Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Shift #71

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 -- Turk/Leavenworth to Haight/Belvedere -- $11.20

HER BLACK, SPAGHETTI-STRAPPED PARTY DRESS looks a little out of place at 7:30 on a Friday morning, even here in the Tenderloin. She gives a quick hug-and-kiss to a young man who’s been waiting with her at the curb, and then she climbs into my cab.

“I’m going over to Haight Street, just one or two blocks past Divisadero -- I think... I parked my car somewhere over near there last night... I did the responsible thing.”

Me: “Oh, good for you!” One of the vital functions of the cab industry is to provide a handy transportation option to people who’ve been drinking.

“I live in South San Francisco, and I really think I could have driven without any problem, but I just didn’t want to make some huge mistake.”

Me: “You did the right thing -- it’s just not worth it.” To me, she seems pretty happy and not visibly hung over. “What did you drink last night?”

She: “Just beer -- I don’t really drink hard liquor. But, you know, I didn’t want to do something I’d regret for the rest of my life. It’s going to cost me a few extra dollars, and now I have to hurry so I won’t be late to work, but in the end I think I’m a lot better off…”

Me: “A while ago I picked up a forklift driver at a lumber yard over near Potrero Hill. He was about my age, actually a little older, maybe 65, and we got to talking, and he said that during Vietnam he’d been a welder in the Army. He’d almost completed twenty years and was just a little bit shy of getting his retirement, and then on the way home from work on a Friday night he stopped and had two beers with some friends. He told me that he even left a little bit…” -- I show her my thumb and forefinger, spread about an inch apart -- “in the bottom of each glass…”

She: “Um-huh...”

Me: “He was driving home on a two-lane highway in the countryside in Texas. He said he didn’t feel impaired in the slightest. There was a tow truck driving in front of him and he couldn’t see around it, and suddenly, without any warning, not even a brake light or anything, the tow truck driver veered off onto the right shoulder, and there, right in front of my guy, a red Volkswagen bug was stopped in the road. He hit the brakes but couldn’t stop in time and he ran right into it. The Volkswagen exploded into flames and the driver was killed.”

She: “Oh no…!

Me: “Yep. He told me that at his trial, the Texas Ranger who handled the case testified that excessive speed had definitely not been involved -- he actually specified ‘lack of speed’ as a factor. The blood alcohol level for drunk driving had just been lowered from point-one (0.1%) to point-oh-eight (0.08%), and this guy was point-oh-nine (0.09%). He said the judge, and the whole system, were looking to make an example out of someone to publicize the rule change. The judge could have been more lenient -- he had less severe options -- but he said, ‘You’re a soldier, you should have known better,’ and he gave the guy six years in prison. He spent three years in prison and three on parole, and he never got his retirement.”

She: “That’s a horrible story.”

Me: “It’s a horrible story, it's a great story.”

She: “That’s right…”

“I asked the guy if he came away with any wisdom from the whole experience, and he said the one thing he came away with was that, ‘You can kill someone real, real easy, and not even mean it.’

My fare graduated from UC-Santa Cruz six years ago with a degree in biology. She works for (and owns a tiny piece of) a bio-tech firm down the Peninsula. They’ve got a cancer drug in the final stages of trials, and she’s hoping it’s a winner. At the end of the ride she tells me she is very glad for our exchange. And she seems to take it as a sign -- a good sign, a welcomed sign, and validation of her decision last night -- when I tell her that we need not exchange any money today.


Robbed, Shot, Killed...

Shift #72

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 -- 16th/Bryant to 25th/Connecticut -- $7.15

I should find waiting in front of the Potrero Center Safeway store -- and there she is. She’s young (under twenty-five, I would guess) and pretty, but -- standing beside a loaded grocery cart in the hot afternoon sun with two young boys (four and three years old, I would guess) swirling around her knees -- she also looks beleaguered, even overwhelmed.

When we’re loaded up and rolling, she tells me she’s going to 950 Connecticut, which I recognize immediately as being dead-center in the Potrero Hill Projects, the hardcore, rundown, gangsta-ridden neighborhood where O.J. Simpson grew up and acquired his family values. I’m no stranger to the place; I was robbed there twenty-two years ago, and I’ve been back many times since. I know what I’m going to see upon arrival: rows of barracks-like buildings painted several years ago in bright happy colors, now faded. There will be windows boarded up with plywood, trash everywhere. The grass in the common areas will be trampled dead. Young men sitting on doorway steps will be pumping out clouds of smoke -- only some of it tobacco smoke.

One of the kids repeats the address for me, loudly, all serious and sober like his mother: “Nine-fifty Connecticut.”

And then the other, serious, sober, louder: “Nine-fifty Connecticut!”

“Hush,” says the mom. “We don’t all have to tell the man!”

The boy directly behind me says, loudly, “I got Ghostbusters!”

I ask the mom, “Is there a particular route you prefer?” On trips that present multiple possible routes, I’ve learned to take whichever one the customer likes.

“Whatever’s fastest,” she says.

“I got Ghostbusters!”

I realize the boy is saying this for my benefit. “That’s great,” I say.

“I’m gonna get gooped,” he says. “Lotsa goop!”

“I got flowers,” says his brother, and a bouquet of orange flowers rises up and fills my rearview mirror.

Me: “Those are beautiful!”

“I got Ghostbusters!”

“I got flowers.”

The woman: “Hush up!”

We’ve been underway barely sixty seconds and already I know: Free ride. It’s not so much that I feel sorry for her, for them -- we all get our lives, we all do our best -- but it’s undeniable that we’re all dealt hands that are tremendously uneven, and I feel better about myself whenever I try to even things out a bit. I was dealt an entirely different hand than these folks and their neighbors in the Potrero Hill nightmare -- I know that only a few will get themselves out, and I know that many more will never leave. I often marvel that anyone survives cards dealt from the bottom of Life’s deck, and I tip my hat to anyone who manages to navigate from hardscrabble beginnings to a more comfortable existence.

I reflect daily -- I swear it: daily -- on the gift my grandparents gave me by walking away from a tiny village in Slovakia one hundred years ago. Too poor to afford transport or lodging, they spent five weeks walking clear across Poland to Gdansk, where they caught a three-week ride on a ship to America, looking for bigger-better lives for themselves and their unborn progeny -- people like me!

“Lots of goo!”

“I got flowers…”

A gust of strong marijuana smoke pours through my open window as I pull up the hill, stop in front of the correct barracks, and set my parking brake. I don’t make eye contact with the six-man crew sitting on the steps. From the backseat, the mom is holding a twenty-dollar bill toward me. I turn around. Up close, she’s strikingly pretty: Amber eyes. Cornrow hair. Milk chocolate skin. Strong young body. Obvious intelligence. If she’d grown up next door to me in the suburbs of Washington D.C., there’s not a chance in hell she would today be living at 950 Connecticut.

