Sunday, August 1, 2010

Secret Beach

Shift #64

SUNDAY, AUGUST 1 -- Bay/Laguna to Moscone Center -- $10.30

FOR WEEKS NOW the number one topic of conversation in my cab (also in my neighborhood, and in the rest of my personal life, and inside my head) has been this summer’s freaking foggy weather. It’s a landslide -- the Giants posted the best record in the major leagues during July (during one stretch they won twenty out of twenty-five games), and although they’ve been the talk of the baseball world, they are not even close to pushing aside the weather.

People, including me for sure, seem to regard the fog as a personal insult. There is a collective consensus that some sort of “breach of contract” has been committed by someone, somewhere, and that some sort of class action lawsuit is undoubtedly called for. But no one really, after all, wants to get into a legal wrangling with God, and the more reasonable among us have been cautioning that we should just wait and see -- July often is a little iffy, perhaps August will be different. Yes, August should be different…

But here it is, August 1, the very time of year when blue skies are virtually guaranteed in San Francisco. But no -- overhead this morning we’ve got the same dirty gray blanket that’s been slung over the City for the past month. Plus, it seems as though an unseen hand has laid a heavy comforter on top of the whole mess -- maybe two comforters. Life here is starting to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day” -- the same dreary scenario repeating itself over and over and over...

FOR NEARLY AN HOUR AND A HALF I drive around empty, but seconds after I turn toward Noah’s Bagels on Chestnut Street to grab a second cup (a sheer boredom cup) of coffee, I am flagged by two early-thirties blond women who are here to attend the big annual Gift Show at Moscone. They met in college, at the University of Virginia, and a few years ago decided to open their own jewelry business. I eavesdrop halfheartedly while they discuss their competition, the level of foot traffic at the show (slower than they had imagined), and their strategy for ramping up sales, but when they start griping about the fog my ears prick up. And then one of them makes the mistake of asking me if it’s always like this during August.

Me: “This is my twenty-ninth summer in the Bay Area, and I promise you I have never seen any summer even remotely like this one. I live across the Bay, over in Oakland, and in Oakland we have always counted on having mostly clear blue skies from morning until night from April right on into November. From Oakland we often look smugly across the Bay at the fog hanging over San Francisco, but not this big fat heavy fog, and not every darned day. For the past month I’ve been stepping out the front door of my house about five-thirty in the morning and I have to strain to see the top of the palm tree at the end of my street. And forget about blue skies -- sometimes the fog doesn't burn off all day long. For days in a row!”

One of the women: “It’s been so hot and humid back East this summer. If I had to pick one or the other, I guess I’d pick the cool."

Me: “I probably would, too… But we’re all ready for some sun around here!”

The other woman: “I guess I’d rather be here than down in Louisiana skimming oil off the beach…”

And that shuts me up -- temporarily.

One woman starts talking about a warm, sunny trip to Hawaii that she and her surfer-husband took not so long ago. At the mention of Kauai, an involuntary whimper escapes me, and in a moment I’m telling one of my stories:

“There is a beach on the north side of Kauai -- it’s called Secret Beach, even though it’s not really a secret. About twenty years ago someone told my wife and me about it, and now I’ve been back a few times. You have to hike down a hundred-foot cliff to reach it, and that keeps a lot of people away. It’s about half a mile long, and the beach -- perfect white sand -- extends out from the base of the cliff for about a hundred yards. You’ve both been to Hawaii…? Then you know the colors and the light and the air and how intoxicating it all can be… When you’re sitting on Secret Beach watching people body surf, you see these huge waves sweep in and lift them up ten feet in the air, and the water’s so clear that you see right through the wave -- all you see is the shape of the surfer. Plus there are dolphins that swim into the bay every few days to play with people. They don’t come right up to everyone -- I swam out, but they never did come up to me -- but they’d swim right up to some of the people who’d been coming there a long time...

“At the base of that big cliff there’s a spot where water comes pouring out of the rock -- it’s rain water that’s filtered down from the mountains at the top of the island, through the layers of rock, and by the time it gets to you it’s pure, perfectly drinkable, and it comes out of the cliff at about shower-nozzle-height, at about shower-nozzle-speed. You can drink it, you can shower in it -- you almost never see anyone wearing clothes on Secret Beach. (Note: That’s me in the above photo, taken by my wife on Secret Beach sometime in the early 1990s.)

