Well, San Francisco has lost another one its great citizens…
Like most cab drivers, Ruach Graffis wanted to be in control of her destiny. With an enormous personality, everything she did demanded attention. After leaving home in Baltimore and hitchhiking across the country as a teenager, she ended up in San Francisco during the turbulent sixties. Eventually, after immersing herself in the struggles for gender and racial equality, she discovered taxi driving, a profession that intrigued and challenged her. The fact that hardly any women did the job at that time was more than enough incentive for her to keep doing it. Previously, she crewed a salmon boat in Alaska. As someone who defied expectations, she would continue to break down stereotypes all her life.
So, when her health plummeted and the doctors gave her six months to live, she took matters into her own hands and decided how she would shuffle off this mortal coil. And that’s exactly what she did.
On the 21st hour of the 21st day of the month, during the 21st year in the 21st century, Ruach passed away, peacefully, at home, surrounded by close friends.
She was able to schedule the exact time of her death through a physician-assisted dying program, part of California’s End of Life Option Act. This program gave her the freedom to end her suffering with dignity. She considered it a blessing and during her last week, publicly shared her thoughts and experiences with the process on Facebook. Her final post on the social media platform detailed the overwhelming joy she felt from the outpouring of support and well wishes from friends and acquaintances, as well as all those who had been impacted by her work as a labor organizer and taxi driver advocate for almost 50 years.
I met Ruach in 2015, when I signed up for her training course for prospective taxi drivers. After deciding to switch from Uber and Lyft to a bonafide taxi, I called the Taxi Driver Institute, which Ruach started and ran for 20 years. She answered the phone. I told her my deal. Bragged about knowing my way around The City. She immediately quizzed me on the named streets in Noe Valley. I failed miserably. The next week, I was in her class, ready to learn. Even though the program only lasted four days, it made a lasting impression on me.
Had it not been for Ruach, I may have never become a taxi driver. It was her class in the historic Labor Building that inspired me to approach this new profession with a sense of pride and wonder. And to always keep the meter running.
Over the following six years, I didn’t always follow her teachings, but, like the geography of San Francisco, they were tattooed on the inside of my skull.
Out of all the talents she pursued in her life, from opera singing to labor organizing and fighting for the rights of workers, she often said that it was teaching new taxi drivers the ways of The City that was most rewarding to her. She came from a long line of teachers. She had an intense craving for knowledge and information. It was obvious she loved what she was doing. And her enthusiasm made you want to go out and be the best taxi driver you could be.
You could almost tell which other drivers had taken her class. Whether or not we followed her teaching didn’t matter. She was a guiding force through the experience and a moral compass, not just for her students, but the entire taxi industry.
She represented everything that is great about San Francisco. Throughout the years, she never lost her fascination with The City, its history and its people. She was fiercely liberal and highly critical of those in power, but always conscious of those who struggled and sensitive to the various cultures that make up this great city.
And now, even in death, Ruach is still advocating for justice. By publicly extolling the benefits of death with dignity programs for terminal patients, she can possibly elicit positive change for others in similar situations. And give them, and everyone else whose rights are being trampled, a powerful voice, full of dignity and respect.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions. He is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy” and a zine series “Behind the Wheel,” collected into a paperback omnibus, available through book marketplaces or from his blog: idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner.