A Fare to Remember

Jan 27, 2010 at 7am

Car culture may be part of being American, but cab culture is definitely the mark of a cosmopolitan. We are lucky to rely less on cars in San Francisco than other place thanks to bike lanes, the fun of taking the 38 Geary and the fact that our favorite spots are usually walkable. So when San Franciscans are offered the chance to be in a car, we can’t resist ourselves. We go nuts.

Enter Disco Cab, a “nightclub in a cab.” It’s the genius of local cab driver H. who started driving a cab in San Francisco seven to eight years ago (originally of Iraqi descent). In 2004, he added a set of Christmas lights to his cab. He has upgraded the décor since then, and let me tell you – it is amazing.

With no itinerary planned, I asked H. to pick me up in the Mission and take me to some of his favorite places. I’d never been in his cab before. H. didn’t know where to take me at first but he knew that to show me the wonderment that is Disco Cab, we had to get out of the Mission. He hit the gas and we were suddenly on our way to the Tenderloin district (at light speed it felt – I buckled up).

H. explained that the police in the Mission were not too keen on Disco Cab. I didn’t really understand why until we drove up South Van Ness and he hit the lights and we were aglow. How can I describe this? There were bright lights all around us, with ornamental hanging mirror balls lining the roof of the car, and a flashing ball sitting on the armrest between the two front seats.

It was like being in a thumping nightclub, possibly in Ibiza, but one that smelled nice, where the bouncer was friendly and you could sit in a comfy chair with views of the best city on earth flashing by you. I understood why cops might have an issue with this.

H. turned the volume up on his banging stereo. Music is boss in Disco Cab, but there is no disco (sorry Gibbs Bros. fans). The music went back and forth between American house, electronic music and Arabic jams. H. loves Amr Diab, the best-known pop star from the Arabic music world, and he likes his music loud; I repeatedly had to shout over the tunes. I remember yelling, “How’s your hearing?” H. replied that he would be fine, and laughed at my silly question.

The pulsating lights were timed to the music. Cars on either side of us started pointing, their mouths agape. When Disco Cab rolled up, everyone within 300 feet of us was smiling— me, H., the car of teens to our right and the grannies to our left. My grin couldn't extend itself further. I kept giggling.

H. says he does have one competitor in the city – a guy from Desoto cabs that has Christmas lights. Christmas lights? Please. Disco Cab blows that cab outta the water.

Disco Cab was king in the Tenderloin. As we drove into the TL passing the police station with the lights on full blast, we stopped at a red light next to an obvious undercover cop (they all drive Fords, I’m not sure who they are trying to fool). H. was unconcerned. “I know him. He’s nice,” he said.  The cop looked over and gave H. a friendly thumbs-up and H. blasted the lights and the music even louder. I giggled again. How could this night get better?

H. still didn’t know where to take me. So we started talking about restaurants (we were both starving). I asked if there were any Middle Eastern restaurants he liked. H. said he could take me to a Turkish place that he loved — Gyro King, a well loved kebab joint that sits across the street from the San Francisco Main Public Library and the mess that is Civic Center.

We were nearing closing time, but H. said “no worry” as he greeted the owner, an old friend. H. and I sat down for some delicious kebabs (I recommend the Adana). We grabbed some Baklava for the road. Yup, I ate dinner with a cabbie, and he was super nice and I liked his food recommendations. We even shared our kebabs – how cool is that?

Back in the cab, I asked if there were any other hidden gems in the TL. H. flew us over to Cairo Nights, his favorite hookah joint. We entered the smoky room, and H. greeted the owner. H. has lots of friends, it seems. Khalid, the owner of Cairo Nights, seemed super friendly and looks about 21 years old. I wondered if he was old enough to smoke. Starry-eyed young guys occupied little tables; I didn’t notice any ladies in the room. The spot met my qualifications for a smoking lounge: chill and foggy.

After leaving the haze of Cairo Nights, we hopped back into Disco Cab, with my head a little heavy from the tobacco den. H. really wanted to take me to this place in the Marina, and although I am not a Marina type of gal, I thought, what the hell? It’s the Disco Cabbie’s choice. We whizzed through the city and arrived at Matrix Fillmore in what seemed like seconds. We found rock star parking, of course (did I mention that parking never seemed to be a problem for Disco Cab?). To H. , the Matrix Fillmore is the best bar in the city.

We entered the joint, and I instantly knew why this is H. ’s spot: it’s a club turned La-Z-Boy. It’s one giant couch. Two girls near the modern fireplace were literally lying down as they talked to each other, like some kind of Marina slumber party. In the back room, a couple canoodled. Downtempo beats were playing in the background.

I guess this place used to be a live venue where such notables as The Doors and The Velvet Underground would play. For some reason, I couldn’t picture Lou Reed hanging here in its newly remodeled glory – too clean. I’ll admit I’d have rather been in the Disco Cab with H. than a lounge, but I was tempted to take a short nap.

The best thing about hanging with H. was that I didn’t have to call a cab to get me back across the city. We hopped into Disco Cab, my own magic carpet. H. turned up the music and flashed the lights and we landed at my house in minutes flat. Disco Cab is like a lighthouse to the rest of the city, the shining hope of good times. As I jumped out, H. gave me two Arabic music mix CDs and with baklava in hand, I shut the cab door and looked at my dimly lit quiet home waving at me. I was tempted to turn back around and flag H. to take me on another adventure, but I realized I have his number and I could ring him up soon.

I couldn’t find a partner in crime to join me that night, and I had been worried while waiting for H. that it would be awkward. But when I got in that cab and the music started bumping, I was on a one-woman party train. Actually, I take that back. I had two partners in crime that night: my new friend H. and his awesome light and music show on wheels.

Call H. at (415) 573-5113; you don’t have to be going to a club to call him. Just call him any old time. He charges regular cab fare, but of course tip well for his generosity and atmosphere!

Be sure to give H. an hour or two notice as he books up quickly and tends to lurk at the airport for his next fare. Who knows, you might find yourself bumping in Disco Cab soon.

Design and Photography by Redindhi

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