When I tell her it’s a free ride, her amber eyes blink once. Her head drops forward, her shoulders follow, and her entire body deflates -- just for an instant. She recovers quickly, looks me in the eye -- really looks -- and gives the slightest nod -- all of this takes no more than three seconds. She withdraws her twenty and reinflates herself. “Come on, boys -- thank the man!”

“I got Ghostbusters!”


Twenty-five years ago, I routinely carried groceries from my cab into the units of my projects-dwelling fares. Then one night, in another equally-grisly housing project on the south side of the city, a fellow cab driver was robbed, shot, and killed while hauling groceries for a customer -- neither the customer or anyone else in the project saw anything happen -- the crime was never addressed. And not long afterward, in broad daylight on this very same hillside, just a few steps from where we’re now parked, I too was robbed.

As I unload her groceries and set them on the sidewalk, the woman again instructs her sons: “Thank the man!”

They both look up at me: the one raises his flowers, the other his Ghostbusters video. Flowers says, “Thank you, mister.” Ghostbusters says it, too, louder, and now a bidding war erupts. “Thank you...!” “Thank you...!” Who can say it more deafeningly?

From the nearby doorway, I feel the eyes of the smoker crew: watching me, watching her, watching another sunny Sunday afternoon drift past and drain away down the side of a steep hill in a part of San Francisco that tourists never see.



Shift #73

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10 -- SFO to Menlo Park -- Peace of mind

cold-cocked the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, which flows along the flat areas and then climbs up into the hills west of SFO. Around 6 P.M., near a ridgetop two crow-miles from the airport, something inside an underground, high-pressure, thirty-inch, natural gas pipeline went horribly wrong.

Investigators speculate about a weakened pipe joint, a leak that may have lasted hours, or even weeks, and then a spark… An instantaneous fireball left a fifty-foot crater where a couple of houses had just been. The explosion was heard for miles (although not inside my windows-closed kitchen in Oakland, about ten crow-miles distant).

Nuclear bomb was the first thing I thought,” one survivor told a reporter. Residents of nearby neighborhoods thought, “Earthquake.” For nearly two hours, flames shot out of the ground and hundreds of feet into the air, sounding like “thirty high-speed freight trains having a race.” Before emergency crews could shut the gas off, fifty-three houses were destroyed… This morning a door-to-door search of the area is being conducted -- the death count currently stands at four or six depending on which radio station I’m listening to…

The longer one lives in the Bay Area, the more it shrinks. A few months ago, a different media drama unfolded when a crumbling cliff forced the evacuation of an oceanside apartment building in the town of Pacifica; days later I learned that a friend I’d met through the Beach Impeach events lived in that building. But I don’t think I know anyone living in San Bruno. One afternoon about three weeks ago, I dropped a former Jesuit priest at his home in the very area being discussed on this morning’s news. He told me he was planning to grab a drink, sit on his deck -- “Spectacular view of SFO,” he said -- and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing by watching planes take off and land. But that’s as close as I come to this pipeline drama...

AFTER AN EMPTY HOUR, my first fare goes to SFO. The freeway passes two miles from the devastated neighborhood, and my fare and I both scan for some sign of the incident, but…nothing. No hovering helicopters, no blackened areas, just rows of streets and houses basking on the hillsides under a perfect blue September sky.

From the airport I pick up the CEO of a software company (“This is my fourth or fifth start-up,” he tells me). He’s returning from a three-day trip to Japan and after I fill him in on the explosion in San Bruno our talk goes to the weather. “I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, so I’m accustomed to lousy weather,” he tells me, “but this summer, this bogus summer in San Francisco... This one just about did me in.”

September and October are big convention months in the City, and today twelve thousand people are arriving for a dental industry get-together. After I drop the software CEO, I drive right back to the airport, take my spot at the end of the cab line, and head over to use the bathroom.

Several years ago, two picnic tables and a large-screen tv were installed adjacent to the cab lot’s food truck so that waiting cab drivers can watch sports or Chinese-language soap operas or whatever strikes the fancy of the truck’s operators. Returning to my cab, I see Barack Obama on the screen -- he’s called a press conference to discuss the economy and the November elections and, among many other things, the idiot fundamentalist Christian minister in Georgia who’s promising to burn a pile of Korans tomorrow, September 11.

Gathered around the television with me are a dozen other men. One is a black man with a shoulder patch identifying him as part of the SFO maintenance staff, but the rest of us are all cab drivers. At my right elbow is a Sikh with an orange turban and a gray beard; beyond him, another grizzled white guy like me; to my left, one driver from Yemen and one from Jordan, both Muslims; seated side by side at a picnic table, two Asian men are eating vegetables and rice; I nod hello to Afran, a Filipino friend of mine, who is wearing his beloved red 49ers jacket.

There are times when I’m frustrated with Obama. I wish he actually were a socialist. I fear that if he doesn’t stop trying to talk sense into those mean old, stone-headed, tax-the-poor, Republican bullies, he is going to be a one-term president. Why can’t he just go ahead and stop this crazy nine-year-old war in Afghanistan and transform our military-industrial complex into a renewable-energy/feed-the-people complex? But when I see and hear him -- this intelligent, earnest, reasonable-sounding, most powerful man in the world -- I can’t help but root for him. And I feel that the men around me are all pulling for him, too. No one is applauding, and no one is hissing; we’re all just attentively watching. And I sense -- or I imagine that I sense -- an atmosphere of respect and approval.

The dispatcher’s buzzer summons me to move my cab forward. To reach it, I have to walk down a long row of other cabs, a walk that will usually bring to my ear a smattering of different sounds: Lebanese hip-hop; Sufi dance tunes; sports talk radio. But this morning, emanating from each cab I pass, I hear only one voice: Obama’s.

MY NEXT CUSTOMER is headed twenty miles south to the town of Menlo Park. When I ask What’s your work? he says, “Software.” He chuckles for me when I deploy one of my newer bon mots: “I think I might just start asking people, ‘So, what branch of the software industry employs you?’”

He is the CEO of a one hundred-person software company, and is just now returning from a three-week trip to Russia. He finds the workforce in Russia poorly motivated: “My biggest problem over there is getting anyone to work,” he says. He laughs hard when I tell him about the ditty I heard when I visited the old United Soviet Socialist Republic, back during the pre-capitalist 1980s: “As long as they pree-tend to pay oss, we will pree-tend to work.” He asks me to repeat it -- he wants to remember this one.

It’s 2:10 P.M. when I roll up the driveway and across the bridge over the creek that passes through the front yard of my fare’s house -- his mini-estate. I haven’t given a way a ride yet today, and I’m beginning to suspect this might turn out to be one of those no-free-ride days that just winds up happening once every year or so. The prospect of giving away a big fare like this one, to a guy as well off as this guy, who lives in a house as magnificent as that big old thing, does not thrill me -- but I am willing. I check in with Body.

Body, quickly: No friggin’ way, dude! You nuts?

