Monday, November 1, 2010


Shift #88

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 12 -- Seventh/Mission to Turk/Parker -- $15.25

, on the Mission Street side of the new Federal Building, three young women flag me. All three of them have the same olive skin and the same jet-black hair. All three are dressed neck-to-toe in cascading layers of clothing, all of which is either black or white. And each of them, I notice, has a cell phone in her hand.

The tallest one sits up front with me, and the other two climb in back.

In clear, lightly-accented English, the one seated in the right rear (I will soon come to think of her as the group’s leader) tells me, “We need to go to 388 Beale Street, but first we need to go to an ATM.”

While I head for a nearby Chase branch, the three of them chatter in Arabic which occasionally morphs seamlessly into English and then back to Arabic. The girl right behind me says, “Yamma yamma yamma three hundred dollars for four days yamma yamma yamma…”

The one up front counters, “No, four hundred for three days yamma yamma yamma…”

I stop at the curb on Market at Eighth and pop my emergency flashers. Leader and Behindme trot over to the ATM.

When I ask, Upfront tells me, “We’re from Saudi Arabia.” The three of them are on a ten-day visit to America. Today is day four. They are visiting a Saudi friend, a student at the University of San Francisco. After three more days they’ll fly to LA, and after three more, “back to Saudi.”

“Is this is your first trip to America?”

Upfront: “Yes.”

“Have you traveled away from Saudi before?”

“Europe -- England, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands… Turkey and Egypt, too.” She looks over at me -- my questions seem to have worn her out. “Can we put on some music?” she asks. There is no please, I notice.

Me: “Do you have a favorite station here?”


It’s a hip-hop station, but the song playing has a tolerable melody and nobody’s spewing curse words. I set the volume toward the low side of middle.

Upfront suddenly notices that Leader and Behindme have left the rear door wide open, and now she extends her right hand out through her open window to try to swing it closed. She torques her spine and reaches her right arm back as far as she can, but can’t quite reach that back door...

She and I are almost shoulder-to-shoulder in the front seat of my narrow Prius. Her head is turned away from me, and now it is impossible for me not to notice that her over-garment -- a thin, black, button-up sweater -- has fallen open. Underneath, she’s wearing something with a floral motif -- I catch a flash of orange-green-blue-red-white. This undergarment might be a halter top or an item of lingerie or it might be part of some larger fashion ensemble, but whatever its classification, it only covers, and just barely, the approximate lower third of Upfront’s plump young breasts. Any more stretching, any more shifting around, and I’m afraid we’re about to see wardrobe failure…

I say: “It’s okay -- really, it’s okay…” The open rear door is not actually creating a problem.

Upfront turns back around and glances at me -- her sweater falls closed again -- and then she relaxes down into her seat again.

I recall reading about a phenomenon that occurs as jetliners from Europe begin their descents toward airports in the Muslim Middle East. Chic fashionistas who have just spent days or weeks lying half-naked on beaches, or strutting through shopping malls on high heels -- legs showing, shoulders uncovered, heads bare -- suddenly begin to disappear under long black robes… Wahabi, Sufi, Sunni... Hottie?

I tell Upfront, “I’m fifty-nine years old. May I ask how old you are?”

“Eighteen.” She tips her head toward the ATM. “My cousins are both sixteen.”

“Are they twins?”

Upfront: “They look like twins, but they’re not even sisters. We’re all three cousins.”

When the other two return, we head down Folsom toward Beale, and suddenly Behindme uncorks an anguished squeal and then a frantic burst of Arabic.

Me: “What’s the matter?”

Upfront says, “Lost her iphone,” and then she pokes at her own phone. A ring tone peeps in the backseat. Behindme mutters in Arabic. Thank friggin’ Allah, I presume.

Apparently the stop at the ATM didn’t go so smoothly for Behindme. She calls her bank, and through the phone I can easily hear a male customer service rep say, “Because you withdrew $500 last evening…”

Behindme says, “I forgot that one.”

A different ring tone sounds, and Leader swiftly greets the caller: “Ali Baba!” For the next sixty seconds, two loud phone conversations compete for backseat airspace. Next to me, Upfront’s head is wagging along to another hip-hop number, a male rapper working a taunt that I can’t fully comprehend: it includes either the word direction or the word erection and the rapper is making a dead-serious vow to “get me some.”

