Having an array of CDs in the cab keeps all musical tastes satisfied. (Courtesy Douglas O’Connor)

A taxicab soundtrack


Over the past five years, I’ve tried to create a soundtrack that not only satisfies my personal need for entertainment but also provides a compelling interlude for passengers. During my first couple months of driving a taxi, I listened almost exclusively to Slayer. The aggression of thrash metal helped me overcome the fear and excitement of working the mean streets of San Francisco as I searched for fares and fought my way through traffic.

When people got into my cab, I immediately killed the tunes and made idle conversation while frantically trying to figure out where to go without the aid of GPS. In the heat of the moment, though, I often forgot to turn the volume down. Upon opening the backdoor, my fares were greeted with the cacophony of piercing guitar solos and thunderous drumbeats. My only recourse was to quickly apologize before they had a chance to run away.

One night, I was waiting for the light at Polk and Clay when a guy jumped in the back of my cab as “Dead Skin Mask” blared from the speakers.

“Sorry about that!” I shouted, twisting the knob to the left so hard it almost snapped off.

“That’s cool,” the guy said. “You can put the tunes back on.”

I turned around to ask where he was headed and noticed his Iron Maiden shirt. “Oh, so you don’t mind Slayer then?” I asked with a relieved chuckle.

“This album’s alright,” he said. “But I prefer the earlier stuff.”

Nowadays, I usually keep a diverse selection of albums in my CD wallet, a habit based on Colin’s early advice to always have music that covers most situations, from the somber vibe out of the symphony to the party-hearty atmosphere at the late-night clubs. That way you can almost avoid sacrificing your musical tastes if passengers want to listen to the radio. Or, worse, request an aux cable …

While many cab drivers fall back on the golden rule — my cab, my rules — in a tip-based industry it behooves one to be somewhat accommodating. Within limits, of course.

“I’ll put on whatever station they want,” Colin told me years ago, explaining his policy on playing music during rides. “But I turn the volume down during commercials. And I don’t have any extra cords, just the charger for my Android.”

Even though an iPod would seem to be an ideal resource for a cab driver, my aversion to Mp3s is only rivaled by my disdain for the travesty of streaming services like Spotify or Pandora…

I’m an analogue addict. If I could play records while driving, I would. And since they don’t install tape players in cars anymore, my only option is the CD. Now, thanks to the popularity of streaming, CDs are relatively cheap and easy to find at places like Amoeba and Thrillhouse Records. Every few weeks, I acquire a few discs, justifying the expense as “work-related.”

In between rides, while circling The City, or racing from one regular to the next, I blast punk and garage rock. At red lights, I drum on the steering wheel, replicating a high hat with my right forefinger against the horn pad, meanwhile the knuckles on my left hand resonate against the steering wheel, which, on the Fusion, has an amazing timbre, perfect for imitating a snare.

With my foot tapping on the dead pedal as if it were a kick drum, I keep the beat steady, even throwing in some drum fills and a little rat-a-tat-tat action before the signal turns green …

When rock bands come to town, my CD collection can be a real asset. Like the time Judas Priest played The Warfield. As I picked a regular in the Sunset to take him and his friend to the show, I had “Screaming for Vengeance” cued up so the opening lines of “The Hellion” rang out as I hit the meter.

A couple weeks ago, Jack White sold out two nights at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The shows were “phone-free.” Concertgoers’ gadgets were all locked up in Yondr pouches during the performance. This requirement had an unexpected benefit to taxi drivers. With the additional step to leave the venue, along with a five-song encore, people were still looking for rides long after the concert ended. On Wednesday night, I was able to get five decent fares out of the show, and never once had to turn down the music.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit www.idrivesf.com.

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