Saturday, May 1, 2010



SUNDAY, MAY 2 -- Hotel W to Pier 39 -- $8.95

RIDE #1: A MIDDLE-AGED COUPLE wearing full Giants’ fan gear -- black and orange everything -- walk out of the W Hotel. Their faces light up when they see me and my cab. The woman’s arms shoot into the air like she's just thrown the final strike-three of the World Series: "We've been looking for you!"

They live in Concord (or was it Walnut Creek?), have seen the Commercial too many times to count, and during the past couple of days they have talked about whether they might (they have even dared to hope they might) spot me. But to wind up in my cab! Oh, this is almost too much -- it’s just unbelievable!

They’re in San Francisco to have a big day with their son's Little League team -- the whole team is being allowed down onto the field this morning, before the game, and later the kids will get to run the bases. A block and a half from the ballpark, we see a line of about thirty people strung out along the Second Street sidewalk -- 10-12 year-old kids in blue “Braves” baseball uniforms, plus a few adults. When they see my cab they start cheering and whistling and calling out, “…commercial!...TV!...Green Cab!” Several of them start trotting down the street to try to keep up with us. The man says, “Oh, can you please pull over? Maybe we can get some photos?” And suddenly I'm beside my cab, surrounded by a Little League team, cameras, smiles... This has been FUN for me! And other drivers at Green Cab say it’s been fun for them, too -- throughout their shifts, customers keep bringing up the Ad. It is hot! [We exchange addresses, and I beg them to please send me some of the photos. They never arrive. Darnit.]

RIDE #3: THEY’RE YOUNG (they’re both 24), they’re each very personable and polite, they're attractive and fit-looking and brimming with youth, and to me they seem rather perfectly matched. They both grew up in Indianapolis but now they live in Chicago, where they feel quite at home. He works as a business consultant (“You’ve probably taken many of my brethren to the airport”) and she as a therapist focusing on relationships. I say, “Well then, you’re guaranteed lifelong happiness!” and they both chuckle convincingly, even though they’ve certainly heard that quip a million times before.

Today is a perfect weather day, perhaps the best of the year so far, and my fares are clearly in an excellent mood, as am I. They are here for three days to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, a tidbit I discover embarrassingly late in the ride. (Back on the sidewalk in front of the W Hotel, one of my cab driver brethren had warned them, “Be careful, this guy is famous now!” And so they had asked about it, and I spent the ride’s entire first half telling them the story.) At Pier 39 I apologize for having bogarted the conversation, wish them a lifetime of happiness, and tell them the ride is free.

“But,” shrieks the woman, “we love your story!”

Me: “Come on now... Don’t make me come back there and throw you out!”

And they flee, trailing laughter.

* * My ‘Eff-bomb period’ * *


WEDNESDAY, MAY 5 -- Fremont/Market to Howard/Third -- $5.80

DOWNTOWN AT NOON two women hail me for a ride to the Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, a bar/restaurant across the street from the W Hotel. I’m not part of their conversation, but I overhear that one of them is a native of Puebla, Mexico, and for me this is reason enough for a free ride on this particular day. When I pull up in front of the Thirsty Bear and break the news, my fares seem a little uncertain about it all. I can tell they like the idea, but…Really?

“It’s Cinco de Mayo…,” I say, and as gently as I can, I slip my hand around to the handle of the back door and ease it open for them. “You can take a free ride on Cinco de Mayo, can’t you?”

It takes them just a few brief seconds for the date to register with them, and as we’re sitting there, this scenario -- door open, passengers reluctant to depart -- pushes to the forefront of my mind a chain of old memories, and I feel myself start to smile. But I suppress the impulse -- I can unravel those memories later -- and I just wait...

In the rearview I see them look toward each other. The one from Mexico smiles, the other nods. “Thank you very much!”

CHAIN OF MEMORIES: It’s the year 1985 and I am 35 years old, a green, newly-minted cab driver, very inexperienced in the nitty-gritty of street life. My first few weeks are like a trip to a foreign country: entertainment, an education, a peek into an entirely new subculture. At the end of each shift, I and a dozen other drivers squeeze into a tiny, beat-up hoboes’ shack at the edge of the cab lot and line up to slip our daily cab rental fees -- our “gates” -- to a cashier caged behind an iron-barred window.

Being new, I have no stories to tell, but I love listening to everyone else’s -- particularly the tales spun by a cocky, full-of-life fellow named Mickey. Mickey’s stories are hilarious, not just for their content but because Mickey’s accent and in-your-face demeanor are pure Brooklyn. One day his post-shift performance contains this line: “…so I tell dis broad, ‘Get da fuck outta my cab!...’”

I of course know that people don’t really swear like that -- not casually, not at strangers, and certainly not when those strangers are one’s customers. Besides, cab drivers can get fired for talking to fares that way. When Mickey’s finished, and when I’ve stopped laughing, I say, “Great story, Mickey. But you didn’t really say that to her, did you?”

Mickey: “Say what?”

Me: “You know -- ‘Get the fuck out of my cab!’”

Mickey: “Da fuck I didn’t!

ROLL THE CAMERA forward just a few weeks, if you will, to a warm weekend night. Actually it’s about three in the morning and I’m at the tail end of a long shift when I’m flagged South of Market by a moderately-but-quite-noticeably-overweight young woman. I’m not so green anymore -- by now I’ve mopped up after a backseat pukers, have seen fares sprint off into the night without paying, have had a gun held to my head… When she opens my back door, but before she can get in, I tell this woman, “Excuse me -- I’ve only got a few minutes left in my shift, and I can only do a short ride. Where are you headed?”

She: “Daly City.”

Cab drivers who turn in late are charged, often, one dollar per late minute. (The greedier companies consider the late fee a profit center and happily pocket the money, but at a decent company -- Green Cab, for instance -- the late fee goes straight to the next driver, and the fee is charged only if that next driver is present and has been waiting for his/her turn in the cab.) Driving this woman to Daly City will require at least twenty-five minutes and cost me a bunch of money: “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

She starts to scream -- she questions my ethnicity, speculates pessimistically on the dimensions of my manhood, proclaims that the collective value of all cab drivers does not equal the collective value of all fecal matter -- and then she slams my door louder than all of that combined.

