Thursday, April 1, 2010


Shift #34

FRIDAY, APRIL 2/ -- Sixteenth/Valencia to Northpoint/Mason -- $11.65

IT’S 5:50 A.M., STILL DARK OUTSIDE, AND QUIET. The only moving vehicles are police cars and delivery trucks and other cabs. Just two blocks from the yard, my first fare of April steps from the bus shelter at Sixteenth and Valencia and raises his arm. He’s headed to Il Pescatore, the Italian restaurant at the Tuscan Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf, where he has worked for the past five years. He was born in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, just north of Cabo San Lucas, but he grew up all over the place. During his youth, his parents moved the family around Mexico and then around California and then around some other states, too.

Six months ago he went back to La Paz to visit friends and family, and he was shocked. Never before in Mexico had he seen people so scared and upset -- “excited” was his word. It used to be that Mexicans who were in trouble could go to the police, he says, but now the drug cartels have given money to everyone -- the police, the army, the politicians, maybe even to your neighbor. Who can you trust? As we climb up Franklin, clear the crest of Pacific Heights, and catch sight of the Bay down below us, his words come softly out of the backseat darkness, like the voice of a horror film narrator. Everyone either works for the cartels or has been threatened by the cartels or has become terrified of or paralyzed by the cartels, he says. There is no one to turn to. It was scary enough in La Paz, but he also went to Mexico City for a couple of weeks, and it was much worse there. Walking on the streets, he could see it in people’s faces: the fear. Who is with the cartels? What’s going to happen? Soon, says my fare, something bad is going to happen in Mexico. I could feel it, he tells me. The time to deal with it -- to confront the cartels and root them out -- was twenty years ago. Now it’s too late, he says. Fear has started to change the mentality of the people. Something bad, something big, is soon going to happen in Mexico.

I tell him that I spent the year 1990 in San Miguel de Allende, a sleepy town four hours north of Mexico City by bus. The place was corrupt, with policemen casually stopping motorists and squeezing money from them on the spot, and a clique of rich business and political operators controlling everything, but day-to-day life seemed peaceful, tranquilo. The masses were obviously poor, but to me they seemed content, accepting, friendly, happy. Or maybe they were simply defeated, and I lacked the proper cultural filter through which to see reality… Nonetheless, I never thought people on the street seemed afraid.

They are all afraid now, my fare says.

I ask if he thinks the cartels would collapse if we legalized certain drugs here in the States.

Maybe, he says. Who knows? Certainly the States are part of the problem. After all, he says, every single one of the guns used by the cartels come from the States.


* * My mouth gets into the act * *

Shift #35

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7 – Bush/Polk to SFO -- $34.60

I DON’T KNOW WHY I wake up two hours before my alarm is set to go off. It’s 3 A.M. and the house is silent, but I soon have an awareness that my mind is inventorying all the problems and situations in my life. I roll onto my back, focus on my breaths, scan my body toes-to-tip-of-head, and then ask, “So, are we awake now, or should we try to get some more sleep?”

Body says, Watch this, dude...! and then slowly rolls us off “our” side of the bed and plants his feet on the floor…

By 4:20 I’m cruising up Van Ness, wondering if I can make it without coffee for another hour-plus. My favorite Noah’s Bagels store at Mission and Fremont doesn’t open until 5:30. Maybe I should head toward the twenty-four-hour Starbucks out at Laurel Village? I’ve got my ear on the radio, wondering if I’m going to score an early airport ride or is this going to be one of those demoralizing mornings where I drive around empty for two or three hours? Many veteran cab drivers claim they’ve developed a sixth sense about where to find business, and while experience does count for a lot, simple coincidence plays a role, too. I have no conscious thought about what, if anything, causes me, this morning, to turn the steering wheel away from Laurel Village, away from coffee, and down Bush Street instead, but after a quick block and a half, just past Polk Street, I see a young man with a world-travelers’ backpack. He’s standing between two parked cars, hand in the air, and behind him, in the sidewalk shadows, I see a young blond woman with her own backpack...

At the back of the cab, I take the weight of the woman’s backpack in my arms and wait for her to slip its straps, a maneuver that became second-nature to me thirty years ago during a six-month, round-the-world journey with my then-wife. These two folks are from England, can’t be more than 25 years old -- well, maybe 30 -- and are in the fourth month of their own six-month, round-the-world trip. They spent the first three months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, their first visit to southeast Asia. Highlights? The woman mentions the tranquil Vietnamese beach town of Nha Trang. The man mentions an attraction in northern Thailand that allows willing humans to spend time in a pen with non-drugged, fully-clawed, full-sized adult tigers -- these particular kings of the jungle were raised in captivity and are docile enough that you can lie down with them. So far, San Francisco has been the highlight of the American portion of their trip, “But,” says the man, “the only other place we’ve seen is Los Angeles.” The woman says they were warned not to leave their hotel room in downtown LA at night, and so they spent several evenings in a windowless room listening to sirens, distant and up-close, and thinking that LA was probably not a place they would want to live.

Things were much better here in San Francisco -- they enjoyed the four or five nights they spent at the Encore Express hostel on Bush Street. Now they’re off to SFO and Florida via a cheap US Air flight (so cheap that they added Florida to their itinerary just yesterday), and later they’ll be visiting the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and then it’s back to England. They both recently completed the years-long coursework necessary to “qualify” in their respective professions -- she’s a child care provider, he’s a plumber -- and back home they both have positions they believe are rather loosely being “held” for them. They started dreaming about this trip a year ago, and bought their air tickets last July. The economy in England has been horrible, and this seems a convenient time to be out seeing the world. In Southeast Asia, their money seemed to last forever. The woman: “In Cambodia, air conditioned rooms cost four dollars...

