Monday, October 21, 2013

A Work of Genius

He was 22, thin, good looking, medium height and hip. He'd always been hip. He'd been class treasurer in high school and helped edit the yearbook. He usually obtained the booze and milder drugs for his college fraternity parties and got laid at every other one. While his clothes - faded jeans with a hole in one knee, green turtle-neck, white jean-jacket - were a tad retro, they were hip because he wore them.

En route we had a hip conversation about Miles. He contended that Kind of Blue, which I was playing, was Davis's greatest album. I held the less conventional view of preferring Sketches of Spain

"I like the melodies," I told him. 

He grudgingly accepted that as a legitimate position - although an inferior one.

When we arrived at his destination, he climbed out of the back seat and came around to my window to pay. He started to hand me a ten dollar bill, then paused and said, 

"You know if you could really write what cab driving's like - I mean if you could really capture the experience - it would be literature."

"Well," I hesitantly started to say, "I've made a few notes here and -"

"No! - No!" he interrupted, waving his bill in front of me as to erase my words. "No - if you could really just get it down - you could create a work of genius."

He stood staring at some point over my head. 

If only he had the time ... if only he chose to dedicate himself to the task ... Yes! Cabbie would be his first best seller, the next avaunt on the non-fiction novel ...

"That was $7.90," I said.

"Oh, yeah - yeah," he said, remembering me. "Make it eight."

"Thanks a lot," I said, handing back his two bills.

Enraptured in his vision, he missed my mild sarcasm. 

"I wasn't just a documentarian," he would tell Charlie Rose, "I was one of them."

 His success would give him the time he needed to write his major opus, Ulysses as a Young Narcissist and Other Tales.

He turned and wandered across the crowded boulevard, floating obliviously through the braking cars, honking horns and screamed obscenities on the soft velvet warmth of his fantasy.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

I'll Shoot You in the Face!

Two, long, lovely natural blonds from Minnesota sat waiting in the back seat of my taxi. What we were waiting for was the owner, a short man in his forties, who was standing outside his bar arguing with a tall black man.

"You come in here again and I'll shoot you in the face!" he yelled.

The black man just stood and looked down at the little man. I couldn't figure out what the argument was about. The black man appeared to be sober and was cleanly dressed but he was ghetto. That was probably it. It was an upscale, North Beach place. The owner was probably just a racist.

"What'd I do?" the black man asked.

"Just don't come in my bar," the little man yelled, "you do it again and I'll shoot you in the face."

He finished his threat and jumped into the cab next to the blonds. He rolled down the window and repeated the threat one more time. "You come in again and I'll shoot you in the face."

He was clearly saying it to impress the blonds. They exchanged a look. They were not impressed.

He turned in my direction, shook his head and said, "whatya think of that?"

"I think it's a bad idea to make threats that you don't intend to keep," I said. "You just –"

"Who asked your opinion?" the owner shot back belligerently.

"I thought you did?"

"When I want your opinion, I'll let you know."

"Or what? You gonna shoot me in the face?"

"I wouldn't waste a bullet on your fucking face - you want the ride or not?"

"Or not."

"Well fuck you," he said climbing out of the cab, "Come on girls - let's dump the bum."

"You sure you wanna go with that jerk?" I asked the blonds. "I''m better looking and I'm taller."

They exchanged another look. They instantly agreed about the shortness of my financial status. Wordlessly, they climbed out of the taxi.

It appeared that the owner had been in arguments with cab drivers before and it looked like he was going to do the number one irritating thing that a customer can do - leave my rear side door open so that I would have to get out of the cab and walk around to the other side in order to close the door.

"Don't slam my door," I said.

"Fuck you!" he said, slamming the door shut.

A couple of years later, they found the owner in the doorway of a Tenderloin dive with a big hole in his forehead. Maybe if he'd let me finish my complete sentence, he'd still be alive.

" – you just never know who you're talking to."

Actually, that's not bad advice for me.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Brazilian

"Thanks for driving slow," said the wife.

"Yeah," said the husband, "that last driver was insane."

"Literally insane," added the wife.

"He flew over that steep hill," interjected the husband. "You know – the one from that movie."

"And he was laughing like a lunatic," he added.

"Lit-er-al-ly insane," said the wife.