By the time I collect my fare’s eighty bucks, drive back to the airport, and again pull up to the end of the airport cab line, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be giving away a free ride today. Already it’s 2:39, and I may or may not even be able to get a ride out of the airport. The cab line can be slow here, and if it doesn’t move along fast enough I’ll have to give up and drive back to the city empty. The night driver, Fred, is due the cab at 4 P.M. I owe him one dollar for each minute I’m later. But I’ll at least stop here a few minutes, use the bathroom, look for something sweet on the food truck, and ask some of the other drivers how the line’s moving...

I put the cab into Park, open my door and swing my feet out onto the asphalt... And that’s when, from the corner of my left eye, I spy something that’s not right: an iphone sitting on my backseat...

Last month, after one of my shifts, I accidentally left my laptop in the Green Cab office -- I went four straight days with no laptop, missed it badly, and the memory is still very fresh...

I pull my legs up off the asphalt, swivel back inside the cab, and drive back to Menlo Park. By the time I again reach my fare’s house, a bit more than an hour has passed since I dropped him off. I can detect no signs of life from the palace, and it is absolutely silent. I imagine my fare several layers down into his post-trip sleep. I tuck his iphone into a corner of the porch with a note attached.

The fastest route back to the Green Cab lot is up Highway 280, which passes within half a crow-mile of the site of yesterday’s explosion. Flying along at sixty-seven miles an hour (cruise control), I again scan the hills, and again I see nothing. But I have my window down this time, and for thirty seconds my nostrils are filled with a strong, rancid, scorched smell -- like an electrical cord overheating and about to ignite. Perspective, my mind tells me. A little perspective.


(NOTE: Fred doesn’t come in to work on this day. I don’t see him again until Sunday. How are you, Fred? “Brad, I am a mess. I live in San Bruno. Eight blocks from the explosion. My son is at the library that afternoon. He is with a girl he’s known since they are in kindergarten. They’re both nineteen now. The girl finishes her work, says good-bye to my son, and goes home. Ten minutes later, boom! The girl and her mother, both are killed. Brad, I am a mess.”)


The Spiritual Center of the Earth

Shift #74

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12 -- Seventh/Mission to California/Laurel -- $10.30

via, and less than three minutes later she’s in my backseat, singing the praises of

“Just now I decided I needed a cab, I looked on the cabulous map and saw you three blocks away… I touched my finger to the little icon for your cab… Fifteen seconds later my phone rings and I’m talking to you… On my screen I followed you coming down Mission Street… Three blocks away…two blocks away…and here you are -- it’s brilliant...! This is just my second time using it. The first time was last night -- Saturday night. We were in the Castro, calling and calling (another cab company) because they have so many cabs, but for the longest time they wouldn’t even pick up the phone. And finally, when they did answer, they never came -- they said they’d come but they never came. So we started looking around online and we discovered cabulous, and ten minutes later we were in a cab. It really is brilliant!”

She’s about twenty years old and has lived in San Francisco for a year, studying at the Art Institute: “I’m hoping to become a designer.” I would guess that the Art Institute is not her first expensive school. She has maybe the slightest trace of a foreign accent, but my sense is that she has been speaking English forever. When I ask Where did you grow up? I’m not terribly surprised to hear, “I’m from Dubai.”

Me: “You moved from permanent summer to permanent winter.”

She laughs: “I’ve loved everything about San Francisco but the weather. New York is too big for me -- for me, I think San Francisco is the perfect fit. I don’t know anywhere like it.”

Right ahead of us is a city bus with a billboard showing a young man wearing a goofy smile, a skirt and, on his head, what looks like a birthday cake with lit candles. I point to it and read aloud the caption: “San Francisco is full of characters…

My fare laughs: “I love that spirit here. People seem so creative.”

Me: “Years ago, I met a man in India who told me that the spiritual center of the earth shifts from time to time. He said it used to be India, and it’s been some other places too, but now it’s San Francisco. I asked him, ‘And what exactly IS the spiritual center of the earth?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s easy -- it’s simply the place on earth where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance.’”

She: “Oh, please, would you say that again!"

I say it again -- The place on earth where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance -- she murmurs it twice to herself, and then I toss in some bonus commentary: “If you can’t be who you want to be in San Francisco, you really don’t have a chance anywhere else.”

We’re two blocks from the end of the ride now.

I ask: “Are you Muslim?”

I hear a quick inhalation from the backseat. And indeed, even to me, the question does seem to come out of nowhere: she wears no headscarf, I have detected no over-pious sensibility. Still, I hadn’t pondered or rehearsed my question -- her Dubai must have mingled in my mind with all the recent reflections in the media (yesterday was September 11) and, with the ride’s end approaching, it has just popped out. Are you Muslim?

She, after her audible inhale: “I am.”

“How has it been for you lately?”

She: “Interesting. And a little weird.”

“Has anyone been mean to you?”

Quickly: “No.”

Me: “I’m glad.”

“I keep my distance from all that. I just keep my distance. In no way does it dominate my life. I just keep it all at a distance.”

We’re at her café now -- for me, too soon. I anticipate that my free ride announcement will meet some resistance, and it does: “But it’s too much money,” she says. $10.30. Still, her face and her widened eyes tell me she likes the idea.

“Please,” I say. “Every shift for the last fifteen or twenty years I have given away one free ride. Please give me the gift of allowing me to give you this ride for free.”

She accepts with a gracious smile, a thank you, an extended hand, and: “My name is Zina -- what’s yours?”



If films show violence in its wider context, show what it does to the victim as well as the perpetrator…then those films can fulfill a vital function in the awakening of humanity… That in you which recognizes madness as madness (even if it is your own) is sanity, is the rising awareness, is the end of insanity.

-- Eckhard Tolle, A New Earth

Shift #75

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 -- Ellis/North Fifth St. to Columbus/Green -- $7.60

, I went with my then-girlfriend, Rhonda (she’s now my wife), to the Kabuki Theater on Post Street to see “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s soul-ripping, Oscar-grabbing movie about the Holocaust.

As the final credits rolled I slumped in my seat feeling like a gutted fish, feeling as though someone had taken a sharp knife and slit me open from my pubic bone right up to tip of my chin. How-could-human-beings-treat-each-other-this way? I sat there feeling unable to move, until Rhonda and the folks with the brooms moved me along.

Out front of the theater, we were greeted by an unusual sort of “receiving line” -- a row of about a dozen seasoned, bundled-up panhandlers, each savvy about the effect that a movie like “Schindler’s List” can have on unsuspecting viewers. I knew that these street veterans were just doing their jobs -- grinding it out, working a crowd -- but I also instinctively knew that if I were to stiff them (Sorry…no…not tonight…sorry…no, no…sorry…), if I were to pass up even one of these, my fellow species-mates, I would have to first shut down some vital part of my own humanity.

It is no easy thing to access, even briefly, one’s own humanity, and now I felt -- desperately -- that I did not want to lose this raw, exposed, intensely alive feeling in which I was newly awash. I walked down that row of ragged figures and passed out coins and then dollar bills until I had given something to each of them. At that time in my life, the eternal money-scuffle seemed particularly acute, and ten-odd bucks did seem significant -- but a little money was, I knew, absolutely inconsequential when compared to the cost of casually denying my connection, or anyone else’s connection, to the whole human race. Tears had been welling at the edges of my eyes inside the theater, and by the time I reached the end of the line and had seen smiles creep across each of those humble, weather-beaten, dentistry-starved faces, my cheeks were wet.