“If you climb back up the cliff, there’s a little market about a mile inland -- so you can live pretty simply there for a long time, for not very much money at all. Once I spent three weeks camping there, and I met people who’d been living in little shelters in the nearby jungle for two years… six months… eight years -- Europeans backpackers, dropouts from the States, or three-week guys like me. Even a few single women. One guy I met had been a high school teacher somewhere back East and when he found this beach, six years earlier, he just never went home...”

As we pull up in front of Moscone, under our dirty gray blanket and our pile of heavy comforters, I apologize for having gone off.

Both women: “Oh no, that was great…”

One of them: “I’d rather be there today than here…”

The other: “I wanna go, too…”

Nonetheless, I’d talked too much: Free Ride.



Shift #65

Friday, August 6 -- SFO to the city of Belmont -- $29.85

FARES LIKE THIS ONE come along only once or twice a year -- or, during many years, not at all.

He strolls confidently out of the International Terminal, wheeling a small suitcase behind him and with a bag slung over one shoulder. He’s in his mid-twenties, handsome, with skin the color of cinnamon, and thick black hair newly brushcut to about an inch and a half in length. He’s wearing a fresh cardinal-red polo shirt and designer blue jeans -- he’s the whole package, meticulously assembled.

Me: “Good afternoon.”

He: “Yes, good afternoon.” He has an Indian accent. “Do you know the Summerfield Suites in the city of Belmont?”

Me: “Right across from the Oracle campus?”

He: “Yes -- that’s it. And may I pay with an American Express Card?”

Me: “Absolutely.” (Most San Francisco taxi drivers, including me, now accept most credit cards.)

He settles into the backseat and, slowly, tentatively, breathes, “Toy-o-tah Pree-uss -- yes?”

The way he draws it out, I think maybe he’s recalling Toyota’s bad publicity from earlier this year. I say: “Yes. It’s a great car. I love it.”

He: “Is it electric?”

Me: “It’s a gas-electric hybrid.”

He: “I wrote a paper on the Toyota Prius... In 2004.” Long before the scandal.

I ask: “Have you ridden in a Prius before?”

He: “No. This is my first time. Actually, this is my first time ever to see one.”

Until now he has seemed so self-assured and worldly that I’ve assumed he’s one of the many Indian immigrants who’ve entrenched themselves in the Silicon Valley computer industry over the past couple of decades.

Me: “You are from India?”

He: “Yes. India.”

Me: “Are you coming from India just now?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “Is this your first time to San Francisco?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “First time to America?”

He: “Yes.”

I absolutely love being the first American a foreigner meets post-Customs. Cab drivers are frequently referred to as “The Ambassadors of the City,” but we also often function as ambassadors for the entire country -- I’ve had maybe fifty “newcomer” fares over the years. I turn, look back, extend my hand over the backseat. “Welcome to America!”

Our newest arrival shakes my hand and allows himself a slight smile: “Thank you. What is your good name?”

“Brad. And yours?”

“Brad…” He rolls my name around in his mouth. “Brad... Mine is Manu.”

Manu says he is a software engineer, employed by Oracle in New Delhi for four years now. He’s come to the States for some specialized training, will stay at the Summerfield Suites for five weeks, and then return home. This is the first time any member of Manu’s family has ever set foot outside of India. He has a younger brother and sister. His father works as a “civil servant.” When I ask about his mother, Manu says, “I lost my mother… Twenty years ago… She got sick and died… Yes, thank you.”

Had Manu been nervous about coming to America?

“Not at all,” he says. “Is there something I should be nervous about?”

Me: “No -- just the ‘normal’ nervousness about leaving everything familiar behind. I was twenty-two when I first left America. I was very nervous -- but I had no job and no money, and you don’t have to worry about those things.”

Manu: “No.”

Me: “I imagine that your family might be a little worried? The oldest son, the big brother... He’s gone off to America!

Manu, soberly: “Yes. They will be worried.”

Me: “I have visited India twice, and I was nervous before I went -- especially the first time.”

Manu: “When was this?”

Me: “In 1982 and 1988 -- a long time ago.”

Manu: “What parts did you see?”

Me: “Delhi, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Bombay, Goa… Oh, and Varanasi -- my favorite.”

Manu: “There have been so many changes. Things are better now.””

Me: “People often tell me that, but I’m not sure what they mean. Better in what way? Newer?”

Manu: “Yes, newer. Buildings, cars... There are many more cars all the time now.”

