Tuesday, February 9, 2010

FROM KENTUCKY (First fare of February)

Shift # 13

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 3 -- 10:55 a.m -- 20th Av & Geary to Haight & Fillmore -- $12.10

A SLIM YOUNG WHITE GUY in a gray sweatshirt flags me down. His hood is up, but his face is clearly visible, and I can see his tame but alert eyes. A longer-than-fashionable beard, red and whispy, dangles from his chin. He reminds me of my own unformed self at about age twenty-five.

“From Kentucky... I’ve been out here two years… Iron work, but that’s not really what I’m into... I’ve got a line of clothes in stores, mostly back in Kentucky, but I’m trying to get established out here. I figure five years ought to be enough to get established, wouldn’t you think…?

Me: "You’re probably wise to think that way."

“A lot of my friends had been out here and said San Francisco would be a better place for my clothes. Better than Kentucky. I’ve been taking them around to stores. Good reception. Better than in Kentucky. They’re made mostly out of recycled material. Most of them are made with 69 percent recycled cotton -- the rest is new cotton. All the recycled cotton is manufactured in the US. It really helps to be able to put Made-In-USA on the tag -- everyone loves seeing that. I also use some P-E-T -- the stuff that comes from recycling plastic bottles… It’s easier out here. In Kentucky people say, ‘What’s recycling?’ Here you don’t have to sit every single person down and explain it to them… Back in Louisville they do have some recycling places now, where you can drop stuff off. I think it’s just to appease us. I actually think they take it and dump it all in the regular trash. But there’s nothing you can do. Well, you can have committees and keep pushing stuff, and maybe eventually it’ll change...”

I ask, “Is Louisville near Owensboro, Kentucky?”

“Not too far. Same part of the state.”

“I played basketball with a guy from Owensboro…”

My fare: “They do like basketball in Kentucky.”

“Actually, he took my spot on the team. I was a senior in college, a starter, and I was looking forward to a glorious last year. He was a freshman -- Lanny Falls -- an all-state high school player from Owensboro, Kentucky. He could run, he could shoot, and he just showed up and took my spot. And it was the correct move for the team -- dammit. With him in the lineup instead of me, the team ripped off to a twelve-and-oh start…”

My fare: “Twelve-and-oh!”

I glance in the rearview. His hood is back off his head now. He’s smiling. He seems to be liking my story.

“I didn’t like sitting on the bench, but what could I say?”

My fare chuckles. “Twelve-and-oh. I guess you just had to get over that…”

“Another thirty years and I think I’ll be fine...”

He laughs. “Thirty years?”

“1971. Almost forty now. The worst part…” I tell him, “Lanny Falls was a great guy.”

“You got along?”

“Everyone got along with him. Everyone loved him.”

My fare: “Twelve-and-oh makes a lot of happy people.”

Two or three times already this morning, I’ve thought about popping the free ride. But I checked with my body each time, and each time the feeling just wasn’t there. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust Body’s feedback. I’m not sure how to best describe the feeling -- settled? satisfied? complete? or maybe silent? None of those exactly really capture it, but however it’s described, at the end of this ride with the hood-up guy from from 20th and Geary, the feeling just simply is there, and the four of us -- me, Body, my fare, and his body -- we all know it.


She is Dazzling!

Shift #14

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5 -- 6 a.m. sharp -- Fourth/Bryant to Clay/Front -- $6.70

A bonus ride:

A CHICAGO LAWYER has just spent two nights at the Westin-Market Street, his base for an (unsuccessful) attempt to induce a settlement between several parties who have squared off in an $8 million Sonoma County construction lawsuit. Even though he hadn’t been able to inspire any happiness among the bickerers, he certainly brings me much joy by resisting the Westin doorman’s attempt to steer him into one of the five waiting “house limos.” Instead, he walks proudly past all of them, through the darkness of the early morning, out to my cab, where I am hunched under the dim bulb of my interior light, reading my Sun Magazine. I put it aside and thank him warmly. (There is an eternal tension between us cab drivers, limos drivers, and hotel doormen. You can bet I'll write about that as this year goes along...) He’s going to SFO, and he’s not going to be my free ride, but he’s already made my day: a $34 fare, a pleasant conversation (he, like me, is very sympathetic to single-payer health care and to the precarious situation in which President Obama finds himself), and a $10 tip.

