Monday, March 1, 2010

Earthquake country

Shift #23

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3 -- Westin-St. Francis on Union Square to the Marquis Marriott, barely four blocks, barely two minutes -- $4

FIRST RIDE OF THE DAY. First ride of the month.

She is from Chile, which four days ago (while I was skiing in the Sierras with my daughter) was ripped by an 8.8 earthquake.

"My family is fine," she tells me. "Everyone is fine."

Nonetheless, she seems very touched by my very small, very inexpensive gesture.



Shift #24

FRIDAY, MARCH 5 -- 101 California to Levi Plaza -- $6.70

I AWAKE AT 3:30 with an icepick headache centered behind my right eye. Three days in a row now. Coffee and aspirin have knocked it back each day, but, dammit, there it is again. A large vanilla-hazelnut latte from Peet’s and three aspirin take a pretty good whack at it, and two early $40 airports also help. Each of the airport passengers had come to San Francisco for a computer security conference held at Moscone (featured speaker: FBI Director Robert Mueller) and each of them tells me America is in grave peril due to hacker threats originating mainly from Russia and China but also from hordes of rabidly committed, freelance internet jihadists.

The second one tells me, “There are people out there trying to dynamite our financial system, and the public really hasn’t caught on yet. Imagine waking up one morning and going to the ATM or going online and finding your bank account has a zero balance. Imagine no gas, imagine no food in the grocery stores for three weeks, no way to pay for it. Imagine the civil unrest in the streets. The media have done some reporting on this, but no one really wants to think about it. It’s just like before 9/11 -- there were plenty of warnings but no one took them seriously enough. Everyone thought someone else would take care of it. But every day, right now, there are jihadists out there trying to destroy the whole Internet. What’s coming is going to make 9/11 seem like the good old days. The Russians want our credit card numbers and the Chinese want our military secrets, but these jihadists are doing everything they can -- every day, right now -- to try to blow up the Internet and bring the whole system crashing down. Oh, yeah -- we are going to wish for 9/11 again...”

After this, I need another large cup of coffee plus a Noah’s bagel just to get myself back to even. Well, not exactly even -- truth is, by 8:16 a.m., the needle on my personal buzzometer is jumping around in the red zone, and that's when I see my free ride for the day flagging me from the spot in front of 101 California where people with Levi Strauss employee badges can catch a free shuttle bus over to Levi Plaza. Right off she asks about the procedure for finding something left in a cab: “Late last night I took a cab to BART and when we got there someone standing on the curb wanted the cab so I kind of rushed and I thought I heard something fall but it was dark and I didn’t see anything and so I talked myself out of it and just paid the driver and went to catch my train. And that’s when I found that I had dropped my BART pass in the cab and also my employee ID.”


“It was better before...”

Shift #25

SUNDAY, MARCH 7 -- From a gas station out near Hunters Point to 13th/Folsom -- $10.30

“I HAVE THREE JOBS at three gas stations -- seventy hours a week -- I work twenty hours at a gas station out by the airport, twenty hours at another one in Daly City, and thirty hours where you just picked me up... They don’t let you work forty hours or else you are full-time -- they want to keep you part-time...

“Monday is my triple shift -- I work three shifts back to back… I would be manager at this station but I don’t have a green card yet. Almost. One more step to go, one more form -- just some papers... It is hard to get a green card. I have been working on it for six years. They want to make sure my marriage is for real. They come to your house at three o’clock in the morning to check... No kidding!

“I grew up in Mexico. Michoacan. I came here when I was fourteen. Student visa... and then I just stayed. Three kids -- ten and four, and one who’s just six months -- I started early, Latino style... My wife grew up here. Her mother came from El Salvador in the Sixties, so my wife was born here. I’m twenty-six, my wife is seven years older than me... When I get a green card I can get a good job and spend more time with my kids -- tow truck driver or maybe security guard -- people tell me those are good money... This gas station pays eleven dollars an hour, but in San Mateo County they pay only minimum wage, like nine dollars an hour...

“I could not go back to Mexico -- too crazy now. The government wants to fight the drug cartels. I suppose that is a good thing, but lots of innocent people are getting killed. Before, when they let the drug cartels alone, no one was getting killed... It was better before… people were safer before…”



Shift #26

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10 – Hotel W to UCSF Medical Center -- $13.00

SHE IS AN OFFICE MANAGER in a hospital department that deals with AIDS patients. She woke up this morning in the North Bay and caught a “casual carpool” ride to Second and Howard. At 7:17 AM she jumps into my cab and says, “I’m running late. I need to open the department at 7:30. Do you think we can do that…?

“Hey, is this a Prius? I don’t buy what they’re saying about Toyotas. This morning before I left home they played the 9-1-1 tape of that guy in LA who said he was in his Prius and the accelerator was stuck and he was going 90 miles an hour on the freeway. I’m sorry -- that was fake! Did you hear it? He tells the operator, ‘My car is going 90 miles an hour!’ and the first thing she says to him is, ‘Is it a Prius?’ Now that was a setup. Sounded so phony -- why would she say that, first thing? No, I’m sorry – uh-uh, that ain’t right. Something’s fishy there…”

I tell her that we drivers at Green Cab are pretty mystified, too: “We’ve been driving these Toyotas -- Priuses mostly -- for three years now, and we’ve been singing their praises. These are great cars. But ever since January, when Toyota started getting all the bad publicity, we’ve all been standing around the cab lot scratching our heads and asking each other, ‘Have you ever had any problem?’ "Nope -- have you? And none of us ever have."

I tell her that a couple of weeks ago I borrowed a neighbor’s camcorder and filmed five of my Green Cab colleagues (youtube link below) driving their Priuses single file down Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world.” I sent it to Toyota and told them they were missing a great opportunity -- they should send a film crew to interview the grizzled, veteran cab drivers of San Francisco, and use the city as a sexy backdrop while we gave our heartfelt testimonies about how much we love our Prius cabs.

