Noon, I’m cruising Union Street in Cow Hollow, though I don’t know why. This quaint, tree lined strip of boutique shops and cafes in the shadow of the Golden Gate has long been ceded to the “rideshares.” This must be some kind of exercise in self-flagellation. Or, maybe I just needed a break from my usual “when fareless” cycle; the Mission, the Castro, the Haights (Upper and Lower), before lastly, east down Market for an ultimate run into the deep Financial, U-turn at the Ferry Building. Rinse and repeat.
Yeah, it’s the latter. I just needed a break. (However much promising a bust, this tactic.)
So, here I am, at the four-way stop at Union & Buchannan, waiting for some hunched over old dude to finish making it through the crosswalk – jeans, olive cargo jacket, St. Francis Yacht Club cap. But it’s taking FOREVER for old dude to declare victory in his EPIC trek caning towards glory, which awaits him just six feet away at the curb. (Oh, the tales they will tell!)
Dude DOES seem to be showing appreciation for my saint like patience, at least. He keeps stopping every couple of minut-… er, steps, and cranes his neck sideways to almost look my way. And with each strained twist of the neck, it is accompanied in battle by the attempted raising up of his cane, if only an inch or two, to tip off a grateful nudge. The old guy’s way of thanking me. (I’m such a good person.)
Or, uh… flagging a taxi???
I veer 1015 hard to the corner, as to not exacerbate the cluster of Ubers now backed up and down Union. And I line her rear door up adjacent to my dinner, who has FINALLY reached the curb! (Insert: Choir of angels.) And who now reaches for the door handle. Old dude opens the door, shuffles his feet into position, and with a stiff snap of the wrist, he flicks his cane hard into the taxi, across the back seat. Then old dude grabs the roof, braces himself, and swivels his hunched body with a jerk into the back of 1015, into a seated position. And old dude is in!
Driver’s pen and waybill are now at the ready, our destination pending. However, before Driver gets the chance to ask, he is preempted…
Otto, with Austrian accent, “Hello. My name is Otto. Did I do this right? It is my wife who usually secures our transportation.”
Odd. It’s pretty unusual for fares to introduce themselves right off the bat. Though, hmm. It shouldn’t be. It’s a simple, decent gesture. An acknowledgement of our shared humanity. I guess it’s something that’s gotten lost in these fast times.
Alex, “Why hello, Otto. My name is Alex. Yes, you did just fine in the way you hailed my taxi. If I had not been informed otherwise, I would have thought you a pro! And isn’t it a lovely day, today? They said rain. Maybe even thunder! But look, it’s all blue skies outside. And, ah, that California sun!”
Otto, “It is, uh, good… to know you, Alex.” Now distracted, fumbling with his seat belt, “I have just come from having my, uh, hair… cut… by my wife.” Grunting now, still trying to click. “My… um, (GRUNT!) wife is from Sicily. However, by way of, uh… New (GRUNT!) York. HA! I am going to… 1 (GRUNT!) 35 Seal Rock, Alex. Do you, uh, know… where that is? (GRUNT!)”
I check the rear view to gauge Otto’s new cut. But he’s still wearing his St. Francis Yacht Club cap and his new cut is covered. I do note, however, that Otto is still having problems latching his seat belt, and is now maximum frustrated. (Though, keeps it very cool.)
Alex, “135 Seal Rock,” I repeat back, as I scribe. “Sure, I know where Seal Rock is. It’s out by the Ocean Beach, overlooking the Pacific. You must have a wonderful view!”
Otto, “Yes, yes. (GRUNT!) A… wonderful view. (GRUNT!)” Throwing up his hands, “Alex, please do not be offended, my friend. I do trust that you are a quite professional driver. I am old, however. It would be wise to secure my frame for any turns and bumps the road may offer us. I seem to be having some trouble buckling in, Alex. Might you offer some assistance?”
Alex, “Oh, I take no offense! By all means, yes! Here, let me help you!”
I reach back and untwist Otto’s buckle, and… SNAP!
(It’s always a twisted buckle. Happens all the time.)
And Alex and Otto roll out of Cow Hollow, and through The Marina.