I’ve spent nearly ten hours chasing fares all over the city -- I’m drained -- but I spring from the cab, glare across the rooftop at her bulging face, and offer a suggestion: “Maybe, if you walk all the way to Daly City, you’ll lose some of that fat!” Tame, even lame, I know, but it’s the best I can come up with -- and it feels good! All the way back to the garage I find myself chortling, and also re-thinking Mickey: Maybe he did cuss that woman out?

ON A COLD WINTER NIGHT a few months later, I pick up two drunk white guys in North Beach. Within a block they toss off the n-word at least five times. Suddenly my hands jerk the wheel, my foot jabs the brake, the cab screeches to the curb at Union and Colombus -- on the far side of Washington Square, the twin, spotlighted spires of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul rise into the black sky. I reach across the back seat, yank the handle, throw open the door… “Get the fuck out of my cab!”

BEFORE THEY MOVED from Oakland to Oregon several years ago, I used to share my cab stories with my old friends Jon and Diana. One morning I woke them up so I could unburden myself of the saga of having a gun pulled on me during the night -- my third gun. They didn’t appreciate that story so much -- it alarmed them, it wasn’t such a great start to their day -- but they always liked my others. They enjoyed hearing about Mickey, and the fat woman, and the two n-word spewers, and about my growing infatutation with telling other obnoxious people to “Get the fuck out of my cab!” And about how this tactic was becoming perhaps my favorite of the few arrows in my cab driving quiver: “Get the fuck out of my cab!” Whenever we would get together, Jon and Diana would always ask if I’d had to let it fly lately?

One December in the early 1990s, Jon and Diana call me before coming to the City for a Saturday night Christmas party. I pick them up at BART and drop them at Ghiradelli Square. When they try to pay, I refuse. No, they say, it’s not right… We have to pay you…you’re working!…etc. But some things cannot be assigned a dollar value: in college, first baseman Jon used to dig my errant throws from third out of the dirt; publisher’s rep Diana has given me hundreds of dollars worth of free books. I tell them, “Hey -- what’s one free taxi ride between friends?” But they’re not having it: We’d have had to pay some other driver… If we’d known you were going to act this way we wouldn’t have called you…!

Stalemate across the backseat.

“Don’t make me say it...”

Jon keeps arguing, but I can see Diana starting to smile…

“I warned you...” I reach back, fling open the door: “Get the fuck out of my cab!”

We still laugh about it whenever we see each other.

NOW IT’S THE YEAR 2010, and I’m older and supposedly wiser and calmer. Also, I haven’t driven a night shift in years, and the day shift clientele is completely different: daytime fares are almost always sober. I can’t remember the last time I eff-bombed anyone, and it’s been a full five years since I’ve thrown anyone out of my cab.

But sometimes I look back fondly on my “Get the fuck out…” period. There was something liberating about it. In an odd way, I view my prior, more proper self as immature. Once I’d mastered Get the fuck out… I felt more complete as a cab driver, and as a person -- or, perhaps more accurately, I felt less incomplete. I can now look back and appreciate that the overweight woman and those two foul-mouthed racists and all their sorry relatives were doing me a favor, were setting me free, allowing me to grow up, giving me permission to do the right, if not the polite, thing. Even though we usually stifle the urge, sometimes the only right thing to do is to say, “Get the fuck out of my cab!” I don’t know where you work, dear reader, but I’m giving you permission. Go ahead. Next time you find it appropriate, just let ‘er rip. “Get the fuck out of my cubicle!” I’m willing to bet that the world won’t end. “Get the fuck out of my office!” “…my store!” “…my barber’s chair!” “Get the fuck out of my face!” At Green Cab, we don’t actually recommend this sort of behavior. We’re a small company -- growing but still small (and polite) -- and should “get the fuck out” get you fucking fired, well, there’s not much I (or we) could do for you. But the cab world does average thirty-three percent turnover each year -- and someone is always hiring.


* * HEROIN! * *

Shift #46

FRIDAY, MAY 7 -- Ninth Avenue/Irving to 19th/De Haro -- $2,551.71

THE GREEN CAB LOT is located in the heart of the city’s gritty Mission District. The nearby blocks are filled with grocery/liquor/lotto shops; tire and auto parts dealers; divey bars, trendy cafes, dirt-cheap taquerias, upscale restaurants; some of the city’s more affordable housing; a huge, brick complex (formerly the city’s armory) where quadruple-x-rated adult entertainment films are produced; and, at 826 Valencia, a “writing center/pirate store,” the give-something-back project of local writing/publishing legend Dave Eggers.

Our lot is less than one block from the Sixteenth Street BART station plaza, which at all hours of the day (photo) is occupied by people chanting Krishna or loudspeakering Jesus or proclaiming the end of the world or begging spare change or selling popsicles from a cart or eyeing your backpack or sitting on the curb, hands cuffed behind, while a couple of cops dubiously study IDs. A few battered storefronts away is a used-bicycle shop where recently, the day after my bike was stolen, I stopped by on an (incorrect) hunch that I might be able to repurchase it there.

At Sixteenth and South Van Ness, Green Cab rents fifteen parking spots from a smog check/oil change/garage business which until a few years ago was the site of a full service gas station. Our parking spots are located off toone side of the property, clustered around a tall canopy that used to shelter a gas pump island. The whole enterprise is encircled by a tall chain link fence, with a heavy gate that must be rolled back and forth whenever we drivers leave or arrive. During our comings and goings we are always careful to keep an eye on the local populace. Usually it’s just folks heading to or from BART, but there are always a fair number of loiterers or homeless people pushing carts and muttering quietly or sometimes very loudly to themselves.

THIS MORNING I ARRIVE IN THE PREDAWN DARKNESS, get out of my car, unlock the gate, roll it back, drive my car into the lot and park in an empty space next to cab #914 -- my cab. I punch my waybill into the timeclock (5:04 AM), transfer my supplies (coffee cup, coin jar, clipboard, cross-street directory, etc.) from my personal car into my cab, roll my cab over to the vacuum machine and clean out the front and back (last week, while I was vacuuming under the front seat, the hose nozzle became clogged with…US currency...five bucks!).