I do not believe that more cars will possibly be a good thing for India, or for any place. I say: “I would like to go back and see for myself. If I do, will I still see cows in the streets and millions of poor people everywhere?”

Manu: “Oh, yes. We still have those…”

Me: “Have you ever seen the ocean?”


Me: “It’s right over those hills.” I point to our right.

“Really?” Manu studies the green coastal range for a few moments. Today’s sky is the famous California blue, but a low, almost unnoticeable, stripe of bright white fog hovers at the ridgetop. I wonder if Manu’s ever seen fog before, but I find myself hoping he doesn’t ask me about it. How do you explain fog?

Manu: “I may need a taxi later in my stay. Might you be available?”

I tell him that I’m only licensed to pick up passengers at the airport or in the city of San Francisco, which is about 20 miles back up the freeway now, but I’m sure that one of the taxi drivers from Belmont will be happy to help him. Does he drive a car?

Manu: “Yes, but everything is on the other side. I think I will probably not try it very soon here.”

Me: “I’m fifty-eight. May I ask how old you are?”

Manu: “Less than half. Twenty-seven.” Hahff.

A couple of blocks from the Summerfield we stop behind a gleaming, silver gasoline tanker whose entire backside is an enormous oval mirror, convex, so that our reflection is enlarged as in a fun house mirror. As I make a slow turn to the left, I see the image of our green-and-white-checked Toyota Prius, a long, distorted side view, from the front of the snub-nosed hood all the way down the tapered back. The cab looks huge, as though it’s been blown up and we’re now seeing ourselves on a big, garish roadside billboard. The front seat area is obscured in shadowy darkness -- I can’t see myself -- but at the right rear window it’s easy to see Manu, life-sized plus a bit, in full color, and smiling broadly.

Me: “Look -- there’s Manu in America!”

It cannot be denied. He laughs: “Aghh -- yes!

IN FRONT OF THE SUMMERFIELD, as Manu is sliding his American Express card from his wallet, I place his luggage at his feet.

Manu: “How much…?”

But I cut him off: “Welcome to America, Manu -- this is a free ride.”

I reach my hand out toward him -- he takes it, and we shake again, but I know he is not yet understanding -- of course not. He’s looking at my face, expectant, awaiting my pronouncement of the total.

Me: “This is a free ride, Manu. Welcome to America -- it has been my pleasure to meet you. I don’t want any money. ”

As this sinks in, a shot of panic shows on Manu’s face. “No, please…” He had imagined his journey correctly up to this point: the long flight, the customs agents, the cab to the hotel -- but not this free ride business. “No please,” he says, holding out his credit card. This wasn’t in the script. “Please. Take the money…”

I step back. “Many people in India were very kind to me, Manu. This is my way of saying thank you.”

The panic recedes from his face, but it’s not okay yet. “You should have the money… Please.”

“It’s more fun this way,” I tell him, smiling. “And no one will ever believe it…”

His eyebrows lift. His mouth falls open and freezes that way. He sees the truth in my words -- no one ever will believe this -- back home it will sound like he has gone off to America and learned the telling of tall tales, and maybe this worries him a bit. He wants to say something to me, but he doesn’t know what. He’s out of his element. New Delhi is far, far away.

Me: “...but you and I will know it's true.”

I wish for a camera. The photo would show Manu standing in his red polo shirt in bright sunshine at the entrance to the Summerfield Suites lobby. His hands are extended out to his sides, palms up -- in one hand is his credit card, in the other his wallet. His knees are slightly bent and his feet seem to be groping the ground in search of something solid. There is no danger that he’s going to buckle, but he does look dumbstruck. His mouth is still open, although no noise is coming out -- yet. And now he’s smiling.

Me: “If you were to pay me for this ride, Manu, I would never remember it, and you probably wouldn’t either. But this way, I think we’ll both remember it forever.”

He straightens. He nods. His arms drop toward the ground, and now he starts to laugh. His head tips back so that he’s looking up at the California sky, then it rocks forward so that he’s looking down at the Belmont asphalt. His laugh is all the payment I could ever hope for, and now he pays me over and over again and tips me handsomely on top of it. I can’t restrain myself either -- and why would I? -- and now we’re both roaring at each other, just like when former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown was in my cab. There is something universal, something compelling and very touching about the free ride.

