On this, the occasion of my 100th column, I can’t help but feel somewhat reflective. Almost two years have passed since the San Francisco Examiner gave me an opportunity to tell my stories of The City’s streets in 700 words, give or take. While writing about driving a taxi comes easy, actually driving a taxi can be a real drag sometimes. Particularly on those slow, mind-numbing nights, during excruciatingly slow weeks, in painfully slow months.
Taxi driving is more than a job. It’s a form of punishment for all the bad decisions you’ve ever made. Instead of pursuing the 9 to 5, you became an artist, played in bands, wrote books, traveled or just enjoyed life — all the unrealistic distractions your parents, teachers and guidance counselors said would only lead to poverty that somehow became sustainable through driving a taxi. Until one day, it was no longer viable, once some eggheads created a centralized dispatch app, and the cab companies were too busy squabbling over brand recognition to retain any relevance. But in the stupidity of it all, there was still a sense of freedom.
Taxi driving is still the closest you can get to the swashbuckling adventures of a pirate. With no bosses around and no supervisors breathing down your neck, it’s just you, your cab, the streets and the general public. How you navigate those obstacles is up to you. Even if you don’t have what it takes. Thankfully, the meek get lucky, too.
Taxi driving is the ultimate existential dilemma. Especially on those nights when you’re cabstanding outside a DJ club, watching dozens of kids shimmy past you, as if you don’t even exist, and climb into unmarked sedans and minivans, as if their parents were picking them up from soccer practice. Except now they’re wearing fishnet stockings and high-heels, and the girls are wasted on a high-octane cocktail of barbiturates and psychedelics. If millennials are the future, we are fucked. Eventually, you start to ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Why not just give up and move on to another dead-end, soul-crushing occupation?
Taxi driving has the potential to be more than a regular dead-end job, where you know exactly what your earnings will be each week. In a taxi, you can always hit pay dirt. Like when you’re at the end of a long line of cabs outside a DJ club, facing the prospect of going home with a measly $50. Then, after waiting 30 minutes to reach the throne, a guy comes up to your window and asks if you’ll take him to Hayward. And he’s so friendly and talkative you hesitate bringing up the meter-and-a-half rule for rides 15 miles outside city limits, but he doesn’t even flinch. “Make it 70 percent,” he says, telling you how he lived in San Francisco for 15 years until he was priced out. “I don’t take cabs much anymore, but I want to support you guys because I know you’re part of the fabric of The City.” In the small hours, there are two types of passengers: taxi people and phonies.
Taxi driving provides an insight into the human psyche. As Juneaux put it: “You have an incredibly unique and valuable opportunity to appraise every facet of life — not only in San Francisco but through the eyes of tourists, businessmen and conventioneers who bring their points of view from all corners of the world. By virtue of sheer exposure, we are barometric witnesses of all things political, sociological, cultural and otherwise. A small tile of emotion from each passenger adds to the ever-growing mosaic of our psychic take on reality.” And as ambassadors of The City, we can also direct you toward any vice you may desire. Of which we get a cut. Because we are, after all, only human.
Taxi driving is a lesson in futility. I often feel demoralized by how cutthroat everything has become. Civility is the exception when there’s not enough to go around. It’s impossible not be disgusted at what The City has become. By courting tech companies and selling out their own citizens, the powers that be have created an income inequality so vast, you can literally measure it in the skyline like a graph: from the construction of a luxury high-rise like 181 Fremont, which features gold-plated door handles, to the squalid homeless encampments popping up in every crevasse and darkened alley.
These are only some of the stories from the mean streets of a boomtown in full boom, just the perspective of a disgruntled taxi driver columnist, with a limit of 700 words. Approximately.
It’s been a brutal winter, but baseball is coming back, and soon, the tourists will return as well. There’s still a chance taxi driving will be worthwhile for another year, as long as we don’t have to rely on the new San Franciscans and their infinite pursuit of gold-plated door handles.
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.