A Driver’s Worst Nightmare


It’s 4:10 in the A.M., and I’m rolling the Gough gauntlet in my van towards the Citizen’s Cab lot. But this three lane thoroughfare all downhill to the highway, with its timed lights, is proving no gauntlet on this early Monday morning. It seems that no players have shown up for the match today, but me. And just as well. At present, I’m not really in the mood to be competing with some Audi (sporting ski racks) who is just SCRATCHING to pass on my left and cut me off on a just turned green, in some petty bid to secure pole position for 101. I’d rather watch my breath, set a positive tone for the day’s taxi shift, and heed what the iridescent signs embedded in these San Francisco streets beckon me to: KEEP CLEAR.

OOOooOooOoOMMmmmmMMM…

Success! I’m at the last light to the Octavia on-ramp, at Market. And have arrived sans drama.

Shit.

There’s police activity, road flares melting red, and glowing and bubble gum lights. The on-ramp is sealed off, and I’m going to have to navigate a workaround to the highway. Thing is, it’s right turn-only onto Market from here. And there are cars coming off the highway heading straight onto Octavia, albeit slowly. Probably no advised to force an illegal left and jump over to the South Van Ness entrance to 101… like that white Beemer SUV just did! Sweet!! God bless him.

ZOOM!

And, freedom!

4:20am:
I’m pulling up the alley adjacent the Citizen’s Cab lot’s triple tiered barbed wire fence, and looking for parking.

Hey. There’s Tony. Outside of the office, and away from dispatch. Odd. He’s out here in the alley smoking a cigarette and hanging with Bill, Machu Picchu and Ahmet.

Bill: Proud homeless driver who lives out in the alley in his truck. He’s mellow and likes to project wisdom and intelligence. This is offset, however, by the fact that he’s always looking pretty slack in his old baseball cap and faded sweatpants, as well as the fact that he either shuns his dentures, or just doesn’t care to fill in the gap left by his front four missing teeth. I like Bill. And he likes me. There is a mutual respect. But, let’s just leave it at; Bill has long since given up any pretense of looking for woman.

Machu Picchu: Some Peruvian driver, not homeless, I don’t think? But, he seems to always be around the lot, hanging out and socializing. I find Machu kind of cute, in his signature colorfully knitted Peruvian hat, with the ear flaps. And he’s real good-natured.

Ahmet: Well, what to say about Ahmet? I don’t really know him. He’s a short, pudgy Turkish driver with large bags under his eyes. Ahmet seems really sweet, also good-natured. But he’s always pretty quiet. More in a humble kind of way, though.

Though, what’s going on with this scene? Ahmet, upon closer inspection, is crying. I park next to his personal car – a faded red, beat up old Ford Focus, around which the group is gathered. And I exit my van to say hi, and see what’s up.

Sack, “Hey guys, how’s -”

HOLY SHIT!!!

Ahmet’s car is SIGNIFICANTLY more “beat up” than usual! It’s got dents ALL OVER the hood… and a massive HUMAN SIZED HOLE in the WINDSHIELD, with the Dupont glass all SHATTERED and SAGGING two feet INSIDE the driver’s area, with the bits around the HUMAN SIZED HOLE all stuck together.

JEEZ! This does NOT look good!!

Bill gets off a phone call, and hands the cell to Ahmet.

Bill, “Okay. The police are on their way. You know, there is a homeless encampment right there at the on-ramp. The guy probably jumped in front of you to commit suicide.”

Ahmet, eyes more swollen than usual, teary, “I did not see anything. I did not see. There was nothing. I did not see ANYTHING. There was nothing there.”

He just keeps repeating that, stunned, a deer in headlights… er, so to speak. Poor Ahmet is in shock.

Well, thank GOD it was Ahmet’s personal car, and NOT a Citizen’s Cab. This way, the headlines at least will NOT read: Taxi Slaughters Pedestrian. Hit and Run.

Still, I don’t understand why Bill seems so sure it was suicide. Hmm. He might just be projecting.

Hearing that the cops are on their way, and seeing me ready for work, Tony wishes Ahmet “Good luck” as he snuffs out his cigarette, and then walks with me back into the office.