The free ride:

THE CITY IS STILL DARK as I return from the airport and take the Fourth Street exit ramp off of Highway 101. Even though I’m in the far left lane of the ramp’s four lanes of traffic, and despite the darkness, in my peripheral view I notice, across the tops of the roofs of four lanes of cars, I notice just a female hand and the sleeve of a tan raincoat waving animatedly from the far side of Bryant Street. I weave a nifty three-lane change through traffic (safely enough, however, that I don’t trigger a single driver’s horn reflex) and brake to a stop in front of Chavo’s Restaurant on Bryant. How have I never noticed this place, Chavo’s, before?

My fare rewards me with a, “Nice move, Mister!”

She has overslept, and even though it’s just 6 AM she’s already late for work.

“What were you dreaming about?” I ask her.

She laughs. “I was dreaming it was the weekend already.”

“What’s your work?”

“I’m in finance… these crazy market hours… even after four-and-a-half years of getting up early my body still hasn’t adjusted… on weekends I sleep until noon….”

Five years ago she came to San Francisco from Alexandria, Virginia -- the very town where I grew up! I ask what it was she came to San Francisco for?

She laughs her lovely laugh again. “For a summer.”

“Must have been a great summer.”

“It was!” she says. “My degree is in science, but I also went to law school, and I came out here for an internship that summer. I loved this city. So when this job in finance came along, I took it…”

“What’s your niche?”

“Well…” She pauses, seems reluctant, and then: “I’m in the bank credit area...”

Me: “The not-so-popular-these-days area…”

She laughs. “I started in 2006 when things seemed really good, and now I’ve been through some wild swings.”

Me: “Do you understand these financial instruments we hear about?”

She: “I do think I have a pretty good understanding, but the other day I was trying to explain derivatives to my mother, and I realized I really have some work to do before I try that again.”

At her destination, just opposite the towering Embarcadero Two, I punch off the meter. “And now...," I say, "the favorite part of my day…”

I turn around and quickly explain to her all the nuances of my personal, not-so-complicated financial instrument, my daily free-ride practice. Starting back in the darkness of Fourth Street, and then on through the hurry of this ride, all I’ve actually seen of my fare is her one hand and the sleeve of her raincoat. Her voice floating over the backseat has been gentle, easy, amused, and now that I’m looking at her young, shining face (in a moment she will tell me her name is Carly), I can’t help noticing that she’s fairly dazzling. But who doesn’t look better with an electric smile on their face?



Shift #15

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 7 -- 6:53 a.m. -- 21st and Mission -- $10.30

AT 6:52 ON THIS QUIET SUNDAY MORNING, I can see no traffic moving in either direction on Mission Street -- and I can see for a long way. Three blocks ahead I spot the morning’s lone pedestrian, a squat, young Latino on the opposite side of the street, standing out in the street, two or three feet from the curb. He’s alternately looking this way down the street, then the other way, then this way again, then the other. I assume he’s looking for something other than a cab or he would have already made some signal to me. After all, mine is the only moving vehicle on the entire street, and I’m highly visible -- he can not have not seen me...

But just as I’m rolling past him he throws up an arm and makes a little stirring motion with his hand to indicate that I should make a U-turn. I scan Mission Street -- no cops, heck, no cars at all -- and then I spin my wheel back in his direction.

“Thank you, amigo,” he says. Amigo -- I like it.

“Sure,” I say, and step on the electricity. “And where are we headed?”

“Folsom and Embarcadero.”

I find myself…annoyed. No, annoyed is too strong. Let’s just say I’m…energetically perplexed. Folsom and Embarcadero is back in the opposite direction, the direction in which I was headed just seconds ago, prior to my U-turn. My fare had two or three blocks to see me coming. If he had just taken the nine or ten easy steps required to cross the road, we’d now be headed in the correct direction. And I wouldn’t have had to risk a U-turn ticket. Well, no big deal. He’s in my cab now.

“Folsom and Embarcadero?” I say, just to make sure I haven’t misheard him.

“Yes,” he says. “I late for work.”

Well, there’s yet another reason why he might have crossed the street and kept us going in the right direction -- he’d be less late for work. I spin another U-turn, and head back down Mission.