"Did you ask him to slow down?" I inquired.

"Yeah," he said. "We made that mistake."

"He went twice as fast," she added. "And laughed twice as loud."

"We didn't get the number but he was Brazilian."

"Somebody should report him before he kills somebody – do you know who it is?"

"Let me think," I said. "You're sure he was Brazilian?"

"He was talking about the Brazilian soccer team."

"And he wore a colorful T-shirt that said Brazil."

"There are a lot of Brazilian drivers," I said. "And that sounds like all of them. There's one guy I'm thinking of – was he really ugly?"

"Oh, my God, no!" said the wife. "He was gorgeous! Ab-so-lute-ly gorgeous!"

"He wasn't that good looking," said the husband.

"Then, I don't know who it could be," I said lying.

It had to be Tony. He did drive very fast but everyone drives fast in Brazil. Besides, he was a pro. He didn't tailgate and he was in control. I don't think he ever even had an accident. He probably thought he was entertaining the couple.

I didn't have a car for a year and took taxis everywhere. I confess that most cab drivers go too fast for my tastes. I'm not above bailing from a taxi if I don't the driving. The dispatchers at my company called the order for my nightly ride home as,

"The old lady wants a cab at the garage."

One time when Tony was driving me home I did ask him why he was in such a hurry.

"I'm getting old, man," he said. "I need to save some money."

"Old?" I said laughing, "What are you? Twenty-eight?"

"Yeah – I know I look young but I'm forty. I dye my hair."

"YOU dye your hair?"

"Yeah. I really like women."

"Let me get this straight ... YOU have to dye your hair to get laid? You can't image how good that makes me feel."

"No – getting laid's no problema but I like women in their early twenties. Twenty-two is my ideal."

"My ideal is any woman who is too old for you. Why don't you send me your rejects?"

"It isn't just the woman," Tony said laughing. "I need the money for my daughter. She's fifteen and she needs a kidney. I have to save $25,000 for the operation. Then, I can give her my one of my kidneys. If I don't do it soon, it'll be too late. When she gets her kidney I'll slow down.


Friday, July 5, 2013

My Best Ride

I took a radio call on a looping street where Cow Hollow meets the edge of the Presidio.  The address was almost at the top of a steep wooded hill upon which lived some of the richest and most power people in San Francisco. The house looked like a stone monastery cut into the cliff with twin turrets winding up the slope on different sides. It had a huge wooden door with a large brass knocker. I raised the knocker as high as it would go and let it loose. It fell and slammed into the door, making a thud that echoed up unseen stairways.

The evening was clear and I could see an almost full moon rising through the trees. I took time to relax and breath in the cool, fresh air. I looked up toward the mansions on top of the bluff and decided that if I ever had the money to live in one, I wouldn't. Too much trouble.

"Are you driver?" An accented voice asked from behind me.

I turned to see a exotic Asian woman looking at me. She was dressed in a way that I'd never seen before. She was wearing a tan coat over a multi-colored vest over a green blouse with a patterned skirt so thick it reminded me of a kilt. Individually nothing seemed to match but, taken as whole, everything fit together – highlighting a lovely face with high cheekbones and light brown eyes with gold specks around the pupils.

'Out of my league," I thought.

She was carrying a cake box.

"Let me take that for you," I said

She smiled warmly and thanked me as she held out the box.

A tall, handsome, causally elegant man in his forties stepped out of the doorway carrying a bouquet of roses and handed them to her.

I put the box in the back of the car and climbed into the driver's seat while they talked.

He was enamored but shy and hesitant. She was uncomfortable and very polite. It quickly became clear that he wasn't getting anywhere and never would.

I decided to talk to her.

"Lovely flowers," I said as she stepped into the back seat.

"Yes," she said indifferently. "Is it common in your culture to invite some person to party and have them cook for you?"

"Maybe if they live on this hill," I said laughing. "Otherwise – no. Is that what he did to you?"

"Yes – I hate cooking."

"Then you'd have liked it better if he did the cooking and you gave him the flowers."

"I would have preferred that he cooked and I ate."

"If it had been me I would've cooked for you AND given you the flowers."

"Are you being French with me?" She asked smiling.

"No – I'm Irish."

