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Hailing a taxi while black

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A Yellow taxi picks up a family at San Francisco General Hospital. (Courtesy Douglas O’Connor)
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On the corner of Folsom and 6th, a guy is standing with his hand in the air. Even though it’s not a night to be turning down fares — if there ever are nights like that anymore — three empty taxis in a row blow right past him. When he turns around to flag me, I see what the problem is: He’s young and black, with dreads protruding from his hoodie and a gold grill flickering in the haze of a streetlamp.

As he approaches my cab hesitantly, I gesture him forward, and he jumps into the backseat.

“I need to get to Richmond hella bad,” he tells me.

“District or city?”

“City.”

“Oh, man …” I stammer. “It’s after 1 a.m. and uh … that’s a pretty long ride. You think I can get some cash up front?” Adding a quick, “No offense or anything.”

Which actually makes the request more offensive.

Even though I’m legally entitled to ask for advance payment on trips outside The City, the implication is transparent. To both of us, I assume.

The guy doesn’t flinch. He pulls a manila envelope out of the front of his sweatpants. “I only got $360 on me. If that’s not enough, when we get to the house I can get you the rest.”

“Whoa, dude!” I exclaim. “It’ll only be around 50 bucks.”

He peels off two $20s and a $10 and sets them on the center console.

I fold the bills up, slip them in the CD slot on the stereo and hit the meter. “Whatever the fare ends up being,” I say, “we’ll settle up at the end.”

As I head toward the 5th Street onramp for I-80 east, I try to strike up a conversation. “So … Uh … Did you miss BART or something?”

“Nah, I just got out of jail,” he responds bluntly. “My ride didn’t show up, and I couldn’t get an Uber. Been stuck out there for two hours.”

“Well, you’ll be home shortly,” I say. “You want some tunes?”

“Sure. 106.1.”

I dial in the hip-hop station and turn up the volume. Glancing in the rearview, I catch his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, but I sense his appreciation …

I know what it’s like to get out of jail, when every shred of comfort feels like a precious commodity. Whatever got him locked up — well, that’s his business and something he’ll deal with later. All that matters now is getting home, taking a shower and trying to feel human again.

Still, I can’t shake the guilt for demanding cash on the barrelhead. I’ve always prided myself on not profiling passengers, and if he’d been wearing a suit, there’s no doubt I would have trusted him to pay me at the end.

Does it matter the only other time I’ve asked for payment up front on a long trip was with a crusty, white hippie kid I picked up in the Haight looking to go all the way to Terrapin Crossroads?

Not really. But in an ideal world, getting stiffed on a $50 ride wouldn’t be so tragic if I didn’t desperately need the money. And this fare just made my night …

As I keep the needle in the dextral range, the guy spreads out on the backseat. The closer we get to the East Bay, the more he unwinds. By the time we’re passing Emeryville, he’s rapping along to the radio.

After Berkeley, he leans forward to tell me which exit to take off 580. On the streets, he directs me turn by turn. When I reach his destination, the meter reads $45.30.

Before I can ask if he wants change, or offer more of a tip, he thanks me and bails.

“Good luck!” I shout after him.

On the way back to The City, it hits me: I didn’t get the bridge toll.

Goddamn it! I always forget the bridge until I’m approaching the plaza. Oh well, at least I didn’t lose money this time …

Back at the National yard after my shift, I’m smoking outside the dispatch office with Parker and Colin, telling them about my ride to Richmond.

“It’s unbelievable drivers are still passing up fares,” Colin says, shaking his head. “Fucking idiots.”

“And this guy was a goldmine,” Parker says. “You should’ve quoted him $100. And not run the meter. He never would’ve known the difference.”

I agree it’s obvious the guy had no idea how much a taxi ride to Richmond costs, but … “If I were going to fleece him, why not take the whole $360?” I ask, sarcastically.

“Jesus Christ, man!” Parker snorts. “The poor guy just got out of jail! You gotta have some decency!”

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.

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