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When I was a newbie, Part I

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After dropping off a family of chatty tourists at the Hyatt Regency, I’m cruising down Market Street, where the vast sidewalks are eerily vacant. In the distance, someone is playing Marco Polo. Or that’s what it sounds like. Two names repeated one after another, reverberating against the glass exteriors of 101 Cal, 333 Market, One Bush and 455 Market. My bored mind instantly conjures up a movie scene: A well-dressed, homicidal ghost from the Barbary Coast days is on the prowl in the Financial, hunting innocent victims in the shadows of past haunts …

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I turn up the Elvis Costello to lighten the mood.

Might as well go where there’s neon, so I take Sutter toward Union Square.

While waiting for the signal at Mason, I see a light flicker up ahead in the middle of the block. Assuming it’s a hotel doorman summoning me, I flash my high beams in acknowledgment.

When I pull up, there’s no hotel. And no doorman. Just two young women, who quickly climb into my cab.

“Sorry, it’s a short ride,” the first one says. “We’re only going to Pine and Hyde.”

I hit the meter. “No problem.”

“What did you think of our flashlight?” the other woman asks.

“It’s effective,” I respond. “I thought it was a doorman or something.”

“I bet you’re bummed right now we’re not an airport.”

Both women cackle.

At least belligerent drunks are good for changing the mood, like dialing in a new station on the radio.

“Not really,” I say, casually. “I haven’t been to the airport in so long I’m not even sure where it is anymore.”

We all laugh.

“How long you been driving a cab?”

I’ve lost track of which woman is talking. Pine Street is dark through this part of Nob Hill, and their sloshed voices have merged into one.

“About three years,” I respond to the collective inquiry. 

“Oh, how cute!”

“You’re just a newb!”

They laugh.

“My father drove for Yellow. After 30 years, he saw the writing on the wall and got out, right as Uber and Lyft showed up.”

“Lucky him.”

“Just so you know … I’ve never ridden in one, nor will I ever. I don’t care how cheap they are.”

“That’s cool,” I mumble.

“They are hella cheap, right? That’s why you don’t get long rides anymore.”

“Pretty much. Sometimes the sun shines on a taxi driver’s ass though.” I laugh. “Just last night, two young girls got into my cab at the Great Northern — a DJ club — going to San Carlos. I wanted to ask, ‘Have you ever taken a cab to San Carlos?’ But they didn’t flinch when it came time to pay. $85.”

“Shouldn’t it have been more with meter and a half?”

“I usually do straight meter at night.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, newb? That’s how you make money!”

“Ah, they were just kids,” I defend my actions. “Probably didn’t even know what meter and half is.”

“Bullshit. They know how much it costs to get home.”

“Still … a long ride is a blessing at that hour. It made my night.”

Their argument is similar to Colin’s, who regularly chides me for not charging meter and a half. “We all make deals,” he points out. “But at least tell them, so they know what the ride should’ve cost.”

“You shouldn’t be so nice, newb,” one of the women says.

“You’re never going to make it as a cab driver with that attitude,” says the other.

Their joint laughter is cut short when I turn left onto Hyde.

“This is us over here on the right.”

I hit the hazards and the overhead light.

“I only have a credit card,” the second woman tells me.

“That’s perfectly fine,” I say, inserting the Square reader into my phone.

“Come on newb!” snaps the first woman. “You’re supposed to say your card reader is broken.”

“Of course we have cash.” The other woman hands me a $20 bill. “Do you have change?”

I pull out my lower denominations hesitantly, not sure if she’s tricking me again. Should I claim to only have a few bucks and force her to give me a bigger tip?

“Just give me $10 back,” she responds, as if reading my mind. “Alright, newb. You have a good night.”

“Good luck out there.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah …”

I pocket the bill, wave goodbye, clear out the meter so my top light goes on, slowly dragging out time until the women are securely behind their gate. Then, I make a beeline for Geary Street.

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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