He’s silent in the back seat. Up front I’m mulling it over -- I’m not pissed off, not obsessing (not too much, anyway), just mulling. I do understand how, if I’m headed in the “wrong” direction, someone might not want to cross the street (even when mine is the only cab in sight, and even if they are perfectly able-bodied): they don’t want to incur that extra forty-five-cent click of the meter (or maybe two clicks) that would result from my getting us turned around in the right direction legally. But the little stirring motion with his hand puts me in a funny spot. Do I risk a U-turn ticket, or do I stay within the law and watch some other cab slide in ahead of me and snatch the fare (a scenario which happens all too frequently)? Ah, fergeddabowdit…

A block later I call over my shoulder, “How are you today?”

He doesn’t respond for five, six, seven, ten seconds. I turn… His face looks rumpled, furrowed. He looks not well.

I turn forward, eyes on the road, and say it again, louder: “How are you today?”

He answers this time, with a thick south-of-the-border accent: “A leetle hong-over… Now I late for my chub.”

The dashboard clock says 6:53. “You start at seven?”


We fly down Folsom Street in silence. By the middle of a shift, by which time things have usually gotten busy and I’ve become absorbed in the hustle of it all, my free ride? mentality often fades away. Early on, however, it’s always front and center, and now my mind briefly raises the question up for my inspection. But clearly this lowlife with the hangover, this guy who wouldn’t step across an empty Mission Street for me, Nah, he ain’t my free ride today

The traffic lights are all timed just right, and as we sail through them I’m thinking about my morning. My first went to the airport ($40). This guy in my backseat now is just my second ride, and when I drop him I’ll have time to grab coffee and a bagel, and then maybe, if I’m lucky, catch another short fare before 7:40, when I’ve got another airport run scheduled (another $40). Then at 9 o’clock I’m meeting my rock-star friend Marc Gold for breakfast. Marc’s just back from three months in Asia, and he’ll have some stories to tell. By then I’ll have maybe $100 in my pocket, my gates-and-gas for the day, plus a little. This shift is shaping up pretty well…

At 7:02 I stop at Embarcadero and Folsom. I freeze the meter -- $10.30 -- and suddenly… as I turn around to collect my money, and as my fare leans forward to dig his wallet out of his back pocket… suddenly, from wherever it is that thoughts come, I hear this: Free ride…

WHAT! I start to argue: No, not this guy… There must be some mistake...

But I scan my body, which over the years I’ve learned to listen to, and to trust in this particular regard. And Body’s very clear, not confused at all: Free ride…

Before I can press my case (and why would I? Body don’t lie!), my mouth is opening and I hear myself telling my fare, “Every day I give away one free ride… And this is today’s free ride.”

He does not comprehend. He squints at me and studies my face. His own expression is one I might expect if I had blurted that I was his long-lost brother, or maybe his long-departed father, or…?

I switch to Spanish: “Cada dia doy un viaje gratis. Esta viaje es gratis…”

This hits him like a pot of coffee. “Gratis?” His eyes are wide open now, black pupils zeroing in on me. There’s not a line in his face -- all the furrows have disappeared.

Gratis,” I confirm.

Pago nada?” I pay nothing?

Si,” I say. “Paga nada.”

A smile spreads across his face. “Amigo!” He slips his bills back into his wallet. “Muchas gracias, amigo!

I head down the Embarcadero, toward Noah’s, feeling like I’ve been hit by my own pot of coffee. The rains of the last few days have stopped. Soft morning light is smiling on the Ferry Building clock tower. The Ferry Building is smiling back. I note that my own cheeks are drawn back into a grin. I think: “Man, I didn’t see that one coming!


Monday, February 1, 2010

* * Herbert Gold * *

Shift #16

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10 -- 10:35 a.m -- a street flag -- $6.25

of O’Farrell and Leavenworth wearing mirror shades -- maybe she’s smiling, but I can’t tell for sure. She says she’s headed “over near Francisco Street, at the other end of Leavenworth.”

I start climbing the flank of Nob Hill, aiming toward Francisco, but we’ve only gone a block -- we’re stopped at the signal at Sutter and Leavenworth -- when a DeSoto Cab pulls up alongside us on the right. “Oh, no,” my fare says. “I just got out of that cab two minutes ago.”

I can feel the tentacles of the DeSoto driver’s hairy eyeballs trying to grip the side of my right cheek, but I don’t look over. The light changes, I pull away. “What happened?” I ask my fare.

“Well, I jumped in, told him where I was going, and then just a block later we ran right into some police action that had all the traffic stopped. I didn’t want to just sit there with the meter running, so I said, ‘Sorry, dude,’ and I jumped out. I didn’t pay him anything. I thought we’d be sitting there forever, but it looks like he got out of it o.k. That was just two minutes ago.”

