It’s all downhill to the National yard, I think, with relief, as I sputter away from my last drop at four in the morning. My cab, beloved 182, is in obvious mechanical distress. I turn onto Van Ness. From Russian Hill, it’s a straight shot to Army, then over to Bayshore. Barring the inevitable red lights, I figure I can coast the entire way.
Everything happened so fast … Ten minutes before, I was on Market Street with a load I’d picked up at an after-hours club in SoMa. When the light at Hyde turned green and I hit the gas, there was a loud “thunk,” as if one of the front tires fell off.
At first, I thought it was my imagination. The two guys in back didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, too busy talking about girls.
“That chick was a total eight,” one says to the other. “Nines and dimes, bro. That’s all I ever hit.”
When I take off from the light at Larkin, however, the thunk is impossible to ignore, followed by a grinding noise, as if whatever has fallen off is being dragged underneath.
I pull over to the curb and say, “I think there’s something wrong with my cab,” like a BART conductor dictating circumstances beyond my control.
“Let’s take a look.” The guy on the passenger side jumps out to investigate.
As I get out to join him, the guy sitting behind me grabs my shoulder and says, “We’re high as fuck. This isn’t anything we can deal with right now.”
“It’s OK,” I tell him. “Everything’s cool.”
Outside, his partner, obviously not as overwhelmed by the drugs they’d taken, has recruited a homeless man to crawl under the cab. Without missing a beat, the man falls onto the asphalt and simultaneously asks for a cigarette.
Once it’s established there are no car parts in the street, and no visible damage, we give the homeless man a few bucks and push on.
When I accelerate, I have very little power. And the thunk gets louder and more pronounced. Or so it seems, since the guys in back freak out each time it happens.
Around McAllister, the one behind me asks, “Should we get out?”
“Just relax,” I say, determined to get these guys where they’re going, gas up and get back to the yard.
More than anything, there’s no way I’m waiting for a tow truck in the Tenderloin at four in the morning.
Somehow, I manage to limp up Larkin, despite the mechanical protests of my cab, the constant grumbling from the backseat and the traffic lights, which are against me all the way.
While we wait for greens, the guys calm down a little. We randomly list off automobile parts that might be malfunctioning until it’s apparent none of us knows shit about cars. Then I take off and the thunk sends them into another tailspin.
“We’re not going to make it!” they bellow.
“We’re going to make it,” I insist.
Finally, we reach their place on Filbert Street. I tell them not to worry about the fare, but they give me the metered amount and a few extra dollars anyway.
Now my real challenge begins …
As I lurch down Van Ness, I think about what Steve and I were talking about the other day at the yard, how we’re essentially alone on the streets. Sure, we have our dispatch radios and, when we’re not competing for fares, most taxi drivers adhere to some form of camaraderie. But part of being a cab driver is the ability to overcome obstacles, remain calm and get the job done — no matter what the night throws at you. Like mysterious thunks, burnt out top lights or malfunctioning taximeters. Or when Juneaux backed into a driveway last week at the behest of a fare and knocked off his muffler, then reattached it with a coat hanger and finished his shift.
Inevitably, you’re going to face unforeseen circumstances on the road. Just as my taxi bag is slowly becoming a Swiss Army knife, at some point, you’ll have to get all MacGyver with a problem.
While I gas up at the overpriced Chevron two blocks from the yard, almost safe at home, the real tragedy of this situation hits me: Until 182 is fixed, I’ll be driving whatever cabs are available. And when it comes to decent cabs, it’s all downhill at National.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at email@example.com and @piltdownlad.