Tony, “Sack. I gaht bad nuws fer ya. 1015’s shahpped.”

Sack, “Shopped! AGAIN!? This is the FOURTH Monday in a row! What the hell!?”

Tony, “Sorree, Sack. I dunno what tah tell ya. Duh nite drivah sez its dah brakes dis tiiime.”

Sack, “Well, let me take her out again. If it’s not too bad, I’ll just bring her back in at nine, when the mechanics get in.”

Tony, “Okaaay, Sack. If ya waaaant.”

Note: I don’t believe I’ve been mentioning it, but the last three Mondays I came in from my weekend to find a pink shop ticket on the pegboard along with 1015’s key and medallion, each for a “flat tire.” Really, they were just slow leaks on account of a nail. I was able to get away with it until the mechanics got in, when I found myself near the lot.

Okay, okay. There was the ONE Monday, where I had nurse going out to UCSF – Mission Bay, and the front right tire had gotten COMPLETELY flat over the course of our ride. But the dude had ear buds in, blasting techno. I don’t think he could hear the grinding of the rim, and the loud, distinctive sound of flat steel-belted rubber flapping across the asphalt. Dude still tipped me pretty good.

4:35am:
I’m done sanitizing Citizen’s Cab 1015 – my regular Prius, and I’m out on the highway bound for Starbucks, and testing the brakes. Eh, it’s just a light grinding sound coming from the right front, off and on. Really, folks. It’s only off and on.

I’ll just write this off as the pebble in my shoe. I AM, after all, still working with a Jesus complex…

 

Fifteen minutes later…

I’m post-Starbucks, and rolling fareless, south on Mission. I’ve been shaking up my regular groove of late, and have started checking out the 24th & Mission BART station early morning now. There’s lots of competition. But many a fare, as well, coming into San Francisco to work, from the South Bay.

I tune into NPR: “And now, it’s Joe McConnell with traffic. Hey, Joe.”

Joe, “It’s looking like pretty light out there this morning, so far. But, we do have a pedestrian fatality in San Francisco, at the Octavia on-ramp at Market. Be advised to steer clear of that, and plan a workaround for getting onto 101.”

Hmm.

Anyway, as I approach the 24th Street BART, I’ve got the green here on Mission. And, of course, there’s some tall, lanky dude dressed all in black, with a black hoodie, up ahead jaywalking SLOWLY across my path on Mission here. And I am damn SICK of it! What the hell is up with people playing chicken ALL DAY LONG with speeding two-ton vehicles in this town!?

I pretend I don’t see dude, and go to buzz him.

But, huh!? I think dude GENUINELY does NOT see ME!!!

SCCREEEEEECHHH!! GRRRRRRIIINNDDDD!!! HHHHOOOONNNKKK!!!!!

I simultaneously SLAM on my brakes (well, what’s left of them) and SWERVE HARD around dude, as he SUDDENLY comes to, and DIVES for the sidewalk!!!

WHEW!

But, hmm. Maybe I should readjust this tactic going forward. I’ve long been working “the buzz” to make my protest against assholes who casually jaywalk in front of my cab, challenging me with some narcissistic sense of entitlement. I guess I have to acknowledge now that it is a new day in this town. That we have reached a new phase, where there are NO RULES. It’s just every man FOR HIMSELF. It’s just full on now, “I DON’T CARE. FUCK YOU. AND I’M READY TO DIE FOR IT.”

Note to self: You do NOT want to be pulling an Ahmet today!

 

10:30am:
The rush hour is over. I’ve done pretty well. And I have long decided to just go with the brakes grinding during this shift. I’ll just end my shift a little early for the mechanics to work it out for the night driver. Anyway, while it’s made me a little nervous, none of my passengers have said anything about it.

Junior is a dispatch, and suddenly comes crackling over the radio with some bad news.

Junior, “Be advised, drivers. Cabulous is down. Cabulous is down. They’re working on getting it back up. I’ll let you know when I hear something. I repeat, Cabulous is down. I’ll let you know.”

Damn.

Well, at least I made it through the morning rush hour. Even scored an airport. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell. Cabulous app hails seem to commonly slow down around now, anyway. Still. I better adapt, and play downtown a bit more today, until it’s back up…

My iPhone rings, “Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding! Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding!

Hey! It’s best friend, Spermula band mate and night driver, Christian!

I answer, to an emphatic Christian, “Dude! Cabulous is down!”

I guess Christian is out driving now. He left Citizen’s Cab some months ago for DeSoto. And though he’s traditionally a night driver, DeSoto lets him work long, odd shifts whenever he wants. But, wait! Some months ago, they ditched the old school taxi meters for the new smartphone “soft meters.” They are ONLY working on Cabulous phones now!! Damn, that sucks!

Alex, “Dude! Are you screwed? Is your meter working??”

Christian, “I was screwed! But, I turned on the wireless hotspot on my personal phone. And then, I went into the Cabulous phone and turned on ‘connect to local wi-fi.’ And now I’m one of THREE drivers in the WHOLE CITY running CABULOUS! Dude! I’m CLEANING UP!!”

Suddenly, I hear in the background of our call, “Cha-Ching! Cha-Ching! Cha-Ching!”

Christian, “Dude! I gotta go!! I’m getting hailed, AGAIN!!”

Well.

After hanging up, I go into my personal Cabulous app (which the kids and I use to go to the movies, etc. on my days off) and sure enough, there are only THREE CABS lit up on the app’s real time map. Three cabs… in ALL OF SAN FRANCISCO!

A tech savvy Luddite, I follow Christian’s instructs, which upon completion, is immediately followed by, “Cha-Ching! Cha-Ching! Cha-Ching!”

Hmm. Maybe I better re-think this “taking it in early” for the brakes thing. I mean, there are going to be people around town in need of a ride out there today. No, no, no passengers! You’ve got me ALL wrong! It’s NOT that I’ll be making hand over fist ALL DAY LONG. It’s just, well, it’s just… my social duty.

Anyway, excuse me, folks. I gotta take this.

 

Noon:
Well, I’m headed to 90 Heather right now, on my SIXTH Cabulous order since I last checked in with you! SIXTH!!

I pull up to a short Asian American woman, maybe in her 20’s, dressed for the Financial. She’s standing in front of her apartment building at 90 Heather here behind Laurel Village, and waving her phone at me. “Jen?” I offer, to my passenger’s confirming nod.

Doh! I gotta stop offering the name first! You’re supposed to query your potential ride’s name, to see if they get it right. While this is my sixth Cabulous app-hail since it’s been “down,” it’s actually only my FIFTH Cabulous RIDE since. I accidentally picked up two Asian American suits down in the Financial who were standing in front of the First Republic Bank, at Front & Market. You see, my Cabulous hail, Dan, called me through the app and arranged to me in front of the bank there. So, when these two suits were waving at me, and no one else was, well… you get the picture.

Seriously, though. If I ask if your name is “Dan” why the hell are you going to just smile and nod affirmatively when asked, if you didn’t understand the question. Needless to say, my heart sank when the ride was ‘Cancelled’ mid-way en route to my suits’ Vietnamese lunch spot.

Driver, “You said your name was Dan!”

Not-Dan, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t understand what you were asking.”

Jeez. While I’m making bank today with this “Cabulous down” stuff, us taxi drivers REALLY do NOT need people losing faith in the only legitimate cab hailing-app serving San Francisco!

But, I digress.

90 Heather, and “Jen” gets in back.

Jen, sniffling, “(Sniff.) 1st & Market, please. Oh, and by chance, do you have a tissue? (Sniff.)”

Driver, scribing on his waybill and repeating back, “1st & Market.” Adding, “Why, yes. Yes, I do! Actually though, it’s a Starbucks napkin. But, don’t worry. It’s clean. I steal a wad of them first thing in the morning, every shift. God bless Starbucks!”

Jen cracks a smile, sniffles, takes the napkin and blows.

Driver, continuing, as craning for eye contact in the rear view, “You got allergies? I hear it’s a bad time for them.”

Jen, “No. Well, yes. But, that’s not it. I’m crying.”

(Crickets.)

Driver, treading lightly, “Uh, should I be asking? I AM a cab driver. Is it something in your personal life? Or at work?”Adding, “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

Jen, sniffling more, “(Sniff.) It’s not work. (Sniff.) Um, do you have another napkin? (Sniff.)”

Driver, “Uh, sure. Here! Have two!”

Jen, “(Sniff.) Thanks. (Sniff.)”

(Crickets.)

We ride down Bush, rocking the lights in silence, but for the occasional sniffle, blow, and burst of tears. Oh! And KDFC Classical – 90.3 FM wafting Chopin’s Prelude in G flat major, Op. 51 over the radio. (I haven’t much had the nerve for NPR today.)

Suddenly, I sense something, in the air. A want. A need. I check the rear view…

Driver, “Do you need another napkin?”

Jen, chuckling nervously, “(Sniff.) Yes, please.”

Driver, handing back two more, “Here you go. I have plenty. Don’t be afraid to ask!”

Jen, “Thanks. (Sniff.)”

A couple minutes later…

Suddenly, I feel some kind of tension in the air. Some kind of want. A need. I check the rear view…

Driver, “One more?”

Jen, with another nervous chuckle, “(Heh, heh.) Yes, please. (Sniff.) Thanks.”

And I hand back three more Starbucks napkins.

Soon enough, we arrive at Jen’s drop on 1st, past Market. Salesforce, the back side of 50 Fremont, actually. As I punch the $13.40 fare into the Cabulous smartphone, Jen opens her door. But, she hesitates to exit the taxi. She stops to offer a last thanks, for my understanding. And then, Jen stays paused…

Driver, “Would you like another napkin?”

Jen, with a nervous chuckle, “(Sniff.) Yes, please.”

 

1:45pm:
I’m rolling west up Market, away from yet ANOTHER Cabulous scored ride to the Financial. It’s been good day. No complaints, but this time, I’ve actually made it four whole blocks without a “Cha-ching!”

At Third & Market, what’s this? A guy, a carrot top in gym shorts and a baseball cap, actually FLAGGING me! I almost forgot what that was like!

Suddenly, “Cha-ching!”

Eh, I ‘Decline’ the Cabulous app hail, go red, a.k.a. ‘Occupied’ on the phone, and I pull over for dude, who… hey! He’s got a cat carrier! And complete with a cat inside! Well, sure. I like cats. Actually, as a cab driver of seven years now, I have become very much acquainted with the various veterinarian offices around town.

Mickey opens the back door, and very carefully slides his cat carrier across the back seat, and attempts to soothe his skittishly meowing kitty.

Mickey, “There, there, Rocky. We’re just going for a little ride. It’ll be alright. I’m here, Rocky. Daddy’s here.” Now turning to Driver, “Thanks for stopping. I actually need to go to the Chevron at 6th & Harrison. I’m supposed to meet someone there who has my wallet. Then, I need to come back here to the Powell BART Station. Do you mind waiting for a minute at the Chevron? I’ll make it worth your while.”

Driver, “Oh! No problem! Glad to help.” With a scribble, scribble on the waybill, and repeating back, “6th & Harrison. Wait. Then, back here to Powell BART.”

Hmm. I wonder of dude has any money, outside of expecting his wallet. Eh, I don’t get a bad vibe from Mickey. Whatever.

En route to the Chevron, Mickey gets talkative, coming out of the blue with regards to Rocky’s origins.

Mickey, “I didn’t used to like cats. But I rescued Rocky here, along with the rest of the litter he was in, from my landlord.”

O-kaaayy. Do tell…

Mickey, “His eighteen-year-old son was torturing them.”

This gets my attention in the rear view, where I witness and angry scowl coming over Mickey’s face.

Mickey, continuing, “I caught him one day breaking their tails, and breaking their paws. And he was punching them in the face until their eyes got all swollen. A few of them DIED, too! A total fucking sociopath, future serial killer. Yeah, I never used to like cats. But when I saw that, I don’t know, I think it brought up something from my childhood. I don’t usually fight. But, I just lost it.

I got in his face, and waited for him to take the first punch. I was totally goading him. I know California law. We’re a ‘stand your ground’ state. After he punched me first, I could’ve fucking shot him and got away with it. He’s lucky I didn’t have a gun, too. When I was growing up, my dad taught me to do whatever I have to do in a fight, and worry about the consequences later. So, I didn’t fight fair.”

Driver, “Wow! What a psycho! You’re right, too! People who torture animals are usually just practicing for eventually graduating to humans. Maybe you taught him a lesson? Do you think? Though, I guess not. He’ll probably just be more careful next time to not get caught. Anyway, what do you mean that you didn’t fight fair?”

Mickey, “Nah. I researched it online. That guy is gonna be a psycho his whole life He will DEFINITELY do it again. And just be more careful to not get caught.

Anyway, I kicked him in the balls, like FIVE times! And then, when he was down, I stomped on his chest. Broke two of his ribs. The landlord tried to evict me for it, after. But I told him I’d go to the press with it and that he better think first about seeing his name in the media for his kid torturing and killing kittens. Then, the landlord tried to pay me $30,000 to leave! But, I’m not goin’ nowhere! Funny thing is, they live in the building with me. I see his son all the time. He’s scared as shit of me now, and shies away when I’m near. And now, when I walk by him, I stop and taunt him with shit like, ‘Kitten killer!’ and ‘How do you like it?? YOU’RE the kitten NOW!’ Fucker. Torturing kittens. I do NOT go for THAT shit!”

Driver, “Wow! Well, good for you! I have cats. That’s some crazy shit. You did the right thing. Man, you’re the Patron Saint of Kittens, if you ask me!”

Mickey, as we pull into his Chevron, playing humble, “Well, I don’t know about all that. Hey, thanks for waiting. Here’s a fifty as collateral, until I get back. I’m gonna take Rocky with me, though. He needs my company.”

Mickey gets out and crosses the lot.  hang tight in the cab, and meditate. It’s a beautiful day. And within a few minutes, a guy pulls up in a blue Camaro and hands Mickey what looks like his wallet. (Sorry, don’t really know the story on that, passengers.)

And Mickey returns with Rocky, picking up where he left off,

“Yeah, so I put Rocky’s brothers and sisters up to be re-homed on Craigslist. The ones that lived, anyway. I asked for money in the ad, to make sure they could take care of the kitten. But when I liked someone enough to give one , I wouldn’t take any money for the shots or vet visits I already did. I would just follow them to Petco and make them spend the money they brought on supplies, to make sure that the kittens were covered.

If you give away a cat for free, you never know who is gonna show up. It might be some fucker like my landlord’s son, who’s just looking to torture an animal. If they gotta pay for it, you know they’re not gonna end up being some kind of fucking sociopath.”

Driver interjecting, “Dude! I can NOT believe you never liked cats before. You really ARE the Patron Saint of Cats!”

However, Mickey again deflects from the praise and digresses to glow about Rocky,

“Well, Rocky’s really a dog in a cat’s body.” Mickey glows, visibly, “He even barks at me when he wants to go over to Golden Gate Park for a walk. And if we run into a dog there, he chases THEM and barks! And even gets up on his hind legs to attack them,” Mickey chuckles, and continues, “He mimics bird sounds, too. Crazy cat. There was once a bird ten feet outside of our window on a wire. We live on the third floor. And Rocky JUMPED out after the bird! He had NO chance of catching the bird, either. Instead, he just fell and landed on the roof of a parked car. Poor Rocky. He broke his foot. Had to take him to the vet for that one, too.”

And with this, we pull up on Mickey and Rocky’s drop adjacent Westfield Mall; the Powell Street BART Station.

The meter reads only $11.20, as the time sitting idle at the Chevron ticks the meter up at a lower rate than actually driving, 55 cents a minute versus 55 cents a fifth of a mile. And as promised, Mickey looks out for me, indeed.

Mickey, “Just give me back ten on that fifty. I appreciate you waiting.”

Hell, yeah!

Driver, “Wow! Thanks, man! And God bless you, and all that you do for the cats. You really ARE the Patron Saint of Cats!”

And Mickey, I’ll hear no talk of it, otherwise.

 

_____

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Photo by Christian Lewis

www.AlexSacK.com

Check out Alex’s Book 1 – San Francisco TAXI: A 1st Week in the ZEN Life…
& Book 2 San Francisco TAXI: Life in the Merge Lane…

 

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