"No – what do you call it," she asked, "When man is forward with woman he does not know?"


"Yes," she said with a light laugh, "but what is slang?"

"I think "fresh" is the word you're looking for and, yes, I was being a little fresh. Does that bother you?"

"Not at all. I'm accustomed to such behavior."

"I can well imagine."

"Yes of course, " she said as she opened the cake box and, with a pair of chop sticks, took out a large Chinese dumpling and handed it to me on a napkin. "Try this."

"Thanks," I said as I bit into it. "My god! This is delicious!"

"Of course," she said. "My cooking is proof that one can be great at something even if he hates it."

"I thought the Chinese were supposed to be humble."

"Is there something I should be humble about?"

"Not that I can see ... how come you were partying with flower man?"

"He is Mandarin student of mine. He does business in China. He says he will marry me so I can get green card."

"Why don't you? He's rich and good looking."

"Do you think I would marry some man just for money?"

"No – No – No insult intended."

"Well – I wouldn't! That's not me. Besides, I don't trust him. If he has me cooking for him on date he must only want some servant."

"Good point – where do you teach?"

"Only private students now. I'm trying to get job at some college. I taught at Nankai University in China."

I suddenly had an epiphany.

"I've always wanted to learn Chinese?"

"Really!" She said suddenly excited. "We must exchange numbers."

"Yes of course," I said. "But first I have a question that I hope you don't think is fresh."

"Go on."

"You have beautiful, brown eyes. I've never seen a brown-eyed Chinese before. How did you get them?"

"Brown eyes are common in my family. My ancestors lived in Dunhuang during Tang Dynasty. It's on Silk Road. Some Turkish must have got in there somehow."

"I'm glad he did. Dun Huang? I'd like to go there someday."

"Me too. It was capitol when Tibet ruled China. They have caves with wonderful Buddhas and painting of flying angels. I've seen pictures. But I've never been."

"Maybe, we can go together."

She thought that was so funny she couldn't stop laughing for a long time.

"Maybe so," she finally said with a teasing smile, "maybe so."


Some Years Later

Streaks of pink were beginning to splash though the dark sky as the sun reached upward for the horizon. The sillouettes of sand mountains began to fill in with color. The train had been vastly oversold. Men, women and children were sleeping on the floor, making it hard for me to navigate my way back from the bathroom without stepping on a body.

We were lucky and had seats at a table but I took turns lending mine to my fellow travelers who thought me very polite for a foreigner. I am polite but the truth was that the tables were so small that I was much more comfortable standing. I would have slept like a horse if I could have.

A man graciously rose from my place the moment he saw me returning and I sat down next to Piaoliang who had slept curled up like a cat all night long. She had a scarf wrapped around her head like a Muslim woman to protect her from the cold, night, desert air. All I could see were her closed eyes.

I looked up and could barely discern the outlines of a town in the distance. I looked down and saw gold, speckled, brown eyes looking up at me.

"Woman dao da Dunhuang," I told her. "We're arriving in Dunhuang."

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Seeing It Coming

I picked them up in the bus stop at 11th just past Folsom: a big athletic black man and a thin white man, both in their late 20's. They climbed into the back seat. The white guy sat behind me. If I'd gotten a better look at him, I never would've let them in the cab. He had the pasty skin, pimples and fixed, superior stare of a meth addict.

"26th & Folsom!" The black guy commanded.

"'You mean," I said quietly. "Would I please take you to 26th & Folsom."

They glanced at each other. The white dude giggled.

"Yeah. Right. Of course. P-l-e-a-s-e," the black dude said with a smile. "Definitely please. Sorry for my rudeness."

"No problem," I said as I started heading toward Harrison. Polite or not, I didn't like their vibe. If I took the logical route of Harrison to 26th and then a right to Folsom, I'd have to pass through a housing project. A few years earlier the street had been a cul-de-sac. A cross-country trucker had once made a wrong turn onto 26th and been beaten and robbed before he had a chance to back up. The city had since removed the barrier blocking the street but the area was still a war zone.

It was a quiet Thursday night. We drove down Harrison to 16th Street in silence. I'd forgotten about Treat - a two-block alley that cuts off at a diagonal to 18th and Folsom. It's in a warehouse district that's usually deserted but there was some kind of party at one of the offices.  In order to avoid the project I veered onto Treat, took it to 18th and turned left onto Folsom.

