Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Shift #88

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

, but being a cab driver entitles me to -- in fact it often requires me to -- have an opinion on just about everything. And I think the new Federal Building in San Francisco at Seventh and Mission is just plain off-putting.

When the Transamerica Pyramid was being constructed, many people (including many blowhard cab drivers, I’m sure) decried its weirdness, opined that it was an abomination that would never fit in. But the populace quickly embraced its up-pointing, optimistic design, and within a few months of its 1972 opening, the Pyramid had become a celebrated San Francisco icon. I don’t think the Federal Building is going to be so lucky. It’s a visual head-scratcher with odd, dull coloring and an asymmetrical roof line, and after studying it for the past two years, I hereby pronounce its overall effect jangling. I can’t be the only one wondering, “What were they thinking?”

TOWARD MIDDAY, on the Mission Street side of the Federal Building, I see three young women eyeballing my cab. They are sauntering along all helter-skelter: only one of them is actually up on the sidewalk; a second is walking in the bus zone, a good five feet out onto the Mission Street asphalt; and the third is carefully tiptoeing her way along the edge of the curb as though it were a tightrope.

Their flagging style is as foreign as their pedestrian style -- in fact it takes me a moment to notice that I’m being flagged at all. Each of them is holding one hand down by her thigh and almost imperceptibly wiggling her open palm toward me -- trying to be…discreet, perhaps?

All three of them have the same olive skin and the same jet-black hair, and each of them, I notice, is clutching a phone in her non-flagging hand. All are dressed neck-to-toe in cascading layers of clothing, all of which is either black or white, but the overall effect is black-black-black. Two of them are strikingly short, almost tiny -- at first glance I think they might be identical twins. All are quite noticeably cute.

The taller one sits up front with me, the almost-tiny ones climb into the back.

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

It’s a twenty-story condominium building, almost directly beneath the Bay Bridge, one block from the water. I say, “I know the spot.”

Leader again: “But first we need to go to an ATM.”

While I drive toward the nearby Wells Fargo, they talk excitedly in…Arabic? I stop at the curb at Market and Eighth and activate my emergency flashers. Leader trots over to the ATM.

I ask Upfront, “Is that Arabic you’re speaking?”

Upfront: “Yes -- 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 who attends the University of San Francisco. In three days they’ll fly to LA, and three days later “back to Saudi.”

Me: “Is this is your first trip to America?”

Upfront: “Yes.”

Me: “Have you traveled away from Saudi before?”

Upfront: “Europe -- England, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands…”

The girl behind me speaks up: “Turkey and Egypt, too.”

Upfront looks over at me -- my questions seem to have worn her out: “Can we put on some music?” There is no please, I notice.

I say: “Do you have a favorite station here?”

Upfront: “Ninety-four-point-nine”

It’s a hip-hop station, but the song that’s playing has a tolerable melody. I set the volume toward the low side of middle. Behindme suddenly uncorks an anguished squeal and then a frantic burst of Arabic.

Me: “What’s the matter?”

Upfront says, “She lost her iphone.” Upfront pokes a button on her own iPhone. A ring tone peeps in the backseat. Behindme mutters in Arabic -- Thank friggin’ Allah, I presume.

Upfront and Behindme confer briefly, and then Behindme exits through the right rear door, walks over, and joins Leader at the ATM.

Upfront notices that Behindme has left the rear door wide open, and now she extends her right hand out through the passenger side window to try to swing it closed. Not quite able to reach it, she torques her spine and reaches her right arm back as far as she can. Still, she’s coming up just short...

Given that she and I are almost shoulder-to-shoulder in this little drama, it’s impossible for me to not notice that Upfront’s over-garment -- a thin, black, button-up sweater -- has fallen open. Underneath that, she’s wearing a skimpy top. I catch flashes of orange and green and blue and red and white -- a bright floral design. It might be a halter top, or some item of lingerie, or it could be part of some longer, more complicated ensemble, but whatever its category, this undergarment covers only the lower third or so (my peek is fleeting) of Upfront’s plump young breasts.

I have zero credentials in fashion design, and my anatomy lessons have been strictly amateur, but it seems unquestionable to me that with even the slightest further shifting around -- an inch, inch and a half max -- a nipple’s gonna have to pop loose somewhere.

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

Upfront glances over at me -- her sweater falls closed again -- and then relaxes back into a forward-facing position.

Every night driver has an extensive backlog of titillating stories, but a low-cut top at Eighth and Market Streets in the full light of day is about as racy as day shift ever gets.

(Okay, okay… Off the top of my head… One night, I heard a customer [it’s quite possible that she was mentally unhinged] call to me, “Look at these, driver!” -- and when I turned around I saw that she had peeled her shirt and bra down around her waist and was lost in admiration of her own, rather amazing, Wonder Woman chest… Another night, a tall and beautiful youngster -- she looked like a track star, a champion high-hurdler perhaps -- stepped from my cab, handed the exact fare through the passenger side window, announced, “And here’s your tip, mister,” yanked her shirt up to her collarbone, gave her bare torso a spirited shimmy, and trotted away into her housing project… And on the night of the Exotic-Erotic Ball, a woman wearing nothing but a sheer, electric-blue, full-body stocking climbed into my front seat… Well, I actually think I’d get back to business now…)

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 just look it, but they’re not even sisters. We’re all cousins.”