“That’s right,” my fare tells me. “Everybody knows that something’s fishy on this. It ain’t right. In the end, you’ll see. Something’s fishy.”

My fare likes 1) that we reach UCSF at 7:28, and 2) that there is a surprise little twist at ride’s end.


NOTE: You can skip the first 1:40 or so.


The Imaginary Foundation

Shift #27

FRIDAY, MARCH 12 – 26th and South Van Ness to 22nd and Tennessee -- $7:15

IF WE GET ANOTHER THREE INCHES OF RAIN THIS WINTER San Francisco will have had its first “normal” rains in four years (average rainfall is around 23 inches). It’s been drumming down steadily all morning, and the young man and woman who have called for my cab are waiting under the eaves of their apartment building deep in the Mission District.

“Citywide is so great,” the woman tells me. (Citywide Dispatch has ten smaller cab companies under its umbrella, including Green Cab.) “We used to always call (one of San Francisco’s bigger cab companies), but our favorite driver there quit and came to Citywide, so now we call you guys. A lot of times (that bigger cab company) says they’ll be there in ten minutes, but then they never come. You guys always come right away.”

Me: “I think we’re the best kept secret in the cab industry.” [Citywide doesn't get as much business as the larger comanies do, but my fear is that if Citywide ever advertised (it doesn’t) we would be flooded with calls -- (415) 920-0700 -- and would wind up giving the same lousy service as most of the other companies. But as it is, the people who know about us are pretty darned happy.]

The man: “Even though it’s raining, I don’t think we were waiting even four minutes.”

The woman: “It makes so much difference having a live dispatcher instead of a computer. And your dispatchers aren’t rude!”

I’m already leaning free ride, but then we get talking about the place where they have both been working for about a year now -- the Imaginary Foundation. “It’s a tee-shirt company,” the woman says, “but it’s really much more than that. The founder is a ‘genius’ and an incredible artist. Sometimes I have to look at his designs for about six months before I see everything that’s going on in them.” (From the company website: “The Imaginary Foundation is a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination… The small clandestine team is headed up by the mysterious ‘Director,’ a 70-something über-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement. Avoiding direct publicity, the team has sought clothing as an unlikely vehicle for bringing their ideas beyond the academic realm and into popular culture.”)

We get absorbed in our discussion and at ride’s end the man gives me two five-dollar bills, and it’s only as I watch my two fares disappear into their building that I remember free ride. Well, too late now...

The street where I’ve dropped them dead-ends into an industrial park, so I do a U-turn, and as I’m again passing by their building, I see my two passengers re-emerge through the front door, stop, and huddle together against the wind to light cigarettes. I think of pulling over and explaining to them about my free ride, but might that not confuse them, might that not just be embarrassing all the way around? So I just pass right on by.

But sitting at the stop sign at the next corner, I hear Body squawking: Who says?

I do another U-turn, stop, give a beckoning wave. The woman -- she’s the closer of the two -- walks over to my passenger window; the man stays back, out of the rain. “Every day I give away one free ride,” I tell her, “and I’d like yours to be my free ride today. Can you please give these back to your friend?” I hold out the two five-dollar bills. She takes them. “That’s cool,” she says.



Shift #28

SUNDAY, MARCH 14 -- Fillmore and Chestnut to Fillmore and Union -- $3.55

NO CAB DRIVER COULD HELP NOTICING these two anxious-looking young women -- they are pulling wheeled suitcases behind them, their hair looks as wild as if they’ve leapt from bed two minutes ago, and they both have tense, need-to-get-to-the-airport expressions on their faces. But they are not looking for a cab. While I’m watching them, they stop in a bus stop shelter, prop their suitcases upright, and begin searching Fillmore Street for a bus.

I glide past them, down the business stretch of Chestnut Street. This enclave of shops and restaurants is absolutely level, zero grade, and my Prius can roll from one end of it to the other and back on electricity alone, without the gasoline engine ever switching on. I drive past all my personal landmarks -- past Noah’s Bagels, past Allstar Donuts, past the Apple store, past Starbucks, past Peet’s -- all the way to United Liquor and Deli at the corner of Chestnut and Divisadero, where I make a U-turn. Four blocks later I see the two women still standing at the bus stop, but the four minutes they've just spent waiting for a bus have infused their facial expressions with a frantic quality, and now they are both waving at me in a rather well-lathered panic.

“The nearest BART station,” one of them says.

I ask, “What time is your flight?”

Fare #1: “Eleven-fifteen.”

Fare #2: “What time is it now?”

Before I can answer, Fare #1 says: “Ten after ten.”

If it really were 10:10, there is almost no way they’d make an 11:15 flight. I say, “It’s actually 9:10.”

One of them: “Really?”

“My dispatcher’s been reminding us on the radio all morning.”

It's quiet in the cab. I lift my cell phone over the backseat so they can read the 9:15 glowing on its face. No one argues with a cell phone.

Fare # 2: “Oh, man… I must have set the clock two hours ahead!”

Fare #1: “I thought you did!”

Fare #2: “I need coffee!”

Fare #1: “Can you just let us out at that coffee shop?” The Union Street Coffee Roastery is dead ahead. They’ve been in the cab four short blocks, maybe 200 yards.

I drop them off, wish them luck.

My next fare goes to the airport for $45.

LATER… 1:30 pm. SFO to South San Francisco -- $14.55

A YOUNG WOMAN WITH CURLY RED HAIR. She settles in, says she’s heading to a nearby bio-tech company, where she parked her car, and then her phone rings and she talks non-stop for the duration of the six-minute ride:

“Oh, Dad -- what a nightmare! No -- I’m back home now… A nightmare! A day and a half of travel, and I didn’t even get to New York… I only got four hours of sleep on Friday night because I had to be at the airport at 4 AM. When we left San Francisco there wasn’t even a storm warning for New York -- nothing! -- but then they had these high winds and they shut the airport and diverted us to Pittsburgh. After a full day of traveling I spent the night in the airport in Pittsburgh, and it just didn't make any sense to go on to New York, and of course all the flights were full anyway...