Just afterwards, the black man leaned forward, put his elbows on the back of the seat and held out his hand with a big friendly smile.

"Sorry we got off on the wrong foot," he said. "I'm Jerry. That's my partner Frank."

I shook his hand and nodded to Frank in the mirror.

"Sorry I can't shake your hand Frank," I said, "I'm driving."

"No problem," Frank said with a thin smile and his frozen stare.

"People just don't understand the shit you have to put up with," Jerry said.

"Well, I - "

"No - you don't have to tell me. They're rude to ya, they talk to ya like dirt, they don't say please, they shout into their cellphones next to your ear. They have sex behind ya, they treat you just like a nigger."

"That's not a word I'd use."

Jerry broke out laughing.

"Of course not. You're one of those liberals. I could tell that right away. I'll bet you marched with Martin Luther King."

"I didn't march with him," I said with a laugh. "But I did go to his funeral."

"I knew it!" Jerry said laughing. "Knew it. You were one of those hippie drop-outs. Fightin' for  equality, rock and roll and freedom - especially free love."

"That tuned out to be an illusion."

"Ain't that just the truth," Jerry laughed, "and here you are doing a - no, I won't say it. I'll be PC. Here you are doing an African American's job being treated just like just you had black skin."

"Except, " I said, "I don't have to wear the skin home."

"You got that right!" Jerry exclaimed laughing. "You got that right! - But the worst thing is they rob ya. I'm mean, it's hard to believe. It's not like you're B of A. You're just some guy tying to make a livin'... supporting your wife and kids ... and some low-life sticks a gun to your head and threatens to blow it off! ... And, that's exactly what they did the other night to that poor fucker in Oakland. You hear about that?

"Yeah - I heard about it."

We passed a bus dropping just after 25th. Its route would take it down Folsom to make a right on 26th. I pulled over at the corner of 26th and stopped in a way that blocked off the bus's route.

"You need to take a left," Jerry snapped.

"What happened to 'Please?'"

Jerry turned his head away and reached for something in his jacket.

I opened my door slightly and slide out, landing on my shoulder and going into a tuck and roll. I heard Jerry shout,


I looked up just as the bus arrived. The driver started honking his horn and flashing his high-beams exposing Jerry pointing his gun and spinning wildly around looking for me. I'd left the car in gear. It hit a tree at about 5 mph - just fast enough to flip Jerry into the front seat where he left a little blood on my dash. He and Frank jumped out and started running - away from the projects that they'd wanted me to turn into. Although they were sprinting, they stayed low and close to the bushes, so they'd be hard to spot.

The bus driver kept flashing his lights and honking his horn as if the cab would magically move by itself.


Monday, December 31, 2012

A Lovely Drunk

I drove by her on Bush and Franklin with a customer in my cab. She was tall, thin, Chinese and wearing a sleeveless, party dress with high heels. She was leaning against a tree trunk in the cold and wind so drunk that she could barely raise her hand to wave as I passed her.

I only dropped a block away but wild horses couldn’t normally pull me back to pick up a person that hammered. Next to a teenage ghetto gangster, a soused twenty-something woman is the most dangerous person you can let into your cab. Maybe more dangerous in the age of credit cards. These days a stickup artist is lucky to get fifty bucks. A dedicated vomiter that puts your cab out of commission on a Friday night can cost you two or three hundred.

However, she looked at me with such desperation and she was so beautiful that I felt morally compelled to go back and save her. When I returned she had made it twenty feet and was hugging another tree. 

I approached warily. I gave her the test that I usually give to see whether or not a person is too zonked to handle. I pulled up ten feet away and stopped so that she’d have to pass my walking test to get in the cab. She failed in the first two steps. She almost fell over and stumbled back to her tree. 

Common sense told me to leave but she looked so helplessness that I couldn’t resist. I pulled up next to her. She lunged for the right rear door handle, struggled a bit, opened it and half slid and half fell into the cab. As she straightened up she said,

“I don’t usually drink.”

“No shit.”

