For the better part of two years now, my mother and my best friend, Spermula bandmate and fellow cabbie, Christian, have been independently giving me the hard sell to “play the airport.” This, for the potential windfall that the odd lucky ride up to Sacramento, or down to San Jose, or Hell or wherever, would prove.
However, for a whole host of reasons both legit and chickenshit, I have persistently declined, and dodged the nagging.
Note: It’s meter and a half for any destination over fifteen miles away from City Hall. (San Francisco is seven miles by seven miles.) And though SFO is a twenty minute highway ride south of the city, it is technically considered part of San Francisco. So, just about any ride south of there is jackpot. And then, of course, there are those well-to-do heading up into the rich suburbs of Marin County, north of the City and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Cha-ching!
Yes, returning empty from an SFO drop is obviously not the most efficient action. (And thus, has often been the subject of query of many a departing passenger curious in regard to the tactics of a hack.) However, this inaction may not be as inefficient as it seems on the face of it, as I have understood picking up at SFO to be a real crapshoot. A driver at times can be sitting idle in the cue for up to three hours! And then only to score some quick ride down to Burlingame, the next town south of the airport. Sure, there is some kind of “short” system, where if a taxi makes it back to SFO within twenty minutes of leaving, he or she gets bumped to the front of the line. But, therein lies the chickenshit part.
There are a MILLION of these crazy, random protocols, rules, and regulations for the airport playing cabbie. And the underworld that is SFO’s taxi staging is a totally mind boggling maze of winds around endless curves, and between cement pillars, before up and down and around many a concrete ramp. Then, over more ramps, weaving around, and curving between curves, all of which ultimately lead to some grand prize that, if you win, finally connects you to the first of the three main staging lots, with each overflowing with rows upon rows of taxis all waiting to filter through lots 1… 2… and 3… twisting, turning, up, down, and around, as if you were trapped in some mythological hell or some perverted, life size game of Chutes and Ladders.
I know this, because Christian once upon a time took me for a tour in his cab of this underworld, in some feeble attempt to show me the ropes. But this effort only backfired, having sealed my aversion. Then, there was his follow up, where he filmed his cab navigating the labyrinth from a cab driver’s view, after which he emailed me the video. It was twenty minutes long, with five acts.
That evening I had nightmares.
Oh, and then there’s the thing about how you have to swipe your A-card (taxi permit) to get through the gated entry into said underworld, before having to divine the location of some machine hiding down there within the bowels of staging, at which you are to add money to your A-card (which at this point is doubling as some kind of bastard credit card) for the $2 exit fee that is ultimately passed on to your passenger, before you can finally be granted your freedom, yet, not before AGAIN swiping your A-card at the exit barrier gates, in this, the final stage of this maddeningly bureaucratic homage to Rube Goldberg and his machines.
It used to be that before they’d let a newbie pick up at SFO, you’d have to go in to some office on the outskirts of the airport grounds and get signed off after watching some godforsaken hour long VHS tape on how the whole shtick works – lest the new guy mess with the program and anger all the veterans. But, the powers that be have, for some years now, forgone this video tape prerequisite and have since stationed a crew of minimum wage “helpers” in lieu, each strategically placed at a station along the gauntlet to, um, “guide” you. Or so I hear, most likely bitch at you, berate you, flippantly mismanage the cue, and consequently cheat you out of your place in line, but not without then threatening to ban you for life from any future rides out of SFO, if you were to object.
No, I am just too damn overwhelmed to wrap my head around it all. Besides, as I told ma, it would be the end of my writing career. I mean, just think of the demographic I’d be ferrying, exclusively, one after the other: grey suit, blue suit, pinstripe suit, and with the highlight of my day being a long ride with the ever so bold biz dev guy who has gone it tieless.
No, thank you.
Okay, in light of what I suspect was a word or two too many in the previous rant, I WOULD admit to finding it pretty cool that there is a purported restaurant at one of the lots, just for cabbies. And a Muslim prayer rug area, elsewhere. And, oh yeah, bathrooms!
Rolling Citizen’s Cab #1015, it’s been a good morning. I cracked nut by 9am, and the rest of the day is now gravy.
My iPhone rings, “Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding! Bada-Ding-Ding-Boop-Ding-Ding!”
Hey! It’s Christian!
Christian, “Dude, what are you doing? I started my shift early and I’m deadheading down to the airport. Come with me, bitch! You can follow me in and I’ll show you the deal. It’s time to make some money, bee-yatch!”
Dude, “(GASP.) Oh… Okay. I guess it can’t hurt. I’ve already covered expenses for the day. Where are you? Where should we hook up?”
Christian, “Really?? You’re FINALLY going to get off your ass and play the airport!? Alright! Meet me on Division, before the on-ramp at South Van Ness. Then follow me down. See you in a minute!”
I meet up with Christian, lickety-split. And we roll south down 101 in tight formation, weaving lanes and going in and out of traffic, while cutting off any Uber with an eye to breaking our ranks.
Fifteen minutes later…
I follow Christian in, CLOSE, as we pull around the skyway at SFO, and then down, down, down into one of a multitude of lanes, with each lane obstructed by its own given barrier arm among the flank, with each arm outfitted in garish reflective hazard tape, and each entry barrier situated directly beneath its own prominent, brightly illuminated sign, that reads,
Christian goes first. And I watch, as he puts his A-card up to some big yellow box with an LCD screen, evocative of a glorified trash compactor, or R2-D2 on a bad day.
And the gate folds up, giving Christian taxi access onto a short runway which feeds off into some dark, descending ramp, beneath levels upon levels of concrete parking structure, deep within the bowels of SFO.
