It’s been kind of a mind fuck driving a taxi around one of the richest cities in the country, San Francisco, these past seven years. Introspecting in the early morning, as bearing witness to exponentially more and more tent encampments, erected newly in parts of town where just the day before there were none. Well, before the Department of Public Works comes, anyway. And like musical chairs, washes all of those homeless and their possessions away. Or more properly, down the block.
Maybe “squeezing a balloon” is a better analogy. (I’ll let you, the passenger, decide.)
And for those of you passengers who have been long on this ride, it has been notable to us how where the homeless demographic used to be confined to schizophrenics and drug addicts, it has since expanded to college educated baristas, and even Financial sector employees – complete with corporate ID badges affixed to their khakis, whom I ferry from tents under the highway to office jobs downtown.
A mind fuck, for sure. And it makes a cabbie wonder. And plot his own space. Especially, in this age of unregulated competition from Uber and its ilk, and its race to the bottom with all of those “free” to be their own boss in the “gig economy.” (That is what their calling this return to the Industrial Revolution, yes?)
Note to Ma: Sorry. This exercise in navel gazing has a lot more to go. And it does not end up feel good. Best to stop reading now. (After two weeks of fun rides, this one is mine.)
You may be wondering where I’m going with all of this. Well, in light of the relentless conditioning from what I have borne witness to day in and day out in the cab, it seems as if it all may just now be beginning to bear fruit…
You see, for years I have been hot and cold with my rent. Sometimes paying on time, and sometimes paying up to two months late. It wasn’t until my “new” Irish contractor landlord and his brother bought the building some years ago that I ever, in my life, started to pay rent late.
Note: These first-time landlords bought the building after my last landlord got too old to deal with the crack dealing family below me having burned out their flat, with the matriarch of the operation having died afterwards from lung issues, while squatting in the ashes.
Don’t get me wrong, I am quite conscious that my tardy remittance has been an exercise in passive-aggression. It is not all on account of Uber. And I cannot simply write it off to having a landlord who has been aloof in worrying about late rent, either.
Aside: Well, ok. Maybe I do blame Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Mayor Ed Lee, a little. But, they aren’t colluding on anything big money and politicians haven’t colluded on throughout history, with the collateral damage being the little guy who foolishly played by the rules.
Yes, I COULD budget better. And I could even pick up another cab shift. (Albeit, at the expense of my other creative endeavors, like writing these extended rants.) No, this is all on me. This is MY cross to bear. And one that I have CHOSEN to take up.
But I do have to say, this has felt more like a compulsion. Like my destiny. (Stop groaning, ma.)
And the vehicle for the execution of this destiny is plainly in my passive-aggressive reaction to the OTHER aloofness that my landlord has shown, in his non-responsiveness to ANYTHING that has EVER needed fixing in my flat. Indeed, once he has eventually gotten around to “fixing” something, I invariably wish that he hadn’t.
I’ll spare you the list. But, my favorite example is the work he did on my shower. After two years of requesting that he do something about the tiles falling off of the wall, due to rot and mold, he only came around to deal with it after I desperately took to spraying water inside of the wall. Thereby flooding the Google neighbor chicks’ flat below me, who are paying three times what I do in rent. (Thanks, rent control.)
What with the “low” $1675/month rent I am paying for my two bedroom flat in the hottest rental market in the U.S., to be sure, this lack of attention on my landlord’s part is likewise, a passive-aggressive exercise of his own. And, I can’t say that I blame him.
So, after two years of requests, once he DID get around to fixing the tiles in the shower, I went to take a piss in the middle of the night that very night, only to divine the muted sound of my cat meowing from inside of the wall!
I called the landlord over and over that night to come get her out. But, I got no answer. And it was either going to be me, him or the fire department that was going to rip open the fresh tile job to rescue my cat, Char! (We saved her from the crack head fire family.) After getting no answer, I figured it might as well be me.
Needless to say, I do my own repairs around the house now.
Anyhow, after years of hot and cold rent, my landlord has just messaged me to “get caught up.” And, I am currently two months late. There has been no three day notice, yet. So, I’m not sure if he really just wants me caught up, or if this will end up the beginning of a push to evict me and bring the unit up to San Francisco market value.
But, with all of the programming and conditioning which I have felt chasing me in the rear view, while cruising these streets, and with the in my face example of all of those homeless cab drivers living in their cars out in the alley adjacent the Citizen’s Cab lot – including the one who gushed at the “roominess” of my minivan, I do wonder how much longer I will hold on.
And, I wonder if I even should.
Hell. For you, my passenger, and for posterity, this could be gold.
As for my kids, they are teenagers now. And they don’t want dad around much these days, anyway. And, for whatever reason, they have been spending more and more time over at their mother’s. (They DO have a clean and stable place over there.) Maybe it’s a sign.
A sign in the form of here, now, on Valencia Street, as I dodge this random schizophrenic dude with wild disheveled hair, jerking herkily down the middle of the road in his socks, as zig-zagging through the street with one pant leg rolled up and a soiled sleeping bag strung over his back, screaming manically into the pre-dawn.