My “traveling self” easily remembers the alarm one experiences when moving from a poor country to a rich one and suddenly saying money fly from one’s pocket. A part of me is dying to make this my free ride. Another part of me doesn’t want to give up such a big fare. My ego wants these two kids to grow old and someday fondly remember magical San Francisco and the cab driver who drove them to the airport long before the sun came up -- for free! And the loudest part of me says, “You are such an ignorant fool!”

On the approach ramp to the airport, I have no idea how it’s all going to go down. I tell Body and my mind to sort it out and let me know, but I don’t think they actually do reach an agreement. They are both still yapping at each other when -- surprise! -- my mouth steps in and takes control. We’re at the terminal now. I pull to the curb and stop the meter, and the deed unfolds right under my nose. My lips part, my voicebox rumbles to life, my ears register the sound waves, and my brain interprets them: “Every day, I give away one free ride, and today…”



Shift #36

FRIDAY, APRIL 9 – Sacramento/Battery to Lombard/Battery -- $5.80


On Fridays I pay $102 to rent my cab (from 4 A.M. until 4 P.M. it’s mine to do with as I please), and gas costs me another $5-10, so I’ve got to clear about $110 before I start making money “for myself.” But today -- a windless, cloudless, beautiful spring day, expected high around seventy degrees -- I’m knocking off at noon. The San Francisco Giants play their first home baseball game today (the Giants are 3-0, the only undefeated team in the majors in this young season), and my old friend Larry Habegger and I are going to inaugurate my new season tickets.

Larry is in his late 50s, like me, and a few years ago had the special geezer thrill of seeing a Minneapolis newspaper columnist remember him as maybe “the best high school shortstop ever to play in the Twin Cities” or maybe it was “God’s gift to baseball” or something else kind of like that, but whatever it was, for the past decade Larry and I have enjoyed watching baseball together and polishing up our glory days.

My two seats constitute the “last row” in the stadium -- to reach them you go to the upper deck, walk down the right field section as far as you can walk, climb the last row of steps as high as you can climb, and voila, there you are. I have sat in seats all over the stadium and in my opinion there are many views worse than, but none better than, the view from my seats. You’re up so high that you actually look down on the flat top edge of the right field foul pole. One hundred feet straight below your right elbow you see kayakers and pleasure boaters puttering just beyond the right field fence, in McCovey Cove, waiting for a “splash hit” home run to come sailing out of the park. The long elegant arm of the Bay Bridge stretches across miles of blue water and seems to point, like Babe Ruth calling his shot, toward the cross-bay cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Thirty miles in the distance, beyond the green East Bay hills, you see the tip of the Bay Area’s highest mountain, Mt. Diablo (3,849 feet), at the base of which my daughter is in school this morning.

To me, it’s worth sacrificing a little income to sit in my seats on Opening Day. But in fact, it looks like I’ll be sacrificing all my income today -- by noon I’ll be lucky to have earned even one dollar of profit. After hitting the streets at 4:21 AM this morning I was empty for more than two hours, and since then I’ve had just four “local” rides (no airports) and grossed just $46. And now, at 8:55 A.M., I’m flagged in the Financial District by three thirty-something guys wearing business suits. I move all my stuff (notebook, computer, jacket) off the front seat and into the trunk so that one of them can, more comfortably, ride up front with me.

The three of them are from Atlanta, and as businessmen go, they are kind of rowdy, talking smack about which of them will do the speaking during their upcoming meeting. Eventually, each of them volunteers tongue-in-cheek to not say a friggin word, but to just sit there and shut up and let the other two do all the talking. The one in the front seat suggests that if they get this thing over with by noon, maybe they can go catch the Giants-Braves game. One of his colleagues in the backseat says, “The game isn’t even in San Francisco, doofus -- it’s in Atlanta.”

I butt in “No… They’re playing in San Francisco at 1:35 pm.”

The guy in the backseat: “No, I heard it on the tv in my hotel room this morning -- it’s in Atlanta.”

Me: “Now don’t make me stop this cab, get my jacket out of the back, and pull my game ticket out of the pocket for you...”

The man up front turns toward the backseat: “You know, James, it’s entirely possible that this fellow who actually lives here and actually has a ticket to the game, he might just know what he’s talking about. Not highly likely, but still, entirely possible…” And everyone laughs.

It’s a very short ride. I love the dumbfounded looks on their faces, especially the one in the back, when I tell them this is my free ride for the day. They recover, however, and seem to warm to the idea pretty quickly.

Two rides later: Oakland airport -- fifty bucks.

At noon I turn in with $28 in my pocket.

Play ball!


* * The Secret to Wealth * *

Shift #37

SUNDAY, APRIL 11 – Caltrain Station to Union Square -- $7.60

A FEW NIGHTS AGO my fare was giving a presentation on the laws of probability at the Exploratorium, over by the Golden Gate Bridge, and while shuffling his deck of cards at the beginning of a demonstration, he accidentally dropped several of them onto the floor.

A member of the audience, a young woman, stepped forward to help retrieve them, and one thing led to another, and now, several days later, after an exchange of emails, my fare has just stepped off the train from Palo Alto, where he’s spent a couple of years studying the laws of probability at Stanford. In a matter of weeks he will be have earned a Ph. D, but right now he’s headed to the Westin-St. Francis on Union Square to meet the young woman for a cup of coffee.

Most of the people on the train, he says, were coming up to San Francisco for today’s Giants vs. Braves baseball game, and he feels bad for them, as there is a high, and obvious, probability that the game’s going to be cancelled. It’s been raining hard all morning, and right now a steady downpour is drumming onto the roof of the cab. Tiny explosions of water are hopping from the asphalt along Fifth Street like mid-birth popcorn.

We chit-chat about baseball, and about women, and about what sort of career options are available to a soon-to-be Stanford probability Ph. D, and then, as we’re crossing Mission Street, I ask him to outline the presentation he gives.