Seconds after Behindme hangs up with her bank, Leader dismisses Ali Baba with an arresting lyric of her own -- original? borrowed? -- which she cries out in shockingly clear English: “I love you and I want to dance for you!”

In front of 388 Beale, Leader makes a phone call: “We’re out front...”

Upfront tells me, “We’re picking up something here -- just a few minutes -- and then we have to go to USF.”

Arabic swirls through the cab’s interior. On the radio, a girl singer proposes, “Let’s go aaall the way to-night.” Leader and Upfront and Behindme occasionally break away from their Arabic chit-chat to sing along, with feeling: “skin tight jeans…a teenage dream…aaall the way to-night…”

As I’m musing on the sexual undercurrents; on the odds of me ever traveling to Saudi Arabia; on these kids’ easy mobility in this vast world; their proficiency in English; their scrubbed accents; the elite schools they must attend; and on how oily rich their parents must be, a young Asian man walks out the front door of 388 Beale. He is wearing blue jeans and a crisp white tee-shirt. Leader joins him on the sidewalk -- he’s not tall, but he towers over her. He is just out of my earshot, but I can still catch snatches of Leader’s side of the conversation: One hundred and ten dollars… We do not have a printer… We want actual tickets…

The Asian man disappears back inside the building. Leader slips back into her seat and tells me, “A few more minutes.” When the Arabic starts up again, I step out for some air.

We’ve had a ten-day run of clear, intoxicating, seventy-degree days -- in November! -- a spectacular global warming dividend. The cold, foggy crud we suffered during June, July, and August is forgiven, forgotten. Today, the downtown skyscrapers are gleaming in full sunshine under a dome of unblemished blue.

I rotate my trunk fifty times and listen to my spine crackle. Life is good. In another nine days, my cab driving year will be finished. I can go to yoga classes every day. I can spend all of December reading the books that have stacked up.

I leave an I-want-to-dance-with-you message on my wife’s office line, do some more stretching, and ponder the future of the world. Next year, I’ll turn sixty. By the time this harem in my cab has reached my age, I’ll be long gone. What sort of world will have emerged? What unimaginable things will these kids, and my own daughter, be dealing with?

The cab’s rear door opens. Behindme smiles and says, “We would like to ask you some questions…”

I slide behind the wheel and twist around. The interior of a Prius is a cozy space; no more than three feet separates any of our four faces. At this distance, the two girls in back -- Leader and Behindme -- are virtually indistinguishable, and they could both be movie stars. They’re each wearing expensive-looking sunglasses with big, round, chocolate-colored lenses; Leader’s shades are cocked up on her head, Behindme’s hide her eyes. The black hairs on their nearly-identical heads look like they’ve been parted precisely down the middle with some sort of tonsorial laser tool -- and the way that hair has been pulled tightly back gives them each an alluring, semi-fierce look.

Leader lays out the deal: The Asian guy has tickets to tonight’s Usher concert at the Oakland Coliseum. He wants $110 each. (I nod, pretending I know who Usher is, pretending that I have even the dimmest awareness that the hottest act in hip-hop is planning -- to-night -- to come tear up/tear down the town where I live.) The Asian guy wanted to email bar coded tickets to Leader. Leader told him to print them out for her. “You saw him,” Leader tells me. “Do you trust him? Do you think he might just give us copies, and sell the real tickets to someone else?”

They are leaning forward, eyeballing me, almost panting for my wisdom. My god, they’re young! Their dark black pupils are flinting sparks. My god, they’re good-looking! As I eyeball them back, the word spitfires occurs to me.

I say, Yeah, I’d trust him. He looked okay to me. This is how we do it here now -- I’ve bought lots of email tickets and never got burned. “Did you given him any money?”

Leader: “No!”

Behindme: “But he is taking too long.”

Me: “Call him -- tell him the cab driver is wondering what’s going on.”

Leader: “Brilliant!” She touches her phone: “Our driver is getting nervous -- he wonders why this is taking so long… Good…good… Okay.”

Then, to me again: “I blamed it all on you!

All four of us laugh.

I ask, “In Saudi, do you have to cover up to go out in public?”

