The Pick-Up Artists
“What do you mean?” He shakes his head. “It’s like everyday. It’s like normal.”
We talk cab, and I wonder if it’s at all like Travis Bickle’s nights, watching the animals come out and hoping that the rain will wash away the scum. One thing, he says, is true for all cabdrivers: “We have no patience, and we disdain authority.”
By the way, every cabdriver I talked to always called it “cab”: you drive cab, you ride cab; there’s no “the,” “a,” or “my” cab.
Cabbies are night owls. They are lone wolves. They are rebels, and I want to be one.
My first ride out is with Mike Donovan. I know Mike as one-third of San Francisco’s no-fi band Sic Alps, of which I’m a huge fan. So it’s strange, at first, to see this thin, silvery 30-something smiling at me while we sit across each other in the front seat of his cab. He’s a 10-year veteran.
Okay, wait. I know I said I was going to try it out myself, but it’s not as easy as you’d think. If you’re really serious about being a cabdriver, you can sign up for training courses to actually become one, but for this story I settle for being a cabbie-comrade and sit in the passenger’s seat.
The first thing that occurs to me about driving cab, is after you look back, say hi, and then look back at the road, you don’t see the passenger(s). So unless you have a photographic memory, you just remember vague attributes like fat or skinny, tall or short, suit or hippie. But you do have free rein to ask anything you want.
We pick up a young male-female pair at 16th and Valencia who request “Polk and Van Ness,” and then quickly switch it to streets that are actually perpendicular, “Polk and Jackson.”
“We’re heading home.” It’s about 11:30 p.m. She’s wasted. She leans over, but doesn’t whisper. “That grrrrrrl wanted me,” she slurs. Did I mention she’s wasted? He’s not, and is suspicious of my presence, so he shifts the conversation and asks Mike how long he’s been a cabdriver. She adds, as if responding, “She’s pretttty hott though.” This – some young woman trying to tease her man with girl-on-girl possibilities – is about as close as I get to an episode of Taxicab Confessions.
When we drop them off, she pays saying, “I have actual cash. Cash-money.” The radio is singing, “Don’t you want somebody to love…” as she hands a bill to Mike and says, “Keep it. Enjoy.” She gets out of the cab, and then leans back in, “Hey, you guys have fun!”
The drunken girl gave us a 20 for a $7.60 ride – a calculation she might not have made if (a) she had used a card, and (b) hadn’t been inebriated.
All the cabdrivers I talk to tell me the same thing: “People ask common questions, like what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you.” In case you’re wondering, cabbies find this annoying. Rauch Graffis, a driver for Green Cab, calls it “pure porno.” Still, I know everyone likes a little nudity so I pose the question to Mike.
“I got robbed once,” Mike pauses, “successfully.” He recounts that as soon as he turned onto Willow Alley, he knew it was going to happen. The vibe changed. He was grabbed, a knife was put to his neck, and the crook said, “Give me your money.”
Some cabbies, like Rauch, want cashless taxis where riders have to pay with a credit card. You might think that the most dangerous thing for a driver is road accidents, but it’s homicide. It’s a simple equation: No cash equals no danger.
The trick, apparently, is to keep half of your money in one pocket and the rest in the other. When it happened to Mike, though, he got nervous, pulled both wads out, and all the money went flying. The thief started grabbing at the cash, which was floating about like falling leaves, and then ran out of the car.
I imagine how I couldn’t handle that and realize I might make a wussy rebel.
“Stockton and Sutter, please,” says one of the two blonde ladies we pick up at Polk and Clay.
Throughout the night I’ve been used to asking all the questions, so I’m a little surprised when we get hit with one: “Do people hook up in front of you?”
“People already made out back there tonight,” Mike says. I guess I missed the Polk-and-Jackson fare’s make-out session. Does Mike have eyes in the back of his head? Probably not, just a better sense of cab space and a knack for noticing more details than the aforementioned binaries. “That happens; it’s all right. Anything else is not cool. That’s just rude.”
Our riders are a curious pair ready for a Saturday night, which is as much a part of their routine as their nine-to-five. They are not inane, they are not insane, but they are not anything. Lesson number two: A lot of people that get in cab are not that interesting.
“What about drugs?” she asks.
“I’ve had a guy smoke crack and just be like, ‘What?’”
As we drop them off at Vessel, they take a while discussing who owes whom money for the cab ride. “Can I get 10 back?” one of the girls asks and then adds, “Good conversation. Good people. Thanks.”
My next ride is with Alicia, a seasoned 11-year cabbie – a bodacious, blue-eyed Gemini (that means she gets along with everyone) with frizzy ringlets that she keeps tied up high in a ponytail. She’s more-or-less the opposite of Mike. She is high-spirited and conversational. This is a fun way to make money, she relates, and as close to a calling as she’s going to get. Her calabash auntie introduced her to cab when women were just starting to be accepted as drivers; before then they were assumed to be prostitutes. In an industry still dominated by men – 6,500 to 80, Alicia is the anomaly.
She picks me up on a Tuesday night in my neighborhood, near FolSoMa, in a Ford Queen Victoria that used to be a cop car. We turn a sharp corner and there’s someone flagging us down.
Part of driving cab is garnering a sense of people by the little clues. Before a cabbie picks you up, the driver is scoping to see if they should even let you in the cab. “Cab driving is always about assessment,” Alicia explained. “You get to know a block away whether you want to pick someone up, which is why, the worst thing ever, is to have one person flag a cab and have someone else get in. I hate that. Don’t do that.”
There are no porno stories for Alicia, which she explains is a result of her mom’s daily prayers. “Whatever you think about religion,” Alicia explains, “it’s just setting an intention of what is going to happen in your life and it creates that to happen. I set my intentions and am very conscious about creating a safe space not only for me, but for my customers as well. I actually take that very seriously, in addition to the fact that I want to have a really good time.”
We stop for two gay guys in plaid button-ups. Fortuitously, they have ridden with Alicia before. “Hey sweetie,” they say, “it’s lovely to see you again.”
“We’re going to Fillmore and Haight Street.” They have just grabbed a few post-work happy hour drinks and are on their way to dinner, which, based on the cross-streets, Alicia guesses correctly, will be at Indian Oven. Any restaurant you might want to know about, Alicia has been there.
We discuss the deliciousness of curries, and Alicia recommends goat cheese naan: “It’s a religious experience.” We make a sharp turn and Alicia yowls, “Hold on everyone!” And like a plate of Jello, our bodies slide across our seats.
This is a good time. We’ve got a big fat car, we jump hills, swing drunks, and yak with queens, who, it turns out, are the best tippers. I ride along with Alicia for two more fares before she drops me off and floors it into the distance.
So, you wanna drive cab in San Francisco? According to Alicia, “The entire cab world is bribery, extortion, and bullshit and you can buy anything with cash,” but if you wanna be legit, take a course to become a cabbie at a certified taxi school. You also have to be at least 21 years old; be a legal U.S. resident; have a valid California driver’s license; be fluent in English; and not have any prior convictions of a crime that would present a risk to public safety. Once you’re officially legal, the easiest way to rent your cab is to pay roughly $100 to a cab company for the use of a car for a 12-hour shift. And finally, always be safe.