During the several days that followed, the whole experience resonated quite satisfactorily with me, and, while reflecting on it, I noticed that even after I’d handed money to each beggar I still had enough left over to afford a post-movie sandwich-and-bowl-of-soup with Rhonda, still had enough to ransom our car from the parking garage, and could still pay my share of that month’s rent.

I began to wonder, “What if I just gave money to EVERYONE who asked for it?” Would it kill me? Would I actually go flat broke? Would I wind up on the street, too? Or are these just bullshit fears?

And so it began. Within a few days I was automatically giving money to every panhandler who approached me; to every friend who asked for a loan; to every one of the clipboard canvassers I encountered on street corners; to anyone who asked... I didn’t always give the full amount requested, but I made it a point, whenever someone physically presented themselves in front of me and requested money, to always give something, to always say Yes.

Prior to any city stroll, I made sure to load my pocket with quarters -- I didn’t want to ever be forced to say No. And before every cab shift, I positioned a plastic yogurt cup full of coins beside me on the front seat, just in case a cardboard-sign-wielder approached me at a stop light. (Full disclosure: I did not actually give money to absolutely everyone who asked -- I especially remember occasionally stiffing one particularly aggressive and obnoxious panhandler in my own neighborhood -- but my estimate is that over the course of the next fifteen years or so, I gave it up roughly ninety-eight or ninety-nine percent of the time.)

As the years unfolded, I observed that habitually saying Yes didn’t really seem to impact my overall finances at all. I still experienced the upswings and downswings typical of economic life, but giving away little bits of money (my self-imposed minimum was fifty cents) didn’t seem to deprive me in any noticeable way. Never once did I find myself thinking, “Gee, if I hadn’t given anything away this month, I could have done X or bought Y or taken a trip to Z…

But I also could not help noticing that a few nice surprises started showing up on the plus side of the theoretical ledger. For one, the clamoring mobs that I feared might descend on me, never did. Sometimes I would walk through my own neighborhood, or through unfamiliar neighborhoods, and for days at a time not a single person would hit me up. And even when I was hit up a lot, the total never amounted to more than a few dollars on any given day. The idea that saying Yes would bankrupt and ruin me was a lion of a fear but a mouse of a reality.

Also, I found that I no longer feared Other People or even Life Itself quite as much -- and what price can we assign to that? I won’t pretend that saying Yes turned my life into some magical dream -- none of the lottery tickets I bought during that (or any other) period of my life ever won me anything more than ten bucks -- but there certainly were some memorable moments, some inexplicable shimmering moments...

I could have a much longer conversation, I could write a book, about those years, but for now I’ll just say that the whole experiment often seemed to be changing something fundamental deep inside me, seemed to be altering, perhaps, my very DNA. Once in a while I found myself fancying that all this saying of Yes was somehow making me…I don’t know…making me bigger?…making me better?

But there were also many times when there seemed to be no magic in it at all, times when I felt like I was just grinding it out, times when I found myself pulling money from my pocket and giving it to the very same panhandler for what seemed like (and with several of them it might actually have been) the five hundredth time. But mostly my experience was completely positive, even sheer fun. Saying an automatic yes made me feel like a more empowered human being. Every time I gave money away I knew I was avoiding, or at least deflating, an almost-guaranteed downer -- and often I was transforming it into the opposite. My days seemed filled by notably happier people. I grew to look forward to giving my money away, and I came to count the practice as one of my favorite things about myself. For years and years and years I gave money to damn near every single person who asked for it. Kind of remarkable, no?

BUT IT DOES SEEM to be a hard and fast rule that whenever we make a hard and fast rule out of something, we eventually squeeze the life out of it. And sometime during the years 2007-2008 I began to notice that this practice of giving away money was no longer so much fun for me anymore. Sometimes it felt like a chore, an assignment, and sometimes I found myself outright resenting it.

After months of consideration, on January 1, 2009, I went cold turkey. To break my ingrained habit, I went ninety straight days without giving a penny to anyone. (I was amazed at how quickly a few of the panhandlers I had come to imagine as friends turned vicious.) After those ninety days passed, I began to consider requests for money on a case-by-case basis, which has been my practice during the eighteen months since. And, for now, that feels just right.

HOWEVER, I never did suspend my practice of giving away a free ride during each taxicab shift. That practice originated a good while before -- and, to me, never seemed directly connected to -- my Schindler’s List Declaration. Nonetheless, during the process of reevaluation, I did question it. I told myself that if Body suggested I give it up, I would at least listen. But I never did receive any such guidance -- all along, Body has seemed to love the free ride.

Still, while Body and I were conferring, I did a little bargaining. “If I have to give this up, I will,” I said, “but first I think I should at least write about it for a while…”

No problem, said Body.

And as the year 2009 unfolded, the idea of a one-year Free Rides Journal began to germinate… And that’s how we came to be here today, Friday, September 19, 2010…

IT’S MID-AFTERNOON, AND I’VE BEEN HUNGRY FOR THE PAST TWO HOURS. As I’m maneuvering my cab into a parking spot right in front of the Subway sandwich store on Ellis Street, just half a block from the Powell St. cable car line, a handsome, successful-looking couple, somewhere around forty-five or fifty years old, walks up to my back door. The man leans down and peers inside. I’m sure they could easily flag another cab, but I hate to turn people away. The energy involved with saying No is just too grating -- and I hate the feeling I have when I see my rejection register on people’s expectant faces. I wave this couple in. Lunch can wait.

The man has a German accent: “Ve vant to go to Ee-tah-lee.” I understand that he’s just trying to have a little fun with me. Guidebooks refer to the North Beach neighborhood as “Little Italy” (locals rarely call it that), and the man has intentionally dropped the “Little”: We want to go to Italy. Beside him, the woman snickers softly.

Me: “Oh-kaay... Italy.”

He, playfully: “Yes, Italy.”

Me: “I did have a fare to New York City once. But Italy… This will be my longest ride ever!”

The woman, also with a German accent, also having some fun: “How long did that take you? Two days or three days?”

Me, pulling away from the curb, heading away from New York, away from Italy, and over toward North Beach: “Sixteen days.”

If they want to continue down this path, I in fact can tell a much longer story, but Sixteen days seems to have bumped them off balance. A short silence ensues. I fill it with, “You are from…Germany?”

The woman: “Nederlands.”

The man: “We live only 20 miles from the German border, so it is hard to tell.”

The woman: “Have you ever been to Nederlands?”

Me: “I spent twelve hours in Amsterdam once, twenty-five years ago. But I also once spent several months driving around Europe in a Volkswagen bus that I bought from a Dutch man. It still had one of those NL country decals on the back, and at least once a day someone would come up and start speaking to me in Dutch -- so I feel like I’ve spent much more than twelve hours in Nederlands.”