He says it’s designed for a general audience, and he begins to describe a trick he performs as part of the evening: he says you can toss a coin in the air so that it looks like it’s flipping end-over-end, when in reality it’s not -- it’s simply wobbling very energetically, like a dinner plate you’ve clumsily placed on a table; it flutters and wobbles and flutters and wobbles until it finally settles down. An observer watching my fare’s demonstration would -- probably -- think he or she had seen a completely legitimate, end-over-end flip of the coin, but in fact my fare knows for certain whether it’s going to come up heads or come up tails….

We’re just two blocks from Union Square now, and nearing the end of the ride, and I suddenly realize the enormous opportunity I’m squandering... “Please,” I say, “if you don't mind, I just gotta tell you this story…”

He: “OK…”

Fortunately I know this story pretty well, as I’ve told it quite a few times, but never to anyone with the unique expertise of my fare. Me: “I’ll be as fast as I can.”

He: “OK.”

Me: “Thirty-five years ago, when I was twenty-three years old, I lived in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado and worked in an underground mine. I soon came to the conclusion that there must be some preferable way to make a living, and I decided to investigate the world of gambling. I read every book on gambling and the laws of probability that I could find in the Boulder, Colorado, library, and I came up with a Theory. I’d been a history major in college, and my Theory was built around the old maxim about history always repeating itself…”

We’re following the wet, slick, cable car tracks up Powell Street now. Union Square is just half a block away. I glance over the back seat. My fare nods. He’s listening. He’s quite familiar with scenarios in which things repeat themselves.

Me: “So I figure that if history repeats itself, if it is in fact true that something that has happened before is likely -- is almost guaranteed -- to happen again, well, does this have any ramifications for the present moment? Specifically, was there some application I could take into a casino and use to make money?”

At Geary Street, we stop for a red traffic signal. On the side of a Muni bus passing through the intersection is a billboard featuring a quotation in large letters, part of some new advertising or public service campaign: Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education -- Mark Twain. I make a mental note to investigate -- later, but not now! I glance over the seatback again. My fare says, “Uh-huh…” He’s still with me -- he’s in Absorb mode, it seems.

Me: “So I zero in on the game of roulette -- the red and the black. Fifty-fifty. If the past is likely to repeat itself, does-it-or-does-it-not follow that when the ball has landed on black on the previous spin of the wheel, that there is then -- if history repeats itself -- an increased chance, even an infinitesimally increased chance, that it will land on black on the next spin?” I don't wait for any feedback, but plow ahead. “I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but that winter I spent hours and hours, week after week, month after month, tossing coins in the air, one hundred tosses in a row each time, and keeping careful track of the results. And I became convinced that there in fact IS an increased likelihood -- maybe one and a half a percent, but in a casino that’s all you need. And yes, I am aware of the theories about how my own participation -- all my hopes and expectations -- might be skewing the results of my experiment...” -- I peek back at him -- he nods, Yep, could be... -- “but those were my results. About one and a half percent. Pretty significant, really...”

The traffic signal turns green. I pull through the intersection, glide to a stop at the curb opposite the St. Francis (I note the long line of cabs parked in front), freeze the meter -- $7.60 -- and without looking back I just keep talking.

“So I decide that I’m willing to lose two hundred and fifty dollars to prove or disprove my theory, and I devise a system that tries to minimize my risk. I set it up so that I’ll either win twenty-five dollars each time I run my system, or I’ll lose two hundred and fifty and I’ll just call it quits.” My fair murmurs; I interpret this as a sound of interested engagement, but it’s possible that he’s simply dozing off.

“When summer comes around, some friends and I make a road trip to California and as we’re heading back to Colorado I convince them to stop in Reno. I run my system in a casino, just once, and bam, right off I win twenty-five dollars. But my friends don’t want to stay and they drag me out of the casino, and the whole way back to Colorado I’m thinking, It worked -- it friggin worked! I’ve got the Secret to Wealth!"

I pause and look back. My fare’s not asleep -- he’s leaning forward now, his right hand resting on the seatback, a bill pinched between his thumb and forefinger. He might be dying to escape me, but then again he might be entranced by my story, impressed by my Theory... For all I can tell, he might right now be recalculating the options available to a newly-minted Stanford probability Ph. D...

“So when I get back to Colorado, it’s making me nuts. I spend three days explaining my theory to everyone I know, telling them about the twenty-five dollars I won in Reno, asking them to point out any flaw they can see. No one sees a flaw. And after three days I wake up in the middle of the night -- not just the proverbial bolt upright in bed, but an actual bolt upright -- and I realize I gotta get this over with. In the morning I hitchhike three hours to the Denver airport, there’s a plane just leaving, I have to sprint through the terminal. In Las Vegas I take a cab to a cheap motel where the desk clerk asks me, ‘How long are you staying?’ I say, ‘I’m not sure.’ She says, ‘I’ll-put-you-down-for-three-days…’ She’s seen a million people like me …”

I peek back again -- my fare is smiling. He’s seen a million people like me. We’ve all seen a million people like me. There’s a sucker born every minute. But he says nothing.

“I head for the nearest casino and right away…” -- I snap my fingers – “Right away I win twenty-five dollars. I run it again…twenty-five more. And twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more…twenty-five more… Ten times in a row it works, and I’m just freaking out. I’m twenty-four years old, I have the Secret to Wealth, I will never work again…

“And then the eleventh time: I sit there for three straight hours -- and I can’t think of Anything more boring than that -- but I can’t win twenty-five dollars, and I never lose my two-hundred-and-fifty. And while I’m sitting there I notice at least one flaw I hadn’t thought of, something I’d completely overlooked -- that little green slot on the wheel, the house’s take -- three percent! Finally I leave the table -- I’m a-hundred-and-fifty ahead for the night, nice, but hardly the great wealth I’d imagined -- and I go back to my room and get out pencil and paper and do the math and realize that even if my theory is right -- and to this day I’m still convinced that it is -- I’m never going to prove it at the roulette wheel. Even if you’ve got a one and a half percent edge from history repeating itself, you’re not going to beat the house’s three percent edge. I still believe in my theory, but… Whaddyathink?