In the rearview I see the DeSoto driver turn off down Bush Street, and now the weirdness is behind us. “Well,” I say, “other than that little snafu, how’s your day been going?”

“Fine,” she says. “Class... Painting…”

Me: “You had a class and now you have to do some painting...? Or you have a painting class...?”

She: “I have a painting class. I’m headed to the San Francisco Art Institute. Do you know it?”

Me: “I’ve picked people up there plenty of times. And I ate lunch in the cafeteria once, a long time ago. Does the cafeteria still have a great view?”

She: “There are these great windows looking out over the Bay. Is that how it was twenty years ago?”

Me: “I don’t remember the windows so much... I think we sat out on the deck… Is there a deck?”

She: “There is.”

We’re quiet for a few seconds… But then, what the heck, people want to hear stories from their cab drivers, right?

Me: “Do you know of the writer Herb Gold? Herbert Gold?”

She: “No…”

I’m not surprised -- my fare is in her early twenties. “Herb’s kind of famous,” I tell her. “He’s in his eighties now, and he’s written about twenty books. Back in the 1950s and 60s he hung out with all the Beats in North Beach -- Kerouac, William Burroughs, Ferlinghetti… And twenty years ago he flattered the heck out of me by inviting me to lunch. I had just had a book of my own published, and my agent called me and said Herb Gold liked it and wanted to take me to lunch. He was a very nice guy. He took me to the cafeteria at the Art Institute. I do remember a great view, but mostly I remember sitting there, thinking, ‘Herb Gold… I can’t believe it…’”

(I also remember this: After lunch, while Herb and I were saying good-bye on the sidewalk outside his nearby flat, I asked him, “Can you tell me, the young wannabe writer, how to make a career out of this?” And Herbert Gold gave me some advice which I wish I had followed more diligently. “Just keep writing. Every day. Keep writing.”)

My fare: “What was your book about?”

“A trip around the world I took…” But I’ve talked about myself enough -- too much, probably. I ask her, “What painting are you working on today?”

She: “It’s a figure.”


She: “Yes.”

“Is it someone you know?”

She: “No… just someone that came to me…”

Me: “I guess that’s the best way sometimes -- ‘Well, where did YOU come from? Nice to meet you...’

She chooses to play. “Hey baby…” She’s dropped her voice a notch -- it’s not man-deep, but I get the drift, especially when she continues, and I quote: “Nice tits!

When we’ve both finished laughing, I tell her about my free ride and she actually squeals. She tells me her name...was it Danielle? I can’t remember now, but I do remember that the rims of her mirror shades were covered in tiny rainbow stripes.

“You wouldn’t believe how great this is!” she says. She holds up a twenty-dollar bill for me to see. “Just this morning I took this out of the rent jar!

“Well,” I tell her, “go put it back.”



Shift #17

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12 -- Clay and Montgomery to BART

AND WHAT’S YOUR WORK?” I ask them, after I’ve dragged them into my cab and they’ve asked me a few questions about my own work.

(They’re locals, headed to BART and then the airport for a flight to a weekend in Las Vegas… Moments earlier they were standing on the sidewalk just a few feet from the looming Trans-America Pyramid Building, fully engaged in a private conversation while waiting for the traffic signal to indicate WALK. The man had a duffel bag strapped to his back, the woman a suitcase on wheels on her feet. And suddenly a cab driver at their right elbows called, “Excuse me -- looks like you’re headed to BART. May I offer you a free ride?”)

The woman says she works in PR in the world of hi-tech. “A year ago, in the middle of the downturn, we were acquired by a bigger company, and for months we were all afraid we were going to lose our jobs, but now we’ve got the big Hewlett-Packard account, and it looks like we’re safe…” A year ago everyone in my cab seemed worried about their jobs; these days everyone seems to think they’re safe.

“And you?” I ask the man.

“I’m a professional skydiver."

I turn and look at him. He’s smiling confidently. He looks like he's never worried about a thing in his life.

Me: “I’ve been asking that question for many years, and that’s the first time I’ve heard that answer…”

He laughs. “I first jumped as a teenager, and right away I was hooked…”

I ask the woman if she’s ever skydived.

“Once,” she says. “I really liked it, but I didn’t get hooked.”