"Then when I woke up this morning I forgot this is the day we turn the clocks back -- right, ahead -- and I nearly panicked when I realized and I had to scramble and I almost missed my flight back here! The ticket cost me six hundred dollars, and (the airline) says they’re not responsible for weather or mechanical, so no refund. I suppose I could write a letter, but it would probably just be a further waste of my time...”

Body is cheering Free Ride!, but I try to be rational: You already gave a free ride to those two women this morning… You just now waited an hour at the airport, you deserve something … Your shift is nearly over and so far you’ve only got $40 to take home… You can’t give away every ride…

My fare continues: “And if I talk to one more ticket agent I’ll probably be... inappropriate. It’s not their fault, but it’s so frustrating. I have to fly to San Deigo this week, but I don’t even want to see an airplane for at least a month. I’m going home and all I want to do is take a nap, but I’ve got a cat sitter coming sometime this afternoon -- and I’ve already paid for that…”

Body: “Heh, heh, heh…

I double-check: “Really?”

Body: “Have some fun, bro…

At the end of the ride, I say, “Just to make your day even more interesting…” and then I tell her.

As I’m pulling away, I look back. She’s loading her suitcase into the trunk of her car and she’s smiling so hard I think her cheeks might just crack open.

My next ride goes from the airport to Half Moon Bay for $60.


Toyota wants me!

Shift #29

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17 -- Hotel W to Eight and Market -- $7.15

THERE ARE MANY REASONS why I like working the Hotel W: the staff is cool about letting cab drivers use the lobby bathroom; in the morning, maybe half the rides are $40 airport fares; the doormen don’t squeeze you for tips like the jackals at some of the other nearby, supposedly classy, hotels (yes, unbelievable!); the other drivers who tend to work the W are mostly Brazilians, a happy bunch of guys, always laughing about something, always friendly toward me -- if I come back in another life, I won’t mind if I’m Brazilian. Also, the W’s clientele is usually interesting: Beyonce, the entire Dallas Mavericks squad; the drummer from Green Day (I’ve never had these folks in my cab, but the doorman tells me who’s staying, if I ask). And whether they’re celebrities or not, the W’s folks are almost always very personable.

For the past several months I have been picking up individual members of a team of Chicago-based consultants who each morning travel from the W to an office building at Eighth and Market, where they are working on a long-term contract. They stay at the W during the week, fly home to Chicago each weekend, and then fly back to San Francisco again. This morning I pick up a young woman who looks like her ancestry might be...Tibetan? Chinese? Peruvian? Her accent gives no clues -- it is as mainstream American as my own. I’ve had her in my cab a couple of times before, but it’s been a few weeks now.

“Are there still four of you on this job?” I ask.

“No, just two of us now.”

“Is it like Survivor? Will one of you get voted off the island soon?”

She laughs. “You never know… Maybe!

I often use the people in the back of my cab the same way I use my therapist: to share the things going on in my life. “I’m kind of excited,” I tell her. “Toyota is sending a film crew to our cab lot today to do a ‘test shoot’ for a possible commercial, and they want me and my Prius.”

“That’s great...” she says, with enthusiasm, and that’s all the opening I need. I barge ahead and spill all the rest of the details -- three trucks full of film gear, advertising honchos, free sandwiches... Hers is not a long ride, and I hog all the airspace during the last few blocks, at the end of which I tell her about my free ride. She seems to appreciate all of it. “Good luck with the commercial,” she says on the way to her day.

Cheaper than talking to my therapist, for sure.



Shift #30

FRIDAY, MARCH 19 -- Hotel W to North Beach Restaurant -- $7.60

I’VE JUST FINISHED windexing all my windows when the most dapper gentleman in the whole city -- not just today, but for the past thirty-forty-fifty years or so -- strolls up to my cab. I am the world’s most pedestrian dresser: blue jeans, hiking boots, and a baseball cap is about all you get from me, and that’s what I am wearing this morning. I can’t even name the various items of clothing worn by former San Francisco mayor, former Speaker of the California state assembly, and current bon vivant/man-about-town...Willie Brown. Is that snappy hat with the brim a “Panama”? A “bowler?” A “fedora?” And what’s that vest/tie/sweater-coat thing called? Where do you even shop for pants and shoes that expensive-looking, that fancy? But I really don’t have time to decipher any of this. I barely have time to note several sweet but discreet flashes of color (red? orange? was there a blue in there somewhere?) and that Willie Brown himself is standing on the Howard Street sidewalk and pointing at my cab: “Are you first-up?”

Willie Brown is almost certainly the most-spotted celebrity in San Francisco (Robin Williams might be second). I think of him as a modern Emperor Norton -- sane, however. Super sane. I moved to San Francisco in 1982, and it seems that Willie has been in the news just about every day since. Every cab driver seems to have had him in the backseat (way back when he first came to San Francisco, Willie himself had a stint as a Yellow Cab driver!), but this is a first for me.

Actually, I’ve had a few conversations with Willie Brown in the past, but I’m sure he doesn't remember any of them. Several times he and I attended the same cab industry political meetings and engaged in back-and-forth. And when Willie was mayor, he used to grant personal audiences to members of the public once a month, and on one of those Saturday mornings I was among a group of three taxi drivers who were ushered into his office, where he was cordial and, as always, direct. He cut right to the chase, and in short order granted whatever important political favor we were asking that day -- right this minute I can’t actually recall just what it was.