Otto, sitting up, hands perched on his cane, now propped between his legs, “Yes, my wife is Sicilian. However, I cannot hide my Viennese accent. Ha! I am sure that it betrays me! I would not try to hide it, in any event. I am quite happy to have my accent. It has been a companion of mine all of my life. Ha!”
Otto, now looking dreamily out of his window at the boats in the marina, The Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, “Ah, I do love San Francisco more than any other city in which I have lived.”
Alex, “Oh? Where else have you lived?”
Otto, a twinkle in his eye – as gleaned in the rear view, “Well, Alex. I moved to San Francisco in the early 1960’s. You see, I have a master’s degree in economics, and other degrees in education, and many other skills. As well, I speak seven different languages! Ha!
I have over the course of this life lived in Munich, Berlin, London, Vienna, New York and Washington, D.C.”
Alex, “Otto, where did you live in D.C.?”
Alex, “I’m from D.C.! Where did you live there?”
Otto “You will have to excuse me, Alex. I have become somewhat hard of hearing you see, with age.”
Otto, continuing, “While living in Washington, a friend called me on the telephone one day to ask if I would be interested in a job offer in the field of aviation, in the South Bay. My friend knew that I had many skills. And the offer was quite lucrative. It was working with custom designed electronic instruments to be used in aerospace, for the war machine. A company called Philco. Have you heard of Philco, Alex?”
Alex, “Oh, yes. I’ve heard of Philco. Wow. That’s cool.” Taking another stab, “Where did you live in D.C.?”
Otto, leaning forward, “Huh??”
With this, Alex and Otto find themselves at the Lombard Gate, a threshold, over which they have just crossed… into the Presidio.
And together, Alex and Otto embark on a most enchanting, if anachronistic, drive traversing this decades long-decommissioned military base, founded by Spain in 1776, won with Mexico’s independence in 1821, and ultimately commandeered by the United States Army in 1846. Citizen’s Cab #1015 navigates what seems a living fog, cruising amidst ubiquitous Spanish colonial barracks that so define The Presidio, walls of white stucco, and roofs of red clay tile.
Alex, “WHERE DID YOU LIVE IN D.C.?? I’M FROM D.C.!!”
Otto, “Ah! Where? Well, uh, uh…” Growing embarrassed, “Well, Alex. There is only so much the older brain can retain. That which is long in the past gets jettison, to make room for what is immediately necessary.”
Alex, “I completely understand, Otto. Though, I would argue that the younger brain does that, too. Ha!”
Continuing, “I do not recall where. But, I lived in Washington, D.C. with my first wife. I do recall that our two sons went to school somewhere down a beautiful drive… on Bradley Boulevard. My sons are both long grown now, however.”
Ever deeper into the national park we roll, with Otto dreamily recanting his life, as looking out of his window, now through The Presidio’s century and a half old National Cemetery, along a winding road betwixt the dead. I note Otto growing misty in the rear view, as suddenly, our taxi turns to some phantom caisson, an old carriage stocked of spectral munitions, cast from the pages of history, to arrive in the present to re-supply the countless bones of the old warriors laid here, though not at rest. Through deep eyes, I see Otto bearing witness to apparitions standing watch, still, keeping eternal guard, with their service and sacrifice forever frozen in a California of yore, only living now in remembrance via the humble white markers here set, row upon row, as a thousand gulls flocking westward, out to the horizon.
Alex, “My grandfather also worked as an engineer in aerospace, in the 60’s, for Grumman. You know Grumman?”
And with this, Alex gives up on trying to converse. (That’s okay, though. It’s a beautiful ride through The Presidio. And he’s enjoying listening to his fare talk.)
Alex and Otto continue on, out of the charnel ground, driving up, and then down, hugging the many hilly weaves which lead them snaking, and eventually out, through the thick groves of pungent Eucalyptus… out to Land’s End.
And it is here and now we stand, at the cusp of the great wide open. (Okay, we sit.) We sit, all at once arrested, before a stop sign atop a high cliff’s edge, before an overlook unobstructed, under rays beaming down, as if from Heaven itself. And down shine the rays, illuminating for all, the white water as it crashes upon the jagged coastline below, from that vast emerald majesty stretching out towards infinity, who’s rippling bears the promise from which all life emerged. (Too much, passengers?)