They tell me they have visited America’s East Coast before, but this is their first time Out West. Eight days ago they flew from Amsterdam direct to San Francisco, and, with the exception of a visit to Muir Woods, they have spent their entire time poking around inside the city limits. They have loved San Francisco -- great food, friendly people, and the scenery, goodness! “This place is just absolutely beautiful,” says the man. They are scheduled to fly back to Amsterdam at 6 P.M. this evening -- “After we have a cup of coffee in Italy,” the woman reminds me -- but they definitely want to come back and take in the whole region. “Yesterday we tried to rent a car so we could drive out into the countryside,” says the man, “but there was not one rental car to be found in all of San Francisco. Even being a Hertz Gold Club member was not enough -- not one car available in the whole city.”

There has been nothing particularly special about this ride -- any veteran cab driver has had thousands quite like it. But this is my free ride for today. It’s late, I’m tired, I want to go have some lunch, and I haven’t given away a ride yet -- sometimes I am (sometimes we all are) just grinding it out.

My Dutch friends don’t seem to be grinding at all. They seem quite tickled about the free ride. In a few hours they’ll be airborne, headed back home, satisfied by the discovery of a delightful new place -- but right now, stepping out of Green Cab #914 in front of Caffé Roma in the heart of “Italy” -- with the jutting Pyramid Building off to their left, with Telegraph Hill rising up behind them, and with amused smiles on their faces -- they look to me like they’re having just about all the fun they can stand.


Shades of Lovely

Shift #76

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 – McCoppin/Valencia to Fifth/Market -- $6.25

I do what I often do on dead Sunday mornings -- I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, park my cab, and walk on the pedestrian sidewalk out to mid-span. I stop and lean my forearms against the iron railing, which supports my weight without even noticing.

My skin feels clammy on this muggy morning. Muggy? I’m wearing just a tee-shirt and a light pullover top, and I feel like yanking off the pullover. The chill and fog of mid-summer weren’t fatal after all. It’s good to have my preferred San Francisco back.

I’m about two hundred and twenty feet above the water. My hands are folded together out in front of me, and I’m looking past them, above them, toward the East Bay hills, where a new dawn is slowly unfolding. The sun is just now beginning to peek over the ridge tops above Oakland, and, like an artist experimenting with pigments, is dabbing various shades of lovely onto the world famous vista of which I am the merest speck. Should the water be a steely blue this morning? No, let’s go with more of a royal blue! Should those storybook white cottages on Telegraph Hill be eggshell or should they tend toward this quasi-metallic pearl, reflecting the early rays? Should the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts be marmalade, or perhaps gold, like those little nuggets which in 1849 almost instantaneously exploded a sleepy little harbor town of “five hundred and forty-nine souls” into a beehive of twenty-five thousand glaze-eyed fortune seekers?

Roughly one hundred and sixty years later, roughly one hundred thousand vehicles per day cross the Golden Gate Bridge. But early on this Sunday morning there is hardly any traffic at all. Every twenty or thirty seconds, a lone car swishes past me, and every few minutes a pod of bicyclists ticks along by, but now -- What’s this? -- another pedestrian, a woman humping a thirty-pound backpack, comes trucking down the sidewalk.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Mind if I ask what sort of trip you’re on?”

She stops. “Not at all -- I’m headed to Point Reyes Station.”

“Really!” I’m impressed. In 1995 I walked from the Haight-Ashbury District to Point Reyes -- forty-five miles -- but although I’ve since bragged to hundreds of people about that adventure I’ve never met anyone else who’s undertaken it.

She: “I’m hoping to do it in two days.”

Me: “Fifteen years ago I walked up to Point Reyes. I spent five days doing it, and that felt like absolute top speed. I can’t imagine sprinting through this gorgeous scenery…” -- I spread my hands like a preacher and slowly swivel around -- “in two days. You sure you want to go that fast?”

“I’m meeting someone in Point Reyes tomorrow night,” she says, and marches onward.

People spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to glimpse this very panorama, and it strikes me as wrong, or at least unfortunate, that someone would just rush through it. Still, no one appreciates blunt, unsolicited advice. I resume my position at the railing and scold myself for letting such pop out. Ah, well... Next time I’ll be more careful.

My eyes sweep from the Marin headlands, to Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, past all the old bungalows and new highrises, past all the Victorians and apartment buildings, up to Twin Peaks. I find myself wondering whether there is some other city in the world where I might have found happiness, or even an acceptable level of satisfaction, while driving a taxi for twenty-five years. Honolulu and Miami have exotic appeal which I imagine quickly wearing off -- Miami’s within a month, max, I suppose, but Honolulu’s (or Kauai’s or Maui’s) might maintain theirs...two years maybe? New York City is without a doubt the big leagues of cab driving -- of so many other artistic endeavors, too -- and I would definitely like to spend a couple of weeks behind the wheel of a Manhattan taxicab just to be able to say I’d done it. But I’m sure that over the long run (and more likely, in the very short run) New York would chew me up and spit me out like a tiny little apple seed.

I ask my mind to suggest other cities I might find palatable, but a quick scan -- Seattle, Salt Lake, Denver, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston... -- returns zero hits. I can’t imagine what sort of treachery my mind would throw at me on a slow Sunday morning in one of those other, lesser places. But if I semi-regularly found myself driving around empty in one of them, I suspect that I would before long encounter, and succumb to, some desperate moment, would suddenly find myself speeding for the nearest freeway onramp, seeking open highway and new landscapes, and aiming, like so many dreamers before me, toward California. And if I’d never seen it before -- or even if I had -- my specific destination would almost certainly be this very Golden Gate Bridge…

BACK IN THE CAB, I keep my ear on the radio and cruise through the Presidio, through the tony Seacliff neighborhood and past Robin Williams’ old pink house. (Williams had sweeping views of the Bridge and the ocean and the coastline until he recently moved to I-know-not-where -- nor why). I tell myself that someone out in the Richmond District or the Sunset will need to go to the airport, will need to go somewhere this morning, and will wind up in my backseat, but the radio stays dead. I cruise past the Palace of the Legion of Honor, past the Cliff House, and down to Ocean Beach.

I park in the exact same spot where I parked my tool-laden personal car on the morning of the first Beach Impeach event. I walk across the sand down to the surf and dip my finger into the foam at water’s edge. As I’m straightening back up I see a huge ocean animal break the surface about seventy-five yards offshore -- it’s a good twelve-to-fifteen feet long, jet black, and is moving right to left across my field of view (from Seattle down toward San Diego). It briefly shows its whole black, shiny-wet self, rotating up out of the water, counter-clockwise, as smoothly as I might twist a radio dial. And then it is gone, back beneath the blue again.

“Dolphin!” Just a few feet away from me are a couple about my age, and the woman has shrieked an ID.

“Not a shark?” I say. “Not a whale?”

“Dolphin,” she says with a confidence I don’t question.