I leave Manu standing there in the Summerfield’s driveway, his bags at his feet, a huge holy-shit smile on his face. Through my open window I call out once more, “Welcome to America, Manu!”


La Migra!

Shift #66

SUNDAY, AUGUST 8 -- Sixteenth/Mission to Twenty-Fourth/Noe

MY FIRST EIGHT PASSENGERS ARE CITIZENS OF: Morocco, Israel, Ukraine, Noe Valley, Tunisia, Canada, Ecuador, and Mexico. Five of the eight complain with great gusto about the weather:

-- The man from Morocco says the fog has ruined his two-week vacation. Where is California’s famous sunshine? its surfers? its bikinis? He wishes he could apply for a refund, but where?

-- The woman from Israel says she could have gone to a resort on the Red Sea -- would have saved a lot of money, too.

-- The man from Tunisia is wearing a brand new heavy sweatshirt with San Francisco emblazoned across the chest. He speculates that our number one local summertime industry has got to be the sweatshirt industry.

-- The woman from Noe Valley says that she recently relocated from the Marina District because she had heard, and had even experienced, that Noe Valley was consistently the sunniest, warmest neighborhood in San Francisco. But not this summer -- there’s been nothing remotely warm and nothing vaguely sunny about this summer -- not even in Noe Valley!

-- The woman from Ukraine hasn’t seen the sun since she arrived a week ago. She drove up the coast from Los Angeles expecting that throughout the fabled Big Sur region she would be inspired by vistas of steep green oak-studded hillsides dropping with great drama down to an endless blue ocean. She imagined herself passing occasionally through stretches of gigantic, soaring redwoods spiked with arrows of golden light. Instead she only remembers being focused, for one-hundred miles, on the center-line of a twisting, two-lane, RV-choked highway. Instead of the great feelings of expansiveness she had anticipated feeling in California, she had experienced troubling hallucinations in which she had been shrunken down to a tiny size, and had been trapped in an air bubble inside a batch of suds. “Like in washing machine!” And whenever she did encounter a forest, she saw only the trunks of trees; “Never tree topes! Tree topes are always heed-en up een-side fog...” (I commiserate by telling her, exaggerating only slightly, that my wife and daughter and I went camping near Half Moon Bay earlier this week and nearly froze to death -- and we never saw the sun either!)

On the other hand:

-- The Ecuadorian man moved to San Francisco six months ago, swears he loves every last little thing about the place, and says, “Hell will freeze over before I complain about a little fog.”

-- The man from Canada says, “You want to see some really crappy weather? You come visit Nova Scotia.”

-- And the man from Mexico never mentions the weather at all: He tells me he arrived in San Francisco three years ago from the state of Quintana Roo, looking for work. He quickly found a job busing tables at a restaurant in the Financial District, a job he is hanging onto for dear life and for as long as he can…

At least I think that’s what he’s saying. Soon after he gets in, we switch to Spanish, which seems to go smoother. He asks where I learned my Spanish, and I tell him high school and college, and then later, in Switzerland, where I spent two months washing dishes at a train station restaurant where all my co-workers were guest workers from Spain. Also, I’d spent the year 1990 living in the little town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But, I tell him, my Spanish has grown very rusty, so I really appreciate being able to practice with people in my cab.

He says I don’t need any practice, but I assure him that if I listen to two native speakers yakking away, or if I listen to a Spanish radio station, I catch only about one word out of twenty. If my Spanish sounds half-decent, it’s only because, in my cab, I’ve said all these very same things I’m saying right now about a thousand times already. I can get you where you’re going, I can sometimes keep up my end of a very simple conversation, but only when people speak very slowly.

Apparently he doesn’t understand or doesn’t believe me, as he begins speaking in a rapid-fire staccato which quickly gathers speed. The gist:

He says that San Francisco is a good place, because people without papers (“personas sin papeles”) are treated pretty well here. In San Francisco personas sin papeles do not worry so much about the Immigration and Naturalization Service (“La Migra”) knocking on their doors. But my fare has amigos who’ve been to other American cities, like Albuquerque and Phoenix, and they report that La Migra is a constant worry. It used to be that if La Migra sent you back home, it wasn’t too big a deal (no importa nada). But now my fare won’t even consider attempting a visit to his wife and kids (esposa y ninos) because getting back to San Francisco is much more difficult and much more dangerous (peligroso) than it used to be, and much more expensive (muy muy cara) -- these days los coyotes are charging five thousand dollares to sneak one person across the border. O possible mas! My fare has a friend who paid five thousand dollares to one of those damned coyotes and then La Migra got him anyway -- two days after the friend arrived in Tucson, La Migra sent him not just back across the border, but all the way back to Ciudad Mexico (Mexico City)!

