When I lived back east, you would commonly come across a guy on the streets of the Lower East Side wearing a strung together suit of empty plastic water bottles. He would also have two water bottles affixed perpendicular in his hands that he would jump to get in your face with, crunching them at you as you walked by while instructing, “Smile for the camera!” And then, he’d make his pitch for change. If you stopped to engage this man, he could quickly tell you who the president was, and without hesitation give you the year, correctly. You could have a CONVERSATION. (And a pleasant one.) This man had a method, with a tactic and an aim.
Out west, however, it is another animal. Stark raving mad lunatics and “Night of the Living Dead” proliferate, as I often articulate to the myriad of tourists I find in the back seat of my cab coming in from around the world over these summer months. And my passengers nod every time, as if I’ve hit the nail on the head… er, of the zombie. Still, they all remain steadfast in their shock at the scenes playing outside of their windows, while en route to the iconic spots of the city, amazed and horrified at all of San Francisco’s homeless, drug addicts and the touched.
My theory? The weather.
You see, “back east” you have four distinct seasons, to GROUND you out. But in the City by the Bay, it is much more nuanced, ethereal. Here, a barometric cycle of subtleties brings us flat lining from a series of beautiful spring days in the midst of winter, to slightly warmer, beautiful spring days through the whole course of summer.
Aside: Fog? Say hello to global warming, my friends.
Apart from the weather, there IS something more mysterious, MYSTICAL, about the goings on “out” here on the Gold Coast. These grounds, I have found, hold some ancient power that extrude from the rock, the Bay and the great Pacific. I have come to realize that San Francisco is a karmic amplifier. If one is meant to be here, one thrives. The aforementioned “touched” are stuck in limbo. But God save those who San Francisco spits out. For, they traverse another plane of existence. They catch fire within Dante’s rings.
And they need a ride…
I’m cruising the Marina. It’s been a slow morning, REAL slow. Dead.
I’ve just completed a fruitless jaunt up the Chestnut strip, and back. And I am now rolling the nether region of apartment buildings on Chestnut, between Fillmore and Octavia. (This, before my plan to execute the usual routine of deviating up Octavia and onto the Union Street strip.) Although there is little foot traffic here, it keeps me in good range of a possible Cabulous app hail, from the wider Marina district.
Currently, I’m at the four way stop on Chestnut, at Laguna. And suddenly, a 30-ish white dude in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, with a ten ‘o clock shadow, meanders over from the bus stop towards my shotgun window, all hesitant. Dude looks kind of lost, unsure. He doesn’t hail me, he just looks in the shotgun… wanting.
I roll down the window. And dude speaks.
“Uh… Do you know which bus goes to Oakland?”
Cabbie speaks, “Uh… I don’t really know the bus system that well. But I’m pretty sure you would have to hop on a BART train to get to Oakland. Most of these buses go down to Market, though, along where the BART stations are.”
Dude, “Uh… Do you know how much it costs to take the train”
Cabbie, “Not really. I haven’t taken public transportation to the East Bay in years. Sorry.”
Dude, “Uh… How much would you charge to take me to the… BART… station?”
Cabbie, “Well, it’s metered. But it’d be around ten bucks.”
Dude, “Uh… okay. Can I get in?”
Cabbie, hitting the meter, “Sure.”
Once in back Dude continues meek, but exchanges niceties and names. His is Eli.
Eli warms to the classical playing on KDFC 90.3FM, Debussy’s Reverie. And his skittish vibe retreats into comfort, as Eli sinks into his seat and exhales.
It seems Eli likes his environs, and me. He asks, “Uh… How much do you think it would cost to go to the Oakland Greyhound station?”
Cabbie, “Well, it’s metered. But around forty-five bucks, plus six for the bridge toll.”
Eli, continuing, “All the money I have left is thirty dollars. Is there any chance you could take me for that?”
Well, it HAS been slow…. And I find myself intrigued by my passenger. Sort of compelled. He’s got that “lost puppy, help me” thing going on. And I do not sense that he’s a threat, or scamming.”
Cabbie, “Uh… sure. But I’ve never been to the Oakland Greyhound. Can you look up the address on your phone?”
Eli, “Oh, man! Great!! THANK YOU! I’ll call my mom and ask her. She bought my ticket home…”
Suddenly, I am fly on the wall to some cross country call (to Florida, I glean) with a desperate Eli and a very supportive and worried mother.
“Yeah, mom. No. I found an AWESOME cab driver who’s going to help me out. But we need to know the address of the bus station in Oakland… Yes… 2-1-0-3 San Pablo Ave?”
Eli looks at me in the rear view, to see if it clicks. And Cabbie nods in the affirmative.
Eli finishes up with Mom, “Okay, mom. Thanks again for the ticket. I’m getting out of this nightmare! I’ll see you in a few days!”
And without Cabbie’s prompting, Eli realizes there’s some splainin’ to do.
“Thank you SO much, again, driver! I’ve been in double H hockey sticks hell ever since I came out here from Orlando! It’s just been one thing after another!”
As we roll down Hyde, through the Tenderloin, headed towards the Bay Bridge, Eli deviates from his story.
“Hey! I’ve been in this part of town. It’s the Tenderloin! Right??”
Driver confirms. Suddenly, things have gotten clearer.
Eli continues, “I’ve been in San Francisco for eight days now. And I’ve lost EVERYTHING! I haven’t even shaved in all that time. My wife almost didn’t even recognize me on a FaceTime call! She said I look like shit. And I feel like it, too!”
