Last January, I’m inbound on Market, after striking out in the Castro, where the BOG cabstand stretches all the way back to 19th Street.
It’s one of those bitterly slow winter nights, when cab fares are few and far between. Approaching South Van Ness, I contemplate taking the Central back to the yard and turning in with just $50 more than my gate. Then I spot two guys on the corner of Gough, hands in the air.
At first, they tell me Larkin and Post. OK. Not a long ride. Maybe $10, with a tip. But as I’m heading up Franklin, the guy behind me changes their destination.
“Sorry, driver. Make that Ellis and Van Ness. I got mixed up.”
Now a $6 ride. At best.
I turn right onto Eddy and ask if they want me to take a left on Van Ness
“Just drop us at the corner. We’ll walk.”
I stop the meter at $5.70. The guy holds out a folded up, wrinkled $100 bill.
The old kind. My spidey sense kicks in. It just doesn’t look right.
“I don’t have change for a hundo,” I stammer. “You got anything smaller?”
“No, just this.”
Even though I have a counterfeit testing pen in my bag, it just isn’t worth starting trouble.
“Ride’s on me, then,” I say. “Have a good night.”
“But I have to pay,” the guy with the bill insists. His friend is already out of the cab.
“I can’t break it,” I reiterate. “So unless you have a card…”
“This is all I have,” he says.
“Don’t worry about it then,” I say.
He still hesitates. “Don’t you want to get paid?”
“It’s cool,” I tell him. “I’m not tripping on a five-dollar ride.”
Finally, he opens the door.
Driving away, I look in the rear view. The guys are still standing on the corner, looking around. I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to try and hail another cab. On a night like this, there are plenty of drivers hard up enough to make a big deal about a $5 ride. One could even lose $90 and end up with a fake bill.
Thinking back on that night now, as the country smolders from the protests over the death of George Floyd, murdered by Minneapolis police for passing a fake $20 at a liquor store for a pack of cigarettes, I look at the wall above my desk, where the first counterfeit bill I received early on in my career as a cab driver is pinned. A fake twenty on a $5 ride from Sixth and Mission to Golden Gate and Leavenworth.
I didn’t notice anything wrong with the bill at first, until cashing out later that night at National. Jesse, who was working the register, tossed it back to me and snarled, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this junk?”
From then on, I paid more attention to the money people gave me.
Still, a few years later, I inadvertently ended up with a fake $10 bill. When I tried to use it to pay for gas, the cashier at Chevron accused me of passing counterfeit money.
I apologized profusely, explaining that, as a cab driver, I deal with lots of cash.
“Then you should know better,” he countered.
Now, whenever I’m faced with the possibility of a fake bill, especially a $100 bill, it always seems better to just cut my losses on the fare rather than also risk losing hard-earned cash.
Not once, though, would I ever think to call the cops.
Even though the SFPD isn’t likely to show up over such a triviality, it’s just too dangerous getting law enforcement involved.
While it’s really lowdown to rip off marginalized workers like cab drivers, or cashiers at liquor stores run by hardworking immigrants, if the police do show up, you never know what will happen.
Those guys with the $100 bill that night, though, they could have easily gotten picked up by a driver more inclined to seek justice over a petty infraction than me. And who knows what could go wrong over a lousy $5 fare?
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 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.