This morning I’m the only person in the lot, and, as I finish bending down into the backseat with the vacuum nozzle, I stand up and notice that 1) I have accidentally left the gate to the lot wide open, and 2) a homeless-looking man has stopped on the sidewalk just outside the gate and is studying me. When I look at him he turns and walks slowly away, toward BART, but he keeps glancing back at me. No one’s in sight but the two of us. Diagonally across the street is a well-lit Union 76 gas station, but I’m probably 70 yards from the cashier’s door. I decide to roll the gate shut, but as soon as I move toward it the homeless man reverses his direction and heads right back my way. Just as things are about to get interesting, he stops -- we’re about fifteen feet apart now -- and speaks up: “It was you.” His face opens into a smile. “You was the one in the commercial -- wasn’t you?”

BUT OTHERWISE, my fifteen grainy minutes of fame seem to have drained right out of the hourglass. For the first couple of weeks after the Ad began to air, I was approached at least a dozen times each shift by people who remarked on it. But these things have a shelf life, and the ad agency must have cut back on the number of times it's airing (or maybe they stopped airing it completely?), and poof -- the number of mentions dropped to five or six per shift, and then earlier this week, straight to zero. As I go through my shift now, the whole thing can seem as though it never happened.

Television is supreme. We will watch, we will focus on, whatever the networks, the advertisers, and the ad agencies put in front of our eyeballs, and when those people decide it’s time to move on, we move like a flock, one big hypnotized flock. What power! And there’s no denying it: While that big monster spotlight was shining on me, it certainly was intoxicating. Two weeks ago, my friend and fellow Green Cab driver Mort Weinstein, who a few years ago had his own quarter-hour of fame when he organized Recording Artists Against Drunk Driving, warned me, “Enjoy it, but be careful -- don’t get hooked. It’s heroin.”

IT’S 3 PM, AND I’M ALL THE WAY OUT AT OCEAN BEACH. I need to gas up and get the cab back to the yard for the 4 PM driver. I haven’t given away a free ride today, but no big deal -- no law says that I have to, and every other year or so a shift comes along where a free ride just doesn't work out. I can always give away two tomorrow.

Today, however, is still possible. I’m at least twenty minutes from the yard, and maybe someone will flag me along the way or maybe I’ll spot someone in a bus zone. I cruise down Lincoln for forty blocks, looking, and then on a hunch I turn up Ninth Avenue to Irving, where a young man’s hand shoots into the air the instant he sees me. He’s headed to Potrero Hill, several blocks past the yard -- for me, absolutely perfect.

He says he’s thrilled to see me, and I say I’m thrilled to see him. He says he’s only been standing there for a couple of minutes, but those minutes have not been hopeful ones -- Ninth and Irving isn’t a prime cab-catching location, and it’s the start of the Friday afternoon rush hour and all -- and then suddenly, here I am…

He says he is not familiar with cabulous, but yes he does have an iphone, and within two minutes he has downloaded the free cabulous app and now he chuckles while watching, on his iphone’s screen, the one little blue dot representing his phone and the other little green dot representing Green Cab #914, rolling down Oak Street as cozily as if they’re married.

And then: “You know, I’m in the market for one of these Priuses. Do you like yours?”

Me: “I absolutely love it.” I tell him about running the numbers a year after giving up my Crown Victoria for a Prius; as a result of my switch, at least 5,000 gallons of gasoline did not get burned that year!

My fare has a new job, and a new hour-long commute for which he needs a new car. “I’ve narrowed my choice down to either the Prius or the Ford Explorer,” he says. “Last week I saw this great ad for Prius on tv, and it’s tipped me that way.”

Me: “Tell me about that ad if you will.”

He: “Well, it was just one guy, a cab driver. In fact, he was a Green Cab driver, and he was talking about how much he loved his Prius.”

I take off my baseball cap, turn around, grin: “Did he look anything like me?”

“He looked exactly like you…” My fare laughs. “Sorry, yeah, I knew -- I just didn’t want to put you on the spot…”

He goes on to say that it was a very effective ad, in fact, the “best car commercial I've ever seen." (This is the third time I’ve heard this comment, and twice it came from strangers.) I say thank you, and tell him that I haven’t yet seen it -- I could watch it on youtube, anytime, but I’m actually hoping to stumble upon it in the normal course of my life. He asks how the ad came about, and I give him the short version. He says some more very complimentary things, and volunteers that -- having already been tipped toward the Prius, and having now wound up in my cab -- he doesn’t see how he could possibly buy anything but the Prius.

“Oh god…,” I say, and I’m virtually moaning. “Oh god, I wish this ride were being taped. I wish the ad agency, I wish Toyota, could hear exactly what you’ve just said.”

I tell him about this blog. He tells me his name is Blake (Blake Kemp, I think), and I tell Blake Kemp there’s not a snowflake’s chance in hell that he can pay me for his ride today.

(NOTE: After work I find seven envelopes in my mailbox. One of them contains a congratulatory letter from, and an invitation to join, the Screen Actors Guild. The other six contain checks from the ad agency totalling $2,551.71)


My neighbor Jesse

Shift #47

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12 -- W Hotel to 255 Channel -- $8.95

I’M STANDING OUTSIDE MY CAB in front of the W Hotel when I hear my name called. I swivel my head and quickly zero in on my neighbor, Jesse, coming down the sidewalk with a big smile on his face. “I was just looking for a cab,” he says, “and here you are!”

Jesse and his wife Hillary and their darling 18-month old son Dylan (lately Dylan has been waving to me from his stroller whenever the family passes by) live just three doors down the street from my wife and daughter and me in the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood of Oakland. Jesse used to work for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and then for Mayor Newsom, and now he’s a self-employed business consultant. This morning he’s on his way to see a client over in the exploding Mission Bay area of the city. As we ride, we talk a little about work, but mostly about the wonder of watching our kids grow up on a cozy dead-end street in a mostly quiet neighborhood where the neighbors mostly all know each other.

Jesse knows about this blog, and probably even knows he’s not going to get away with paying for his ride, and in front of the Mission Bay Visitors Center he graciously succumbs to my terms, which are pretty simple, and pretty much all that any writer can ask: Every once in a while, please read what I write, and man, we are so even!



Shift #48

FRIDAY, MAY 14 -- Nob Hill to Multimedia Gulch -- Who’$ counting, anyway?