When I tell my fare that I give (yo doy) one free ride every day (un viaje gratis cada dia), his smile (sonrisa) is so sweet (dulce) that no translation is needed.


* * How To Pick Up Women * *

Shift #67

FRIDAY, AUGUST 13 – California/Hyde to California/Drumm -- $5.80

COMING OF AGE, I had no small talk. Even around my boy pals I could barely croak out a word, much less float an opinion or spin a joke or a tale. I was particularly flustered around girls, and girls, most sensibly, created a fairly impenetrable no-fly zone around me. I never read one of those “How To Pick Up Women” books, but I used to puzzle over the advertisements for them and wonder…

I loosened up as I got older, of course, but I never exactly became easy around women until I started driving a cab. Cab driving quickly got me to believing I could talk with just about anyone about just about anything. And certainly one of the great, overlooked, undervalued, but very real perks of my job is that it allows me (in truth, it almost forces me) to hang out with pretty young women in whose company I would never otherwise find myself. How to pick up women? I could write a book…

SHE IS STANDING at the corner of California and Leavenworth, waiting for a cab to take her to her office twelve blocks down California Street. She could easily have jumped onto a cable car -- the California Line runs the whole length of her commute -- but the old trolleys rumble along slowly, stop at nearly every corner, and would add ten full minutes to her trip. A few bucks for a cab is, as the kids say, a no-brainer.

She’s young (twenty-three I will learn), blond, pretty without seeming to be aware of or concerned about that, and I immediately sense a warmth from her. She isn’t displaying the early-morning grumpies, she’s not punching at an iphone, she doesn’t stiffarm my complaints about the weather.For the past few weeks, whenever I step from my cab I have the irrational sense that if I stand fully upright I might bump my head on the psychological low ceiling. As we reach the crest of Nob Hill, I point out how the top three-quarters of Grace Cathedral are lost, smothered in fog -- only the base is visible. My fare allows that all the cloudiness has bothered her too, but she doesn’t seem so annoyed by it as I am. She misses the sunshine, but it’ll be back, she says. It’ll all work out…

As we glide past the cluster of Nob Hill icons -- The Huntington Hotel, the Pacific Union Club, the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins hotels -- we can barely glimpse the Bay Bridge. It’s straight ahead of us and usually presents a dramatic view, but today we have to strain our eyes to make out cars and trucks creeping along the upper and lower decks -- the bridge’s towers are invisible, swathed in cotton candy.

We drop steeply down California Street for six blocks, through Chinatown, past the red bricks of old St. Mary’s Church, past the fifty-story Bank of America tower, and roll onto the flat, six-block run through the Financial District. My fare says that for nearly two years she has been working in the Latin America and Caribbean division of workforce-dot-com. No, she hasn’t visited those parts of the world yet, but she certainly wants to -- as soon as she can find the time… Every day she is thankful for having been able to find a job right out of college, and for not having been laid off, as has happened to several of her friends.

The warmth I felt earlier has infused my whole gut. It’s more than my free ride feeling, but not exactly a sexual feeling -- I don’t think. It’s just a fifty-eight-year old man’s gratitude for being allowed to bask for a few minutes in the effortless glow of youth. Then again, how does one distinguish between the various warmths one feels? I’ve come to regard my own warmths as awarenesses of various possibilities. My free ride feeling is, in essence, an awareness of the possibility of a world where money isn’t such a tyrannical bully. And tinglings of attraction -- aren’t those just awareness of the possible lives that might result from our acting on our physical impulses?

In front of 101 California, I pull into an open parking spot, turn around, and inform my fare that her ride is free today. She gives me a pleasant, easy smile. She thanks me and offers her name, asks mine, extends her hand, and again thanks me with a warmth that seems genuine, heartfelt.

I drive off examining that word heartfelt. I spot heart and felt rather quickly, and then I spot he trying to hide in plain sight. And finally I spot art, thrown in as a kind of bonus.


