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A taxi driver and his cab

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The condition of a taxi driver’s cab can mean everything to the driver. (Kelly Dessaint/Special to S.F. Examiner)

http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/i-drive-sf/

From my earliest days at National, I fought tooth and nail to get a regular cab that was clean and ran well. I cajoled and begged the cashiers, happily paying extra for National 182, a Ford Fusion that met the above criteria and didn’t have a regular driver. For almost two years, 182 was my trusted ride, until the medallion owner took it out of circulation on a long-term lease.

After that, I ended up with 1462, the only National cab with an ad topper, one of numerous cabs recently acquired from Yellow. I hated driving around with a glowing advertisement above me. Plus, the speakers were broken. So when Vic, the medallion owner/day driver, switched to a 24-hour lease, I was almost relieved to be back at the mercy of the window and the varying conditions and quality of the gate and gas fleet.

Veterans 215 was the best of the worst. Even though I’m not keen on Camrys, this was Juneaux’s former cab, and due to his persnickety nature, the inside had remained mostly clean. But as long as it stayed in general circulation, it’s condition rapidly deteriorated.

Months later, Alex finally told me I would be on Veterans 233, a Fusion with low mileage, leather seats and a sunroof. For weeks, I watched the vehicle transform from a regular car into a taxi. First the paint job, then the taximeter and tablet attached to the dashboard and a top light fastened to the roof. Eventually, SFO permit stickers were affixed to the side and, after several more inspections, the day arrived when I was handed the keys and medallion.

Now that I had a regular cab, my next battle was to make sure other drivers didn’t trash it. Because no matter how cherry a taxi is, most cab drivers seem intent on running a good taxi into the ground.

For a while, this didn’t seem to be the case with 233. I spent a good amount of time detailing it before and after my shifts, thinking that if I left the cab clean for the next driver, they’d reciprocate.

As a result of my fastidiousness, passengers complimented my cab. But when taxi drivers praised 233, I’d say something derogatory to make it seem less desirable. I didn’t want anyone getting any ideas …

One day, I was turning onto Albion from 16th when a National driver yelled out his window, “Hey, that’s my favorite cab. You better take care of it!”

According to Alex, I had first dibs on 233. But when I wanted to work the airport on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the driver who had been paying a fat tip to get access to the cab got upset.

When I showed up that morning, 233’s front tire was flat. A screw had been driven into the tread.

An odd coincidence, no doubt, but I didn’t get overly suspicious until last Wednesday …

Even though I was scheduled to drive 233, the new window cashier scratched out my name and gave it to this other driver. Ostensibly for a big tip. “Like back in the old days,” he said.

Artur made the driver return to the yard and exchange cabs.

When I got into 233 a short while later, everything was out of whack. The sunroof, which hadn’t worked in months, was jammed open. The heater was on 90 degrees. The settings were all messed up, the stereo was blasting a dead station and the dash lights were so dim it was impossible to find the menu buttons to re-adjust things back to normal.

I wasn’t able to push the sunroof back into place. On the freeway, the plate of glass sounded like it was about to fly off.

Later that night, after not getting a single flag, I was in line at the Academy of Sciences when I was back-loaded on twice. I got out to talk to the next cab driver behind me and he pointed out that my top light was off.

Well, that explains the lack of flags.

Back at the yard, I couldn’t fix the problem with new bulbs. So I strapped a flashlight under the top light dome and went back to work …

It’s inevitable that 233 will eventually become a rattletrap like the other gate and gas taxis in the National/Veterans fleet. And I’m no Lorax, but all I can do it to try and prevent that deterioration as much as I can.

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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