After guiding me through the process of becoming a cab driver over five years ago, Jacob Black offered one last bit of advice before I started my first shift. We were standing outside the Veterans yard and he asked if I had at least $20 in small denominations to make change. I showed him my wad of singles and fives.
“It’s best to wear a shirt with pockets,” he told me. “So you can keep track of your money.”
Fortunately, I have an assortment of western-style button-ups. So when it’s time to hand a passenger change at the end of a ride, I’m not fishing around for my cash.
Little did I know back then, though, that my hand wouldn’t be the only one reaching into my pockets. Because when you deal with lots of cash, someone always wants a piece of the action.
From cab companies to the SFMTA. From dispatchers and gasmen, to hotel doormen and bouncers at strip clubs.
One night, I drop off four guys at New Century. As I’m collecting my $80 bounty, the bouncer asks if I tip.
“You want a tip you for tipping me?” I respond incredulously.
He looks at me like it’s a stupid question.
“Well, what’s the going rate?” I inquire.
“Ten bucks,” he says with a shrug.
Just last week, I’m on the throne at the Hilton Union Square when the doorman blows his whistle. SFO. As I jump out to help load the luggage, he tells me how happy he is that I’m getting a ride to the airport. Then holds out his left hand for a fiver while squeezing the two dollars he just got from the passenger in his right hand.
A while back, two cab drivers explained how the system works at hotels like the Hilton. Doorman usually steer hotel guests into one of the waiting Towncars or luxury SUVs, unless they know the taxi drivers will fork over the same amount. As a test, I take out a five-dollar bill and make sure the doormen can see I have it ready. Sure enough, a few minutes later they summon me forward to pick up a fare with suitcases.
So now, whenever I get an airport ride out of certain hotels, I begrudgingly hand over five bucks.
Of course, after shelling out to the doorman, I pull up to one of the terminals at SFO and run a credit card using Square, which takes 2.75 percent of the transaction.
From there, I circle back to the holding lots and pay SFO $4.50 to pick up on the other end. And after taking them to their destination, use Square again and lose another 2.75 percent of the fare.
It’s a never-ending process of extortion.
The tipping game is all fine and dandy until a passenger stiffs you. Like when you pay a doorman for an airport and get Europeans, who are notorious for not tipping.
I used to think drivers who complained about not getting tipped were petty. But when so much of your income is going towards all these various expenses, it’s frustrating to lose even more. Especially at the end of your shift, when you add up what you’ve made. For a second you feel like you’ve had a good day, until you subtract $135 for your daily lease, $15-$20 for gas, plus airport fees and bridge tolls, as well as all the tips to doormen, cashiers and the gasman… All of a sudden, that figure doesn’t amount to much.
Of course, you can always choose not to pay.
The other day, I’m working the Hotel Nikko when the doorman approaches my cab with a prospective fare and a suitcase.
“SFO,” he says, smiling.
As I hold the trunk open, the passenger gives him a bunch of singles. Since it’s so cold, I’m wearing a hoodie instead of the usual button-up. So I don’t have access to my cash to give him my share. I just thank him instead.
Driving away I can feel his glare. No doubt thinking to himself, that guy is never getting another airport from me!
Oh well. Fortunately, there are plenty of other hotels in The City.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. 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.