I say, “Me, too. Once. Thirty years ago. Really liked it. Never did it again. Thirty years ago you pretty much dropped from the sky and hoped you could figure out a way to land without breaking an ankle.”

Duck and roll,” the man says. “That’s what the old landing technique was called. But now, with all the new gear, even first-timers can float right in and land standing up.”

I want to ask more questions -- for instance I’d like to know if there’s a parachute tucked away in his duffel/backpack -- but here we are at BART, and now they’re gone.

In 1979, 27 years old, I wrote an article about my one sky-diving experience. The last line went something like this: “If I ever need another serious adrenaline rush, I know where to find it.” And now, at 58, I remember the pounds and pounds of bulky gear, the furious rush of air, the tiny-looking meadow 3,000 feet below, and I ponder my fare’s words -- “float right in and land standing up” -- and I wonder: Is it time again?


* * Valentine’s Day * *

Shift #18

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14 -- Octavia/Market to Geary/Webster -- $6.70

AROUND 10:00 AM, as I’m parking across from Noah’s Bagels in Pacific Heights, I notice a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench in the nearby bus shelter. She’s wearing sunglasses and a pink scarf. Her legs are crossed. Despite her shades, I can see that her head tracking back and forth to study me and my cab. When I emerge from Noah’s a few minutes later, second cup of coffee in hand, she’s still there, legs still crossed, still studying me. I get behind the wheel, pull to the end of the block, do a U-turn, stop directly in front of her, and call through my window, “Every day...free ride...” Etc.

“Oh, thank you very much,” she says, with a thick Latina accent. “But here comes the bus right now.” She nods toward the street behind me.

In the rearview I see a MUNI bus huffing its way down Fillmore, just a block away. MUNI recently installed cameras on the fronts of all its buses, and now $88 bus-zone tickets (mailed-conveniently-to-one’s-home) have become a routine complaint of cab drivers (and civilians, too.) “No problem,” I tell her, and I’m gone.

ALL MORNING I have been feeling a little weird. Until two nights ago, the existence of this journal was my own little secret. I had enjoyed nursing it along, getting the feel of it, but there was bound to come a time when I would share it with others. Two nights ago, in an e-mail to a few friends, I mentioned its existence and asked for feedback.

Reactions have been lukewarm -- no one has raved about my little experiment, but on the other hand no one has said they found it a waste of their (or my) time. A few people wondered if I have a book in mind, but I really don’t. I’m a writer. I’m a cab driver. For years now, the free ride has been a major factor in my work day. Why not take one year and keep a journal? Might be fun... I’m not aware of any specific ambition here, but doesn’t every writer nurture the hope that an audience will ignite around him or her like a grassfire? In any regard, it’s not the tepid feedback that has me feeling weird: ever since I “outed” myself, I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that I’m under some sort of imaginary spotlight...

I created this, there’s certainly no one I can blame, but this morning everything feels different. Scientists say that the very act of observing something causes a change in behavior -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not subtle at all -- in both the Observer and the thing being Observed. I’m not sure there’s a direct analogy between that phenomenon and my journal experience, but this morning I’m aware of a jangling self-consciousness, a sense that I am somehow both Observer and Observed. And I’m mourning the loss of my secret.

AT THE CORNER OF CALIFORNIA AND VAN NESS, a couple in their late twenties flags me down. When I offer, they each choose a chocolate from a bag of assorted Valentine’s Day Hershey’s chocolates I picked up earlier at Walgreens. The couple is meeting a bunch of friends for brunch at a Castro District restaurant named Lime. “The food’s great," the woman tells me. “They serve bottomless mimosas for seven dollars. And the music is good and loud.”

Me: “I’m 58. I can remember liking restaurants with music that was good and loud, but when I go out these days I want a place where I can have a conversation without having to raise my voice or lean forward. I wonder where the cutoff age is?"

The woman: “I’m guessing 35.”

The man: “I think it’s probably having kids. I’ll bet you’re a parent, right?”

It’s a fun ride, but when I check in with Body at ride’s end, the free-ride feeling just isn’t there -- and I don’t know why. Body and I are off our game. The glare of this damn spotlight is throwing weird shadows everywhere.

