Wednesday, December 1, 2010

OVERVIEW: “And WHY is he doing this?”

JANUARY 1, 2010


We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage -- as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance. --Thomas Cahill

I STARTED DRIVING A SAN FRANCISCO TAXICAB ON JUNE 8, 1985. Twenty-five years ago. I enjoyed it from the start, but right away discovered that -- for me, at least -- the worst part of the job was driving around empty. After just ten empty minutes I would start scolding myself for all of my poor life choices, would start questioning my worth as a person, my reason for living, etc. But find my next passenger and, ah, well, suddenly everything was just fine.

After considerable stewing, I eventually stumbled upon the thought, “Next time I’m in one of those demoralizing empty periods, I should just pull into a bus zone and offer someone a free ride. At least I won’t be empty.”

And at some point, empty and frustrated, I impulsively swept into a bus zone and offered a free ride to whoever was standing there (the exact memory escapes me). Before long I began to do this semi-regularly, and doing so almost always broke whatever bad mood I’d talked myself into. With a passenger in the backseat, any mini-depression would invariably vanish. Here we were, a couple of human beings, talking -- what could be better than that? Almost always, my day became more fun. Better. It was like magic. And the key was always at my fingertips.

Over the years, things evolved, and for at least fifteen years now (it might actually be closer to twenty) I have consciously given away (at least) one free ride per shift. I don’t tally them, but I’m sure I’ve given away more than a thousand so far.

For the past decade or so, I’ve celebrated my final shift of each year by giving away EVERY ride for free -- and this has become my favorite day of the year. After ten or twelve rides, after just two or three hours of basking in the surprise and delight and the smiles of all my free-ride passengers, I feel like I’ve been injected with a drug more powerful than anything I’ve ever known. Just imagine driving around San Francisco, sharing happiness with everyone you encounter! Think about it... Please.

EVERY CAB DRIVER I KNOW gives away an occasional free ride (I don’t know any others who do it as a practice), but I haven’t heard any of them spell out their criteria. Nor do I have any particular criteria. I’ve given free rides to people who’ve made me laugh, to newlyweds, honeymooners, people who’ve told me it was their birthday, or people who have somehow made me feel good about life. Also to people who tell me about a bad turn their day has taken, or who simply look like they could use a break. To people whose life stories make me feel sorry for them, or who are obviously underprivileged or underfunded. People on crutches, people with limbs embedded in casts, people in wheelchairs.

I’ve given free rides to people who have just arrived in San Francisco and are enduring the frustration of trying to find an apartment. To people I spot wandering the street with heavy backpacks and lost looks on their faces. To people who prattle on and on about how much better taxi service is in New York or Chicago (or wherever) than in San Franicsco -- and I love hearing these people say, if they do, “Well, this certainly never happened to me at home!”

I’ve given free rides to members of the military, to people who can barely speak English, to people who have suffered through one of my many long stories or who have laughed at one of my attempts at humor. And sometimes, when I find myself revolted by someone, when I catch myself despising him or her, I decide to blow my own mind by making their ride free -- and I almost always learn something surprising about them, or about myself, this way.

Sometimes I give my ride to the first person who gets into my cab, just to get things rolling. Sometimes, late in my shift, if I remember that I haven’t yet given away my ride, I give it to the next person to climb in. And if it’s getting way late, there’s always the stranger in the bus zone, minding his or her own business. In November 2008, during the two weeks immediately following Barack Obama’s election, I pulled to the curb each time I spotted an opportunity to offer a free ride to a black person -- and was that ever fun!

I’VE ALWAYS ENJOYED CAB DRIVING, but this daily, free-ride practice has made it even more enjoyable, made it a bit of a game, added an element of play. And sometimes I suspect that it has transformed my whole relationship with Money Itself (but that’s another story).

For years, this practice was not something I talked about very much. It was my own little secret. But lately I’ve been talking about it more. And in late 2009 I decided that during the year 2010 I would keep a journal of each day’s free ride. My intention is to keep it up all year long, but we’ll see...

My sense is that cab stories are a bit like potato chips -- tasty at first, but they can become less-interesting if you eat (read) too many. I would recommend reading a few at a time, maybe a month’s worth. I intend to post them as soon as possible after each shift, but you might be better off coming back here about once a month. Or maybe not.

However you approach these stories, thanks for reading even this far. And for those of you who have been encouraging my writing for years -- and for some of you it’s been decades now -- thank you doubly. Triply. Freely.

AND to the first person who mentions this journal to me from the back seat of my cab (I drive Green Cab #914, roughly 4 AM to 4 PM on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays), well, YOUR ride is definitely free!



  1. Brad, I love you! And that love has been growing for ...........Jesus!.........32 year!
    Do you know that CASH CAB is one of my favorite shows and I always think of you!
    Love from your maybe favorite admirer!

  2. Brad,
    I have enjoyed your writing since I bought my first copy of Take Me With You. I was just wasting time on the computer tonight and wanted to see if you were up to anything. I am very happy to find your current project and look forward reading much, much more of it.

  3. Great blogger, great guy. Keep it up, Brad.