Yes, it is here that Alex and Otto take pause, as a taxi of one, unified in their journey, and beheld by a vantage which seems to glimpse the world in its entirety, over a San Francisco Bay kissing the sparkling Golden Gate, and embracing the great Pacific Ocean as it reaches out to touch the very face of God! It is here, illumined, that all things meet, under the warming glow of a taxi’s top light.
But I digress.
Otto, as Citizen’s Cab #1015 makes its descent, twisting along this crooked coastal passage, “I used to race stock cars, Alex. Back in my youth. However, I could not afford the type of racer that would allow me a win. Still, it was an exciting hobby.
In my later years, as I advanced in my career, I did eventually acquire the means to purchase a Porsche 911. Oh, Alex, THAT was a machine! But, yes, those were my younger years. Now, I very much appreciate my Subaru Forester. A FINE piece of engineering, the Subaru Forester.”
We exit our Presidio dream via 28th Avenue, through the Sea Cliff neighborhood, a hood deceptive of San Francisco; as quiet, and comprised of large single family homes, with actual lawns and manicured landscaping. (This, being one of Robin Williams’ earlier abodes, before leaving that home to his first wife.)
And Otto hits me with a brick, “I am a Holocaust survivor, Alex. But, I wouldn’t want to bore you with the details.”
Wait. Huh? NO! Bore away! Bore away!
Alex, “Otto, you would not be boring me at all! Uh, but I understand if you don’t want to talk about it.”
Continuing, breezing past that bomb, “After I was rescued from Hitler, I found myself working as an American soldier, in the Army. You see, Alex, in 1952 I was a cold warrior. I could speak Russian. And I was quite good in identifying people. And I had other training and many other useful skills.
They had me working in East Germany, under cover as a documentary film maker. Ha! It was 35mm black and white film back then. However, one day while traveling by bus, I noticed that I was being followed. And so, I called it in to my handlers. They pulled me out immediately, bringing me out through the checkpoint past the guards on the floor of a four-seater.”
Alex, “Wow! That sounds like that Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies. Crazy!”
Continuing, “In East Germany, if the guards heard anything in the hedges, they would shoot their machine guns into them from the tower, and only AFTERWARDS shout, ‘Is there anybody there?” Ha!
Once I had made it back to the States, the CIA had contracted me to work in Langley. That was when I lived in Washington. I was in the Office of Personnel Management. As I mentioned, Alex, one of my talents was in identifying people.”
And with this, we pull into the drive of 135 Seal Rock overlooking the Sutro Cliffs and the Pacific. It’s a modest single family home, with an incredible view, and an Hispanic woman out in front sweeping the drive.
Otto, “Ah, there is Maria. A great help to my wife and me.” Adding, “How much do I owe you for the taxi ride, Alex?”
Alex, “Oh, it looks like the meter is at $22.20.”
Otto, “May I give you a credit card, Alex? And please, Alex, help me with what would be an appropriate tip. My wife usually handles these things.”
Alex, “Oh, uh, 20% give or take, is the standard.”
I watch in the rear view, as Otto takes off his cap to scratch his head, revealing a brain too fuzzy for math, and very cute hair cut, on what is a decent head of hair for a man his age.
Otto, “Would $30 be acceptable?”
Alex, “Oh! That would be great! Thank you, Otto!”
I swipe Otto’s card, as my passenger makes one last request.
Otto, “Alex, my friend, if I could make one last request. Could you help me out of the taxi and to my feet, so I do not fall down in the drive?
Alex jumps out and around to help Otto out, who, upon my opening his door, looks with a glint from his penetrating blue eyes, up and deep into mine.
Otto, “Here, Alex. Let me show you something which I learned, back in my days in the military. Grab my forearm with your hand, and I’ll do the same with yours. This was what we called the ‘boat man’s grip,’ so as to keep a man from falling into the sea.”
I grab Otto’s arm as instructed, and rock him to his feet. And in parting, I thank my passenger for his wonderful stories, a charmed ride through The Presidio, and his lesson, as Otto scuffles off with his cane into his home, over the Pacific.
Please SHARE if so inclined, folks!
Photo by Alex SacK