We stand beside the fizzy surf for a while, searching the vast ocean, trading stories (they’re visiting from Holland, she’s a marine biologist), and hoping for another sighting, but there isn’t one.

AS I HEAD BACK DOWNTOWN, I promise myself that my last shift of the year -- my All-Rides-Are-Free shift -- will not be a Sunday. I want that last shift to be jumping from start to finish. We’re coming down the home stretch of the year now, and I can feel The Day coming, and I don’t want it to be one of these funereal Sunday mornings.

Three full hours after the start of my shift, I finally hit upon a string of fares. A woman flags me from the bus zone at 25th and Fulton -- she’s running late to her two-decades-and-counting gig in the choir at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church at Bush and Stiener. A Latino man is headed to work at a restaurant in the Marina -- he blasts music through his earbuds during the entire ride and doesn’t respond when I float a How are you today? toward him. A sommelier on his way to work at the Hotel Vitale agrees with my contention that Charles Shaw Merlot ($1.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s) is as good as any just about any under-$20 bottle of red wine out there. A therapist in her fifties tells me that she’s devastated over a recent DUI that may wind up costing her her livelihood -- I’m thinking she will be my free ride today, but Body says No, which I find a bit odd.

A twenty-two-year-old, UC-Berkeley student, about to complete his degree in “social welfare,” is heading over to Noe Valley to drop in on his parents this morning.

Me: “Do they live in the house where you grew up?”


Me: “I’m fifty-nine, and I’ve been driving a cab since a few years before you were born. That means you were one of those little kids I used to notice running around the Castro...” During the eighties and early nineties, I also saw gaunt, sore-ridden men walking the Castro’s streets, but they’ve long ago disappeared. “I always wondered about you kids.”

“It’s ironic,” he says. “I received my early education in human sexuality on my way to school every morning, and it was quite an education. Now I have a part-time job teaching sex-ed to grade schoolers. It doesn’t pay much, but it is interesting.”

Me: “In 1980, before I moved to San Francisco, I went to a six-day seminar up in the Sierras. There were a lot of people from San Francisco there, including many gays. I’d had no real experience with gay people before, knew nothing about them, and was kind of afraid of them. But during one of the meals, I found myself sitting next to a gay man -- very nice, very open... The seminar had a phenomenal way of getting people to open up with each other, and I took a chance and told him, ‘The things I imagine that you guys do with each other… Just thinking about that makes my stomach turn.’ We were sitting side by side, elbow to elbow, and he looked at me and said, ‘I get it.’ He didn’t try to ‘defend’ himself, didn’t try to explain anything, didn’t tell me a story. I kept expecting something more, but that was it. I get it. And it seemed like about the biggest gift I’d ever been given. In that moment, about ninety percent of the charge I had about gay people just disappeared. It totally changed, on some fundamental level, forever, how I looked at gays. What did it matter what I thought about whatever they wanted to do?”

My fare: “I have this friend who moved here from Chicago, and he was the same way. When he moved here he always felt threatened by gay men -- felt the same way you did. It took him about six years, but one day he told me, ‘I haven’t changed the way I feel -- the thought of gay sex still disgusts me -- but what I can’t imagine is why I ever cared, why I had so much energy on it. What a waste of my time!’ He couldn’t even explain where all his animosity had come from -- or why. But you grow up in the Castro, you don’t grow up with any of that.”

I’m so caught up in the conversation that Free Ride? doesn’t even occur to me until he’s already paid me and split, and I decide, in advance, to give it to the next fare, no matter who...

It’s a young couple from England on day eight of a three-week driving tour through the West. At their starting point, in Phoenix, they rented a Ford Mustang convertible and now they’ve driven it to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and along the coast highway up to Big Sur. “It was foggy some, but it was sunny a lot, too,” the woman tells me, “and we had the top down most of the way.”

This morning they’re going to catch a cable car over to Fisherman’s Wharf. Tomorrow they’ll be driving north across the Golden Gate Bridge, on their way up to Canada. They haven’t yet set eyes on The Bridge, but, says the man, “Ever since we started planning this trip I’ve been envisioning us driving across the Golden Gate with the top down and the wind blowing through our hair.”



Shift #77

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23 -- Leavenworth/California to Baker/Geary -- $8.05

to her apartment building just as I’m ringing the buzzer. She has short curly red hair, still glistening from her recent shower. She smiles as we exchange good mornings, and I notice that she has crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes, as do I. (Later, when we get to talking baseball, I will learn that we’re about the same age -- she’s fifty-six, and I turned fifty-nine just last week -- and she’s one of those rare passengers, someone born-and-raised in San Francisco.)

“What a beautiful morning,” she says. “Is it supposed to get hot, do you know?”

Me: “Mid-eighties, I heard.” The nine o’clock sky is an empty blue mirror -- I’ve been driving around since seven with my windows down, sweet air tickling the hair on my left forearm.

She: “It was cold for so long.”

Me: “Are you a baseball fan?”

“Not so much anymore, but I was when I was younger... Back in the days of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays.”

Me: “The Giants have been like this summer's weather -- cold and hot and cold and hot again. For the last couple of weeks they’ve been trading first place with the San Diego Padres. Last night they beat the Cubs thirteen-to-nothing and slipped back into first place by half a game.”

She: “I had no idea -- that’s ex-citing! The season must be just about over?”

Me: “Nine games left -- pennant fever time. The last three games are against San Diego, here, next weekend. I have a 13-year-old daughter, and we’re going to one of those games. Have you been to the new stadium?”

“Yes. What a beautiful place. But I haven’t been there in years. My dad took my older brother to Candlestick a lot, but he hardly ever took me or my sister. I didn’t really start going until I was about twenty.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

She: “Yes -- and then to rub salt, my brother kidnapped the baseball card collection my sister and I kept -- and we had some really good ones!”

Me: “Really! I have two younger brothers, and one of them kidnapped my baseball card collection -- I’m not even sure which one of them has it. Actually, ownership is a little murky -- my brothers collected, too, but I started before they did. Over the years, our mother threw out most of them, but we managed to keep a stack of the best ones. I think we have a Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris card in there. Did your brother have any sort of reasonable claim…?”

She: “No! They’re ours! He’s just throwing his big brother weight around. They’re ours!”

Me: “Aghh! Big brothers... What can you do?”

When we stop on Baker Street, I turn around: “Everyday I give away one free ride. Today, this is my free ride.”

She: “No…”

But I know exactly how to end this conversation: “This is for all those games you didn’t get to go to -- and for the baseball cards.”

She smiles at me so widely that she looks like a little kid -- maybe thirteen years old. “Oh, thank you,” she says. And then she steps out into the shade of a healthy green oak tree on Baker Street, on a bright beautiful day in San Francisco, in the heart and the heat of pennant season.

Go Giants!