My joke was a mistake. She started to laugh which quickly turned into a gagging burp. She unsuccessfully tried to lower the window.  I leaned over and pushed open the door. She stuck her head out and threw up. She somehow managed to do it with decorum and style. I gave her some napkins and she delicately cleaned her lips and mouth. 

Then I drove her home. Nothing else happened.

Why do I remember this? 

I think it was the look of gratitude that she gave me. Nobody else would’ve picked her up and she knew it. There is hardly anybody who appreciates what we do. But she did.


Friday, December 21, 2012

The Ex Cab Driver

He flagged down my taxi just before 18th and Castro and wanted to go to Union Square. The traffic bunched up in front of me so I turned right on 18th.

“You should have gone straight,” my customer snapped. “You're taking me the long way.”

I looked him over in the mirror. Short, pudgy, attire by Goodwill, a slob.

“Castro’s gridlocked.”

“Gridlock is an exaggeration. It’s clearing up.”

“I would estimate three red lights. That’s three clicks on the meter. That’s a buck sixty-five.”

“You’re exaggerating. It would be, at most, two clicks.” 

“Then it would be, at least, a buck ten. The long way’s cheaper.”

“Maybe,” He said after a pause. “Which way are you going?”

“Noe to Market to Franklin to Post to Powell,” I said pedantically.

“I guess that’s okay,” he said.

“Thanks,” I retorted with mild sarcasm.

We rode for a moment in silence.

“I used to drive cab, you know.”

'Oh shit!' I muttered under my breath. “That explains it.”

“That explains what?”

“It explains why you know the city so well.”

“Yes ... I came to know it rather well.”

“Who’d you work for?”

“Your company - I remember you.”

I looked at him closely.

“I don’t remember you.”

“I wasn’t there that long ...”

I stayed silent hoping the conversation would die a natural and lovely death.

“Yes,” He said. “I was fascinated with playing the radio. That’s all I did. My first night I had took 37 calls.”

Thus my response to his statement about being an ex-driver. When an "ex" brings up his (I’ve never had a woman driver pull this on me) former career, I know I’m in for absurd claims about his driving prowess.

One ex-driver told me that he made $500 a shift. Another one declared that he knew a way to get $100 rides out of a nightclub every night. I could never see the point of this. Yes, of course, they want to assert their superiority. But what’s the point of telling a ridiculous lie to somebody who knows that you’re lying?

This guy’s fantasy was a little better than most. It was remotely possible. Remotely! My best night over a twenty year career was taking 30 radio calls but there was always the chance another driver was better or faster or luckier than I was.

“That’s great,” I said. “So your first day was your best?”

“Oh hardly,” he laughed, “I had many many days better than that - it might have been my worst.”

Great. Another psycho. More gridlock ahead. I took a left on Octavia to go around it.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m driving up Octavia to avoid a traffic jam.”

“I didn’t see any traffic.”

“Well - you weren’t looking - besides, I’d forgotten. There’s construction on Franklin.”

“Van Ness. The construction is on Van Ness.”

“That was yesterday. Today it’s on Franklin.” 

“Take a right on Page. We’re going Franklin.”

“That’s where the construction starts,” I said as I blew by Page.

“Did I mention that I used to be a driver?!” He bust out. “I know the rules. You have to do what I say.”

“Within reason,” I retorted. “They say I have to do what you say “within reason.” “Driving into gridlock does not fit a reasonable definition of reason.”

“Turn right here!” He commanded. “The construction’s on Van Ness!”

I blew by the intersection saying. “Franklin’ll still be blocked.”

He glared at me. Started to say something. Then sat angrily back in his seat.

I took the next right. “Should be clear now.”

It was. I took a left on Franklin with almost no cars in front of me.

“Take a look behind you,” I said, “You’ll see the construction.”

He refused to look and just sat glaring blankly out the front window.

“Be sure not to tip me,” I said when we arrived, stealing his thunder.

“Don’t worry,” he snarled as he paid me the exact fare and climbed out of the cab. He closed the the rear door and came around to my side.

“Carl and I are friends,” he said ominously.

“I assume you mean the dispatcher.”

He shook his head up and down knowingly and threatening.

“Really? I didn't think Carl had any friends?” I said as I let the cab roll slowly away. "He must be desperate."

I watched him in the mirror standing hunched over and staring after me with impotent pique.