IT’S BARELY 6 AM, and a gauzy gray mist hangs low over Nob Hill. My first fare of the day is sitting inside the lit-up lobby of her apartment building, waiting patiently. She is a lovely young Asian woman, somewhere around thirty years old. She grew up in Toronto, and her accent is straight North American. She is headed to her job at the Fairmont Hotel -- she’s in her fifth year now. I remark that all the employees I drop at the Fairmont seem to love working there. “I love it, too,” she says. “Hospitality -- either you love it, or you’d better find something else to do.” She strikes me as exactly the kind of person one would hope to find behind a check-in counter at the end of a long journey.

Our journey together is a short one -- six blocks along the cable car line, with the Bay Bridge visible in the distance, tucked neatly under the low blanket of fog. The free ride Feeling is right there: it’s my first ride...I’ve just finished my coffee...the fare is exactly four dollars, almost nothing...she’s charming... Now I can sit back and let the whole rest of my day unfold. Also, a short, uncomplicated ride like this one will be easy to write about, and that’s a good thing, as I have fallen three shifts behind on this journal...

EARLY AFTERNOON. This has turned out to be a particularly slow day -- not the typical Friday. I punched my waybill at 5:02 AM -- seven and a half hours ago -- and since then I have grossed just $109 from 10 rides (no airports, darnit). The rent on my cab today is $102, and gas will cost me another $7-10, so I’m barely at break-even with just two and a half hours to go.

At 12:35 I’m flagged by a young blond woman at California and Presidio. Her father was in the oil business, and until she was sixteen my fare’s family lived in London, England, but then they moved back to the States. She is headed to her job at an Internet startup on Ritch Alley down near the Giants’ stadium. Back during the Dot-com Bubble this area was known as “Multimedia Gulch” but I haven’t heard that term used since the Bust. In college my fare studied something unrelated to business (was it literature?), but when she graduated she was open to anything: “There are people with experience willing to work for nothing these days -- so I was just happy to get a job, period.” The company has grown to fifty or sixty employees, making it big for a startup, and my fare says it’s starting to feel like it’s either time for them to be bought out by a bigger firm or to maybe think about throwing in the towel. She has been working there for three years, has a piece of the company, and is hoping for the buyout.

Toward the end of the ride, she says: “Thank you for driving the way you do -- in so many cabs, I feel like I’m either going to die or at least lose my lunch.”

Me: “Thank you for saying that. I’m 58, and I’m sure I’ve slowed down over the years, but I like to think that even when I was younger my driving wasn’t terribly scary.”

She: “Some drivers! I just had one an hour ago -- he was unreal! But my mom has the worst story. She was eight months pregnant -- this was in New York City, in a pouring thunderstorm -- and she told the driver I’m pregnant, and I’m feeling a little funny, could you please slow down a little bit… And he pulled over to the curb and said, ‘Get out!’”

My gut lurches and I briefly double over at the wheel. A sound escapes me: “Ooooo…

She: “And she did -- in a pouring thunderstorm!”

I say: “I am so sorry…”

She: “It wasn’t your fault.”

I think: I wish I hadn’t given away my free ride already.

Body: Uh, dude…

Me, to her: “Were you the kid?”

She: “I think I was.”

We’re pulling into Ritch Alley, which is crowded with young startup employees on lunch break. During the dot-com days every street in this area looked this way during every lunch hour -- during every evening and every late night, too. The meter reads exactly $13.

I tell my fare, “Every day I give away a free ride. This is my free ride today.”

She: “Oh, you don’t have to do that...”

Me: “It’s payback -- tell your mom.”

She: “Oh, don’t worry."

(NOTE: During the two hours and twenty-three minutes remaining in my shift, I gross $112.)


I’ve had it with men!

Shift #49

SUNDAY, MAY 16 -- Bay to Breakers -- My biggest day of the year: $273

From the ESPN website:

SAN FRANCISCO 4, HOUSTON 3 -- The Giants had a little hometown help for this win.

Several Houston Astros players walked to AT&T Park when taxi drivers in San Francisco declined to transport them because of the Bay to Breakers foot race that was also taking place. Those who did manage to catch a ride spent almost an hour getting to the ballpark from the Astros’ team hotel, which was less than two miles from the stadium.

Houston manager Brad Mills finally arrived 30 minutes after persuading a taxi driver to take a chance in the traffic.

“I had to tell him how to get here, but we wound up getting here,” Mills said. “I’ve never had that before. It was nuts.”

I DON’T KNOW HOW the annual, street-clogging Bay-to-Breakers extravaganza sneaks up on me each year, but somehow it always does take me by surprise. It’s officially called a “race” (it’s the oldest consecutively held running event in the world), but today it’s difficult to spot many people actually working up a sweat. The event began in 1912 with a handful of participants, grew to several hundred over the years, and then dipped to fewer than 50 during World War II. But for the nearly thirty years that I’ve lived here, Bay-to-Breakers always attracts about 100,000 participants and at least a gazillion gawkers.

And today they’re all out here, dressed in all sorts of costumes: Elvis Presley; three pert young women dressed in the tightest, most intriguing Boy Scout uniforms I’ve ever seen (and I was a Boy Scout); a group of men carrying foul-looking mops and wearing oil-stained jumpsuits with “BP” stenciled on their backs; and so many, many more...

At 8 a.m. the race officially starts with an emphatic burst from two hundred elite runners. The remainder of the mob shuffle in behind, a good percentage of them guzzling from beer cans. Things take several hours to develop -- all day, in fact. At least an hour passes before the final entrant reaches and crosses the starting line. At 10:20 a.m., in the Mission District, a mile and a half from the race route, I see crowds of costumed late-comers (a woman in pink butterfly wings; a full-gear Santa Claus; a six-foot-tall owl wearing sneakers) waiting for a MUNI train. They’re all still aiming themselves toward the race, planning to join up halfway along, at whatever time they happen to arrive... Whatever is the day’s relevant word...

RECENTLY IT HIT ME that a fair number of my free rides involve “lovely” or “charming” or “delightful” young women. Not so many men. So at 10:13 AM, when I pull out of the Safeway parking lot at Market and Church and see a handsome young Latino man flagging me, I’m happy for the chance to even things out a bit. He’s got a solid build, thick dark hair, and a chiseled face, but his good looks are providing him no comfort this morning.

Me: "How's your day going?"

He: “Terrible.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “Breakers. I started at Sixth and Geary, but MUNI never came, and now I’m already an hour and fifteen minutes late to work. It’s a big party for the whole city, big fun, but not if you have to get to work.”