Leader and Behindme return, and as we head down Folsom toward Beale, the chatter slips between English and Arabic. I hear one say, “Yamma yamma yamma four hundred dollars for three days yamma yamma yamma…”

Another counters, “No, three hundred for four days yamma yamma yamma…”

Behindme places a call to her bank, and I overhear a male customer service rep say, “Because you withdrew $500 last evening…”

Behindme says, “I forgot that one.”

Another ring tone sounds, and Leader swiftly greets the caller: “Ali Baba!” For the next sixty seconds, two loud phone conversations compete for backseat airspace. Upfront’s head is wagging along with a new number on 94.9, 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 what sounds, to me, like 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!”

At 388 Beale, I make exact change for Upfront’s hundred-dollar-bill. Foreigners and teenagers are notoriously negligent tippers, and earlier in the ride ($10.75) I’d noted my double jeopardy, and now, when no tip is forthcoming, I roll right on through it.

No one is making a move to leave. Arabic swirls through the cab. Leader makes a phone call: “We’re out front...” And then Upfront tells me, “We’re picking up something here, but then we have to go to USF. Can you wait and take us, or should we get another cab?”

Regulations dictate that a cab driver must wait whenever asked, but most cabdrivers, including me, want no part of waiting. A driver can at least wallow in the illusion of being in control while his/her cab is in motion, but not while waiting for someone else’s dry cleaning, or for their burrito to be wrapped or their potstickers to finish steaming. “Wait-a-bit” rides -- somehow, one way or another -- always wind up being pure aggravation.

I tell the girls, “No problem. Take all the time you need.”

Several minutes pass. On the radio, a girl singer repeatedly 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 tonight…”

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; on 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 -- and I catch snatches of their conversation: One hundred and ten dollars… We do not have a printer…

Leader pokes her head back into the cab to consult in Arabic with Upfront and Behindme, then informs the young man, We want actual tickets…

He disappears back into 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 warm, clear, intoxicating days -- in November! -- a spectacular global warming dividend. The cold, foggy crud we suffered during June, July, and August is forgotten, forgiven. Today, the downtown skyscrapers are gleaming in full sunshine, with an unblemished, polished-looking blue sky behind and above it all.

I rotate my trunk fifty times and listen to my spine crackle. I windmill my arms around for a while, touch my toes, stretch out my hamstrings. Life is good. In another nine days, my 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-love-you-and-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 the 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?

I’ve been outside the cab for at least fifteen minutes when the rear door opens and Behindme says, “Can we ask you some questions?”

I sit behind the wheel and twist around. The inside of a Prius is a small space; no more than three feet separates any of our four faces. The two in the 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; Behindme’s cover her eyes, Leader’s are cocked up on her head. The task of parting their identical heads of hair precisely down the middle looks as though it’s been performed by a laser tool. And the way it’s been pulled tightly back gives them each a pleasantly fierce look.

Leader lays out the deal: They found the Asian guy on craigslist. He’s got tickets to tonight’s Usher concert at the Oakland Coliseum for $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 comes to me.

I say, Yeah, I’d trust him -- he looked okay -- and 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 a button: “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!”

We’re all pals now. I ask, “In Saudi do you have to cover up to go out in public?”

All three speak out 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 know I’m not going to bring up the latter, but I do 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 ourselves!” 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 -- and the deal goes down.

After at least a half-hour of down time, I reach up, restart the meter -- “Music too, please,” says Leader, and I do like hearing the please -- and head of toward USF.

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 can perceive no guidance as to what a G-six might be. The tone, however, promises a full serving of hotandnasty.

My buds 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 in an dark underground grotto, shafts of colored light swirling down on them, 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 now, 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 Café. I lift my hands off the wheel and glance back: “Any of you want to drive?”

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

On 94.9 a gangsta 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 -- that subject just may have been 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... On jetliners approaching Middle Eastern airspace, chic fashionistas returning from sojourns in Europe -- during which they have lain on beaches half-naked, strutted through shopping malls on high heels, legs showing, shoulders uncovered, and heads bare -- suddenly disappear under long black robes. I have read widely about this phenomenon, and also about the Sufi and the Wahabi sects of Islam, but this ride is my first personal brush with the Hottie branch.

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: “Your Majesty, an army of 20,000 Muslims approaches from the west.” The mogul replied, “Pfft! We have 100,000 soldiers, the finest army in all the world.” The advisers advise, “But you see, Your Majesty, these soldiers 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 the San Francisco. As we pull to a stop, I see the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods; the long green stripe of Golden Gate Park, a third-of-a-mile wide, flowing like a river toward the sprawling blue Pacific; the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge peeking over the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio. I zap the meter and inform my fares that I won’t be taking any more of their money. I expect them to fight like little desert dervishes, and they do, but I win them over with a line I improvised during a similar tangle with Manu from India back in August. “If you pay me,” I tell the girls, “none of us will ever remember this ride. I want to remember it.”

When they assure me that, yes, they do read books in English, I pull a copy of Take Me With You from my trunk and hand it to Leader. Upfront and Behindme lean in from either side of her, and the three of them study the cover. Leader murmurs, “I have never met a real writer.” She looks up at me with -- may I say it? -- awe.

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