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Driving empty and looking for a distraction

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(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Driving empty is never a good thing. But when you’re down in the dumps, it can get torturous really fast. A warm body in the backseat of this cab would at least distract me from the gloom percolating in my head. Anyone going anywhere. Just get in my cab!

Hey, you with the backpack and flip-flops. I’ll take you home from work. We don’t even have to talk. But if you are in the mood, we can discuss the weather or the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area. Or just complain about how bad traffic has become. I’ll listen to your new startup pitch. Hell, we can even talk about Uber. Everything is on the table tonight.

After an hour and not a single ride, I stop at the Philz on Van Ness. I’m smoking on the sidewalk when an older couple holding a map approaches my cab. I get ready to ditch the cigarette and take them to their hotel in Union Square or perhaps a restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf, but they’re looking for the bus to Sausalito. I tell them which one goes up Van Ness and where to get off to catch the Golden Gate Transit.

They’re French. It’s their first time in San Francisco. Since they seem confused and I got nothing else going on, I wait around to make sure they get on the correct bus. Leaning against the side of my cab, I explain the difference between tech shuttles and public transportation. We talk about the fog. I recommend taking the Avenue of the Giants highway during their subsequent trip through Northern California. When the 49 rolls up, they get onboard. We wave goodbye.

Back on the streets, I try to focus on making my gate so I don’t end up in debt to National at the end of my shift. On Post, I get stuck in gridlock at Taylor. Oh well. At least the traffic gives me something else to ponder. The driver of a Comfort Cab next to me is trying to get my attention. He’s pointing across the street. On the opposite corner a woman has her hand up. I’m two lanes over but the Comfort driver, who already has a fare, lets me get in front of him. In the next lane I see Christian, a fellow National driver, also with passengers. He gives me the go ahead and I take the fare.

After I drop her off in Russian Hill, I’m cruising past Lombard Street. A few tourists glance in my direction but nobody makes a move. I go right on Chestnut. Maybe the people at the bottom of the second most crooked street in The City are ready to move on to a new point of interest. But there are no takers. I strike out in the Marina and take Fillmore over the hill.

Since my head isn’t in the game, I stick to cabstands. Slowly but surely, as the night wears on, I get enough rides to make my gate, then my gas and a little profit.
More than anything, I’m surviving the shift. That’s the real accomplishment. Now I just have to get through two more days. Then do it again next week. And the week after that …Around 1 a.m., I’m at a red light heading inbound on Market. This young couple hesitantly approaches my window.

“Are you available?” the guy asks.

“Of course I am.”

“You’re light isn’t on,” says the girl.

“What?” I check my reflection in a shop window. Sure enough, the top light that indicates I’m open for business is as dim as my current state of mind. Since the taximeter is idle, the bulb must be out. Well, that explains why hardly anyone tried to get in my cab tonight. And why the few who did were so reluctant at first.
It’s my own fault. In taxi school, Ruach always emphasized making sure everything worked properly on the cab before leaving the yard. I call dispatch. Ben says there’s one replacement bulb in the office. And a semi-functional screwdriver. So I’m in luck. And there’s still time to squeeze in a few rides before my shift is over.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver.

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