But our most recent conversation was in 2007. That was the year I organized the four “Beach Impeach” events, each of which attracted one thousand or more citizens who laid their bodies down inside the outlines of one-hundred-foot tall lettering that spelled out “IMPEACH!” while a helicopter (or sometimes two) photographed us from above. (I rented something like six or seven helicopters that year!) The first event took place on the sands of Ocean Beach two days after Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Channel Seven sent up its own helicopter for that one, and the footage went nationwide on ABC News and then worldwide on CNN. Many of us in the “Impeach Bush and Cheney” movement hallucinated that we were really on our way to something great, on our way to some sort of national return to sanity. But we might as well have been sand fleas -- Pelosi ignored us, squashed all talk of impeachment, and when she came to San Francisco on a book tour later that summer I was among the crowd that turned out for a book-promo event she held in a theater at Fort Mason. I was actually surprised to even be allowed past the building’s front door, because the Secret Service (I’m pretty sure that’s who it was) had escorted me out of Pelosi’s previous night’s event over in Marin County after I hoisted a blood-red “IMPEACH!” sign overhead... Which is altogether another story...

But at Fort Mason I found myself strolling into the auditorium side by side with…Well, it’s Willie Brown! And Willie Brown is not just the most ubiquitous celebrity in San Francisco, he’s also the most approachable, and I struck up a two-three-four minute discussion with him about the odds of impeachment happening. Or perhaps it was just a fifteen-second discussion, as Willie simply laughed it off. “Never happen,” he said with unimpeachable self-assurance. “Never ever happen… Not a chance… That’s just dreaming…” Willie won’t remember that conversation, but I do feel certain that he will remember the evening forever, as, over the course of an hour-plus, Nancy Pelosi and KQED’s Michael Krasny tried to have an on-stage conversation while thirty percent of the audience screamed and screamed and screamed: “DO YOUR JOB!” “IMPEACH HIM!” “WE VOTED FOR YOU!” “CAN YOU NOT HEAR US?” Etc.

But I don’t mention any of this to Willie this morning. I just ask where he’s going, and he tells me “North Beach Restaurant.”

We creep through slow traffic and orange cones and police officers in front of the Museum of Modern Art. Willie says, “They’ve been shooting a Volvo commercial since six this morning.”

I tell him that yesterday Toyota sent a film crew to the Green Cab lot to film a commercial. (I don’t mention my starring role.) He says, “That’s smart. That could give them a boost.”

Willie was in the news yesterday, testifying in front of a Public Utilities Commission hearing about a bill that our local power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, is trying to get the voters to approve this fall. My sense is that it’s a bad bill, another PG & E power play, but the truth is I don’t know as much about it as I would like. I ask Willie a series of questions. He gives absolutely clear and convincing responses, and I realize I am completely out of my league in this conversation. I don’t know shit -- I thought it was obvious that Bush and Cheney should have been impeached, and I thought we were going to do it… I don’t know shit... And I certainly don’t know what to make of Brown’s politics. Of all the politicians I’ve ever observed, he has always struck me as either the very smartest, or the most adept at using power, or the most openly corrupt, or maybe he’s all three of those and then some. He seems to have all ten of his fingers in every single pot, and I doubt that a deal of any significance has been done in the Bay Area or even in all of California in the last thirty years without Willie being a part of it. And here he is in my backseat, as open and confident as -- and a whole lot better dressed than -- any fare I can remember.

I ask, “Do you mind all my questions?”

He, emphatically: “No!

Me: “Prop A of 2007...?”

“Which one was that?” Willie Brown asks me. I give him the title -- “Transit Reform, Parking Regulation, Emissions Reduction” -- and paint the bill’s broad strokes.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “I was against that one. They were trying to put everything under the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA). I didn’t think they should do that. I didn’t think they should mix the buses and parking meters. And furthermore I think all the buses should be free -- we should pay for them with property taxes. I thought it was a bad idea.”

I am glad to hear this, because I hated that bill. But my objections were different than Willie’s. “How about those three sentences about the taxi industry?” I ask him.

“What were they?”

This is a subject near to my heart, and off I go: “The whole bill took up ten mind-numbing pages of voter pamphlet fine print, and although no one’s taking responsibility for it, someone slipped in three sentences that abolished the Taxicab Commission and handed the taxicab industry over to the SFMTA. Now the SFMTA is trying to strongarm as much money from the taxi industry as they can -- they’re holding us upside down by the ankles and shaking.”

He laughs. “That’s funny. That’s a good one.”

“I don’t think whoever did this -- Gavin Newsom and company -- should get away with it. I wrote an article about this for San Francisco Magazine, and it’s coming out any day now...”

“Hee-hee…” Willie is gleeful. He loves it. “Good for you! I started the Taxicab Commission, you know…?” He sounds proud, a little protective.

Me: “I know! And the way they ended it… It wasn’t right… three sentences hidden in ten pages of fine print...”

He: “I always spoke out loud -- it got me into trouble sometimes, but I was always upfront about everything…”

Me: “You strutted all over town with your stuff right out there…”

He seems to like this. I continue: “Slipping in three sentences, taking money from cab drivers… It’s like sleeping with your friend’s wife or something...”

Willie chuckles. He knows what I’m talking about. “That’s cheating…” he says. In his autobiography, “Basic Brown”, Willie repeats Jesse Unruh’s famous political adage, “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.” Now he tells me, “You can sleep with someone else’s wife, but your friend’s wife -- that’s cheating! That’s really cheating...”

We’re pulling up in front of the North Beach Restaurant. I haven’t even thought about free ride, but now I see Willie digging for his wallet. I say, “For the past fifteen or twenty years I have given away one free ride every shift, and I would be honored to have this be my free ride today....”

He says, “You’re shittin' me!”

Me: “No. It’s true...”

He: “For fifteen or twenty years?”

Me: “Fifteen or twenty years.” We are eyeball to eyeball, about twenty-four inches apart. Willie Brown is not a young man. I’m fifty-eight and I figure he’s got at least ten years on me, but the face looking out from under the brim of his hat has a smile so wide, so eager, so innocent, you’d swear Willie Brown was twelve years old. Or maybe only eight. Put that smile on a million rooftops and we wouldn’t need PG & E at all.