* * Hey Jack, Ker-o-ack! * *

Shift #78

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26 -- Desolation Peak -- What’s it matter?

and tingly arms-forearms-hands wake me up. Digital red alarm clock numbers say 4:32 and I lie there for a while thinking how all the typing I’ve done over the years is catching up to me and My god will I ever be able to write again without it hurting me? If not, wouldn’t that be the shits! Already it’s the shits, something you love actually bringing you physical pain... It’s been heading this way for years and years, and I’ve been trying to figure out some way to dodge it, but here it is, waking me up in the night hurting so much. And if I can’t write, how will I find out Who am I? I think thoughts like this until about five and then I’m up feeding the dog Maggie and checking what the sportswriters are saying about my Giants’ ugly stumble in Colorado last night that knocks us back out of first place, half a game behind those damn Padres. Bottom of the ninth big Troy Tulowitzki double off the wall against our All-Star closer Brian Wilson. I put on baggy shorts, my first “shorts day” of the year, supposed to be a hot one. Thank God we’ve finally got summer arriving here finally for what seems like for real finally on September 26. I drive across the Bay Bridge in the dark, moon just two days past full, thinking about my arms and how I definitely should do more exercises and isn’t it too ironic that for nearly three decades I used to do yoga and stretching every day and now that I probably need all that good flexibility stuff more than ever I just can’t hardly make myself do it but about one day a week and only if it hurts real bad that day. At the cab lot there’s another Green Cab driver, Austin, who travels to Asia and Mexico all the time and lately he’s been reading my first book and now he tells me he wants “a case of them” to give as gifts to people he knows. I say Oh my that’s a lot of books, I’ll see what I can do because it’s out of print. And then I’m in my cab and there’s a radio order at Castro and Army a guy standing in the dark on the street in front of his house says he saw my headlights coming over the hill from Market Street, watched me the last ten-twelve blocks, says I had my high beams on the whole way but I don’t think I did. They’re not on now. I don’t ever mention my own writing to him, but it turns out he himself has written a book about the markings on coins and on bars of precious metals or something, it’s kind of a specialty book, he’s got some followers in the world of precious metals who think his book is pretty essential, costs $8.05 I think he said, odd number, and I can find it if I google hallmark research institute. I say that ten years ago the word google didn’t even mean anything to anyone and isn’t it amazing how fast we’re flying along through the twenty-first century 2010 already, which pretty much derails the conversation but we’re already there at the Alemany Street flea market where my fare likes to poke around on Sunday mornings -- $8.05 on the meter, how about that. The flea market’s already messy with people stumbling around in the still-dark 6:15 morning, but now I’m speeding down the freeway after a radio call for a woman named Marianna -- Mah-ree-AH-nah says the dispatcher -- waiting at the Glen Park BART station. She’s going to her clerk job at some store at the Potrero Center at Sixteenth and Bryant and since she doesn’t usually work on Sundays she didn't know BART doesn’t run early today so now I’m driving her. We’re quiet, I don’t know what she’s thinking but it’s probably about money, she’s very young and small and Latina and she works as a clerk and probably doesn’t make much money so she’s probably thinking about how much this is going to cost her all because of BART, and me I’m quiet too only thinking about how my arms ache all the time every day now dammit and How in the world am I going to get through this pain crisis like I got through my two-three years of screaming banshee back pain twenty years ago and who the hell will I be if I can’t write anymore? And wouldn’t my friends who are sick from cancer or Parkinson’s or mysteriously losing their voices and can’t speak but a whisper or the ones who are in wheelchairs and nursing homes -- my own age! -- wouldn’t they just snort if they heard me griping about a little problem with my arms and some bogus hollow existential dramas? But there ain’t no problems like your own problems, and no matter how much I try to feel bad for those other people I feel worse for myself and now I laugh because for sure we’re all going to die anyway and I think we’re all probably I hope going to have a good laugh after we do, and when we get to the end of the ride I tell MaryAhnah that it’s a free ride and she scoots forward up to the edge of the back seat and sits up real straight like she’s in full lotus position and she says soft and sweet, “Really?” I can tell this is wonderful news to her and when I say Yes, Really she says Thank You and just then I hear a radio call back over at Seventeenth and Shotwell and I do a U-turn so that I pass right by MaryAhnah as she’s walking off to her store and she waves to me and smiles real big and sweet and I beep and speed off before anyone else can beat me to the order. But nobody does and there he is a thirty-two-year-old white guy with glasses and some sort of soft cap on his head who for the last six years has been a “surgical tech” at a hospital up in Napa and yesterday he drove down for Oktoberfest with some friends who are all still asleep and last night he left his car over by the ballpark and now he needs to go get it and when I ask him about his hospital work -- has he already seen everything there is to see? -- he says Yep pretty much he has seen it all but just last week they had to amputate somebody’s toe and, strange, that sure made his stomach squirm. I tell him I once asked the same sort of question to a head-neck surgeon who told me he remembered being in med school and one day he and forty-nine other head-neck surgeon wannabes were all led into a refrigerated lab where there were fifty severed human heads sitting up on fifty tables waiting for all of them to practice on, staring ’em down, and he’s never going to forget that sight. Down by the ballpark we can see that the sun is just starting to twirl an orange flamenco skirt above the East Bay hills, the bay water is flat no-wind and the air is already a little toasty and you know it’s going to be hot and I’m glad I wore my shorts today. I drive through downtown, through the financial district where all the cab stands at all the hotels are all full barely even seven o’clock and I drive up Pine Street to the shi-shi Upper Fillmore part of Pacific Heights where there is still a light mist in the air and even though down by the ballpark it might have felt the way it feels at the beginning of a summer scorcher in Tucson or Dallas or Tulsa up here in Pacific Heights it’s cooler and pleasant like you want San Francisco to be and I can see that out toward Ocean Beach there’s just a little scrap of fog still. I park and go into Peet’s and buy a five-buck latte with a half pump of hazelnut and half pump vanilla and then walk across the street (newsrack headline says Legal Marijuana Looking Good in Polls) to Noah’s Bagels and buy a four-buck whole wheat sesame toasted with cream cheese and tomatoes and heated-up mushrooms and spinach please and go sit behind the wheel of Green Cab #914 listening to the dispatcher who isn’t saying much of anything today and my cabulous phone is dead quiet too and I eat and I sip my latte and I read the last ten pages of Dharma Bums which I’ve never read before. I’ve read Kerouac before, On The Road, but that was decades back and now I’m wondering just like I did decades ago How did this guy get published? He’s such a careless haphazard writer, no craft at all just a stream of any old thing he might be thinking, any old thing he wants to say like he was getting paid by the word or the random thought, no editing grammar punctuation like he just tipped his rucksack upside down and shook it and then popped all the drugs that tumbled out and now he’s remembering places he hitchhiked and mountains he sat on top of and parties he and a bunch of his friends had with jugs of wine where most everybody was naked. And I’m thinking, How hard is that? because I’ve been to my share of places and I’ve hitchhiked way more than my share of miles and I’ve sat on much higher mountaintops and I’ve danced at parties with my friends naked and big old jugs of wine -- I mean this Kerouac