Driver, delivering a cabbie wisdom, “Yeah, San Francisco is a weird place. If your vibe is off from it, even a bit, she can be a cruel mistress. Some make it here, and some land in, uh… double H hockey sticks.”
Eli, “I came out here over a week ago, for a business proposition. I’m an iron worker and own my own business. Anyway, this guy offered me a 60/40 split to come out and do some work down by the ball park. I was supposed to invest $4000 in the deal. We met at his office downtown last week and I gave him my check and we went out to the work site. The guy had a clipboard, and a list he was checking off, and everything! He even had an OSHA badge! He was showing me all around the work site. Man, he was good!
But we were supposed to meet again, at his office downtown on Tuesday, but he called and postponed the meeting until Friday. I mean, this guy had a receptionist that I met and everything!
So, when I got to his office on Friday, something didn’t smell right. The receptionist was gone. And the office looked vacant. I was the first there. But then, one at a time, people started coming in; one… two… three… four! And I KNEW he couldn’t have been hiring ALL of these people for the SAME job! We started exchanging stories and all suddenly realized that we each had given him a check for $4000! The guy just postponed the meeting to buy time until the checks all cleared and he could get out of town!”
Cabbie, suddenly stuck in gridlock on the Bay Bridge, “Damn. This traffic is bad. The Bay Bridge is never pretty. But it’s never THIS bad! Anyway, sorry about your deal. That sucks! Did you call the police?”
Eli, “Yeah, we all called the police. And we have lawyers. But the guy’s phone is disconnected. And the police and lawyers say there is no trace of him. It doesn’t look good. This guy was a REAL pro!”
Cabbie, “Man, that DOES suck. Only in San Francisco. Anyway, why are you taking the bus all the way across country? Why aren’t you flying back to Florida?”
Eli, “Well, that’s ANOTHER story! I was in a coffee shop, back there in the Tenderloin, and I had my wallet and my laptop on a table. And I went to the bathroom for just a second. I SWEAR it wasn’t even a minute. And when I came back, my wallet and laptop were gone! STOLEN!!”
Aside: Okay, NOW I’m starting to wonder if I’m getting paid… Surely, no one is THIS stupid! This guy has GOT to be playing me! Hmm… Still, why would he haggle for the ride, then? And I could hear his mom on the phone. All of this JUST for a free cab ride? And wait, then there’s the “double H hockey sticks.” Nah, it’s cool… This guy’s legit.
Eli, on why the bus, “Well, my wallet had my driver’s license, and all of my traveler’s checks. Hundreds of dollars worth! Anyway, I can’t fly without an ID.”
Cabbie, “Oh, man! Welcome to San Francisco!!” Continuing, “So, what have you been doing? Where did you sleep last night??”
Eli, “I slept right near where you picked me up, at some nice older woman’s apartment. I met her in a bar and offered her $30 if I could sleep on her couch. But she was real nice and said she had an extra bedroom where I could sleep She even made breakfast in the morning! French toast!”
We still remain at a crawl in heavy traffic on the Bay Bridge. What gives?? This is crazy! It MUST be some kind of accident! Probably a fatality.
And soon enough, we come across the remains of the scene of an accident, near the off-ramp for Treasure Island, mid span on the bridge. There is broken glass, and melted flares, and charred debris everywhere! But no sight of the vehicle, or vehicles… Hmm.
After we pass the disturbing remains, the bridge FINALLY opens up! As does Eli, some more.
“Wow! That really brought me back, driver. I was in Iraq. And I have PTSD. You see, I was in a Humvee and we hit an IED. I was the only one to make it out alive. And I still have shrapnel in my shoulder. They wrote a book about it.”
Aside – revisited: Okay, I now have to reconsider if this guy is shitting me! Hmm. Well, we’re closing in on Oakland now. Guess I’ll find out!
Eli, continuing, “Yeah, I’m supposed to take drugs for my PTSD, that the V.A. gave me. But I don’t like them, so I don’t take them. Anyway, it takes away from my parenting. I have a four-month-old girl waiting at home for me. And six kids from my first marriage, including two nine-year-old twins. And my oldest son, Caleb, is worried about me.”
I wonder why?
Soon enough, with traffic having opened, we hit the off ramp from 580 east and weave onto San Pablo Avenue. And what’s that I hear in back? The shuffling of a wallet! With cash! I am caught checking the rear view…
Eli, “I had to buy this cartoon wallet, Mickey Mouse.”
Cabbie, interrupting, “Oh! For your kids?”
Eli, “No. For my stuff, what’s left of it. To replace the one that got stolen. It was cheap.”
And we roll into a quiet and desolate Greyhound bus station, with nary a soul in sight, and somewhere situated between the 580 highway and Hell.
But for Eli, he has reached the Promised Land. He thanks me, profusely, and hands me a twenty and a ten. (Whew!) And Eli shakes my hand, as he exits Citizen’s Cab 2976, with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and a Mickey Mouse wallet.
Eli has survived his apocalypse in San Francisco. And it is now time for his exodus, back east.
As I roll for the highway home, I tune into NPR. I’m still wondering what in God’s name was that shit show on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge?
And NPR dutifully informs, “Beware heavy traffic eastbound on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, still. It’s backed up to 280 now, from the earlier police chase with the ambulance stolen in the Tenderloin that crashed and burst into flames at the Treasure Island exit.”
Damn. I hate it when that happens.
Photo by Alex SacK