He says, “I’m going to write about you in my column.” Several years ago I drifted away from the Chronicle -- I’d forgotten Willie even had a column -- Willie's World. “What’s your name?” he asks.

I tell him. He asks me to spell it.

We share a big, hearty, over-the-backseat handshake. “I’ve been blogging about my free rides this year,” I tell him. “I’m going to write about this ride, too. Let’s see who gets into print first!”

Bystanders at the corner of Green and Stockton may be startled by the sounds of a cab driver and his customer sharing a big, hearty roar of laughter as Willie Brown opens my cab’s rear door. He climbs out, walks across the Stockton Street sidewalk, and, still laughing, disappears into North Beach Restaurant.

[UPDATE: A week later, on Sunday March 28, Willie closes his column this way:

“The birthday would not have been complete without a visit from my cowboy buddies from Buttonwillow in Kern County. They brought my new summer Stetson, which I promptly wore to dinner at Harris’ steakhouse...

“Now on to my cab guys. Brian Newsham drives a green cab -- a Toyota Prius. For 25 years of his driving career, he has given one free ride each day. On my birthday, I got the free ride. From now on, I’m going to look for that cab every day.”]


Born Again Green

Shift #31

SUNDAY, MARCH 21 – Greenwich and Broderick to Valencia and Duboce

MY MOVE TO GREEN CAB three years ago has been like a cab industry re-birth for me. Back in 2005 I began telling my friend Richard, the owner of Metro Cab, where I previously worked, that I wanted to drive a hybrid, preferably a Prius. Back in 2005, the cab industry's shift towards hybrids hadn't yet begun, and Richard wasn’t on board yet (today Richard’s fleet is 80% hybrids), so when I heard that a bunch of cab industry veterans I’ve known and been friends with for twenty years were starting a company committed to alternative fuel vehicles I gave them a call. In April 2007, after a couple of years of talk and planning and paperwork, the new company, Green Cab, went live with one Prius. The following month I became the first cab driver to “defect” from the greater industry, shifting my medallion from Metro over to Green, giving us two cabs. Soon there was a third, then a fourth, and today we have twelve.

Since the start we’ve been a huge hit with the public. It seems unthinkable now, but even three years ago the “greening” of America’s businesses had not yet swept the commercial landscape, and when our snappy looking green-and-white Priuses first hit the streets the populace went a bit wild. For a while we Green drivers felt like rock stars. All day long we’d see pedestrians grabbing friends’ elbows and pointing us out. On warm, windows-down days we would hear a seemingly constant murmur from the sidewalks: “Green Cab…! Look, Green Cab…! Green Cab…” One day while I was waiting at a red light at Fourth and Howard, a woman stopped in the crosswalk, five feet directly in front of my hood, turned her body so that she was squared-up toward me, planted her feet side by side, extended her arm and index finger straight at me like Uncle Sam, and then started clapping her hands together in front of her. And several times people approached my cab in the manner of directions-seekers, leaned down, and surprised me with: “Thank you. I just came over here to say thank you. I read about you guys in the paper, saw you on the news, and I want you to know we’ve been waiting for a company like yours for a long time.”

Me, too. The worst thing about cab driving for me (other than having an empty backseat) has always been the knowledge that I made my living by pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. And not just the average amount. For twenty years I drove cabs that got 10 miles per gallon, and to suddenly be getting 40 or 45 mpg, or more on some days… well, this was new. And a whole lot better.

MY THIRD FARE THIS MORNING is waiting in front of her Cow Hollow apartment, smiling broadly as I pull up. “You guys are so great,” she says. “You always come right away.” Her call is only about two minutes old -- I am one of five drivers who “checked in” for it, and the dispatcher judged me to be closest. My fare says she used to call (a larger company) -- “They were horrible,” she says. “Horrible! But ever since I found Citywide, I never call anyone else. You guys even came on New Year’s Eve!

That, I tell her, actually is rather unbelievable! On New Year’s Eve all bets are off.

This morning she’s headed to pick up her boyfriend in Pacific Heights and then the two of them are going over to the U-Haul place in the Mission, and then they’ll be moving stuff out of their respective apartments and into a new apartment in which they’ll be living together henceforth and maybe even unto forever. “He’s been in his place for fifteen years,” she says, “so you can imagine the job ahead.”

“Oh, boy,” I say. We talk about the joys and anxieties of moving in together. (Last week a twenty-something fare, a banking consultant who travels the world, told me he was engaged, but he and his fiance aren’t setting a date until they’ve moved in and lived together for a while. When I was in my twenties, moving in with someone was still scandalous, but this man assured me that, “These days people in my age-group consider it a weakness, a liability, if you get married without first having lived together.”) My fare asks me if I think she'll have trouble getting cab service at their new place on an obscure street out in the obscure Golden Gate Heights neighborhood ("Not if you call Citywide," I tell her), and then her boyfriend joins us. We talk some more about cabs, and he notes that so far Citywide has sent them only one grumpy cab driver. “But,” he says, “she might have had good reason to be grumpy. You never know what happened with the fare just before us.”

Me: “Oh, that’s brilliant. People can be awful to cab drivers, and, really... You never know what happened with the fare just before. I like that…”

He says, “I actually think it’s a pretty good way to approach all of life.” And I get a sense of why his girlfriend might have been smiling as I pulled up.

She, to him: “Tell him what happened on New Year’s Eve.”

He: “We had just come home on New Year’s Eve, and we see this cab stop right in the middle of the street -- it stops hard and the back door flies opens and we hear this sound that’s exactly like what you’d hear if you opened a quart of milk and just dumped it out onto the street…”

Me: “Oh, no -- that’s the cab driver’s nightmare…” It’s happened a few times to me, and not always outside the cab, but it’s been a few years now."

“You never know,” he says.

