A couple from a small town in New Jersey are surprised by what they find when they visit The City. (Courtesy Photo)

Helping out strangers in a strange land


Outside the Hyatt Regency, an Amtrak Thruway Coach idles in the bus stop, leaving just enough room for me to pull into the cabstand. A few seconds later, an elderly man approaches my cab.

“We need a taxi,” he tells me. “Can you drive us?”

In the side mirror, I notice suitcases. With a Thruway Coach on the scene, though, it’s unlikely they’re going to the airport.

While stowing the luggage, I ask for their destination.

“Travelodge. 1707 Market.”

The husband and wife are from a small town in New Jersey and plan to spend a week in San Francisco. To see the sights. But mostly to shop.

As we roll down Market Street, they stare out of the windows, marveling at the grandeur of The City. I go into tour guide mode.

“Right now we’re in the Financial District.”

“Them buildings sure are tall,” the man says in awe.

A few blocks later, we hit Union Square. The woman reads off the names of each store we pass.

“This is exactly what we’re looking for,” she declares.

“Now we’re in the Tenderloin,” I announce around Turk. “Not much to do in this part of town. Look, there’s City Hall.”

“How long till we get to the hotel?” the woman asks. “We been driving a long time.”

“It’s not much further.”

“We just anxious to get situated,” the man informs me. “Been on the train since Wednesday.”

Finally, I make it through the lights at Franklin and Gough.

“And… Here we are.”

I turn onto Valencia and pull into the Travelodge parking lot.

“You sure this is the right place?” asks the woman.

“Good Lord,” the man murmurs. “That’s not what we expected at all.”

“I can’t stay here.” Her tone is irrevocable.

I park in front of the office. After some deliberation, they go inside to cancel their reservation, which they’d made back in Jersey, through AAA. I offer to call around and find another hotel, since they don’t have a mobile phone.

I try the Hampton Inn. No vacancies. The Mosser. Full. The Hilton has a room available, at $400 a night.

When the man returns to the cab, I give him the news.

“$400?” he stutters in disbelief. “That’s… Uh… We… Uh… We don’t have a lot of money.”

They were going to pay around $200 a night at the Travelodge.

His wife gasps when she hears how much a room goes for at the Hilton.

“Let’s go to that shopping area again,” she suggests.

Heading back downtown, their cheerful wonder has been replaced by fear and dread. Now, The City feels like a cold, threatening place.

I try to maintain a semblance of humor, to assure them that everything will work out.

At this point, I’ve stopped the time on the taximeter. It’s only calculating mileage now.

“What about the Holiday Inn?” I recommend as we approach Eighth Street.

“It looks decent,” observes the man.

While they go inside to see about a room, I make some more calls. After striking out with Kensington Park and Villa Florence, I tell the desk clerk at the Handlery my situation. Not only do they have a room available…

“Since they’re seniors, they get a discount,” he tells me while his fingers clack loudly across a keyboard. “So it’ll be $242 a night.”

“Awesome! I’m bringing them right now!”

As we maneuver through the one-way streets towards the heart of Union Square, their joy and excitement have been revived.

Outside the Handlery, I unload their suitcases onto the sidewalk.

“How much we owe you?” the man asks.

I glance at the meter. Even with the time off, it ended up at $26.05.

“Oh, twenty bucks oughta do it,” I say.

“You know, I wanna give him a little extra,” he whispers to his wife. “He was real helpful.”

She smiles and nods.

He hands me two $20s. “Just give me back $10. You sure took care of us tonight.”

“I’m glad everything worked out.”

Behind the wheel again, I wait with my turn signal flashing until someone hesitates long enough to merge into the flow of traffic. Then I swerve into the taxi lane and head into the night.

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.comTransit

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