He’s right there behind me, just over over my shoulder, smiling a bit more broadly now, but still saying nothing. What’s there to say, really? He just shrugs.

“So there it is,” I tell him. “You find a game where the odds are a true fifty-fifty, and I’ve just given you the Secret to Wealth. All yours. Free.”

He snorts -- kind of softly. He extends his hand with the money in it. I turn forward, away from him, and punch the button that makes the figures on the meter disappear. “Every day I give away one free ride,” I tell him, “and today this is my free ride. I’ve never had the chance to tell that story to a Stanford probability Ph. D before. And you’ve been very kind to listen. So you get a free ride… What are the odds of that?”

I don’t know what he’s thinking, but finally he speaks. “Yes,” he says, and he's laughing. “What are the odds of that?”



Above: Lyle Lovett (not my fare)

Shift #38

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14 -- Hyatt Regency to South of Market -- $4.90

HE IS TALL AND LEAN -- a sort of Lyle Lovett lookalike wearing a snappy dark blue suit (were those pinstripes?) that I’m guessing cost about as much as my entire wardrobe. He folds himself into the back of my cab and in a slow, laconic voice tells me he is headed to an address four blocks away “to visit one of those incorrigible financial institutions that have been giving everyone so much trouble recently.” Then, as though recognizing and disapproving of his own jaded tone, he upgrades toward simple sarcasm: “My firm doesn’t actually take sides, we just ‘supply the weapons.’”

Me: “What weapons?”

“I work for Bloomberg News in New York. Our corporate mission is to supply all these folks all the access to all the information they need to do all the battles they want with each other.”

I mention the name of a friend, a Bloomberg reporter.

“I don't recognize that name, but I do sympathize with anyone writing for Bloomberg... Why? Because they wipe out all traces of creativity. No adjectives, no colorful prose. Show any flair and they’ll beat it out of you.”

For a short, short while my fare and I discuss adjectives and adverbs, and then our short, short $4.90 ride is over and he extends a green American Express credit card toward me. My regular cab was in an accident a few weeks ago, and while it’s being repaired I’ve been driving “spares” that lack swipe terminals, forcing me to resort to that Stone Age backup technology, the “knucklebuster.” Twice this morning I’ve already wrestled the big old clunky thing out of the glove box; employing it requires an awkward process during which I must ask for and write down the customer’s phone number and zip code -- and when I see this man’s credit card, and for such a small fare… Free ride.


I say, “Yeah!

“Hey, this isn’t me. This is corporate…” He’s a big personality who, I’m sure, draws people in quite easily, makes them feel comfortable, amused -- the perfect executive salesman.

“I don’t care. Free ride.”

We’re looking at each other over the backseat now, both smiling broadly. He’s got a large head that matches his outsize personality, a face that’s both wide and tall, and (Warning: two adjectives dead ahead) a completely disarming smile.

He: “Bloomberg -- the richest man in New York? The rich get richer… you want that?”

“Free ride.”

He: “I’m going to tell him.”

“Please do!”

He: “I will!”


* * Win-Win-Win * *


WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21 – Palace Hotel to Moscone Center -- $4.00

TODAY IS DEFINITELY A DIFFERENT SORT OF DAY. And it’s not just the odd, low sky, stretched tight overhead like a big beige sheet, without a wrinkle or a seam showing anywhere. Two nights ago, while I was on my way back from an all-day hike at Point Reyes, my cell phone rang with a call from my old cab driver friend Dennis Korkos who said he’d just seen me on TV during the Giants game, on a Toyota commercial about which I had completely forgotten during the past couple of weeks, and in whose reality I never had any faith, anyway. By the time I reached home there were already a couple of emails in my inbox, commenting on the ad. And now, some 36 hours after the ad started running, well, I think I’m either having, or am about to have, 15 minutes of fame. Maybe a whole half-hour. I haven’t seen the ad yet -- we don’t have cable at home, and I rarely watch TV -- but this morning my neighbor Mae told me that she saw the ad three times last night. This morning I received e-mails or phone calls from several friends who said they were astounded to see me suddenly appear in their living rooms during broadcasts of the Giants game, the A’s game, the Denver Nuggets game, the History Channel, Jeopardy, the 10 o’clock news… At the end of a ride to Oakland this morning, as I was climbing back into my cab, I heard a voice above and behind me bark, “Hey!” When I turned around, a dump truck driver called down to me, “It was you -- I was watching the Channel 5 news this morning -- Green Cab, Toyota Prius, Brad -- right? -- and now there you are, right in front of me! What’re the odds of that?” When I dropped a fare at the Fairmont Hotel this morning, the doorman greeted me, “Movie star!” The doorman at the Mark Hopkins said, I think, “Rock star!” (I’ve never spoken to either of them before, as far as I recall.) Shazam! I may have to hang on tight for this ride…

THE DOORMAN at the Palace Hotel has no special greeting, but he does have a fare for me. “She’s going to Moscone North,” he tells me.

She's a tall, pretty, young business-person with long, straight brown hair and a stressed look on her face. “How are you today?” I ask her.

She sighs. “I’m fine."

Me: “You sound…unconvinced.”

She laughs. “I don’t really like to travel for business... I’m from Nashville, and I would love your city if I were here on my own, but this is work… I’m in marketing… We have the capability to get a coupon loaded right onto your debit card... If your bank and the merchant are part of our program, you automatically get a discount...”

