As I drift slowly, fitfully into longed-for slumber, my eyeballs twitch back and forth behind closed lids, still hunting fares and scanning the road for obstacles.
After working two consecutive 14-hour shifts, with just four or five hours of sleep between each, followed by an epic 16 hours behind the wheel, then a short nap before a final seven-hour last gasp, it’s no wonder my eyes and brain are working overtime.
On the streets of San Francisco, it’s every driver, pedestrian, bicyclist, Muni and cable car operator for themselves.
SEE RELATED: The thin checkered line
Almost anywhere you turn, the flow of traffic is working against you. Most drivers seem to gleefully impede your trajectory. You have to remain hyper vigilant for jaywalkers, confused tourists and other intrepid rubes who think driving in the sticks is no different than navigating the mean streets of The City.
Hardly anyone cuts you any slack. Especially if you drive a cab.
The disdain for taxis can be palpable at times.
Nobody seems to understand — or wants to understand — how taxis work. That even a short delay can cost you money. Like when you’re trying to get to the Orpheum before all the rides are gone, but you’re stuck waiting for a flock of people staring into their phones to saunter across the street.
“Hey, I’m walking here!”
“Yeah? Well, I’m working here!”
It’s easy to feel bitter and angry at the world.
But if you step out of line and get caught, you’re hit with a citation for hundreds of dollars.
Passengers often ask me, “How can you handle driving in this city?”
“You need to have a few screws missing,” I joke. Plus, nerves of steel. And a zen-like approach to traffic. Or a bad attitude. Actually, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever gets you through the shift.
Because when all the bars are closed on a Thursday morning, and you’re carving that last figure-eight through the deserted city, you have to find something to make this exercise in futility meaningful.
Or when you’re taking the cab home to catch an hour of shuteye on the couch so as to not wake up the baby before heading back to work …
When it’s toplight city all over town …
When every hotel cabstand in Union Square, and the Financial is stacked …
When you’re only checking out the ones in Nob Hill to take a leak at the Fairmont, but you don’t want to waste your time with the Wharf, even though you probably should …
When the line in front of The Cat Club stretches around the corner onto Eighth Street, creating what Chucky calls the honk lane …
When there are two cabs sandbagging DNA Lounge …
When a steady stream of cabs rolls down Mission in both directions, most lingering in front of El Farolito …
When every Safeway is closed, and the parking lots resemble used car dealerships, except instead of prices, the rows of vehicles have Uber/Lyft placards in their windows that are blacked out with towels and covered in a layer of frost …
When the only potential customers are taqueria cooks, strippers, bartenders and other service industry workers who should know better but still use the scabs, you have to find something to mitigate the demoralizing loneliness from another night of being ignored and dismissed as some antiquated form of transportation.
Taxi driving is not a job you are rewarded for doing well. Like any other independent enterprise, the spoils go to the cheaters and snakes.
The other day, I was first up at St. Francis when a CityWide driver tried to steal my fare. But they weren’t going far enough, so he sped off. Had it been an airport, though, what recourse would I have had? Chase him down and start a fight on the cable car tracks?
There’s no honor among taxi drivers.
While many try to adhere to some kind of ethics, when it comes right down to it, we’re all in direct competition with each other. And since only a small percentage of people in The City still take cabs these days, we’re left fighting over the scraps.
So what’s a hapless taxi driver supposed to do when there’s so much at stake and giving up isn’t an option?
Who knows? Maybe the answer will come to me in a dream once sleep finally takes hold. Until then, I’m just grateful the job is over with for now, even if my body has yet to get the memo.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at email@example.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.