AT OCTAVIA AND MARKET I pick up a late-30s Latino dressed in black from his engineer’s cap to his motorcycle boots. He says he is going to “Chopantown.” With a grunt, he accepts a chocolate and tucks it into the pocket of his black bombadier jacket -- but I’m not sure he understands my English all that well. When I ask what he’s up to today I receive a one-word answer -- “Restaurant” -- and then we are silent. It’s a short trip (my waybill shows that it lasted six minutes and ticked up $6.70 on the meter), and midway I start wondering whether or not I can possibly make it my free ride. The whole thing is feeling like a burden today, and I can’t wait to get rid of it.

As I’m having this thought, I notice 11:11 showing on my dashboard’s digital clock. In recent years I have developed a fondness for this number, and for some absolutely illogical reason (I do like the way the digits all line up neatly) I have started assigning quasi-mystical weight to its every sighting. (A quasi-mystical aside: When I was buying my chocolates at Walgreens this morning, I noticed a young African-American woman wearing an enormous, powder-blue sweatshirt proclaiming Judgment Day -- November 2, 2010. What? I thought we had until 2012...!)

When we reach Japantown I turn and tell my fare, “Free ride.” He seems to have absolutely no trouble understanding this two-word pronouncement. He folds up his wallet, nods once, and...poof -- he hustles out of the cab as though he’s afraid I might change my mind.



Shift #19

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17 – Chestnut/Pierce to Sacramento/Scott -- $5.35

SHE IS BLOND and can’t be more than 25 years old. She’s headed from the Marina District up to Pacific Heights. When she gets in, the radio is on -- Paul Simon is announcing his intention to skip off to Graceland, Graceland… Graceland, Tennessee -- but I turn it off.

“Oh, you don't have to do that,” she says. (Actually, widely-ignored Police Chief regulations say that I do have to turn off the radio when a customer is in the cab -- unless the customer requests otherwise.) “That’s a great song.”

I turn it back on. “What does your day hold?”

She: “I’m off this week. This morning I’m just hanging out a bit, and later I've got some studying to do.”

Me: “Off from what?”

She: “I’m a teacher... kindergarten... and at night I’m getting a Masters in education.”

Me: “I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I remember like yesterday dropping her off for her first day of kindergarten. I learned very quickly how important teachers are, especially kindergarten teachers. Knowing that she would be respected and nurtured and safe... I don’t think I could have let her go if I hadn’t felt all of that was in place. You guys are my heroes.”

“Well,” she says, “thank you. It’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun...”

When I tell her I give away a free ride each day, she says, “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

Me: “I know, but I like to. Especially with teachers.”


Speed Dating

Shift #20

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18 -- Cortland/Gates to 30th/Mission – Bus zone

IT’S ALMOST THE END OF THE SHIFT, and I’ve just driven from downtown to SFO with a woman has been in town to attend an AIDS-prevention convention. Now she's headed back to her home in Southern California. “My husband,” she tells me, “is in the Industry… He wrote, directed, and produced a film named Stripper Academy… It sold out on Amazon. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know it’s good... Now he’s writing a script titled Disability Man.” She summarizes the plots of both dramas for me, and when she's done I tell her a little bit about my writing past…

Sometimes I think that cab driving has similarities to speed dating. I imagine that when speed dating is going well, it is probably lively and entertaining, as is cab driving at its best. Also, they both share a rat-a-tat, keep-it-short sensibility, which I like -- I think that we’re all probably most appealing in ten- or fifteen-minute doses. Maybe you are different, maybe the people you meet just can't get enough of you, but I don’t think prolonged exposure to me improves my attractiveness quotient. People usually do seem to enjoy their time in my cab, but I fear that whenever a conversation slips past the fifteen-minute mark, my personal flaws, my cracks, start to look like crevasses. And after an hour of one-on-one with just about anyone, I find myself completely drained of energy -- unless we’re out in the woods somewhere. So, for me, a cab ride seems just about perfectly structured for conversation -- and the SFO cab ride conversation does have that lovely $40 kicker…!

BUT NOW IT'S ALMOST 3 O’CLOCK. My cab is due back soon and I haven’t given away my free ride. I take the Alameny exit off 101, and head up Cortland. Up in Bernal Heights there’s always someone waiting for a bus. In the first shelter I see, two people are smoking cigarettes. But at Cortland and Gates a middle-aged woman wearing brown-tinted prescription glasses is sitting on the bus stop bench and staring off into the distance. I brake quickly, stop right in front of her, and call through the passenger window, “Everyday I give away one free ride. I’m at the end of my shift, and today I haven’t given one away...”

