On Saturday morning, I turn in my cab around 7 a.m. Before making the long trek to the 24th Street BART station, I hang around the National office, chatting with Jesse about the corner market he recently bought on Silver and Cambridge. While it wasn’t in the greatest shape when he took over, with the help of his sons, they’ve cleaned the place up, started carrying fresh produce, stocking craft beer and reopened the deli. Business is booming.

“So … how much longer are you gonna stick around this dump?”

I’m not the only one who repeatedly asks this question. It’s obvious he’s not happy here anymore. Due to all the changes within the taxi industry, the dispatchers and cashiers have been hit the hardest. During most shifts these days, Jesse sees maybe six or seven drivers. Before, he was dealing with a steady flow of drivers turning in and picking up cabs. Since more drivers means more tips, he’s down to making just slightly more than minimum wage.

Back in the day, it was awe-inspiring to watch him work: He’d cash out one driver, manage their schedule and listen to them gripe about the job and their personal life, then move on to the next driver and go through the exact same process.

Outside, there’d be a line at the window with the guys who just wanted to go home or get to work, while inside the office, a rowdy group of guys would be talking and joking loudly. Amidst the chaos, Jesse calmly moved through the order, processing drivers, laughing at the good jokes, telling his own and reminding laggards they had to prepay because their back book had gotten too high.

“Hey, I don’t make the rules around here,” he’d snap when challenged.

True. Jesse didn’t make the rules. But we all knew he was the bossman.

Besides wrangling taxis and drivers, he took phone orders as well, addressing the regulars by name and assuring others, “Don’t worry, darlin’, we’ll get you a cab.”

If you were lucky, he might slip you a piece of paper with an address on it and whisper, “You got 10 minutes. Hurry.” And even though it was the end of your shift, you’d jump back in your cab and hightail it out of the yard to make an extra $40 from a quick jaunt to the airport …

Nowadays, though, when I get to the office, Jesse is usually sitting in front of the dispatch monitor, half asleep, his eyes heavy and dark from working days in the market and, with just a few hours of sleep, pulling all-nighters at National.

Despite his fatigue, once you get him talking about the market, his face lights up with pride as he lists off new products they’re carrying and describes various details associated with running a store. The good and the bad. From dealing with distributors to getting screwed by credit card companies to crazy customers to the asshole health inspector who gave him three days to replace a water heater that was only five degrees off.

“So that’s another $1,500 down the drain … literally.”

While he shakes his head in resignation, you can tell he’s not really complaining. After contending with the madness and heartbreak of the taxi business for more than 20 years, running a neighborhood market in the Excelsior is a breeze.

“So … How much longer are you gonna stick around this dump?”

“I don’t know.”

As he slowly gets out of the chair to cash me out, I stand next to him at the register.

“What are we doing here?” he asks, as if this is his first day on the job.

I use the calculator to figure out my gate, minus whatever Flywheel and paratransit orders.

“And what’s your driver number?” he asks.

As he punches everything into the register, I can’t help but think about the old days when he had my number memorized …

Now, his mind is elsewhere. No doubt contemplating the orders he needs to make with distributors, making sure he has enough Sticky Zipper in stock or how many cartons of blue American Spirits to buy that week at Costco …

One Saturday morning, in the not so distant future, I’m going to show up at the National office, and Jesse won’t be sitting half-conscious behind the dispatch monitor. And it’ll be a sad day. But I certainly won’t blame him for not sticking around this dump anymore …

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.

Kelly Dessaint
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