He’s an attorney focusing on employment law and he tells me that a lot of California law regarding employee/independent contractor status has developed from cases involving San Francisco taxi drivers. I tell him that the people who started Green Cab are responsible for many of those cases, and our conversation goes off in that direction for a while. I am feeling the full effects of the coffee I bought just before this ride started, and now I get gabbing about myself a bit too much, and all too soon we’re at the U-Haul place and this sweet couple pays me, tips me nicely, and heads off to their new life together and suddenly, two blocks later, it dawns on me that free ride was so, so obviously right there, and somehow I spaced it out, completely forgot about it.

I give away my next two rides for free trying to make up for it.



Shift #32

SUNDAY, MARCH 28 -- Sacramento/Fillmore to O’Farrell/Stockton -- $8.05

You might say, “I know I am an immortal spirit,” or “I am tired of this mad world, and peace is all I want”--until the phone rings. Bad news: The stock market has collapsed; the deal may fall through; the car has been stolen; your mother-in-law has arrived; the trip is canceled, the contract has been broken; your partner has left you; they demand more money; they say it’s your fault. Suddenly there is a surge of anger, of anxiety. A harshness comes into your voice; “I can’t take any more of this.” You accuse and blame, attack, defend, or justify yourself, and it’s all happening on autopilot. Something is obviously much more important to you now than the inner peace that a moment ago you said was all you wanted, and you’re not an immortal spirit anymore either. -- Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

IN 1974, while I was very much enjoying my then-life as a frugal, wandering, twenty-two-year-old hippie, I came to know another young man, twenty-three-year-old Frank DeWitt, who was making a very nice salary playing professional basketball in the south of France. In college I had been an enthusiastic but absolutely ordinary basketball player, and you can easily understand how I envied Frank -- his lanky six-foot-five-inch frame, his regular salary, his dazzling skills. I loved watching him rip a rebound off the rim, blast full speed down the court with the ball yoyoing up and down at his side -- right hand, left hand, didn’t matter -- and then whip a no-look pass to a cutting teammate or pull up to drain a long, soft jumper or knife through the defense and launch himself back at the rim again. Star of his high school team, captain at the University of Virginia, Frank was drafted and went to rookie camp with the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, later toured Europe with a couple of all-star teams, and was now living on the French Riviera where, a few months after I met him, he would lead his team to the regional championship.

It’s perhaps less easy to understand Frank’s claim that, in his own way, he envied my life. I saw myself as an all-but-broke drifter, wishing I had a marketable talent, or at least an income. But Frank thought he saw a care-free guy not tied to a schedule, not even to a basketball schedule, a guy who had spent the past two years drifting around the US and then Europe, reading lots of books, filling lots of journals, watching lots of sunsets, earning bits of money here and there by doing a little of this, a little of that. At night Frank and I sat around with a small community of other expats, sharing the faux-dramas of our short lives and envisioning much bigger, much greater dramas ahead. Frank and I usually outlasted all the others -- once, each night for a solid week, after everyone else had faded away, Frank and I yacked until dawn, slept until sunset (Frank’s extra bedroom was a road-weary hippie’s dream), joined everyone else for dinner, and then started over. (Sometimes Frank had to get up “early” to go to a practice or game, poor guy.) Toward the end of the basketball season Frank and I headed off on separate dramas -- him toward cheering throngs in packed gymnasiums, me toward the quiet and empty mountains of Afghanistan -- and then on to lives which turned out differently than either of us imagined…

We haven’t seen much of each other over the years, but email and cell phones have recently given our friendship new life. We’re a couple of old dudes now, each staring down the barrel of sixty. Frank lives in the house where he was raised, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I drive a taxi in San Francisco. Before my morning shift heats up, I often call Frank on my cell and we talk, sometimes about all the turns our lives have taken, about wasted opportunities, or about how our own mortality has begun to stalk us, but mostly about the writings and ideas of Joseph Campbell, Deepak Chopra, and, my favorite, the “enlightenment scholar” and spiritual teacher Eckhard Tolle.

Tolle -- and I paraphrase quite liberally here -- says that we really don’t have pasts, don’t have futures, all we’ve really got is Now. Our egos want to maneuver us into believing that we have these great, detailed, important pasts, and even more important futures, but it’s all a con job. The ego’s function is to trick us into believing in, over-valuing, and hyperventilating about “our lives,” which Tolle says are actually nothing more than ego-created illusions. We can go beyond the illusion, we can escape the ego’s constant, hypnotic chatter, by waking up to the only thing we’ve really got -- the Now.

And how does one do this? How does one ditch this mostest cleverest of tricksters, the ego? How does one enter and remain centered in the Now? Tolle says one does this by paying attention to one’s body, and the primary portal to awareness of one’s body is through awareness of one’s breath. This breath here now. And this breath, too. And then this breath...

All that other stuff? Bullshit! All we’ve really got is this breath we’re breathing right now. And this one. Also this one… Pretty sophomoric, you might say. Not much one can add to such a line of thought, right? But if Frank and I stir in a few stories on the side, we can talk about this stuff -- awakening, enlightenment -- for an hour, easy, and what we always come back to is the Now. And this breath… this breath… this breath… and this breath

How did we not stumble upon all of this during our late nights in France thirty-seven years ago?

And why am I telling you this Now?

No particular reason. It’s just that this morning, a few minutes before 7 AM, I’m sitting in my cab across from the Noah’s Bagel shop on Fillmore in Pacific Heights. I haven’t had a ride yet, nor have I had coffee, and now I’ve got one ear on the dispatch radio, hoping for an early morning airport, and one eye on the front door of Noah’s Bagels, which opens at seven sharp, and I’m telling Frank a story I heard twenty years ago, a story about the time Werner Erhard, the founder of the est training and Landmark Education, dropped in on a group home for troubled, whacked out kids in Hawaii... when I see a guy half a block ahead walking in a trajectory that looks designed to…

“Oops,” I tell Frank, “I think I might have my first fare. Maybe… Maybe… Yep... Hey, I’ll have to finish this later.”

