When you love the job, but the job doesn’t love you back

Some people have cab driving in their blood


My stereo is on the fritz. There’s an annoying hum in the speakers. It’s a real buzzkill when you’re listening to a pristine piece of vintage vinyl from the ‘80s. I’ve checked my ground wire and tried to isolate the problem component by component, but the problem seems to be in the receiver, which would require a repair job or, the nuclear option, a replacement. This prospect fills me with dread…

Back in the days of atavistic technology, fixing home appliances was as easy as picking up the Yellow Pages and letting your fingers do the walking to the nearest repair shop. Now when I use Google to find a repair place, the results are inundated with ads for new receivers, as well as other appliances and ED pills.

We live in a disposable society. Why repair something when you can replace it with the new and improved model!

It’s the same with computers and phones and TVs. Once a device starts acting up, it’s time for an “upgrade.”

In our disposable culture, even people get tossed on the heap…

Look at the taxi industry. Before the pandemic, I scoffed at the idea of automated vehicles transporting people around a city like San Francisco. I almost went so far as to pull a Werner Herzog and offer to eat my shoe if driverless taxis ever took off in San Francisco. Now, after 16 months of some of the most unprecedented circumstances imaginable, anything seems possible. Even driverless taxis in San Francisco. But what about all the drivers?

In the trash heap, it seems.

Take my friend Dave*.

A month ago, Dave started driving a taxi again. He’s been a San Francisco taxi driver for 30 years. A Prop. K medallion holder. After a year of boredom and uncertainty, he needed to get out of the house. Driving is in his blood.

Besides, even though his medallion is essentially a worthless piece of tin now, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, he is required to drive 800 hours a year.

Dave has been an inspiration for me as a taxi driver since I started driving. But sometimes I question his decisions.

As Uber and Lyft continued to decimate the taxi industry, he managed to eke out a moderate existence with his extensive knowledge of the streets and sheer determination. Like many of us, though, there were weeks when he barely made minimum wage. But he has something that many drivers, including myself, lack: faith.

Whenever I’d ask why he continued to subject himself to the torture of cab driving, he’d respond defiantly: “Because I love the job.”

Dave loves the chaos of cab yards, the crazy taxi drivers, the crazy taxi passengers, the unpredictability of rides, how one flows into another and you never know where you’ll end up. He especially enjoys dealing with the people. Particularly elderly customers. He is patient and kind.

For going above and beyond with his passengers over the years, he even received a certificate of recognition from the California Assembly.

At the peak of the pandemic, though, the SFMTA tried to confiscate his medallion. Dave hadn’t taken the drug test required for his A-Card and it expired. Since there was a deadly virus going around and the government was telling everyone to stay home, he figured it could wait. Well, the SFMTA thought differently and sued him.

Once he had that sorted out and was fully vaccinated, he began talking about driving again. There is a growing need for drivers in The City as people begin venturing out in the world again. Uber and Lyft can’t seem to incentivize enough of their “independent contractors” to return, though, despite surge pricing jacking up fares to astronomical levels.

As one driver joked recently, while Uber and Lyft offer their drivers carrots, the SFMTA and the cab companies just seem to have sticks.

Anyway, a month ago, Dave finally went down to Yellow, got a cab and hit the streets. An hour later, it broke down. He got it fixed, then started over…

The next day, it was a flat tire.

Every day he documents his activity with the cab in his waybills. Then he analyzes the data and figures out his hourly earnings. At first, he was making less than minimum wage. Then he adjusted his driving habits for the post-COVID reality and started doing somewhat better. When he’s not having mechanical issues, that is.

As he recounts his experiences to me, it still seems like a pointless endeavor.

“Why do you…” I start to ask, already knowing the answer. “But what if…” I change my tack. “What if the job doesn’t love you back?”

“I’ll always love it,” he shoots back with a chuckle. “At least for 800 hours a year.”

* Not his real name.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver 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 major book outlets or from his blog: idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner.

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