He’s been a cook “for years” at a restaurant at 24th and Church, but he doesn’t sound interested in chit-chat, and I let him be. When I tell him that his $5.80 ride is free, he resists, hard. “You have to make a living,” he insists. “I can’t accept this.” He holds his credit card toward me, but I punch buttons on the meter and disappear the numbers. “I can’t run a credit card now,” I tell him (and it’s true). “Everyone else is having fun -- you deserve a break, too.” And he surrenders. With a small smile, even.

MOMENTS LATER at 18th and Castro, another handsome man. This one is carrying a bag of ice and is headed to a party at a friend’s house on the Hayes Street Hill -- “Heartbreak Hill” in Bay-to-Breakers lingo. He’s in a much better mood than than the cook; he tells me right away that today is his forty-first birthday. He thinks this is the fourth time in the last twenty years that Bay-to-Breakers has collided with his birthday, and, to his way of thinking, this is not a good thing -- it’s a distraction from the main event: his own life. But when I tell him, at ride’s end ($7.60), that on his birthday I am refusing to take his money, he just ain’t having it. “No fuckin’ way," he says. He’s already got nine dollars in cash in his hand, and he reaches forward between the two front seats and stuffs the bills down into my coffee mug, which is plugged into the cup holder near the dashboard.

That’s it. I tried. I’ve had it with men. I’m going back to lovely, charming, delightful women now…

(NOTE: At 4 pm, as I turn in, the dispatcher is still calling for cabs at the race’s end point, Ocean Beach -- eight full hours after the race has begun...)



Shift #50

WEDNESDAY, MAY 20 – Panoramic/Longview to SFO -- $560

TRAVIS VAN BRASCH and I first met back in 2007, the remarkable and phenomenally stressful year during which I almost single-handedly organized the four Beach Impeach events.

Each event drew one thousand or more people, and for each of them I hired a helicopter, sent a photographer friend overhead with a camera, and later mailed an original, professional postcard to each of the event’s participants. During the weeks preceding and then on the ground during each of those events, I needed to attend to dozens of details ranging from the huge (Park Service permits, event insurance, helicopter rental) to the tiny (do I have the walkie-talkies? the rubber mallet? enough stakes?). I have, most unfortunately, not yet learned the skill of forming an organization, and during that year of my juggling a thousand things at once, my family and about half my friends thought I’d gone a bit mad. I maintained that I was “trusting the universe.”

Before each event I would send out an email to my list asking that, please, would anyone who could do so, please, show up early on the morning of the event and help me make it come off, please. On the day of each event I awoke during the wee hours (or, more accurately, I finally abandoned the pretense of trying to sleep) and headed off to the site to meet my fate -- all the while hoping that a few volunteers might show up. Please.

Each time, exactly the right number of people in fact did show up -- and usually just in the nick of time… (Digression: The crucial volunteer was a sweet man named Jim Reid. Later I would learn that Jim had several years earlier run for San Francisco mayor against Willie Brown and had received about 20,000 votes! Before Beach Impeach #2 Jim called me and volunteered to pass the hat. At Beach Impeach #1 no hat had been passed, and I’d paid that event’s $3,500 price tag from my own pocket. But at #2, #3, and #4, Jim’s donation bucket brought in $12,000 -- almost magically matching the cost of those three events.)

So you might think that by the fourth event, I’d have relaxed a bit. Nope. How could I really trust that enough volunteers and enough participants would show up? I lived with the fear of having the biggest, most embarrassing failure of my life. I’d invited 1,000 guests, I’d paid for the helicopter and now…? Now we shall see…

BEACH IMPEACH #4 takes place on a green lawn near the Berkeley Marina, with Cindy Sheehan and Cynthia McKinney and Michelle Shocked plus some 997 others on the guest list. The first volunteer to arrive that morning is Travis Van Brasch. Travis has attended the first three Beach Impeach events, but we haven’t really connected. This time, he arrives at 7 a.m., sees my pile of tools and gear, and says, “What can I do? Give me a job.”

In advance, I’ve painted the letters I-M-P-E-A-C and H onto seven posterboards. Now these need to be mounted (I’ve brought six-foot poles, a stapler, a mallet, etc.) and pounded into the ground somewhere so that arriving guests can spot them from the far-off parking area. Travis listens to my instructions, and says, “Consider this done.”

An hour later he’s back: “What else you got?” Over his shoulder, I see a row of neatly mounted placards stretching across a distant hilltop -- big and bold and precisely spaced, and with new arrivals trickling right past them. I could cry. Really.

Already I am way behind schedule and a little freaked out. The plan for the day is that the 1,000 attendees will initially occupy spots inside the outlines of 100-foot-tall lettering spelling “IMPEACH!” Before everyone’s arrival, I need to outline -- on the grass, precisely, with colored twine that must be stretched tightly and staked down -- the boundaries of the lettering. I spend 60 seconds showing Travis my crude ruler-and-pencil sketches and trying to explain my vision. We’re standing in the middle of a twenty-acre lawn next to my jumbled pile of tools and gear. Travis says, “We can do this. How about we just split it down the middle?”

Travis folds a copy of the plans into his pocket; he grabs a mallet, a couple of rolls of colored twine, a bundle of stakes, and heads off to the south part of the lawn. I head north. We each snag a couple of new arrivals and press them into service. Around 11:30 we meet up in the lawn’s center. One thousand people have arrived and are taking their places. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter has arrived. Cindy and Cynthia and Michelle have arrived. Jim Reid has set up a canopy under which he guards the donation bucket. At noon sharp, the helicopter buzzes overhead. Click. Click. Click… If you are there, if you arrive at say, 11:45, you probably think: “Man, someone sure knows how to organize an event!”

SOMETIME AFTER THAT BEACH IMPEACH YEAR, Travis adds me to his personal email list. I have no previous awareness of Travis’s involvement with Landmark Education, but in 2009 I receive a string of invitations to several Landmark guest events of which Travis is a part. My calendar prevents me from accepting any of these invites, but I wish it were otherwise. My first involvement with Landmark occurred in 1978. Experiences cannot be precisely distilled into words, but here’s a taste of what I learned: I, and only I, am responsible for my life. And: The only thing standing between me and the life I dream of is…ME! I’ve spent the last thirty-some years trying, with partial success, to live up to this simple but profound wisdom.