stuff, it’s like he’s stealing, it’s too easy -- like photography click-click where’s my money? But reading all his lame stories and all his lame musings on Enlightenment is mostly just embarrassing because he was writing all these things when I was five years old when every father in my neighborhood had a crewcut and went off to work for the government every morning and had two or maybe three weeks off every year and spent the other forty-nine or fifty weeks dreaming about climbing mountains and dreaming about seeing more than one woman naked at a time and lying in a meadow with a jug of wine on a bright afternoon and thinking any old damn thing he pleases instead of How’m I gonna get all four of these damn kids through college? It’s almost like Kerouac saw this crazy space and opened it up just a crack and a few years later all these hippie kids just like me, all these sons and daughters of straitjacket 1950s adults just like my parents, we hippie kids suddenly poured through that crack into that crazy space and attacked the world with our drug-filled backpacks and our crazy hair thinking we were doing something new and daring that had never been done before, but Kerouac had already done it all and had already gone ahead and written about all of it. Most all the places he’s writing about I realize are places I’ve been to now, like hiking in Marin or living in Oakland or watching the rocks at Rioanji Temple in Kyoto or hitchhiking all over this-land-is-your-land or going to Mexico -- hell, I went to San Miguel de Allende to write a book but Kerouac was already there thirty-five years before me. I moved to the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest and chopped down trees and built a log cabin but two decades before I even thought about doing that Kerouac spent a summer in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state and if he had real good Forest Service binoculars he might’ve probably looked over into Idaho down at the meadow (both photos at right) where I built my cabin twenty years before I built it. Right now it’s too early to call my friend Blake in Corvallis or I would call him because just a couple of weeks ago in Yosemite Blake and I were sitting naked in the sun next to an icy snowmelt river we’d both just climbed out of and he pointed up to a far-off mountain and said, “That’s the mountain Kerouac and Gary Snyder climbed in Dharma Bums -- you should read it -- you might like it.” So as much as I fancy I’m not as lazy a writer as Kerouac and as much as I envy his fame and success mostly what I feel on this too-early-to-call-Blake-morning is just embarrassment. Every thought I ever thought, every place I’ve ever been, every thing I’ve ever done it’s all a repeat. And now outfront of Noah’s Bagels on Fillmore Street I read Kerouac’s last ten pages and think What a fraud I am! It’s clear like a prison searchlight pointing right in my eyes every thought I’ve ever thought has already been thought by at least a billion people, every place I’ve ever been has already been trampled over by at least a billion billion more and then written about by at least half a billion billion of them. Every hope and dream I’ve ever hoped and dreamed has already been endlessly hoped and endlessly dreamed, and every ache and pain I’ve ever ached and pained has already been ached and pained by a zillion zillion others. How did I ever delude myself that it was possible I might ever do something original? Save the world? Make some difference? Write a book that’ll always be remembered? All I’m going to do on this plane of existence is breathe some as-yet-uncertain number of breaths and then move on maybe to some other plane or to nowhere and nothing at all. I think again about calling Blake, but it’s too early, he’s got his family house full of kids and who really wants a call from some cab driver in San Francisco talking this kind of crap at 7:30 on any morning? But it’s definitely embarrassing reading all these stories about hitchhiking and traveling and Kerouac’s sophomoric enlightenment musings, just like mine, but maybe better. I’m so upset, really, that I switch on my gas-electric-hybrid engine and glide Green Cab #914 up Fillmore Street thinking I might just swing down through the Marina, maybe catch an airport fare off the radio, and if I don’t catch an airport fare I might just head on out to the Golden Gate Bridge and if I feel like it I might just keep on driving across and go on up to Desolation Peak or over to Idaho to visit my old cabin (right), but if I don’t feel like it I might just park on this side of the bridge and either get out and walk to the middle the way I sometimes do on slow Sunday mornings or else I’ll just sit there and look up at the bridge and dictate some of these Jack Kerouac thoughts of mine to my laptop. But when I hit the crest of Pacific Heights and I’m looking out between the Broadway mansions and down the ski jump steep part of Fillmore Street I see that even though the mist and fog have burned off from the whole city now, the Bridge itself is still smothered by a big tube of fog that’s pouring right through the Golden Gate and screaming across the Bay like one of those freight trains Kerouac hopped and which I never did, it’s big and fat and white and up above there’s nothing but more big and fat and blue and underneath there’s a bright stripe of the Marina green but all I can see of the bridge is the very tops of the two red towers sticking up out of Kerouac’s creamy freight train. If I park by the bridge I’ll just be sitting in fog. I look up the hill at Nancy Pelosi’s house which sometimes I drive past so I can count how many newspapers are scattered on her front sidewalk when she’s in DC or so I can look and see if the Secret Service is sitting out front inside one of their tinted black SUVs. But my heart’s not in any of that and I turn back toward downtown and drive through the Tenderloin until I’m flagged by a woman on Taylor at Geary right beside the Hilton Towers and first blink I think prostitute. She’s wearing a catchy little black and white schoolgirl thing that also kind of looks like a sailor’s outfit and she’s got a tough little face but she’s not wearing any makeup like most hookers I see so maybe she isn’t one after all. She says she needs to go to Seventh and Howard and when I start with my questions she tells me she was “born right up there at UCSF and raised right here in San Francisco” and the farthest away she has ever traveled is Arizona. She asks me how long I’ve been driving a cab and I give her my line about “I just started…twenty-five years ago” and she laughs and asks don’t I ever get tired of all the drunks and I say no not really. I don’t say Are you drunk and I don’t say Are you a prostitute and I don’t tell her that I’m so fucking sick-tired of my goddam arms hurting that I could cry and then we’re on Sixth Street, the old skid row Kerouac wrote about in Dharma Bums, I think he bought donuts there sometime when he was drunk one night, and suddenly I hear my little tough-faced schoolgirl’s voice coming from way down low like she’s maybe on the floor of my cab “I didn’t know you were going to go down Sixth Street!” I turn around and look and see that she has slid down as far as she can, she’s flat on her back on the backseat looking up at me with her no-makeup face like she’s laying down in some pine needle soft clearing in the woods or something but the important thing is that her head is not sticking up above the window frame any more so no one on Sixth Street can see her going past in a cab so now I know she really is a hooker and she’s hiding from her hooker friends or her pimp or whoever but she doesn’t want me to know so she tells me a different story. She says, “I don’t like Sixth Street” and I say “Oh really” and she says “Some of the people here are crazy -- some girl tried to jump me here last night for no reason at all” and I say “Oh really” and she says, “No reason at all -- women in San Francisco are unpredictable and scandalous.” And I say, “Oh, say that again. Please.” And she says it again, “Women in San Francisco are unpredictable and scandalous.” We only have another two blocks to Seventh and Howard and the whole time I’m repeating it to myself, and I’m thinking Jesus Christ my arms ache and at the same time I’m telling myself don’t forget her words unpredictable and scandalous, those are original words, I’ve been alive for fifty-nine years and eleven days and my arms have been aching for seven or eight years already, and in all that time I’ve never heard those same words put together in that particular order.