After pulling up to terminal three and stowing the young girl’s suitcase in the trunk of my cab, I get behind the wheel and look over my shoulder to find out her destination, but, to my surprise, she opens the front passenger door instead.
“Hop in back,” I tell her. “You’ll be more comfortable.”
“I’ll just hold onto it,” she says, assuming I was referring to her backpack.
“OK then.” I quickly adjust the seat, since it’s pushed all the way forward.
“So, uh, where to?” I ask, hitting the meter.
She gives me an address on Turk Street. I ask her to repeat it since there are no hotels or apartment buildings on that block.
“In the Tenderloin?”
“I guess,” she says. “I’ve never been there before.”
On the freeway, I make subtle inquiries. She’s from Wilmington, North Carolina, taking a gap year in The City.
“That means you’re what, 18 or 19?”
“I’m actually 20 years old,” she replies, somewhat defensively.
She looks much younger.
Her explanation of the building where she’s going to be living for the next year is a bit convoluted, but it sounds like a hybrid hotel/apartment building with dorm rooms. So, basically a hostel.
“And your parents are cool with you living alone in San Francisco?”
“It was my mom’s idea,” she tells me. Adding, “I went to Bali by myself last year.”
“Bali, huh? Have you spent much time in The City?”
“I came here once, three years ago.”
She changes the subject, asking me which TV shows I like.
“I have a 3-year-old daughter, so I mainly watch things like ‘My Little Pony’ and ‘Peppa Pig.’”
We talk about cartoons until exiting the freeway.
I take Seventh Street to Mission. Waiting to make the left at Sixth, I give her a rundown on the neighborhood, resisting the urge to sound overly pedantic.
“The homeless situation is really bad here. There’s a lot of street activity: drugs, prostitution and loitering.”
“Wilmington actually has a major opioid epidemic,” she says.
It’s not like she has a chip on her shoulder, but she definitely wants to seem more experienced than she is.
“Sure, but it’s really out in the open here.”
I don’t have to make much of a case, though, as we approach Market and the depth of her new surroundings becomes even more apparent.
On Eddy, traffic is backed up. Idling in gridlock, my paternal instincts kick in. I can’t resist the urge to give her advice.
“Listen, this is where you live now. It’s a rough neighborhood. You need to keep your wits about you at all times. And yeah, I get it, you want to experience everything in the world and you never know what you can gain from random encounters with people, but the Tenderloin is different. It’s dog-eat-dog out here. This is real poverty. This is real desperation. When you’re walking to and from your place, move with purpose. Don’t linger. Always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t look like a tourist. Don’t talk to people just because they try to get your attention. They’re mostly looking for money. You don’t have to worry about violence or anything like that, just aggressive panhandling. But if you’re ever walking down the sidewalk and get a weird feeling, just cross the street. Keep moving. Have the key to your building handy so you’re not struggling to get inside. Don’t take out your phone. And never flash money.”
Once finally making it past the signal, we pull up to the front of a nondescript building with no real signage indicating what it is.
Running her debit card, I tell her, “I hope I didn’t scare you too much.”
“A little,” she says.
“You’ll be alright.” I try to sound reassuring, realizing that I might have come off too harsh. “You just need to be street smart, OK?”
“I appreciate it. I tend to be overly trusting.”
I offer one last bit of advice. “And never sit in the front seat of a taxi. Or any car, for that matter, if you don’t know the driver. Now go check the door of this place and I’ll bring your suitcase around.”
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Thursday Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.