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Charm pays when you take a gamble

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“Stuck in gridlock, I entertain him with a story about an amateur archeologist who dug up old Barbie heads…” (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

It’s such a gamble when you get a fare. You never know who’s going to climb into the backseat of your cab.

I accept all comers and take them wherever they need to go. From the meth dealer with his face covered in tattoos who paid me upfront to make multiple stops around the Tenderloin, to the elderly Russian speaking couple who criticized my driving all the way from Pac Heights to the Richmond district. Since I’m married to a Soviet expat, I understand enough Russian to know when I’m being badmouthed.

There are the passengers who leave you parked at the top of a hill on a dead-end street in the Bayview as they run inside to get your fare, then come back with a $50 bill and say,“Keep the change.” And the ones who pass off fake 20s on five-dollar rides and don’t even tip.
On weekends, nothing beats the tourist trade. From Union Square to North Beach, it’s an easy $10. From the Wharf to the Hilton on O’Farrell, a cool $20.

I never force conversations about San Francisco history and hotspots, but if prompted I lay it on thick. I take scenic routes and point out landmarks along the way. And each time I crest the hill at Jones and California, I joke, “Driving a cab in San Francisco is all about controlled chaooooooossssssss.”

At the end of the ride, they usually say something like, “You’re nothing like our last driver…”

Just as quickly, though, I go from being an ambassador for The City to a lackey. The passengers with their faces planted in phones are The Job. But I still go from point A to B with a smile. Hey, sometimes I don’t want to talk either.

Then there are the rides you never forget. Like the archeologist I picked up at Caltrain and drove to Rincon Hill.

An accident earlier that day on the Bay Bridge had snarled South of Market traffic into a disaster of biblical proportions.

So I suggest Third Street. But he insists on Second.

Stuck in gridlock, I entertain him with a story about an amateur archeologist who dug up old Barbie heads and rusted coffee cans in his backyard and submitted them to the Smithsonian with his detailed findings, including which geological era he thought they belonged to.

Twenty minutes go by and I realize we’ve regressed into a discussion of “Indiana Jones.” And haven’t moved more than a few feet. I propose evasive action.
The man admits Second was a mistake, saying he would just walk, since it’s only a few blocks away, but he’s carrying 50 pounds of books.

“Not a problem.” I make an illegal U-turn and warn him, “Things might get a little bumpy.”

“To the bold go the spoils!”

Did I mention he had an English accent?

I force my way through the bastions of East Bay commuters, squeezing between cars in mid-lane change, always mindful of my side mirrors.

“I’ve broke off two already,” I tell him. “I don’t want to be known as the Mirror Killer back at the yard.”

At Third and Folsom, the taximeter reads $19.45. I wave my hand at it and say, “This is all negotiable, by the way. I just want to beat this traffic. It’s a matter of pride now.”

As I fight my way into the far left lane on Folsom to get around the cars lined up for the bridge, we discuss the pillaging of Egyptian pyramids during Arab Spring, the failings of Google as a research tool and how traffic is like a Gordian Knot.

“If only we had a sword!” he exclaims.

When I finally pull into the circular driveway of his high-rise, he hands me a crisp $100 bill. Says, “Have a nice day.”

“Wait! Your change!” I shout. But he just walks away.

Momentarily stunned and then overwhelmed by his generosity, I head down the hill to Harrison and leave the congested streets of SoMa behind.

Of course, I could take this opportunity to make an observation about how certain “tech” companies have reduced drivers to dime-store automatons, but I don’t want to spoil the moment.
Have a nice day.

Kelly Dessaint is a former Uber and Lyft driver turned taxi driver. In his real life, he’s the publisher of the personal narrative zine Piltdownlad and author of the forthcoming memoir “No Fun: How Punk Rock Saved My Life.”

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