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Inside the secret life of taximeters

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“This isn’t the first time I’ve driven someone to Pill Hill who’s drenched in sweat, despite the brisk evening air.” (Courtesy photo)

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“Just so you know,” says the guy in the back of my taxi. “This isn’t what you think…”

Driving a taxi can be dreadfully dull at times. During the day, most of the radio business involves transporting folks from their homes to shopping centers or doctor appointments around The City, and vice versa. A big part of the job is also listening to what passengers had for lunch, the graphic details of their illnesses, or just itemized descriptions of the sale items they scored at Ross Dress for Less.

Still, when a guy with two Pomeranians flags me at Haight and Stanyan, looking for a round trip to Golden Gate and Leavenworth, my curiosity doesn’t exactly go wild.

Nights can be just as predictable.

This isn’t the first time I’ve driven someone to Pill Hill who’s drenched in sweat, despite the brisk evening air. It’s not even the first time I’ve taken someone on what appears to be a drug run while they’re supposedly walking the dogs.

But my current fare does catch me off guard by questioning these kinds of assumptions.

“It’s not?” I reply, more curious to find out what he thinks I’m thinking than what’s really going on.

“Well, I suppose you do see a lot of shit driving a cab.”

Before responding, I flash back to a ride earlier that afternoon with a man going from the Potrero Center to Duboce Triangle who spent the entire time talking about the great deal he got on a package of briefs. “Yeah, but I try not to judge.”

It’s hard to tell if we’re still on the same subject, though, once he starts ranting about health insurance, nurses with vendettas, the stigma of permanent medical records and how single payer will be the end of doctor/patient confidentiality.

“I could have a bullet hole in my chest the size of Arkansas but they wouldn’t give me anything stronger than Advil because my chart says I’ve been to rehab.”

What that has to do with the matter at hand is beyond any hypothesis I care to fathom. I just let him do all the talking.

As we approach the Tenderloin, he redirects me to Hyde and Ellis, asking if I’m willing to pick up his friend.

“Sure.” I get in the far left lane and go slow, per his commands.

He maintains an eagle eye on the characters milling about on the sidewalk.

“That’s him there,” he says. “Pull over.”

I swing into an open parking spot near a guy wearing what looks like pajamas, with only a scarf and beanie to ward off the chill. In the neon glow of a liquor store, he seems to blend into the facade. After looking our way nonchalantly for a solid minute, he slowly breaks away from the scuzzy tableau and meanders towards the cab.

“Hey, where’d you get the pooches?”

In unison, the little dogs yap at the intruder for a few seconds before curling back up in their owner’s lap.

“Make the block, will you?” The original guy directs me nervously, then gets down to business. “Thanks for coming out,” he tells his friend. “I know you generally keep pharmacy hours.”

“Always happy to help in an emergency.”

After I take a left on Eddy, things go quiet in the backseat. I glance in the rear view.

“Can you cover the camera?” the new guy asks.

“Sorry, there’s no visor on that side,” I say. “It’s a Yellow thing. But don’t worry. The video is just for accidents. Or… when passengers attack.”

In a muddled back and forth, they work out a transaction. Sensing a conclusion, I pull over half a block from where we picked the guy up.

Before getting out, he pats my shoulder and apologizes for any perceived rudeness on his part.

“I tend to be overly cautious,” he says. “But if there’s anyone you can trust, it’s a cab driver. That why I never fuck with Uber.”

“He seems nice,” I say aloud.

A grunt is followed by silence all the way back to the Haight, while a Chameleons CD in the stereo drowns out the rattle of the taximeter, protesting every bump in the road.

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

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