All three speak at once: “A scarf… Over the shoulders only… No robes… No burqa… Scarf only… Not over the head… The head is optional…”

Upfront makes a point of catching my eye: “I don’t wear the headscarf” -- she shudders her head from side to side -- “I don’t. I don’t.”

The two in back: “No-no! We don’t either. We don’t either.”

I have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, a blistering account of growing up female and Muslim in the Middle East: perpetual inferior status to males; hot robes even in the sweltering summertime; lack of freedom to come and go; and -- my friggin’ Allah! -- genital mutilation.

I ask, “At home, if you go out, do you have to be accompanied by a male?”

Them: “That is up to the family -- some yes, some no.”

Me: “What about your families?”

A chorus: “Usually no…” And then Behindme delivers a trump card so perfect that it breaks down all four of us: “We came to America…by our-selves!” She is sixteen years old, shrieking hysterically in the back seat of a taxicab five thousand miles from her parents’ home. It’s crazy-sick.

We’re still recovering when the Asian man returns with the printouts. The deal goes down.

As we head off toward USF, Leader says, “Can we hear the music again, please.”

On the radio, a throaty-voiced female is going on and on and on: Like a G-six…G-six… Like a G-six…G-six… I listen closely but perceive no guidance as to what a G-six might be. The tone, however, promises a full serving of nasty.

My new pals provide lusty backup: “Like a G-six…G-six… Like a G-six…

I ask, “How do you know all these songs?”

“We hear everything in Saudi.”

I imagine them gyrating beneath swirling shafts of colored light in an dark underground grotto, ecstatic looks on their faces, bodies obedient to a pounding bass beat. I ask: “Do you go to clubs in Saudi?”


Me: “Do you have clubs in Saudi?”

Them, laughing: “No!”

“Then how do you hear the music?”

“Internet… iPod… MP3…!” Doo-oood, you are so lame!

Me: “What kind of work do your parents do?”

Leader: “My father is in the government, and my mother is a policewoman.”

Me: “A policewoman…?”

Hysteria: “Not a police-woman -- a business-woman! We don’t have policewomen!”

Me: “Do women drive?”

“We are not allowed.”

Me: “I thought I read about some women driving now?”

“That is Kuwait. In Kuwait, since the Gulf War, some women can drive, they can even run for Parliament. Even in Afghanistan women run for parliament, but not in Saudi…”

We’re driving slowly up Turk Street, past Max’s Opera CafĂ©. I lift my hands off the wheel and glance back: “Any of you want to drive?”

They shriek -- they know I’m teasing, but they love it. And I wonder: What if one of them said yes? I do know a couple of big empty parking lots…

A gangsta on 94.9 has gotten hisself some weed and now he and his posse, We be smokin…

Me: “Do people in Saudi ever smoke marijuana or hashish?”

Them, subdued: “No.”

Me: “Do any of you?”

Upfront and Behindme scream: “No!” But Leader comes in loud over top of them: “We are too young!”

I suggest: “But you’ve got plans?”

Hard, affirmative laughter -- this very subject just may have already been thoroughly discussed a time or two.

Me: “Is Islam a big thing in all of your lives?”

All three, “Oh, yes!” They bleat this with a vehemence I hadn’t expected -- G-six, skin tight jeans, reefer dreams...

Me: “Do you pray…?”

They sure do: “Five times a day!”

A perhaps-true story comes to mind: Centuries ago, somewhere in India, a powerful mogul was approached by several nervous advisors: “An army of 20,000 Muslims approaches from the west, Your Majesty.” The mogul replied, “Pfft! We have 100,000 soldiers, the finest army in all the world.” The advisers countered, “But you see, Your Majesty, these people all pray together at the same time, five times every day.” The mogul considered this, but not for long, and then said, “We’re doomed…”

THE HIGHEST POINT on the USF campus yields one of the best views in San Francisco. As we pull to a stop, I see the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods; the long green stripe of Golden Gate Park flowing like a river toward the sprawling blue Pacific; the burnt-orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge poking above the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio. I zap the meter and inform my fares that I won’t be taking their money.

I expect them to fight like little desert dervishes, and they do, but I break down their resistance with this line: “If you pay me, none of us will ever remember this ride. I want to remember it.”

“But I swear to you,” Leader says, “we will always remember this ride!”


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