Frank is used to my sudden departures. “See ya, Newsh. Good talkin’ with you.”

My fare is headed downtown, to Macy’s. He’s a young guy from London, with a chiseled British accent. He’s been living in the States for ten years, in San Francisco for three and a half. He works at the Boudine’s Bakery in the basement of Macy’s.

Me: “Are you a baker?”

“No, I’m on the management side.” He, too, sounds like he hasn’t had any coffee today.

I ask: “When you were growing up in England, did you ever imagine you’d someday be riding down Post Street in a taxi at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning to get to your job running a bakery in San Francisco?”

“Even last night I didn’t imagine this. We spent the night doing laundry and watching t.v....” -- I imagine a beautiful American girlfriend, seduced by my fare’s accent -- “and I was very much hoping to sleep in this morning. I wasn’t planning to go to work until eleven, but a few minutes ago the phone rang. The oven has broken down again. An oven usually lasts about ten years, and this one’s about eleven years old. Already we’ve spent enough on repairs to have bought a new one. And when it’s broken, we can’t bake our own loaves -- we have to buy them from the Boudine’s at the Wharf or the one out in the Avenues, and that costs us more money…”

It doesn’t sound like much fun, and my body reports that in fact everybody should be having some fun this morning. When I tell my fare about my (and his) free ride, I mention that I particularly like to give my free rides to people whose days seem like they could stand a change of rythym. My fare’s sleepy-looking eyes and his sleepy-looking face conspire themselves into a sleepy-looking smile. “Well, thanks very much,” he says. “That’s very kind. I do hope it works.”


* * The sky is the only limit * *

Shift #33

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31 -- W Hotel to Market/Van Ness -- $7.15

IT RAINED HARD DURING THE NIGHT but it has stopped now, and as I drive into the City at 5:15 AM I see broken clouds in the overhead darkness. Through the cables and towers of the Bay Bridge I notice that someone using invisible string has hung an enormous, silver-dollar full moon so that it dangles in the sky above Twin Peaks.

Yesterday was my once-a-month-or-so fast day, and I didn’t eat a thing -- one cup of coffee, lots of water -- and by 5:50 AM I’m at Noah’s on Mission Street for a true break-fast: coffee, a banana, and one unadulterated whole wheat sesame bagel, the best-tasting bagel of my entire life.

As I’m pulling away from the curb, a man in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and running shoes emerges from the sidewalk shadows and asks to go to the Federal Building at Golden Gate and Larkin. For two years he’s managed the building’s gym and a staff of ten, his first gig as a federal employee. Lunch hour is the busiest time, with maybe thirty or forty people huffing and puffing through their workouts, but even now, before six AM, the gym is already open, and my fare says he expects to find at least several people already there exercising.

A few minutes later, at the East Bay Terminal, I pick up a cook from El Salvador who needs to get to work at the Flower Market Café, Sixth and Brannon. He says he is “sleepy” this morning -- “and cold!” and he asks how I am. El Salvador’s soccer team did not qualify for this year’s World Cup, which starts, my fare says, on June 10. It’s been sixteen years since El Salvador last qualified. El Salvador’s neighbor and rival, Honduras, has qualified yet again this year. Other 2010 qualifiers from this hemisphere include Argentina, Mexico, Los Estados Unidos, and… “Brazil!” My fare laughs. “Of course, Brazil!

I join the slow-moving cab line in front of the W Hotel. (I see that one of the Brazilian drivers is wearing a green World Cup tee-shirt sporting the Brazilian flag.) The sky has brightened toward a medium-dark purple, and someone has re-positioned the silver dollar moon a good bit lower in the sky so that it now dangles just above the Moscone Center. For an hour I read Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” and hope for an SFO, but when I’m finally first up, my fare, even though she has luggage, is only going to Fourteenth and Folsom. She is a computer consultant who has been commuting from Chicago (weekends) to San Francisco (weekdays) for twenty months now. On the night Barack was elected president she was in San Francisco, staying at the Westin St. Francis. “It was crazy,” she says. “The streets were just crazy that night.”

Three blocks away, at Sixteenth and Mission, I’m flagged by another young Salvadoran man, this one wearing a knit hat, shades, and smelling faintly of pot. This morning he found his bicycle's front tire flat this and now he needs to get to work at a Presidio Heights restaurant. “My job is bus tables and make coffee... I been in the States for three and a half years." Chawb. Jeers. He says, “When I come, my English is nothing -- but I go to classes and now I can talk at least a little… My friends say when I get drunk, no English, no Spanish -- I invent a new language...”

The moon and the darkness have all disappeared now. From the sidewalk in front of Noah’s Bagels in Laurel Village (more coffee), I can see, out toward Ocean Beach, an armada of white-sailed, man-of-war clouds chugging through a blue sky. The radio is dead. I troll through Pacific Heights, down through Cow Hollow, and at the corner of Greenwich and Steiner I’m flagged by a young man who says, “I left my white Volkswagen Jetta somewhere around here last night, and I just need you to drive me around until we find it.” A block and a half later there it is. The meter hasn’t even budged from the initial $3.10.

Me: “Free ride…”

He: “No, you saved me, dude…”

Me, laughing: “Gedouttaheeeer…

He, laughing, drops some crumpled ones onto the passenger seat, and he’s gone.

During just half an hour the sky has again changed. I look out past the Golden Gate Bridge and see a solid wall of clouds over the Pacific, looming, dwarfing the bridge. It looks as though someone -- the same person who does the hanging of the moon, maybe? -- has drawn a laser-straight line, horizontal, about a third of the way up in the western sky. Above the line everything is mostly blue, but below the line the entire the sky is filled by a frothing, fast-moving cloud bank -- like an epic tidal wave about to crash over the city.