Her face lights up before I can get all these words out. What fun! she says. Her body goes from slack to coiled, and she leans forward, needing just one last spark to lift her into motion. She says, “I’m only going to Mission and Cortland…”

“Perfect…” Mission and Cortland is just a few short blocks away -- I’m glad she’s not headed to, say, the Golden Gate Bridge.

She’s shoots up off the bench, two quicks steps across the sidewalk, and into my backseat. “This is great,” she says. “How long have you been doing this?”

“I’m not exactly sure, but between fifteen and twenty years -- a long time.”

“I love it,” she says. “Why do you do it?”

“You know the feeling you’re having right now? I get to witness someone having that feeling every day…”

She says, “The Chronicle should write about you..."

I try to deflect this. I tell her that I’ve been “blogging” about my free rides for the past few weeks without telling anyone, but then a week ago I told some friends and now I'm feeling a little funny about it all… I kind of miss the anonymity, but…

“Do you ever hear from people you've given a free ride to?"

“Well, not really. It’s usually just...over.” Then: “Oh, yes -- there was one woman... About ten years ago I used to drive a ‘ramp cab’ that could accommodate wheelchairs -- and I met a lot of people from the disabled community that way. And one day last year I ran into this woman I’d given rides to from time to time -- I think she had cerebral palsy -- and she remembered that I’d once given her a free ride. I couldn’t remember it -- I’ve given away at least a thousand -- but I was glad I had given away that one. She was still very happy about it, still remembered it even years later...”

She asks for the name of my blog, and I promise to write it down at ride’s end.

Me: “What’s your work?”

“I work at Fitness San Francisco.”

“In what capacity?”

“I’m a senior citizen fitness instructor…”

Me: "Now there's a growth industry!”

She: “Oh yes it is!”

And already we're at Mission and Cortland.

She asks, “Are you going past Walgreen’s?”

Me: “I’m going wherever you’re going.”

“Well, then you can drop me at Walgreens. Thank you.”

I pull to the curb in front of Walgreens and am writing down this blog’s address when she spots someone across the street.

“Oh, there’s my friend!” She opens the backdoor and jumps out. “Hey, Wen…!” she calls to a woman across the street. She pops her head back into the cab, says, “I’ve got to tell Wendy about you!” She takes the card I’ve written on, says, “Thank you so much," and then pops back out. “Wen-dee!

Across the street I see Wendy looking our way. Bewildered.



Shift #21

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 21 -- McAllister/Larkin to Sacramento/Hyde -- $5.35

HE’S A NOT-TALL WHITE GUY with short brown hair, wearing glasses, and standing in front of the Asian Art Museum at 7:14 a.m. He’s not physically imposing, but he strikes me as very fit -- not exactly Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, but something along those lines. You would never notice him in a crowd, but right away I sense a strength and confidence about him.

I am surprised to hear him say that he’s spent the whole night out and about: “Dancing without drinking -- I proved that it can be done. Just now I was at the Endup -- that place goes all night long. It’s dawn now, the sun’s coming up, and people are still bouncing away… Hello, people -- time to go home...! Time for me, anyway -- I have to get ready for work, where I will do my best to act like I haven’t been awake all night... I’ve been thinking maybe I should apply for a job as an Endup bouncer -- I spend all day arresting shoplifters, so I feel like I’m pretty experienced at handling big, intimidating, agitated people...

Me: “You’re undercover?”

“Yes. I work for (a large local retail chain)...”

Me: “How does it work?”

“Some stores have cameras and I can just sit there and let the action come to me, but some days -- and I wish today wasn't one of them -- I have to spend all day on my feet pretending to shop...”

Me: “Is there always someone to catch?”

“Not all the time. It used to be that way, but I’ve gotten more cautious. Now I make sure that I have personally witnessed every part of the act. You don’t want to find yourself standing there with a crying, handcuffed mother, with her kids around her, and find out she doesn’t have anything...

“Yes, that actually happened -- not to me, but it happened... One of the security guards told an undercover guy, ‘Stop her -- she’s got pants in her purse...’ So the undercover guy makes the arrest -- he’s got the woman standing there handcuffed, and she’s crying, and she’s surrounded by her kids who are of course also crying, and now the undercover guy can’t find any pants anywhere, and of course the security guy is long gone, nowhere to be found... The undercover guy, he got fired. (The company) paid $70,000 to settle that one. Five years ago I might have made that arrest, but not anymore. If I don’t see it, I don’t do it...”

