By Melissa Chandler
App services like Uber and Lyft have become fixtures in San Francisco, and with city cab drivers beginning to lose fares at unprecedented rates due to more and more residents making the switch to apps, the politics have become increasingly heated. For me, they’re also close to home: my dad has been a San Francisco cab driver for 30 years.
I knew him when I was a toddler, and then he and my mom divorced, and I didn’t know him again until I was 22. I was living back east at the time and flew out to San Francisco for a long weekend. My mom flew out from Portland for moral support. I’d never been to San Francisco.
My dad was finishing up a shift, so he picked us up at the airport in his taxi. I remember being nervous to meet him, but as it turned out, I didn’t need to be. My dad is a man who has an infinite number of good stories. I was too busy listening while he drove us around, showing us Lombard, the silliest street in the world, the heart-smashing blue of the bay, dizzyingly colorful Chinatown, and downtown, where he met my mother in the ’70s. He was working at a flower stand at Union Square. She walked by, and he held out a rose and said, “Here, this is for you. If it dies, bring it back, and I’ll buy you dinner.”
After I’d returned home, my dad sent me a letter in the mail. It went something like this: “This city is in your blood. If you ever want to move here, I’ll help you however I can.” So I did.
When I’d made the move and was still new to San Francisco, I was moping about a guy who had stopped calling. My dad brought me flowers. Later I found a little card nestled in the leaves that read “I’ll always call you!” My father drove the night shift. A tradition started in which he’d cart me around in his cab. He said I needed to learn the city. (I think, really, he knew that I was lonely and was pushing me to be social.) He’d drop me off at a café or a bar for a coffee or a beer and circle back between fares to check up on me.
One night a man pulled a gun, held it to my father’s back through the seat, and said, “I’ll blow your head off.”
As I’ve gotten to know my dad, I’ve gotten to know the stories he tells about passengers he’s had over the years. One woman wanted to be let out at Ocean Beach in the middle of the night. She left the car door wide open, her purse on the seat, and ran toward the waves and tried to throw herself in. He dragged her out and up on the beach, radioed the dispatcher for help, went back, and dragged her out a second time.
One night a man pulled a gun, held it to my father’s back through the seat, and said, “I’ll blow your head off.” When my dad tells that one, he laughs. He says, “I wanted to go, ‘Well, then, aim higher!’” The story scares me to death, but I laugh despite myself because of how he tells it.
Once when a man refused to pay, my dad wrestled off one of his shoes. Sometimes when he gets bored, he punches the “extras” button on the meter, citing surcharges to his passengers: for example, for failing to adhere to his cab’s dress code or using the word “totally” too many times.
My dad has a few regulars who have his cell phone number, most of them elderly passengers who require extra aid. Among them are two women in their eighties, friends and roommates who live on 35th Avenue. When they call for a ride, one of them, without fail, will greet him with, “Hello, it’s the two little old ladies on 35th Avenue!” and he, without fail, will say, “You two aren’t that old!” and he can hear them giggling in the background. This exchange has been going on for five years.
I try to pinpoint why hearing about these ladies makes me happy. It’s nice of my dad, but it’s more than that. It speaks to a sense of community that is maybe in danger of being lost with the arrival of services like Uber and Lyft. I’m not sure that many people in their seventies and eighties are going to order transportation over apps. And if they stick with cab drivers, will any of the reliable ones still be around for them to call? My dad is increasingly worried these days. He says he’s not earning what he used to make. Not by far. Sometimes not even enough to justify his commute.
It speaks to a sense of community that is maybe in danger of being lost with the arrival of services like Uber and Lyft.
I’ve made it a point to ask drivers now, when I take cabs, whether they feel personally affected by the apps. Every single one of them says yes. Several of them have said that they’re suddenly missing around half of their income.
During shifts, my dad has helped me move all my belongings from one apartment to another more times than I should admit, once under duress, because I didn’t know how soon my ex-boyfriend would be back home. Pretty much every important thing I own has been packed up and moved around in a San Francisco taxicab. No wonder, I guess, that I feel conflicted about the arrival of the app-based services. Cabs represent safety to me, and even milestones marked.
I’ve taken Lyft a few times, though. When I admit it to my dad, he says, “How could you!?” I tell him how I could: Lyft is cheaper than city cabs, and when I call them from my apartment in Russian Hill, they’re quick; they arrive within about five minutes. Living in the city on my income, it’s hard to pass up cheap. Living in Russian Hill and wanting to meet up with friends in the Mission on Friday nights, it’s hard to pass up quick. That and the fact that, like most people my age, I’m in a serious relationship with my phone, and that with the new services, everything’s done on the app, from ordering a ride to paying with the touch of a button. No waiting while on hold, no talking to curt dispatchers, and no tiffs with drivers over credit cards versus cash.
My dad lives about 45 minutes north of the city, but he’s here every day, still driving his cab. He works the morning shift now, waking up around 3:00 a.m. and crossing the bridge before daylight. He takes a break sometimes to give me a lift to work. That’s when we get to do most of our chatting. He still tells me stories about his passengers, but interesting anecdotes are on a downtick nowadays because everybody’s glued to their smartphones and iPads. In fact, for one shift, he decided that if anyone got in his cab between the hours of 7:00 and 9:00 in the morning and didn’t use a gadget, he’d surprise them with a free fare. Nobody won. His old stories are still good, though, and I want to hear them as many times as he’ll tell them.
I spoke with my father recently about the shifts in the industry, and he told me it’s estimated that Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have brought between 3,000 and 5,000 new drivers onto the streets.
“What’s going to happen?” I ask him, meaning, I guess, with his job. With everything.
“There’s no way to compete,” he says. “There’s nothing to be done except wait to see what happens with the lawsuits.”
“There’s no way to compete,” he says. “There’s nothing to be done except wait to see what happens with the lawsuits.” He’s referring to the lawsuits the cab companies are bringing against the new services (a major part of their stance being that the app-based drivers aren’t subjected to the same PUC regulations as the cab drivers).
Near the end of our conversation, my dad sounds resigned. He says, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to stop driving a cab, but I don’t know if I can make a living anymore because of these apps.” The word “apps” comes out like he’s spitting it.
He admits that the city cab companies should have had their act together long before Uber and Lyft came in to provide a quality of service they weren’t offering. He says the cab companies are increasingly hiring inexperienced drivers, and they’re also not consistent in enforcing certain policies, such as those regarding cab no-shows. That’s also a major reason why I’m tempted to go with Lyft when I need a ride. When they say they’re on their way, they actually are, and you can watch their arrival right on your phone. Most often, though, I call the company my dad works for and just cross my fingers that a driver will show up.
I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to the stories my dad tells about driving his cab over the years. I think it has something to do with how, lately, our city seems to be changing in ways that feel more extreme and rapid than ever (at least for my generation). Change inevitably brings nostalgia, and I’m nostalgic for my own early years here. And somehow just by knowing my dad, I’m nostalgic for the San Francisco of his youth. I guess I’m also a fan of his stories because they’re closely tied to the reasons I’ve come to love this city. It’s a place that thrums with the possibility that at any given moment, the strange might become familiar, assumptions might be proven wrong, and our lives might intersect in the most unexpected ways.