle in front of the Market Street Safeway, waving a cane over her head. I load her five bags of groceries into my trunk and head up toward Twin Peaks. “I’ve been waiting for a cab for over an hour,” she tells me. I pass her a card with Green Cab’s phone number (415-626-4733) and tell her, “You won’t wait an hour any more.” At the end of the ride she says she will pay extra if I will please carry her groceries to the top of her steps. I tell her that won’t be necessary, in fact nothing will be necessary, as all my rides are free today.
Like all of us, this woman has heard a lot of bullshit during her lifetime. She studies my face with the same dubious look Fare #1 gave me back during the dimness of early morning. And then a smile spreads slowly across her own face. “My goodness,” she says. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
“Well,” I say, opening my door and getting ready to step around back to get her groceries, “now you have.”