It’s last call, and I’m in the Castro. Since there’s space in the Bank of America taxi stand,
I pull in behind a Luxor. The line moves slowly at first, but soon all the cabs in front of me are loaded, and I’m on deck.
A guy opens my back door.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
He just grunts. Obviously not in a great mood. Whatever.
In a thick accent, he gives me an address. I don’t recognize the street and ask him to repeat it. Then spell it.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asks, curtly. “Do I need to get another taxi?”
“Can you just tell me a neighborhood so I can get a general idea of where we’re going?”
“Portola,” he says.
The way he pronounces “Portola” sounds like the street, but when I turn left on 18th, he tells me I’m going in the wrong direction.
“You said ‘Portola’,” I point out.
“Oh God,” he exclaims. “Portola District.”
“OK.” That’s not how I’m used to hearing the neighborhood pronounced, but who am I to argue with a native Spanish speaker? I take a right on Collingwood and head to Market.
“I can’t believe you don’t know where you’re going!” His tone is nasty. “I thought you have to know the streets to drive a taxi.”
“I can’t identify every one block street in The City,” I reply calmly, trying to diffuse the situation.
“Well, then put it in your fucking phone!” he snaps.
Even though he’s being unpleasant, I type his address into Google Maps. Just as I suspected, it’s a tiny street between Third and Bayshore off 101.
In between his annoyed sighs, I confirm the route and head toward Duboce Avenue.
The guy continues to mumble insults. “I can’t believe you drive a taxi. You don’t even know what you’re doing.”
“That’s it!” Conjuring Late Night Larry, I pull over to the curb and shout, “You’re out!”
“What are you doing?”
“Ride’s over.” I turn off the meter. “Find another cab.”
“No! You’re driving me home!”
“Then stop being mean!”
“OK. I’m sorry. Please, just take me home.”
I hesitate before pulling away from the curb.
“I’m so sorry for treating you that way.” There’s a quiver in his voice as he apologizes profusely. By the time we’re stopped for the light at Mission, he’s crying.
“Are you OK?” I ask.
“My fucking doctor left me a message today,” he says.
“He said my cancer is back.”
“Oh man, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want to die!” he wails. “Why me? Why is God doing this to me! I do so much to help people! And now I’m going to die!”
“You’re not going to die,” I tell him.
“Yes I am!”
“No, you’re not!”
“How do you know?”
“You beat cancer before, right? You’ll beat it again.”
“I’m just so tired!”
While telling me the details of his fight with skin cancer, he directs me off the freeway and through the neighborhood. It turns out, the doctor didn’t say the disease had returned, just that the results from his latest tests were concerning.
“That could mean anything,” I point out.
“No, I’m going to die!”
I pull up to his place and realize the meter is off. I never restarted it. Not that I feel comfortable demanding money from a guy having an emotional breakdown in the backseat of my taxi.
I continue to reassure him that he’s going to survive, hoping that once he feels better, he’ll get out. But my attempt to assuage his hysteria only seems to encourage him. After telling me his family history, he goes off about this guy he just met and how much he likes him, but …
“I’m going to die!”
Finally, I try some tough love.
“Listen, you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself!” I raise my voice. “You’re a strong and capable man. You can deal with this! What choice do you have? You have to fight!”
Eventually, my aggressive taxi-side manner proves effective. His sniffles subside.
“Thank you so much.” He smiles. “How much do I owe you?”
I glance at the meter and shrug. “It doesn’t matter.”
He puts a $20 bill on the center console and slowly opens the back door …
On my way back downtown, I look at the clock. It’s 2:30 a.m. That ride — and impromptu therapy session — took an hour and 15 minutes.
Well, at least I have a better excuse when Jesse, the nighttime dispatcher at National, asks why I didn’t make any money driving a taxi this weekend.
It’s always something …
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.