Me: “So, it’s a selling point for… the bank?”

She: “For the bank, for the merchant, and for the consumer. We say it’s a win-win-win. If the consumer doesn’t benefit, well, really, there’s no point.”

The timing is perfect -- we've already reached the end of her three-block ride, and now I mention the special consumer benefit that I deliver once a day. Although she seems delighted, she tussles with me a bit, but in the end we both win. As I set her wheeled suitcase on the sidewalk in front of Moscone North, she smiles broadly at me and says, “You’ve put a little sunshine in my San Francisco trip.”



Shift #40

FRIDAY, APRIL 23 --16th/Mission to the Exploratorium -- $19.75

THIS IS ALMOST UNDOUBTEDLY the first time you are seeing, hearing, or even imagining the word “cabulous” -- but it won’t be the last. I predict that within a year the good folks at will have transformed the entire landscape of taxicab dispatching in San Francisco -- and then in the world.

Most of us will soon be able, at any time of day or night, to stand on any street corner in San Francisco (or at the top of Telegraph Hill or with our toes in the surf out at Ocean Beach or…?) and be able to see, on the phone in our hands, a map showing the real-time location of all the empty and available taxicabs anywhere in the entire city. To summon one of these cabs you will simply touch a finger to the screen. And to speak directly to the driver you will simply touch again. (I think that’s how it works -- but it’s so new I’m not 100% familiar just yet).

This wizardry was conceived and incubated by three “kids” (they each look younger than thirty, but they're really 44, 31, and 22) who last year were members of the Best Buy “Geek Squad” and who now seem to be “on their way.” The number of Cabulous users in San Francisco grows day-by-day (earlier this week, a Green Cab colleague of mine had eleven Cabulous orders in one shift), and if the former Geeks are able to implement their broader vision, Cabulous will soon be available around the world. (If you have an iPhone, right this minute you can download, in less time than you have spent reading this post, a free application from and peruse an on-screen map showing every available, Cabulous-aligned cab in San Francisco. If you’re reading this online, just click here to see the same map.) The implications are staggering.

TODAY I’M FEELING A LITTLE STAGGERED MYSELF. A few weeks ago someone ran a red light and totalled my cab (I wasn’t driving it that day), and this morning I am behind the wheel of its replacement, a beautiful, brand new, green-and-white, 2010 Toyota Prius -- Green Cab #914. The dashboard region is a shuffled, updated, slightly confusing version of my previous (2008) Prius’s dashboard. Plus, Cabulous has installed a Cabulous-ready smart phone in ten of our thirteen Green cabs, including my own. (Cabulous has chosen Green Cab as its proving ground, and we are the first cab company in the world to be thus equipped.) I study all the guages and dials and knobs and cables in front of me and think, “Space shuttle.” Fortunately, this is not rocketry but cab driving, and I think I’ll be able to make it all work somehow.

Half a block from the yard I see my first fare standing outside the Sixteenth and Mission BART station. His name is Alex (or was it Alexis?) and he’s headed to his job managing a social network program for the Exploratorium, over in the Marina District. He’s twenty-six, grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, lived for a while in New York City and then New Orleans, and has been in San Francisco for a couple of years now and is liking it very much. I tell him about my new cab (“Still has the smell,” he says), I tell him about Cabulous, and then my phone rings with a call from Yusuf, who drove my cab last night. “Brad, the meter is hot. Last night I had a $55 SFO (usually a $35-40 ride).” The shop that calibrates cab meters is closed until Monday, but I know that Yusuf and all the other drivers at Green do the right thing -- as do I. I tell Alex what’s up and estimate his ride at $15 (we're not yet halfway there, and already the meter reads $10.75), and Alex says that $15 is indeed his usual fare. At ride’s end the meter reads $19.75, but it's irrelevant. My body informs me that this ride across Pacific Heights with this nice young man on this warm, windows-down April morning -- my first ride in my brand new cab -- well, this is today’s free ride. Alex seems to be quite o.k. with that.

MY NEXT FARE is a twenty-three year-old young woman going from the Marina up to Pacific Heights -- she is delighted to hear about Cabulous -- clearly, she says, this is a fantastic idea. In Pack Heights an elderly Russian couple flags me for a ride to the Maritime Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, and then, in North Beach another flag tells me he is late to his job at Second and Market. “Point taken,” I tell him, and we’re there in no time. It’s just a couple of blocks to the W Hotel, where I find a spot in the cab line and then duck inside to the lobby men’s room. As I’m stepping off the sidewalk to climb back into my cab, a horn beeps from just a few feet away. For the past...oh, maybe it’s been an entire forty-five minutes, I have not consciously reflected on the astounding new development in my life, but now this horn reminds me. I don’t know exactly what’s coming, but in general terms I do know. This time -- and my god is all of this great fun! -- it’s a young man behind the wheel of a battered white van with “Mike’s Locksmith” on the side. He's rolling with the slow traffic in the nearest lane of Howard Street. His passenger-side window is down. He’s wearing shades and the original electric grin. As he slides past, our eyes locksmith ever so briefly. He extends his arm and index finger right toward me -- “Hey! Saw you on tv!” -- and then he hangs a quick right onto Third Street and disappears in the direction of the Museum of Modern Art...


* * My better-looking brother * *

Shift #41

SUNDAY, APRIL 25 – 16th/Bryant to 22nd/Shotwell -- $6.70

A YOUNG WOMAN with black hair and peanut-butter-brown skin, and carrying a cylindrical tube slung over her shoulder, flags me from the bus zone. I would guess she’s from India, but when she asks if she can pay by credit card I note that her accent is dead-center mainstream modern American. She says she would usually walk the ten blocks to her home, but today she has to complete a project for school and she’s feeling pressured for time. Her tone is apologetic.