I DO admit, I have been compelled by this vision going back all the way to my early teens. This vision of living a monk’s simple life. I can’t help but admit that I’d be interested in the challenge. Not so much of being homeless, per se. (That would be easy.) But, of confronting society’s REACTION to it, to me, as domestically challenged. The fear, of association. Of perceived insecurity. Of identification with a lower Maslow’s rung. A lack of faith. The only REAL problem would be what to do with my cats. (Anybody?)
And to put it mildly, ma would not be happy.
Oh, I don’t know.
For now, I am budgeting better. And I probably will pick up an extra shift. But, the hill is steep. And so, for the first time, I have listed some music gear for sale on Craigslist. (Anybody looking to by a Marshall JCM 800 2×12 combo amp and a Les Paul? Just $1675! Special for you, my passengers!)
Which brings us now, to the skinny black guy in the running outfit, flagging me up the hill here in front of the bus stop on Union, at Polk…
I pull over. It’s 5:30am, and this’ll be my first ride.
A well spoken Benjamin jumps in back of Citizen’s Cab 1015, with, “Thank you for stopping, driver. I need to get to 7th & Folsom, fast. I’m late for my running group.” Adding, “Driver, I only have ten dollars. Will that be enough?”
Hmm. This is a pretty well-off part of town, full of young and educated professionals. And Benjamin comes across as if he is par for this setting. Well, except for all of these young, educated professionals work out in the Soul Cycles and Crunch Gyms so ubiquitous to Polk Gulch and Cow Hollow here. It’s not really the “let’s go running down in industrial SOMA” crew.
Driver, “Ten bucks? Uh, sure. I’ll just turn off the meter. No problem.” Adding, “You want me to drop you off down the block from your running group? I wouldn’t imagine it looks good, you taking a cab to go exercise! Ha!”
Benjamin, “Oh! No, driver! Actually, bring me right up to the group. They should still be stretching when we get there. I want them to see I paid for a taxi to make it on time. You see, I’m homeless. And the leader of the group gave me some money last night. And I want to show him it’s going to good use.”
Driver, “Wow. You’re homeless? In Polk Gulch? If you don’t mind I ask, how did you come to be homeless?”
Benjamin, “Oh! I don’t mind at all! This running group is really a homeless support group called ‘Back On My Feet.’ It’s wonderful! You see, I moved to San Francisco six months ago and I didn’t plan very well for the housing situation. I had no idea it was so bad! I came for a job. But it wasn’t enough to get a lace. My boss knows I’m homeless, but he’s cool. And work is great! They have showers there, and lockers. It makes it easy to go from my running group straight to work.
Last night, I spent the night in Fort Mason, at the hostel. It’s only $43 a night. I rarely have to spend the night on the street. I usually stay at bars until they close, and have one night stands for a place to sleep. But when I DO sleep on the street, I have a place, a nook next to the stairs of someone’s apartment down on Lafayette alley, in SOMA. It’s out of the way, and not far from work. No one has ever messed with me there. But I do sleep with a cover over me, when I have to do that.”
Driver, “Oh! The hostel at Fort Mason! THAT’s why you’re over this way. Well, you’re lucky no one messes with you. Or steals your stuff! I have an old homeless musician friend, born and raised in the city, who sleeps over sometimes. He’s always getting his keyboard stolen. And even his shoes!
Anyway, $43 a night? Isn’t that expensive, uh… for you?”
Benjamin, slightly taken aback, “No! $43 is CHEAP! You just have to do some chores in the morning, in addition to the fee. I’ll tell you, driver. You do NOT want to be homeless! It’s no fun. But, ‘Back On My Feet’ is a WONDERFUL program! It REALLY helps.”
I can’t help but think to myself what Benjamin’s end game would be here. I mean, the Bay Area is SO insane, six figure techies are living out of box trucks in the Google parking lot. And many are moving up to Portland, and down to L.A. NO ONE on an everyman’s wage could even remotely hope to live within an hour of San Francisco today. (Ghost Ship fire, anyone? Or, how about the $500/month dirt crawl space for rent on Craigslist? Anyone??)
Driver, “If you don’t mind I ask, how many times have you had to sleep on the street? You said you landed in S.F. six months ago? Ten times? A hundred?”
Benjamin, “Yeah, six months. Well, more than ten. But, WAY less than a hundred. I really avoid it as much as I can. Like I said, the bars help.”
And with this, we roll up in the dark on a group decked out in running attire, stretching adjacent a small park near 7th & Folsom, in industrial SOMA. Benjamin gushes, all excited to see his compatriots, and excited to have them see him rolling up in a cab, as he throws me up two crisp fives, all proud.
I thank Benjamin, assuring him that he has done his part keeping one cabbie off the streets, for now, as he exits my taxi, all sprightly, running for support, and wishing me a good day.
On Good Friday.
And I ponder some more, it’s kind of fitting my first ride today should be a homeless dude on the mend, with what all has been foremost in my own mind this past week. Maybe THIS is a sign.
Maybe this Easter will see ME rise, as well…
Please SHARE if so inclined, folks!
Photo by Alex SacK