His thirteen-block ride has flown right on by. A dozen questions are lined up on the tarmac of my mind, but my fare’s got to go get himself ready for a day of busting shoplifters. I’ve been so engrossed in his story that I’ve thought of nothing else, and when he digs for his wallet I don’t even bother scanning my body. “Every day...” I tell him. Etc.

His lips purse with an ironic smile, and a small shudder of acceptance shakes his shoulders and filters down into the rest of his body: Of course -- the perfectly weird ending to a perfectly weird night... He doesn’t protest, doesn’t spend a second evaluating this surprise development. Like many of us, he has spent years pondering the concept of something for nothing -- he’s even made a career out of it.


Betty Bethards

Shift #22

-- Gough/MacAllister to Greenwich/Sansome -- $9.85

THE DISPATCH SYSTEM I USE has many regular callers, including a young woman who rides from Hayes Valley over to Levi Plaza early each weekday morning. I’ve never had her in my cab before, but just a few minutes before six o’clock on this still-black winter morning, I’m two blocks from her address when today’s dispatcher, Tom, puts out her call…

As we climb the Franklin Street hill, pass the Unitarian Church, and head on toward the Broadway tunnel and Levi Plaza, she tells me that she grew up in Boston and has been working in software in San Francisco for seven years now. Whenever I hear the words “seven years” pop out of someone’s mouth -- especially out of the the mouth of someone in their mid-20s, as I estimate this woman to be -- a certain memory invariably pops into my mind.

“May I tell a story?” I ask.


“Back in the early 1980s, a woman named Betty Bethards -- she had a reputation as a ‘psychic’ -- used to speak to crowds of people at the Unitarian Church right back there... My ex-wife used to go to see her, and took me along a couple of times. The evenings were a lot of fun, and I found Betty Bethards really interesting -- a few things of the things she said have stuck with me ever since. One of them was that life happens in seven-year cycles. There is actually some scientific basis for that idea. I’ve had molecular biologists in my cab tell me that the lifespan of most of the cells in our bodies is seven years. Certain cells last much longer -- some of our brain cells, for instance, stay with us our entire lives. But most of our cells, ninety-some percent of them, last just seven years and are then replaced by younger cells with seven-year life spans of their own. So…life happens in seven-year cycles -- I’m okay with that concept. But Betty Bethards added a…a twist.”

My fare: “Okay…”

Me: “Betty Bethards said that we individuals are not actually responsible for the first four seven-year cycles of our lives. What’s happening in those first four cycles is that we’re working off karma from our past lives, or perhaps we’re working off our parents’ karma and their expectations for us, or perhaps we’re working off society’s karma and expectations for us. But, according to Betty Bethards, after our first four cycles we are responsible. After our first four cycles, everything’s different. Everything counts. We’re…responsible.

My fare: “So it’s when you turn twenty-eight?”

“That’s right. That’s what Betty Bethards said, anyway. I was thirty-three when I heard her say that, and I had to laugh at myself because it made me remember something that happened shortly after my twenty-eighth birthday. I was in a bar in Southern California and I met a woman -- a stranger, I never saw her again -- and she asked me if I was married. I just snorted -- ‘Hah! ME!’ -- it just didn’t seem possible. Not me. I just wasn’t the marrying type. And then, just a few months later… Surprise! -- I was married.”

She: “That’s really funny. I’m twenty-eight right now, and I just recently moved into my own studio. In the last seven years I’ve had sixteen roommates. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m living alone. And it’s really different. I love it, but it’s just so completely different! Now it’s just me. I’m finally...actually...physically...on my own. I’m twenty-eight! And I finally have my own place.”

Me: “I have run that Betty Bethards story past hundreds of people now, and I would say ninety-to-ninety-five percent of them look back at that time in their lives, right around twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and say there was in fact some notable shift that took place.”

She: “I was just recently talking to my mom, and she pointed out that when she was exactly my age, she was having a baby -- me. We had to laugh about that. I’m finally getting my own studio -- she was having a baby!

At the end of this free ride, my fare tells me, “Mister, you have made my day.”

Me: “And you have made mine...”

It’s 6:11 a.m., still a black, mid-winter morning outside. I’ve got nine-plus hours of my shift still stretching out in front of me, plus a first cup of coffee waiting for me somewhere out there, too.