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Playing the radio

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Ben Valis works the dispatch radio at National/Veterans. (Courtesy Christian Lewis)


I play the radio loud. Which is the only way to decipher cross streets when Artur calls out dispatch orders in his overworked and underpaid drawl.

The Russian accent doesn’t help. Especially when the two-way starts cracking up.

Believe it or not, National/Veterans still has regular customers. And Artur will browbeat drivers on the air to get them filled, calling out orders repeatedly and even singling out cabs he can tell are nearby, like a school teacher trying to get the class to answer a question nobody knows …

Last Friday, after dropping in The Castro, I’m inbound on Market while Artur is trying to fill an order for Geary and Webster. A regular customer at the Safeway needs a ride, but there are no takers.

For the next several minutes, Artur’s voice gets increasingly choleric: “Drivers! Geary and Webster! Somebody go pick her up! This is a regular customer! Come on!”

Even though I’m not close, I check in. “This is 233. Market and Sanchez.”

“233. God bless you. Go get her, please. I’ll give you a bonus load.”

With the promise of $10 off my gate, I get in the left turn lane. I figure Steiner through the Western Addition is my best bet. But there’s an Uber with Nevada plates in front of me, and when the light goes from green to yellow and then red, the driver doesn’t move.

“Goddamn it!” Just my luck.

After waiting an eternity for the lights to cycle back, the Uber driver moves forward slightly into the intersection. But as the light changes to yellow, he makes no attempt to turn.

I lay on the horn and yell out my window, “You have to get out of the intersection! Turn! Turn!”

But he doesn’t turn.

Now, I’m not about to get stuck in the middle of Market Street like some rube. So I jerk the steering wheel to get around him, cutting off a car trying to beat the light. As they blow their horn at me, I whip around the front of the Uber driver, who seems content to just sit there blocking traffic, and aim toward Sanchez. But not before a Lyft makes an illegal right in front of me.

Another out-of-towner, this one from Fairfield, he’s going 5 mph. I’m right on his bumper, letting him know he needs to step on the gas, but as is often the case when you tailgate someone, he goes even slower.

I abandon the Steiner plan and turn left at 14th to take Divisadero up to Geary.

Around Ellis, Artur is back on the two-way. “233. How long for that Geary and Webster?”

“Just a few more minutes,” I say, stretching, of course, as I hit Geary and take a hard right.

A few minutes later, after circumventing a 38 bus, I grab the mic. “233. Pulling up to the Safeway now.”

Near the entrance, I spot an elderly woman with a walker and three bags of groceries. She waves at me.

I flip a U, pop the trunk and hop out of the cab.

Even though she had to wait almost 20 minutes for the ride, the woman is happy to see me.

“It’s so cold,” she says, visibly shivering, with the hood of her jacket cinched tightly around her face.

I apologize for the wait and open the passenger door, quickly stowing her groceries. Once she’s secure in the backseat, I fold up her walker and place it next to the bags.

“Golden Gate, between Steiner and Fillmore.”

When we get to her building, there’s no loading zone. She tries to tell me something, perhaps directing me to a place to pull over, but her English isn’t very good, and my Russian is even worse. So I just hit my hazards, unleashing a maelstrom of horns. Fuck it. My turn to block traffic.

The woman hands me a bunch of loose change.

“For tip.”

“No, that’s not necessary,” I say. “You had to wait so long.”

I try to give the money back, but she insists. Then, she hands me a Paratransit card.

“Can you bring bags to elevator?” she asks.

“Sure.” I drop the coins into the cup holder.

After running the card, I retrieve her walker and groceries from the trunk. The clamor of horns continues and drivers give me dirty looks.

I want so badly to hold the walker in the air and shout, “Old people still have rights in this city!” But instead, I focus on the task at hand: helping this woman get home with her groceries.

If that makes me the bad guy … Well, so be it.

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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