Each month, like the foreboding arrival of the bagman for the mob, my rent comes due. From the 5th of one month to the 5th of the next, I’m sweating to maintain my overpriced Oakland apartment. No easy task on a cab driver’s earnings.
Last month, I was saved at the final hour by a Halloween miracle. In September, there was Folsom Street Fair. November, though, didn’t have much to offer besides various distractions. And now, like a dark cloud, the holidays are upon us, followed by winter.
Seems like things are tough all over. A few weekends back, I was at the Safeway on Market and ran into Jimmy Flowers, who told me he’s definitely losing his apartment. He hasn’t figured out his next step, but in true spirit of the Haight Street legacy he personifies, Flowers is confident the universe will shine in his favor and he won’t be uprooted from The City.
As much as I try to remain optimistic about keeping my own place, it’s hard not to feel bitter when the wolves are at the door.
On the bright side, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal this week about the San Francisco taxi industry potentially making a comeback as more Uber and Lyft drivers apply for A-cards to become bona fide hacks. This is great news for the industry, but I wonder how many will actually survive as cab drivers.
In any new profession, there is a learning curve. Cab driving is not the same as Uber and Lyft. With the latter, you have a phone mounted on your dash. When a ride request comes in, you tap the screen, figure out where your passenger is and retrieve them, with GPS guiding you along the way. It’s like being spoon-fed customers.
Getting warm bodies in the backseat of your cab, however, is more akin to a hunting expedition. It requires skill and knowledge: where to go to find your passengers, when to go there, how to get there and what to expect there.
After 10 months, I still ask myself: What’s around this corner? What about this one? How many circles do I make in the Mission before I give up and head to SoMa and join another phalanx of empty cabs trolling the bars and clubs on Folsom and 11th streets? If I pull in behind this line of cabs outside Oasis, will there be any business at the front? And how many Uber-Lyfts will pick up passengers before someone finally decides to take one of the waiting cabs?
There is a small margin of error in the taxi business these days, and one wrong turn can ruin your night.
People love their apps. And while most taxis have Flywheel, the company does absolutely no marketing. DeSoto rebranding itself as Flywheel Taxi may have helped somewhat, but the move seemed to create just as much confusion.
Several people have asked me why I don’t go drive for Flywheel.
“Because I drive for National,” I say.
“But isn’t Flywheel just like Uber except they have their own cars?”
No, Flywheel is only like Uber in that it is an app. Flywheel Taxi is a promotional stunt I don’t fully understand. But I do know I wouldn’t want to rely on Flywheel, the app, to pay my daily gate and gas, much less my rent.
Still, it’s that time of the year, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to eke out some modicum of an existence through cab driving, which, despite the frustrations, is the only way to truly experience what makes San Francisco so unique.
I think most taxi drivers can remember those nights when it seemed like everyone wants in your cab and you’re hustling from the bustle of Union Square or North Beach to the somnolent deep Richmond, where you miraculously get a street hail on Geary Boulevard going to Lake Merced, then you race back to the Mission on 280 in time for last call … maybe you get an Oakland ride in between, or an airport, or even a Walnut Creek at meter and a half … and everyone’s in a good mood and everyone wants to have a great time and they’re all throwing money at you and by the end of your shift, it’s like you’ve covered every inch of The City …
That’s what I hope for each night I hit the streets and why I continue kicking against the pricks, even if that means waiting until the last day to send in my rent check.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @piltdownlad.