* * MY FIRST STRIPPER (in a long while) * *

Shift #68

SUNDAY, AUGUST 22 – Colombus/Kearny to Sutter/Leavenworth -- $6.70

, my younger brother Scott came home from school one landmark afternoon with the thrilling news that the father of one his classmates was employed at a strip club in Washington, D.C., where his duties consisted entirely of “raking up clothes for strippers.” Our jubilation died when, several days later, Mr. Mills was “outed” as a medical doctor. Nonetheless, the world of the stripper has remained, for me, as it for our whole global culture, a subject of endless fascination.

I’ve never actually visited a strip club. (Thirty-five years ago, during an innocent little educational junket in Las Vegas, I was flummoxed to note -- during a quick, informal estimate I conducted personally -- that the body of the cocktail server breathing Can I get you anything? into my ear, was ninety-eight percent naked.) But during my eighteen years as a night driver, I routinely transported strippers (they often prefer the term “dancers”) home from their shifts in the clubs around North Beach and along Market Street or over at the infamous Mitchell Brothers’ Theatre on O’Farrell Street. But for several years now, I’ve driven day shift, where conversations with stripper/dancers are much more rare.

IN THE PREDAWN MISTS SWIRLING THROUGH NORTH BEACH, I spot my first dancer in a long while, standing in front of Larry Flynt's Hustler Club on Kearny Street.

The stereotypical stripper is a tough, fleshy old broad with a gravelly, smoke-ravaged voice, but I have chatted with at least a hundred strippers and have yet to encounter the stereotype. From a distance, this one is a sleek, curvy silhouette barely visible in the fog, head turned my way, slender arm held in the air, still, her hand raised, open. As she approaches my door, I see that she is blond, young, on the short side, and on the lovely side, too. “I need to go to Sutter and Leavenworth, please,” she says in the soft, high-pitched voice of a schoolgirl who prefers to sit in the front row, homework complete, prepared and eager to answer every question.

We ride in silence for several blocks, my mind sorting and pondering, and then I just start talking. I tell my dancer fare that she is my first ride of the morning, and also my first fare of any kind in the past nine days. Just last evening my wife and daughter and I returned from a week spent in a tent cabin near Pinecrest Lake up in the Sierras where for seven glorious days we hiked and read and lounged around camp and went swimming and kayaking in the royal blue waters of the lake. I tell her that my overriding memory from the week is of miles and miles of soaring Douglas Fir trees with branches full of dark green needles continually groping for the diamond-bright, shockingly clear sky overhead. Temperatures in the eighties every day. Short pants, T-shirts. Almost heaven... During the entire week, we saw hardly a cloud, and not a single wisp of fog.

And I tell her this: “I had no idea how much this summer’s fog was affecting me, until the afternoon we got up there and I found myself choked up, on the verge of tears. Really, I had to fight to not burst out crying -- it just felt so good to see the sun!”

She: “Sometimes, if you’re in the City too long, it can be really hard to remember that Nature even exists. Unless you go the the park or hiking out in Marin or somewhere. I try to do that as often as I can.”

My idea of what goes on in a place like the Hustler Club derives mostly from movies. Also from an excellent book -- Some of My Best Friends Are Naked -- which consists of long, detailed, individual interviews with seven impressive North Beach dancers. The interviews were conducted (and the book edited) by my cab driver friend, Tim Keefe, who used to manage the Lusty Lady club. And now, even though I try, it’s hard for me to imagine this thoughtful young woman with the soft voice taking off her clothes to pole dance while a group of horny, half-drunk men (and sometimes their dates) watch through a window.

Me: “Did you have an interesting night?”

She: “It was long. I’m pretty tired. We had our anniversary party tonight, and it just went on and on.” It’s the Hustler Club’s eighth anniversary, and my fare has worked there for three years so far. “Too long,” she says, not with disgust but with the bored tone of so many who have spent their entire work lives in a job not their calling.

Just for confirmation I want to ask, “Are you a stripper?” But it seems too abrupt -- at about this time yesterday I was drinking coffee in the woods in front of my tent cabin two hundred miles away and inhaling the thinned out air at 5,000 feet. Next week I might feel comfortable popping “Are you a stripper?” (more likely I would phrase it, “What’s your function at the club?”), but I’m not really all the way back here yet.

Me: “Where did you grow up?”

She: “I was born in southern California, but when I was eight we moved to the Midwest…” Images of her body, naked under her clothing just three feet behind me, make it difficult for me to focus on her story: “When I was twelve, my father brought us on a trip to San Francisco, and I was immediately charmed… I graduated from high school in Iowa three years ago, packed my bags right away, and moved here."