I tell her, “You should always...take a cab.” It’s one of my old, practiced lines, and I try to deliver it in a mirthful, grandfatherly tone, even though I can not imagine myself ever being a grandfather.

She tells me she is just about to graduate from the California College of the Arts (CCA). Her cylindrical tube contains a poster, the school project she is working on. I tell her that my family lives about half a mile from the Oakland campus of CCA and that my wife and I tease our daughter by saying she is welcomed to go to any college she wants to as long as it’s CCA. My fare laughs and says that she grew up in Portland, Oregon, just a few blocks from Reed College, and her parents used to tease her the same way about Reed. I ask where did she wind up going to school? “All the way across the country,” she says. “To Bates College in Maine!”

Nearing her house, I employ another old, practiced line of mine: “My grandparents came from Slovakia. May I ask what your ancestry is?”

“I was adopted from a small village in India. My adoptive parents were not Indian... No, I’ve never been to India, but I’m hoping to go soon.” I wish the ride were longer -- I wish I had the chance to dazzle her with some of my grandfatherly India stories -- but we’re in front of her address now. When I tell her not to bother getting out her credit card, she says, “Really?” and then tips her head to the side the way I saw many, many people do in India. She smiles and says, “Oh, you have made my day.”

IT IS ALMOST NOON NOW, and I aim my cab toward the baseball stadium. The cab driver to whom I gave my tickets for today’s one o’clock Giants game against the Cardinals handed them back to me yesterday, said he couldn’t use them after all, and now I still have them -- they’re tucked up under my sun visor.

I cruise for about a mile and a half down Mission Street, scanning the sidewalks for some likely couple to surprise, but it just doesn’t happen. At Fourth and Howard I’m flagged by a young man and woman headed to First and Harrison; they say they appreciate my offer but have other plans. At Spear and Harrison I see my first scalper -- hanging from his neck is a red placard with neat white lettering: BUY AND SELL TICKETS. I consider just giving him my pair and going on about my day, but Body says No.

It’s another beautiful, still, cloudless, windows-down, perfect San Francisco day -- it’s even warm! -- and streams of tee-shirted people are strolling along the Embarcadero esplanade, heading toward the ballpark. Scalpers are everywhere here, bunches of young and middle-aged men, almost all of them black, holding tickets overhead or flashing Sharpie-on-cardboard signs (Need Tickets!) or barking “Who’s got extra?” None of these guys pay any attention to me -- Why bother with a cab driver?

The vehicle traffic is game-day thick, and I crawl down the Embarcadero past Brannan and then sit through two full cycles of the signal at Townsend without moving an inch. I want this part of my day over with. The tickets cost me just ten bucks each, and now I’m wasting time trying to find a home for them. Maybe I really should just hand them to one of these guys, or just forget about them, let them go unused. It’s not like I’m going to be able to use or give away all of the eighty-one pairs I bought for this season…

Rod...-NEEE! Got two?” It’s a scalper on the far side of the Embarcadero yelling to a colleague over on my side, Rodney sprints through traffic and has a short conversation with his colleague and a couple of folks who look to be about my age. All parties flap their hands in the air for a bit and then part ways, all heads shaking, all faces frowning.

I squeeze my cab out of the right lane and over into the left lane, then dart quickly into the left turn lane. The light goes green for me exactly when I need it and I pull through the intersection and skid to a stop in the driveway that leads to City Kayak, the Java House Restaurant, and the Bike Hut. I’m blocking the sidewalk, right in the path of the would-be buyers. They’re five feet from my driver-side window and have to break stride to avoid walking smack into my cab. The man is sucking on a cigarette. The woman is the nearest to me, and her face shows surprise as she glances at me, this Green Cab driver who has suddenly cut her off.

The two of us speak at the same time. As I’m blurting, “You’re looking for tickets?” she’s blurting, “Weren’t you in that commercial?”

She looks down at the tickets I’m holding out, takes them, and begins to study them. Pedestrians stream around my cab. A car behind me is honking. “They’re all yours,” I say.

“Well…thanks!” she says. “But weren’t you in that commercial?”

I’m sure she knows the truth -- my smile says I have never in my life had quite this much fun -- so I don’t feel bad about giving her a line I invented at a party just last night, a line which got me a great big laugh: “That was my better-looking, more-articulate brother.”

She calls after me, “Well, you look just like him!”



Shift #42

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27 – W. Hotel to Van Ness and Myrtle -- $7.60

IN THE DARKNESS OF 5 A.M, the full moon hangs over the city like an aluminum trash can lid nailed halfway up a garage wall. By 8:30 it’s already a distant memory, replaced by a skyfull of high cauliflower clouds, warm wind gusts, and occasional sprinkles. I’ve just dropped a fare at St. Mary’s Hospital, right on the edge of Golden Gate Park, and one block away, on the unlikely corner of Hayes and Shrader, I’m flagged by a white guy who has a vaguely ghost-like air. He’s about forty, and strands of brown hair spill from under his “US Marine Corps” baseball cap and hang down on either side of his face, like window curtains.

When I start with my questions, he says, “My grandmother has recently gone blind from diabetes and I just stopped by the hospital for a few minutes to give her a kiss.” Now he’s headed to 16th and Valencia to meet a buddy for breakfast. He works nights as a stage hand at the Fillmore Auditorium, running cables and doing whatever else needs done. He grew up near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

That last tidbit jars loose something I haven’t thought of since last night: “After breakfast with your buddy,” I ask, “what does the rest of your day hold?”

“Well, I’ve got no plans, really…”

Me: “I’m not one hundred percent positive, but I think I have two tickets to today’s one o’clock Giants game in my trunk, and if I do, and if you want them, there all yours. Free… No, I’m not kidding… They’re playing Philadelphia.”