IN 2010 an old friend tells me that he’d like to finally accept my long ago offer to pay his tuition to the Landmark Forum. His wife would also like to enroll. The cost of the course has more than doubled, to $560 per person -- a big chunk of money. I’m reluctant. Like everyone, I’ve taken several financial hits lately. I haven’t been around Landmark for years. The person in my life who has most recently promoted Landmark is… Travis Van Brasch. I give Travis a call and tell him what’s up. He says, “We can do this. How about we just split it down the middle?”

At the end of this month of May, my friend and his wife will participate in the Landmark Forum in Manila. If it has half as much impact on their lives as it did on mine, I will, and I’m sure Travis will, consider the cost a bargain.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I learn that Travis is headed to the airport on a day I’m driving my cab. Back east, Travis’ 74-year-old sister is in the last few days of her life. “Bro,” I say, “Let me take you to the airport.”

Travis says, “You know, that would be perfect…”


* * Listen to ME! * *

Shift #51

FRIDAY, MAY 22 -- Here, there, everywhere -- Maybe $1,000 or so?

FOR THE SHIFT’S FIRST HOUR-AND-A-QUARTER I’M EMPTY. But finally I snag a thirty-nine dollar airport off the radio and then, back in the city, I catch another radio call on the edge of the Castro -- my first free ride of the day. Her name is White Feather, and I remember that she rode in my cab back in 2006, the year when I took notes every day for a book I’ve yet to write.

White Feather is an old hippie, like me, and today she’s goin’ up-country. At the Civic Center she’ll be catching a bus to the isolated hamlet of Camp Meeker, in Sonoma County. Ten years ago she bought a cabin in the woods on the high ground above a creek, and now she heads to it every chance she gets -- it’s quiet there, peaceful. If I’m ever passing through, she recommends eating at the Union Hotel in the nearby village of Occidental: “If you order a pizza, you’ll get this frothy pesto sauce that’s been made fresh just for that pizza.”

I recall that White Feather has long ago, like me, published a book, and at the Civic Center, after I’ve told her that this (for me) enjoyable ride is my free ride for the day, I ask her to again please tell me her book’s title. She’s happy about the free ride, but even happier that I remember she’s an author. She says, “Rebel Without Applause: Tales from the Castro Renaissance,” and nods to the big building on the far side of Civic Center Plaza. “It’s still over there in the library.” (Which makes me wonder about my own...?)

MY NEXT FARE is a Citywide Dispatch regular who is heading from Pacific Heights to her job at 525 Market Street. As we’re driving down Post Street (ahead of me I note a bumper-sticker: Humankind -- Be Both!), I tell my fare that from 1982-1984 I, too, worked at 525 Market, in the Credit Card Department of Wells Fargo Bank.

My fare asks a string of the same sort of questions I like to ask when given an opening into someone’s life story.

Her first question: “What was your job?”

Me: “I was a secretary. I was thirty-two at the time, and my boss was a twenty-eight-year old woman -- a senior vice president and a rising star in the bank.”

My fare: “Did you get along?”

“We did. I understood that my job was to make her look good, and to do my best to make sure that her sixty-employee division ran smoothly. By the time I left she was nudging me toward an opening as speech writer/public relations guy for the head of the department -- six hundred employees.”

“Why did you leave?”

“My then-wife decided she no longer wanted to be married, and suddenly I found myself alone and free… Took a backtrip around the world… No, she never remarried… Back then it was of course impossible for me to understand, but now I get it: She simply just...didn’ be married.”

She: “Did you find someone new?”

“I’m married again, and we have a thirteen year-old daughter.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“Yes, thank you. I feel pretty lucky.”

She: “My husband died fifteen months ago. We were married forty-three years.”

Me: “I am very sorry... How are you doing? I know that fifteen months isn’t very long.”

She: “I am lost. I am so, so very lost…”

A few moments later, too quickly, our ride and conversation end in front of 525 Market. I squeeze the cab up against the curb, pop on the flashers, and my fare quickly pays me. I hop out and dig in the trunk for a copy of All The Right Places, the book I wrote about my 1984 grief-stricken, round-the-world backpack trip. My fare and I are standing just a few steps from the forty-story building through whose front door I walked at this same hour every weekday morning, until the bottom fell out of that earlier life of mine, and now I am handing the instrument of my healing to a wounded woman whose eyes have welled up and who could quite obviously stand some healing of her own. She’s gulping deep draughts of San Francisco Bay air, but not because it tastes so sweet. Her shoulders are heaving. She’s trying to recompose herself back into presentable nine-to-five shape. Her tears, I notice, are dropping onto the front of her coat at a rate of about one per breath...

ONE BLOCK LATER, before I’ve had a chance to digest all the shared emotion, I’m flagged by a woman about my own age who is running late due to a BART snafu. Now that she’s in my cab she can relax -- she’ll be on time for her doctor appointment. She grew up in Texas, moved to San Francisco during her twenties, a move that was, she says, probably the best, the smartest thing, she ever did. She loves it here. Loves the scenery, the diversity. She hated the kind of thinking she remembers growing up with in Texas. The racism, the mono-culture... On her most recent visit back, she found herself descending an escalator in a shopping mall: “And I realized I was going down into a solid sea of white faces. It scared me. It was suffocating… A while ago my mom died, and an old boyfriend from high school read the obituary and found my phone number. He’s a banker, makes more money than God -- I’m not kidding, he’s absolutely loaded. He’s a nice enough guy, but he’s as red-neck as they come. And I thought, ‘Look what I could have become.’ Oh, thank you, Jesus!

We’re half a block from her doctor’s office, and she’s opening her purse. “What’s your work?” I ask her.

She: “I’m an attorney. I’ve probably helped more down-and-out people than is good for me. Recently I learned that I charge less than what the non-profit legal services charge. But I don’t care…”

Body: Free ride

I fight back as hard as I’ve ever fought back: I mean, holy shit! I’ve been out here for almost four hours, and I’ve made forty-nine bucks so far -- not even counting for my coffee and bagel. I’m fifty-eight years old. That’s twelve bucks an hour, and I don’t even get to keep it. I’ve got to make another sixty, maybe sixty-five bucks just to pay my gates and gas …

Body: Listen to me, asshole!