“Was it hard to find work?”

She: “That didn’t take very long at all.”

“Overall, are you satisfied with your move?”


When we stop in front of her apartment building, a fashionable place I couldn’t have dreamed of affording at her age, I tell her it’s a free ride. She accepts, with delight, but absolutely insists on tipping me.

For years, whenever people would do this, I would try to wave them off. “It’s more fun for me this way,” I would tell them, and that would usually work, as the truth most often does. But after my daughter was born, whenever my free-riders were adamant about tipping me I began to thank them and tell them I would add their money to the “free ride tips” fund I’d started for her. And now I tell this to my dancer fare.

“Oh, that’s great,” she says, and passes me several folded ones (six of them, I discover later). She sounds enthused, interested. “How old is your daughter?”


She: “I’ll bet she’s a great saver!” Goodness, what a sweet voice!

Me: “I’ve been buying stocks for her with the money. The first one was Google, two shares, back when it was $290 a share.”

She: “It’s over $500 now!”

Me: “Lately I’ve told her to keep an eye out for other companies whose products she likes, and then we research them, and sometimes we buy them. She’s got about four thousand dollars worth of stocks now.”

She: “My dad made me save all my money when I was a kid -- and I’m a great saver now. I never spend money unless it’s on something important.”


Plan C

Shift #69

FRIDAY, AUGUST 27 – 4th Ave/Irving to Steuart/Mission -- $15.25

after a sobering and seemingly endless stretch of cold and fog, an incredible and most-welcomed “three-day summer” passed through the Bay Area. On Monday, the first day in recent memory that the populace has awakened to blue skies, the temperature in San Francisco soared to 86 degrees. On Tuesday we hit an even 100, and on Wednesday we were again in the comfortable 80s.

This miracle-seeming stretch could not have been more perfectly timed for me and my daughter. These were her last few days before the start of school, and together we tried to “do it all” -- a Santa Cruz beach/boardwalk excursion, a trip to Pier 39, a Giants baseball game…

By yesterday -- Thursday, my daughter’s first day back in school --it was all over. The high was a chilly 63 degrees (a two-day drop of nearly 40 degrees!), and the fog had snuck back in -- not quite as thick as a week ago, but thicker then we want it to be. Hey, this is August! “Breach of contract!”

THE “EXPECTED HIGH” for today -- Friday -- is 59 degrees. My first fare takes me out “into the Avenues,” out toward fog-saturated Ocean Beach. After I drop and begin heading back downtown, empty, I theorize that if I follow the N-Judah trolley route, the appearance of my cab might challenge the fiscal resolve of some poor shivering commuter. And, at Fourth Avenue and Irving, Bingo!

“I’ve been waiting out there for twenty minutes, and I’m absolutely freezing!” she tells me. “I’m so glad it’s warm in here.”

For the past nine years my fare has worked for an agency that supports Jewish philanthropies, and that’s long enough to have earned her a one-month “sabbatical.” She is taking the entire month of September off, with pay, and without being charged for any vacation days: “I’m going to a music festival in Austin, and then to a friend’s wedding on Maui.”

Me: “A sabbatical? Sounds like a pretty good place to work.”

She: “It’s great. The agency will also pay for any of its employees to take a trip to Israel. That’s a trip I want to take, but not just yet. I want to go when things aren’t so tense over there.”

Me: “Are you Jewish?”

She: “No. A lot of the employees aren’t, but it doesn’t matter -- the agency just wants us to understand the Middle East. And I want to understand it myself -- but it always seems so dangerous.”

Me: “Twenty years ago, during the first intifada, I spent a total of three weeks in Egypt and Israel. Before my arrival, the news was full of frightening stuff, but while I was there someone blew up a trash can in downtown Jerusalem, and a kid with a scarf over his face threw a rock that hit a car I was riding in -- other than that, things were fine.”

She: “I can’t figure out the Middle East.”

“I went there thinking, Okay, I’ll go have a look at the place and see who’s right, and who’s wrong, and I’ll figure out just how they should fix everything. And I left three weeks later with my head spinning, thinking, ‘I’m just glad I don’t have to live here!’”

She: “The more I learn and the more I read, the more hopeless it seems. Did you go only to Israel and Egypt?”

Me: “No, those came during the middle of a hundred-day, round-the-world backpack trip.”