He: “The Phillies! I grew up watching the Phillies. Oh, man -- and you don’t want anything for them? Are you sure?”

Me: “I’m working. I can’t use them. Like I said, I’m not absolutely sure I have them, but if I do, really, they’re yours.”

“Oh… Oh… You can’t believe how wonderful that would be… I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been to a baseball game…” Something catches in his throat; he pauses, and I feel certain that if I turn around I’m definitely going to see at least a tear or two. Then he continues: “This would be so perfect. I have never been to the new stadium. And I’ve been having such a rough time lately…”

“Your grandmother?”

“That’s just part of it all… I was in Tikrit…”

Me: “You were in the Marines?”

“Army Air Corps, but I was with the Marines in Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown in Iraq) -- they gave me this hat. We were on a patrol with some of the Air Corps' Stinger missiles, and we got hit. Four of my guys died but by some miracle I lived. I spent two and a half years at Stanford Hospital…”

We’re stopped for a red light at Masonic and Haight, and my fare extends his hand between the two front seats, palm up, and pulls back his sleeve. At first glance the hand looks pretty normal, but then he points to a couple of places where, yes, I can see some crooked joints. And the skin of his forearm is bumpy, extra pale, and dotted with odd dark spots. “The doctors took tons of shrapnel out of my body, but there’s still a lot left. I’ve got a half-grapefruit size tumor near my spine, but it’s too hard to get to, at least for now... I’ve been out about a year... Just a few months ago I lost a good buddy, he died... And now my grandmother…”

At Haight and Central I pull to the curb: “Man, I gotta get out and make sure I have those tickets.” A moment later, very much relieved, I pass them into the backseat. He whimpers several thank yous and I think he might cry again.

He: “These tickets are my first break in a long time… I joined the Army at 17, but I never expected that by forty I’d be this beat up… While I was at Stanford I read the book Halliburton’s Army. You wouldn’t believe what our government is doing… They’ve got this whole rigged system -- completely, completely corrupt. Bush, Cheney, all those guys, they’re just part of a long line that goes back all the way to Lyndon B. Johnson... There’s this whole network of people who are getting rich off the war. It’s not really even a war -- it’s just a big business, biggest in the world. I had no idea how it all really worked, but now it all makes sense. They don’t even have military people serving food any more. No one cooks, no one cleans toilets. That’s all done by some private company with a big contract. Haliburton's Army -- you read that book, you won't believe it! They're making money by the shipload, by using up guys just like me...”

ALMOST THE ENTIRE REST OF MY SHIFT is dominated by The Commercial. It’s not that everyone in the world has seen it, but in each of the four shifts I’ve driven since It started airing, there have been at least ten or fifteen mentions. Today, bright and early, as I leave my cab, in search of coffee, a man on the sidewalk -- he’s about my own age, a nice-looking, gray-haired guy wearing a blue blazer and tie -- looks me briefly in the eyes, glances behind me toward my cab, then back to my face. Then his head tips back and his face breaks into a smile. To myself: Don’t jump to conclusions -- this is San Francisco… But I’m pretty sure…

At Post and Lyon, I pick up one of Citywide Dispatch’s regular callers. Right off: “Hey, it’s you -- they ran you on Channel 2 again this morning.”

Downtown with my window open, I hear people, sometimes twice in one block, call out to me: “Something-something tv!” And: “Something-something commercial!” An hour before the ballgame, two men wearing Giants jerseys wave me down. “Green Cab! I just saw an ad on tv about these Green Cabs!” It goes on and on… Sitting at a red light at the corner of Sacramento and Drumm, I find myself looking down at my clipboard, feeling self-conscious, avoiding eye contact with the ranks of pedestrians stopped just outside my window, waiting for the WALK signal. I know I asked for this, the limelight -- on some level I’ve ached for it forever -- but the reality can be unnerving.

When I drop her near St. Mary’s Hospital, I stop for three people clearing a crosswalk. One of them is an elderly, white-haired woman whose head slowly swivels to track my cab, and then, satisfied that it’s a confirmed sighting, she stops, grabs the elbows of the two men on either side of her, and points at me -- it’s the same motion moonlight strollers use when they’ve just seen a shooting star. Her lips move -- I can’t read them, but I don’t need to…

In the mid-1990s, during the same shift in which I drove the actor Danny Glover to the airport, I also gave a lift to the political consultant James Carville. I recognized Carville because on election night in 1992, I had watched a broadcast of Bill Clinton addressing a whooping crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas; for a full 30 seconds the camera lingered full-frame on Carville’s beaming face, while the network commentator gave him full credit for engineering Clinton’s victory. In my cab, I asked Carville if fame had been problematic for him. “The only problem,” he said, “is that every damn cab driver in the world recognizes me now... And out at the airport yesterday, I’m having an argument about my ticket -- is there anyone who hasn’t sometime or other found himself yelling at some poor clerk at the ticket counter? Only now, I notice there’s a crowd gathered around me, people going, ‘James Carville… James Carville… That’s James Carville making a damn fool of himself…’”

I’d be a damn fool to overblow my one tv commercial -- and I know this little storm will pass all too soon and I'll wish for it to come back -- but the Commercial is a reminder of how attention can make one’s head spin. Show me the cab driver, show me the person, who doesn’t believe that his or her views on the world are at least as valid as the views of those people whose voices and decisions actually shape events, actually change the world. When the signal on Drumm goes green I turn left onto Sacramento. In motion again, my composure returns. Unnerving or not, it will be just fine with me if this commercial somehow gives me permission, gives me a platform from which to dispense some of my views on things beside my Prius. I hope that sucker goes national. I hope it goes global.

