The future of the taxi industry couldn’t be more bleak. (Courtesy photo)

I Drive SF: Once a taxi driver, always a taxi driver

It’s hard to believe I haven’t driven a cab in three months

It’s hard to believe I haven’t driven a cab in three months. Had I known so much time would pass between shifts, I might have ended the last one more ceremoniously. Instead, I just tossed the medallion and keys through the drawer of the plexiglass window at Yellow with my hard-earned gates and took my receipt from the cashier.

Three long months later, there’s no telling when – or if – I’ll ever drive a cab again.

The future of the taxi industry couldn’t be more bleak. Most drivers these days are still doing delivery to supplement the lack of rides. Thankfully, the SFMTA has implemented programs to cover taxi fares for essential workers stranded by the lack of Muni services, but with conventions canceled for the rest of the year, no baseball, concerts or theater, empty hotels and hardly any flights coming into SFO, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point.

As sad as it is to think my taxi career may be over, though, I’ll always be a San Francisco cab driver.

Even though the industry was already in shambles by the time I started, it didn’t take long to notice something in me was changing. After just a few months of driving a cab, I began to realize there was more to the job than just picking up passengers and running a taximeter. Besides the surge of confidence from learning how to handle myself on the streets, I was experiencing San Francisco in a way that’s usually restricted to natives or longtime residents who’ve spent most of their lives here.

In a single shift I could traverse the entire city, from one neighborhood to the next, my trajectory limited only by the destinations of my passengers. It was exhilarating. I was hooked right from the start.

Driving a taxi also came with a stigma. The general population of The City doesn’t always have the best opinion of cab drivers.

One of my earliest columns was called “Guilty of driving a cab.” It was about how reviled taxi drivers are in The City. Which came as a shock to me at the time since I’d always been enamored by the profession, having grown up watching the TV show “Taxi” and movies like “Night on Earth” and “Taxi Driver,” or even – hell, especially – “D.C. Cab.”

This sensation of being hated was difficult to shake throughout my career as a taxi driver. I never understood how anyone could hold such strong grudges against cabs.

This outsider status, though, along with all the other shared aspects of the job, seemed to bind everyone who’s ever driven a taxi. Whether they lasted six months or 30 years.

When someone tells you they used to drive a taxi, they rarely have to elaborate. You know exactly what they’ve been through. From waking up before dawn to get to the cab yard hoping there will be a decent cab available, to working long shifts into the small hours before turning in and crawling home before the sun comes up.

Driving is all about memory. Memorizing streets, directions, addresses, businesses and everything else that makes a city move. But your skills are rarely appreciated. I can’t think of any other job that makes you feel like the king or queen of all you see, while also feeling like the lowest of the low.

Still, being on the frontline of the service industry, cab drivers have their fingers on the pulse of The City. You deal with every echelon of society. By talking, listening and watching, you’re privy to all sorts of information before it’s widespread.

Like the coronavirus.

Before the rest of the country began to take the growing pandemic seriously, cab drivers were already feeling the impact.

After a long, dreary winter, we were all looking forward to the RSA conference in February. But due to concerns over spreading the virus – we weren’t even referring to it as COVID-19 yet – several companies pulled out of the convention. And then we lost all the business from China once the travel ban went into place.

That whole situation led into the current one.

Now, despite an uncertain future, the only thing I know for sure is that I’ll always be a taxi driver. Nothing can change that.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. A veteran zine publisher, he is the author of the novel A Masque of Infamy. His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series was recently collected into a paperback Omnibus, available through all book marketplaces or direct from his blog, 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.

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