She: “Now that’s a sabbatical! Was it just for fun?”

And soon I’m telling her about my trip’s premise -- to find a stranger to invite to America -- and the book I wrote about the whole experience.

She: “I want to read that book.”

For the past several shifts I’ve left home without remembering to bring along a copy. “I’ll write down the name,” I tell her. “You can find it on amazon for about a buck.”

When I pull over at Mission and Steuart my fare hands me a credit card. But when I swipe it, my meter ($15.25) can’t read it. She hands me a different card but, again, no response.

This happens from time to time, and I’m prepared with a Plan B. I pull out my “knuckle buster” (during the past year these things have come to feel like Stone Age relics), but I see that the slot in the glove box where I usually keep credit card slips is empty.

Fortunately, I’ve also got a foolproof Plan C. “You know,” I tell her, “everyday I give away one free ride. Let’s just make this my free ride for today.”

She protests, digs a few small bills from her purse and holds them toward me -- “This is all I have!” -- but I fight them off.

Me: “Here’s how you can pay me: On your sabbatical, just read my book...”

She: “Ahh… Now that’s a deal!”


Declaring a truce

Shift #70

SUNDAY, AUGUST 29 -- 10th/Folsom to Park 55 Hotel -- $5.80

and retreated out toward Ocean Beach, where I have -- several times now -- spotted it lurking like a cruising shark.

Downtown, a blessed cerulean blueness has been holding steady overhead for several hours already. We’ve suffered through recent weeks during which there were days (many of them, often consecutive) when we didn’t even once see the sun -- but now it’s shown up each day for a solid week.

Still, I have a foreboding that we’re pressing our luck, that if we don’t keep our attention focused on this nice turn in the weather, it will be yanked away again. I sense myself developing a ray-by-ray appreciation for sunshine. I swear I will never again take for granted a single sunny day.

A GUY WHO GREW UP IN BETHESDA, MARYLAND, and who now lives in New York City, is on his way to the airport: “For the past five years, I’ve been visiting some friends who moved out here, and I keep finding myself thinking, ‘Hey, I could live here.’”

Me: “Careful! I’ve heard that story a thousand times from my backseat -- and it’s pretty much my own story, too. You visit San Francisco one time too often -- and sometimes once is all it takes -- and it might just reach out and grab you. One visit too many, and you find yourself thinking, ‘Hey, I could do this!’ Watch out -- it’s a slippery slope.”

He: “Why do you like it here so much?”

Me: “There are so many reasons, but I think behind all of them is the fact that the place is just so darn beautiful.” We’re cruising through the city on the freeway at fifty miles an hour, curling between graceful green hills dotted with gingerbread houses. In the distance off to our left we can see the blue waters of the Bay, and then more green hills, and, peeking above them, the dorsal-fin peak of Mt. Diablo, four thousand feet high and thirty miles away. “You know how, when you see a really gorgeous man or woman, someone with movie star looks, you just can’t take your eyes off of them?”

He: “Sure.”

Me: “Well, San Francisco is like that for me. I’ve been driving this taxi for twenty-five years, and still, every single day, there is always some view that just sucks the breath right out of me.”

BY MID-AFTERNOON I still haven’t given away a ride. The city is surprisingly quiet, given that we’re right smack in the heart of tourist season. But the airport is hot -- thousands of people are arriving for a big VM Ware convention -- and as I leave downtown and head back to the airport I tell myself that if someone flags me, no matter where they’re going, they’ll be my free ride for today.

On Tenth Street, just two blocks from the freeway onramp, two women step from a row of parked cars and wave to me. One is from Denver, one is from Dover, Delaware. Both arrived this morning for the VM Ware show, and both are happy to be out of the heat in their respective towns, happy to be enjoying cool, perfect San Francisco.

“It must be nice to live here,” one of them says to me.

“Absolutely great,” I say. Fog? What fog? I’ve declared a truce…

They talk shop between themselves during their seven-block ride to the Parc 55 hotel. At the curb, I tell them about the unusual thing I do each day. They love it. They thank me profusely. As I drive off, I see them in my sideview mirror, standing on the sidewalk, smiling and waving good-bye…under blue skies…half a block from the Powell Street cable car turnaround…with moist, pure air from the Bay licking their skin… And also licking mine...

And that’s August. It’s a wrap. Put that one in the can. Locals often refer to September and October are as “our real summer.” And I say, Bring ’em on.