AT THE W HOTEL I pick up a woman who for a decade lived in the Piedmont Avenue section of Oakland, just a couple hundred yards from the house where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. Six years ago she moved up into the Oakland hills. Since the housing meltdown started, her new home has lost about $40,000 in value, but that’s okay, she says -- her job as a nurse has kept her fairly insulated. She’s five years from retirement and now she can smell it. She likes her new place -- it has a view. The only drawback is that she needs to get into her car for everything now. Back in the old neighborhood she could walk to the grocery, the dry cleaners, the movies, half a dozen coffee houses, a dozen good restaurants… At the end of the ride, Body doesn’t even consult me. He’s sick of all the preoccupation with The Commercial, and he’s pleased to see the boy from the ‘hood back again. Body turns toward the backseat. Body says, “Every day I give away one free. Today this is my free ride...”

My fare smiles. She likes this quite a bit, it seems, from strangers... -- it’s tricky. “Well, thank you very much,” she says. “But will you let me at least give you a tip?”

I feel my shoulders slump forward. Body and I really don’t want to bully anyone with our free ride thing. If someone has to tip, ok, we do understand. But Body wants to have some fun. Body smiles. I hear gentle pleading in Body’s voice. “Go on, just take a free ride… You can take a free ride, can’t you?”

And that does it.

(UPDATE: At shift’s end, as I head back across the Bay Bridge, I flip on the baseball game. The Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, has pitched eight innings of eleven strikeout, three-hit baseball. But in the top of the ninth, with the Giants leading 4-1, Lincecum starts off by issuing a four-pitch walk. Manager Bruce Bochy pulls Lincecum and brings in the Giants All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, who loads the bases, and then, with two outs and a full-count on the batter, induces a pop fly that heads toward the right field stands. But a gust of wind -- a gust which seems to take even the announcers by surprise -- blows the ball back toward the field, back just far enough so that it finds a spot on the right field line on which to land, kicking up chalk dust. Fair ball! Three runs score. The game is tied, 4-4. As much as I hurt for my Giants, I can’t help smiling for that guy up there in my seats, way up above the right field line, blowing with everything he’s got, blowing that ball back toward fair territory.)



Shift #43

FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2010 -- Priceless

UPON EACH OF OUR DEATHS, I suspect we’re going to discover that our just-completed lives were in fact no-brainers, that everything would have worked out pretty much the same even if we’d devoted a lot less time and energy to worrying about all of it. I actually used to worry about my free rides -- did I have permission to do this? was it ok? was I being a fool? -- but now that seems ridiculous, not worth a single thought.

Today’s first free ride requires no mental activity whatsoever -- it's pure Body. Sixty seconds after I leave the yard, she flags me from the bus zone at Fourteenth and Mission. I tell her I’m on my way to pick up a pre-scheduled airport customer, but maybe we’re both headed in the same direction…? She says she’s just going four blocks, right along my intended route. She’s running late to her new job at the Martha’s Coffee shop which opened nine days ago at Tenth and Mission. The lights are all green, we’re there in two minutes. She loves the free ride, and says if I have time to stop by later, the coffee’s on her…

THAT FIRST RIDE is not flavored by The Commercial, but the rest of my shift is marinated in it. Ten days after It began airing, I’m starting to relate to Bill Murray's character in the movie “Groundhog Day.” At least once an hour I find myself having the same Ad-centric conversation, and rarely is it initiated by me, but by my fares -- or by sidewalk pedestrians or other cabdrivers or, say, by the two lunch-eating guys sitting in the cab of a furniture delivery truck parked at the corner of Sutter and Sansome around noon today: “Hey, that was you in the Green Cab ad -- right?” I forget about The Ad for increasingly shorter stretches of time, and then, there I am again, addressing the two main comments, “How did you wind up in it?” and “I hope they’re paying you a shitload of money?” [NOTE: It wasn’t until ten days after the ad began saturating the airwaves that the ad agency and I had any sort of discussion about money. A woman from the ad agency telephoned me and apologized for having forgotten to get my permission and payment papers taken care of in advance. Now she had put sent them in the mail to me, and could I please sign and return them as soon as possible. I told her I was having the time of my life, and I would be absolutely happy, in fact, I’d really prefer, to do the ad for free. Over the phone I heard her gasp, an intake of air. “Oh, we have to pay you. We actually...have to pay you!” In the end, I received a total of $4,500 and an invitation to join the Screen Actors Guild.]

Late in the day I’ve completely forgotten the Ad, but then at Sacramento and Hyde a young man jumps into the backseat: “Hey, that was you…!” He repeats a head-spinning comment, variations of which I’ve grown accustomed to hearing during the past twelve days: “Man, I’ve seen that ad too many times to count now! And for days I’ve been scanning the streets, looking for Green Cabs, and hoping maybe I’d see you at the wheel.”

As we head downtown I tell my increasingly polished story: How I recognized the huge disconnect between the headlines -- “Toyota Unsafe!” -- and the things people in real life were saying: “Man, I love my Toyota, and I’ve never had a single problem with it!” And how I approached Toyota’s ad agency and suggested they interview the grizzled, veteran Prius cab drivers of San Francisco, with the drop-dead-gorgeous city as a sexy backdrop.

My fare says that, in retrospect, it looks like a pretty obvious idea -- actually, he calls it “a no-brainer” -- and all that was lacking was someone to point it out. We talk further about what an incredibly powerful medium television is; about how visible this little Green Cab venture has become (we started three years ago this month with one Prius -- today we have thirteen); and about how much fun this whole thing is on so many levels for so many people -- “We’re all into the green movement,” he says -- and perhaps most especially fun for me.

At ride’s end I see that I’ve forgotten to start my meter. Free ride, I tell him. “Oh, man,” he says. “I gotta take your picture -- do you mind?” He aims his cell phone, and I don’t have a bit of trouble working up a smile.