No, you listen to me for once! You told me to give White Feather her ride, and I gave the other woman my book -- that would cost at least fifteen bucks in a book store, even on amazon. I can’t give away everything! What the fuck!

Body starts screaming, and slapping me around: Amazon! You fat phony -- you write and write and write about how you listen to me. What crap! You wanna write that shit, you gotta actually fuckin’ LISTEN TO ME! Or STOP FUCKING WRITING IT! Who do you think you’re fooling, you fuckin’ idiot. I’m SCREAMING at you. CAN’T YOU FUCKIN’ HEAR ME!

We’re at the curb. My fare’s money is out, in her hand. She’s got the door open.

“Every day I give away one free ride, and today this is my free ride.”

Her mouth drops open. Her cell phone rings. “Are you sure?” she asks me.

Me: “I’m sure.”

She glances down at her ringing phone: “I hardly know what to say… But thank you so much!” She flips opens the phone and steps from the cab.

I’M SITTING ATOP PACIFIC HEIGHTS, looking out at the sun shining on San Francisco Bay. I’m feeling a little beat up, but it’s nothing serious. Yeah, yeah, so what I’ve been out here for four hours and I’ve only got forty-nine bucks to show for it! I could look at it another way: It’s a gorgeous day and I’ve got forty-nine bucks! I’ve also got a place to sleep tonight, food to eat, people I love and who love me, a city I adore. Right over there is the Golden Gate Bridge -- people all over the world dream about coming here to see it. There’s Alcatraz, there’s Angel Island, Sausalito, Tiburon. There’s the little church where Bob and Nancy got married…”

Then: “And hey, there’s Fort Mason. I should drop on down and check in with the Park Service. It’s nine o’clock -- someone should be in the office by now.”

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS I’ve been stopping by the Park Service office to discuss the particulars of an application I’ve filled out but haven’t yet formally submitted. I’ve been hemming and hawwing about whether or not to organize a Beach Impeach-style event in June -- my real desire is to hold such an event every June, but right now I’m just trying to sell myself and the Park Service on the idea of the first one, which I want to hold on the morning of June 26.

I think...

These things are always a ton of work. And they’re expensive -- they’ve ranged from $2,500 to $7,000, and this one will probably come in around $2,500-$3,000. At the last three events, donations covered nearly all of the costs, but you never know. The work, the coordination, the details… It’s gruelling. And my family hates the madman they say I become while I’m sweating out one of these things.

What drives me, however, is this: When I run into or exchange emails with someone who has attended one (or more, or all) of these events, they almost always say something like this: “When are we going back to the beach again? That sure was fun…”

So I’ve been dickering with the Park Service. I’ve asked them to issue me a “First Amendment Free Speech” permit. I did ask for this type of permit at all four of the Beach Impeach events, too, but was always told no, and each time I wound up with a “photographic event” permit costing $300-500 per. And before securing each photographic permit, I was required to purchase $500 (or more) worth of “event insurance” -- and, each time, it seemed just about impossible to find an insurer willing to sell it. But each time, just as I was thinking I’d have to cancel the event, some insurance hero would come through for me. The helicopters were plenty tricky by themselves, but the Park Service permits and especially the event insurance -- those suckers gave me fits.

I’M BARELY IN THE DOOR, we haven’t even shaken hands yet, when my Park Service contact says, “Hey, we decided we can give you a free speech permit this time.”

I’ve barely absorbed this news (ca-ching -- there’s three to five hundred bucks I don’t have to scramble for) when he says, “And for a free speech event, you don’t need event insurance.”

A thousand bucks. My two biggest headaches have just been blasted with morphine.

As I’m walking back to my cab, Body whispers to me: Dude…

Yeah, yeah, I know…

Body grabs the front of my shirt with both hands and jerks me off my feet: Dude! Do Not FUCK WITH ME!



Shift #52

SUNDAY, MAY 22 -- W Hotel to Lombard/Polk -- $8.95

MY FIRST FIVE RIDES have been long ones -- one over to Oakland and four to or from SFO. The winter rains have been dragging on much longer than San Franciscans are used to, but today we’ve had nothing but sunshine. It seems that the entire populace is out enjoying this gift from the weather gods and trying to forget, for a while, if possible, that millions of gallons of oil are this very minute gushing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The young couple I pick up at the W are in a lazy Sunday afternoon mood. They slump down in the backseat, leaning in toward each other and murmuring so quietly that I would be rude were I to intrude. I don’t even bother to eavesdrop... At the end of the ride they graciously and delightedly accept the gift that they had no idea was coming.


Shift #53

FRIDAY, MAY 28 -- 11th/Minna to 23rd/Bartlett -- $7.60

TODAY I’VE BEEN ASKING EVERYONE THE SAME QUESTION: “When you woke up this morning, how long was it before the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher came to your mind?”

Answers have ranged from “Immediately!” and “As soon as I saw the front page...” to “Until I logged on and saw the top headline!” No one reports having not thought of it prior to my question.

My followup: “And have you got a sense of how long this will reverberate in our minds?”

I’ve heard: “Until they get it capped...” “Ten or fifteen years...” “Five hundred years.” Some people think the Gulf will wind up being more of a long-term shock to humanity’s consciousness and our collective way of living -- in America, as well as globally -- than 9/11 was. Some say the Gulf shock will reverberate, like Hiroshima, for decades.

My fares include: an FBI agent from DC; two urologists from Mexico; a San Francisco social worker trying to steer people toward “clean and sober” programs; a contractor from Southern California who tips me twelve bucks after a thirty-eighty dollar ride in from SFO; a corporate recruiter who earlier today was himself recruited by Google; a man from Seattle who sells imaging equipment to urologists (a convention of 18,000 urologists starts tomorrow at Moscone Center)...

Some of my fares hold out hope that much good may come out of this terrible thing: Maybe this disaster will help usher in the realization that we’re ALL in this together, and that we simply HAVE to move away from oil. But today every single one of them is aghast, and feels both powerless and at least partly responsible. (I personally feel more than partly responsible, perhaps even wholly responsible. This morning I drove my gasoline-burning car from my natural-gas-heated home to my job, which might accurately be described as “pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for ten to twelve hours a day.”)