I pull up to the sentry, and I hold my A-card up to some square metallic exception on the gaudy yellow box. And…
I swish the card around. And…
Aside: I’ve twice in the last few months had to return voicemails from the MTA alerting me to that my A-card had been cancelled, due to lack of payment of the $106 annual renewal fee. The first time, I spoke with some guy who said he was new there. It was notable that as I stayed on the phone, he expressed absolute amazement at the speed with which he received my emailed copy of the cashed check proving that the MTA was in error. Dude assured me that he was amending it in the system as we were speaking, adding that a cancelled A-card really only had the practical effect of barring me from being able to pick up at SFO.
The next voicemail from the MTA I returned was from a woman, a month later, alerting me to that my A-card had been cancelled, due to lack of payment of the $106 annual renewal fee. I politely told her, “No offense. But, you guys need to get your shit together.” Embarrassed, she apologized for the newbie with whom I had first spoke, for not having properly updated their computers then. And for the original mistake of asserting that I had not remitted in my usual, timely, annual manner. She assured me that the mistake would be fixed right this time, as we were speaking. And she added that a cancelled A-card really only had the practical effect of barring me from being able to pick up at SFO.
I ZOOM to catch up to Christian, who I find stopped waiting for me at the bottom of the first ramp beneath the parking structure, just inside the shadows. And I now follow him, as we wind, curve, dip, climb, turn left, turn right, left again, and then come to a stop before an orange vested “helper” who is standing directly behind a traffic cone in our path, as waving us to the left with the most disaffected, zombie-like expression on his face.
Christian stops, and then leans out of his window to yell back, “Dude! The lots are all full. We’re being spun! He’s sending us back out!”
Christian, continuing, “It just means that we have to exit, and circle back around to come back in from the skyway and try entering again. Some cabs ought to clear by the time we get back. Follow me!”
And I follow Christian as we wind, curve, dip, climb, turn left, turn right, left again, and head towards a crack of sunlight that’s peeking in at the end of some tunnel, which brings us back out onto the maze of roads outside of the terminals, accessible to all.
Well, at least we didn’t have to pay the $2 exit fee! Hmph!
I follow Christian once more, CLOSELY, as we dip down, down, down into one of the multitude of lanes, with each one obstructed by its own given barrier arm, with each arm outfitted in garish reflective hazard tape, and each entry barrier situated directly beneath its own brightly illuminated sign, reading,
And one at a time, we again give R2-D2 his due. And…
I follow Christian as we wind, curve, dip, climb, turn left, turn right, left again, and again arrive at the orange vested “helper” THIS time standing NEXT to his traffic! YAY! He’s waving Christian in!!
Here we go!!
And I pull up to gain entry, just as the orange vested “helper” picks up the traffic cone and places it in front of my cab, and then moves to stand stoically behind it, just as before, with the most disaffected, zombie-like expression on his face, as he waves me left, BACK towards the exit, to be “spun” yet AGAIN!!!
Sack, “Dude! This is my first time playing the airport. My friend you just let in is showing me the ropes. Please! Can I come in? I have no idea what I’m doing!”
Zombie stays the course, as he continues to wave me left, and stares stoically straight ahead and continuing to deny me entry! Asshole. Zombie” does not even ACKNOWLEDGE that I am speaking to him! And pleading ever so nicely! And DESPERATELY!! For MERCY!!! Nope, this orange vested “helper” just keeps on frowning and waving me left, as I sit here, motionless, dumbfounded.
Christian is stopped just on the other side of Zombie, waiting for me. But now, after having seen my denied access, he leans out of his window to also start pleading with the dude to let me in, explaining that it’s my first time picking up at the airport, that we’re good friends, and he brought me down to SFO empty for the express purpose of helping to show me the ropes. Alas, for naught. (SIGH!) This feels like some creepy, dehumanizing scenario straight out of the Stepford Wives! Well, that, before our “helper” suddenly breaks out some kind of notepad and starts in with threatening me, yelling that I am now in imminent danger of being barred from the airport, PERMANENTLY, if I do not “MOVE ON!”
Christian and I see the writing on the wall, as he yells back to me, saying to come around again. But, he laments aloud that this means we will not be in the cue together once I return, adding,
“These guys are all just disgruntled cause they have to stand around all day, underground, in some dank parking garage getting paid minimum wage to be a human traffic signal! I guess we can’t blame him for being an asshole! We’d probably be assholes, too, if our lives sucked that bad!”
Well, he does have a point.
Christian retreats back inside his window and drives on, turns right, and then dips down and out of sight, as I am, once again, getting “spun.” At least, I think I remember the way out… Or, I guess I can just keep driving around, until I see sunlight, somewhere… Hmm.
Somehow I get lucky, as I wind, curve, dip, climb, turn left, turn right, left again, and head towards that familiar crack of sunlight at the end of the tunnel. And, POW! I’m back out on the maze of roads outside of the terminals.
And as I look to the skyway, to begin my maneuver to spin back around, It’s ominous. Somehow, SOME way, in the short period of time covering this last pointless circle, the skyway has since FILLED! BACK as FAR as the EYE CAN SEE… with TAXIS!!
And with ALL are lining up for entry into the Hades of SFO, and the multitude of lanes, with each lane obstructed by its own given barrier arm among the flank, and with each arm outfitted in garish reflective hazard tape, and each entry barrier situated directly beneath its own brightly illuminated sign, reading,
Ah, screw it. God has SURELY spoken here! Eh?? I mean, you cannot say I didn’t try. You can’t say I didn’t buy a ticket. Eh?? Hell, I’d rather be driving “real” people back in town, anyway.
So be it.
It’s back to reality for this hack.
It’s back to San Francisco, empty…
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Photo by Christian Lewis
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