I’m fleeing toward downtown when a woman flags me at Chestnut and Scott. She’s headed to Two Embarcadero Center where she manages the office of a venture capital firm. The firm has managed to hold its own through this Great Recession, but my fare hasn’t heard the firm's rainmakers talking about anything really interesting lately -- "there's no Next New Big Thing.” She has been in San Francisco for, “Gee -- more than twenty years now. Almost exactly the same amount of time I lived in Texas. Half my life.” This starts me down the path of a silent rumination: I arrived in San Francisco in 1982, one day before “The Catch” -- Joe Montana’s floating pass to the leaping Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone to beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-27 in the playoffs and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. That was twenty-eight years, two months, and some days ago. I’m fifty-eight now. Sometime…next year?...the year after? I will have spent half my life calling San Francisco home. Stopped for a red light on Colombus at Green, I do some calculations in my head, but am then distracted by three small, evenly spaced, nearly-identical clouds -- they look like three little puffs of smoke -- that seem to have popped from the tip of the Pyramid Building, and I remind myself, yet again, that I simply gotta start bringing a camera to work… (Today, after work, the Internet has helped me determine that on May 5, 2012, by which time I will have turned sixty years old, I will have spent exactly half my life calling San Francisco home.)

My next fare is Warren Hinckle, a local character who made a national splash back in the 1960s. He’s seventy-some years old now, a regular caller to Citywide Dispatch, and I’ve had him in my cab before, but not for a couple of years now. This chilly morning he’s wearing big gray shorts, sandals, blue socks that stretch all the way to his knees, and a brown suede coat. I tell him that I’ve been hoping to see him ever since I finished reading “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” which mentions Hinckle’s first national splash. Back in the 1960s, when Hinckle was editor of the small left-wing magazine Ramparts, he broke the story that the CIA, against its charter, had infiltrated many student groups in the US, and, unbeknownst to the groups themselves, was even funding some of them. The CIA furiously denied the story, of course, and the mainstream press accused Hinckle of insanity and worse, of course, and then it all turned out to be true, of course. Hinckle tells me that for the past two years he’s been working on a book, a gonzo biography of sorts about an old friend of his: “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?” I can hear another national splash coming.

Before Hinckle’s body heat has even begun to dissipate from the backseat, a young couple jumps in. San Franciscans think this day is a cold one, but these folks -- they're from still-wintry Calgary, Canada -- find it nice and toasty. The man is a fourth grade teacher and this week is his spring break. He and his…wife? are on their first trip to San Francisco. Today they’re going to Alcatraz, tomorrow they’ve got other tourist stuff planned, and on the next night they're planning to go see the San Francisco Giants play the Oakland Athletics in a preseason baseball game. When the Giants' new stadium opened, in March, 2000, I bought a season ticket for a single seat, the first season ticket of my life. I kept it until the whole sick Barry-Bonds-steroids-and-lies mess was revealed; quit paying attention to baseball for a few years; got re-interested after the Giants cut Bonds loose; and three weeks before the start of this season I took a deep gulp and went down to the stadium and bought season tickets for an entire row.

My old seat was in the lower stands, between the pitcher’s mound and third base, but my new seats are in an area less-coveted by most people. To reach them, you climb to the upper deck and head down the right field line; you walk until you’ve reached the end of the stadium, and at the last aisle leading upward you climb until you can’t climb any more. The highest seats, the very last two seats in the entire house, constitute a two-seat row, my row, with what I believe is the very best view in the stadium. My old single seat cost about $35/game, as I recall. Maybe more. My entire new row costs $20/game. I’m not using my row on Friday night. I ask the young couple from Calgary if they’ve bought tickets yet. They haven’t. I pass two tickets over the seat back. “Really?” they ask. If I were writing a book about this year (I’m not) I think I might call it, “My Year of Giving Stuff Away.

At the W Hotel I pick up a woman headed to Van Ness and Market. We’ve only gone one block when, in response to my questions, she allows that she is the head of Microsoft’s Department of Corporate Responsibility. We’re stopped for a red light at Fourth and Howard. I turn around and look at her. “That’s got to be a great gig!” She nods. She’s smiling, smiling big. Yes, great gig. She knows.

Oh, am I ever looking forward to the next eight and a half blocks of this ride -- I hope every light is red. But when I slide a couple more questions over the backseat, she says, “I really would love to talk, but I’ve just got to check my messages.” I do understand, but…bummer, man, bummer -- Microsoft’s Director of Corporate Responsibility is in my backseat, and I’m not even going to get to talk to her!

I hear her tapping at her phone and out of the corner of my eye see her hoist it to her ear. She’s young and lovely, another in a string of very well put together, very impressive, very successful-looking African-American people I’ve had in my cab lately. I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1950s and 1960s, and back then I just never saw black people maneuvering their ways through the System as easily and is comfortably as the black folks who pass through my backseat these days. Times have indeed changed. Recently I took to the airport a young black man who lives in Alexandria -- 30 years old, very polished, very confident, law degree, head of some department in the General Services Administration, briefly here in San Francisco to give a speech. I asked him how he saw his future. He enumerated several offers and options that have been presented to him lately, and it sounded to me like the sky was his only limit.

“Hi, it’s Celeste…” My fare is leaving a message condolence for a friend of hers who has just now left Celeste a voicemail message about the sudden death of the friend's husband. All of this eats up five blocks of the ride. Celeste closes her phone.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“This is the third death in my circle in the last two weeks,” she says.

We spend the last three and a half blocks talking about death and also about life -- about the inexplicable, absolutely miraculous nature of these brief body-rides we are each given -- and then we’re at Van Ness and Market, Celeste's destination, and she immediately “gets” and graciously accepts my free ride -- I tell her, “I think this is my first ‘condolences’ free ride...” -- and then I’m driving up Van Ness Avenue, alone, mid-morning on a Wednesday, the last day of March. Above me the sky is completely covered with a rumpled sheet of tortured gray clouds. Looks like everything's going to bust loose any second now.