Late in the shift I pick up the day’s youngest-looking fare -- my guess: under twenty-five. His name is Lars. He grew up in Rhode Island. He’s been in San Francisco for four years. Last night he went to a kickass concert at the Fillmore: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. During the middle, one of Lars’ friends remarked that, although the show was indeed a great one, he was having trouble enjoying it because of the Catastrophe in the Gulf. “But I keep thinking,” Lars’ friend said,” that we’d better enjoy it, because we just don’t know: Is this thing going to kill us all?”



Shift #54

SUNDAY, MAY 30 – Laguna Honda/Rockaway to 19th/Hollaway -- $7.60

AFTER AN HOUR EMPTY I accept a radio order from an address on Rockaway Avenue, a short, dead-end street up in the Twin Peaks area. On a clear day, one can see from Twin Peaks all the way to Mt. Diablo (thirty miles to the east) and to the Farallones Islands (twenty-six miles offshore to the west). Today a thin mist hides all of this spectacular geography, but the air is warm and windless and I can tell that before long we’ll be enjoying another pristine day. For weeks now, the populace has been grumbling about the lingering winter/spring rains. But San Franciscans are a forgiving group -- one clear, still day and all is forgiven, and today will be our third beauty in a row.

It’s been at least a decade since I’ve been to Rockaway Avenue, and I feel confident that I can still feel my way right to it. I have yet to meet the cab driver who claims to know every one of the hundreds of short streets and alleys that are sprinkled throughout San Francisco’s forty-nine square miles. Many of these are virtual phantoms -- dead-ends, barely a quarter-block long -- and even after twenty-five years I am forced to consult my cross-street directory about once a week.

In the end, Rockaway defeats me. After wandering in the Twin Peaks mist for several minutes I pull to the curb on Ulloa Street and pull out my directory, which, darnit, shows that I’m stopped just twenty-five yards from the obscure mouth of Rockaway.

MY FARE is ready and waiting -- a bit anxious, actually -- and she thanks me for coming. Previously she has used the services of a bigger, computer-dispatched cab company, but after One time they just never came! she switched to Citywide Dispatch (415-626-4733) and has been a believer ever since -- she likes hearing a live human voice on the other end of the line.

She’s heading to San Francisco State University, out in the southwest corner of the city. She looks like she’s in her late teens or early twenties, and my questions pry loose an interesting tidbit: she is one of the one hundred members of the elite dancer troupe Funkanometry SF. When I ask how long she’s known that she was a dancer, she says, “Since I was in ninth grade.” A while ago friends steered her toward a tryout with Funkanometry SF, and today she and the others are traveling from SF State to a performance at Great America amusement park. She says that, yes, members of the troupe are paid, and when I ask if one can make a living at it, she says, “Some can.” But the ride is a short one, and that’s all I get from her today. Quickly, and with what seems like complete enthusiasm, she accepts my free ride offer.

I HAVE NOTICED THAT SOME LARGE PERCENTAGE of these free rides go to my first ride of the day. I think this is because, really, my inclination is to give away all of my rides for free, and in the early morning, before practical thinking and strong daylight have eroded away my idealism, I have no resistance to the notion. I often reflect on Eckhart Tolle and how, during the two years following his awakening, he sat on a park bench, freed up from practical thinking, impervious to daylight, and enjoying a state of unassailable bliss.

Fresh out of college I spent a couple of years hitchhiking around the United States, which meant spending hundreds of hours watching thousands of cars pass me by. Later, when I came to hold title to automobiles of my own, I became a diligent picker-up of hitchhikers, and I now regard my current so-called career as, somehow, a logical extension of all those hitchhiking experiences. Even if there were no such thing as money, I would still want to spend many of my days driving around San Francisco, gawking at the dance of mist and light on the hills and the ocean and the bay; eyeballing the populace strolling from coffee shop to coffee shop and neighborhood to neighborhood; and chatting up those who wind up in my car.

Over dinner a while back, my friend Nancy Ruenzel, publisher of Peachpit Press, told me that as a result of hearing my cab stories, she has started initiating conversations with the cab drivers she encounters during her frequent business trips. Some don’t want to talk, Nancy told me, but many do. “Do you talk to everyone?” she asked me.

My answer was immediate, but not rehearsed, and the minute I heard it come out of my mouth I fell in love with it. “Yes. I’d hate to think that God got into my cab and I forgot to ask -- forgot to get his life story.”

BACK WHEN I WAS AN AUTHOR I was frequently invited to tell my story to writing groups, book store audiences, and the occasional book club, and I grew accustomed to hearing people of all ages tell me, “You’re lucky -- you always knew what you wanted to be. I don’t know what I want to be.”

For me, writing was and still is hard work. I love having written. I love being a writer. But I can’t say I’m in love with the work of writing. Sometimes I hate it. Cab driving is hard work, too, but I almost always find it about a thousand times easier and more fun than writing. And I do feel lucky to have found a place where I feel appropriately slotted, an activity to indulge my passions for people and stories and motion.

When I worked at Wells Fargo Bank, my estimate was that roughly two or three percent (absolutely no more than ten percent) of the bank’s employees actually belonged there. Very few of us were bankers at heart; the rest of us were there just for the paycheck. Whether we enjoyed our work or loathed it, whether we did an excellent job or a poor one, most of us, if we had won the lottery, would have disappeared in an instant. But those two or three percent who were bankers to the bone would, I believe, have kept right on banking after a lotto shock. They’d have felt lost without their work.

If I win the lottery I will still want to drive a cab once or twice a week -- or maybe I’ll discover that once or twice a month will satisfy me. Whatever the rate, the fact is that whenever I’ve taken long stretches away from cab driving I have ached for it. Without it, I feel cut off from something vital.

The first time I went to apply for a cab driving job, I noticed a coffee mug full of pens and pencils sitting on the desk of the cab company’s head of personnel. Taped to the cup’s lip was a scrap of paper clipped from a columnist’s list of random factoids that used to run in the San Francisco Chronicle every Sunday. At first I didn’t believe this factoid, but I am now part of its proof. Thirty-three percent of cab drivers claim that there is nothing they would prefer to do for a living.

I find myself thinking about this today because, as the school year comes to an end, in order to hang out with my freed up daughter as much as possible, I am now switching over to my “summer schedule.” January through May I work thirty hours a week, in the summer I cut back to just ten or twenty. And already I’m feeling a small hole open up inside me.