I Drive SF: Confessions of a Taxi Shill

Michael Areas/Special to the S.F. ExaminerSilver Crest Donut Shop

Dear reader, it’s time I came clean.

I am on the payroll of the San Francisco taxi industry. That’s right, each week, the local bagman for Big Taxi goes around to all the color schemes in The City (except Yellow, those bastards) and collects my tributes. On Thursdays, we meet in the darkest corner of the Silver Crest restaurant on Bayshore Boulevard. As I chomp down a patty melt and try to ignore the maniacal laughter, he twists his fingers through his mustache and slides an envelope across the table with a dossier of what I’m supposed to write about next.

Of course, if you believe that, I have a medallion to sell you cheap. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency gave me one for free so I’d keep quiet about their involvement in the conspiracy.

Seriously though, why do the frothing masses assume if you’re not ripping on taxis, you must have some financial stake in the industry’s reputed corruption? I’m just writing about my job, which is what I’ve done with all the crappy jobs I’ve had since earning my degree in teenage angst.

National/Veterans Cab Co. is in a junkyard in the Bayview. An ogre named Patrick lives in the alley. When he’s not showering in the car wash, he smashes windshields and knocks over garbage cans.

Every day, I wait outside the office window with the other night drivers until cabs become available. We talk taxi and mingle with the day drivers who report on traffic conditions and activity at the airport. Sometimes Alex, the manager, comes out and shakes hands. He always asks after my wife.

On the streets, I exchange knowing glances with drivers from all the cab companies. In cabstands, we compare notes. Throughout the night, we text each other when events are breaking and where to find “needs.” Or, at the very least, “possibles.”

While I’m driving, I listen to the action on the dispatch radio. Ben is my Jon Miller when there’s no Giants game. On the nights Arthur is calling out rides, I hope there’ll be a little drama between drivers that makes it on the air.

Between 3 and 4 a.m., I head back to the yard. Too amped to go home yet, I hang around the office as drivers cycle through, discussing money and crazy rides.

On Saturday nights, we have a barbecue and stand around the fire telling stories until dawn.

As far as crappy jobs go, it’s not the worst. And like most jobs, it’s more about the co-workers than the actual work.

Over the past four months, I’ve met some amazing cab drivers. Sure, there are still plenty of bad apples in the bunch, but sooner or later, we can safely assume that most of the truly rotten ones will have migrated to Uber. When I see them with their squirrelly eyes, all alone in the maddening streets of Union Square, I remember what it was like. And I feel sorry for them. They need Uber as much as Uber needs them.

Personally, I wasn’t able to realize my full potential as an Uber-Lyft driver. I don’t want to be a drone following a GPS route. I prefer using instinct and experience to navigate the city streets. And charm to provide a pleasant experience. I don’t need a rating system to keep me in check.

In most jobs, a high-rated performance leads to promotion and more money. But unless a passenger left a cash tip with Uber, which rarely happened, or reluctantly used Lyft’s tipping screen, all I got was a virtual pat on the back. Well, I’m worth more than 4.94 stars.

So, are Uber and Lyft any less corrupt than taxi companies? I’ve always believed that the bigger a company is, the more evil they are. Uber and Lyft may satisfy the needs of a particular type of customer, but for drivers, they’re a dead end. This version of the on-demand economy exacerbates what was wrong with the old system by forcing workers to assume even more risk. All the while, trying to convince us we’re aspiring entrepreneurs and the road to riches is paved with gold stars.

And that, dear reader, is the real joke.

Kelly Dessaint is a former Uber and Lyft driver turned taxi driver. In his real life, he’s the publisher of the personal narrative zine Piltdownlad and author of the forthcoming memoir “No Fun: How Punk Rock Saved My Life.”

Bay Area NewsI Drive SFKelly DessaintSan FranciscoSF

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