Heading down Post Street, I wait for the light to change at Jones Street and practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel while a Slayer CD blasts from the stereo in my taxicab. It’s rush hour. Union Square is a sea of red brake lights. There’s something counterintuitive about driving into a traffic jam, but for a taxi driver, that’s where you find the fares.
After three months of driving a cab, I’ve become Zen with downtown traffic. I embrace the challenge of gridlock. So when the light turns green, I charge headlong into the congestion.
At Taylor Street, I kill the tunes and roll down my window, listening for the whistles from hotel doormen that reverberate through the streets. I cruise slowly past the J.W. Nothing. At Powell Street, I check the cabstand in front of the St. Francis. Too long. I glance toward the Sir Francis Drake, but the faux Yeoman Warder is minding his own business.
Across the street, an arm goes up. Bingo. Businessman heading to the W. Traffic is snarled as I creep toward Montgomery Street. But I’m getting paid to cross Market Street. After dropping him off, I cruise Moscone. Another flag. This one back to Union Square. From there, a long fare to Monterey Heights. Nice enough guy. Works in finance. Insists on taking Interstate 280, despite going so far out of the way. Whatever. His nickel. We start chatting. Eventually, he asks the million-dollar question: “So, why aren’t you driving for Uber?”
I tell him I did the Uber-Lyft thing for 10 months before switching to a taxi. He’s surprised. They always are.
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” he asks.
Even though I get asked the same thing multiple times a night, I’m never sure how to respond. For me, there were more reasons not to drive for Uber and Lyft than to continue driving for Uber and Lyft. I wasn’t making enough money after the two startups went to war for market dominance and began slashing prices. And due to the insurance risks, I worried I’d have to declare bankruptcy if I got into an accident. My car was getting ragged out enough already. But ultimately, it was a crisis of conscience. I didn’t want to participate in a predatory business model based on deception and exploitation. I wanted to do something legitimate. I wanted a real job, not a hobby. So I signed up for taxi school and went pro. “The way I figured it,” I say to the passenger, “so many people hate taxi drivers, they must be doing something right.”
I laugh. He doesn’t join me. Instead, he tells me how much he prefers Uber. From the Highway 101 interchange to the Monterey exit, he regales me with a litany of horror stories about the taxi industry before Uber and Lyft came to town. Taxis wouldn’t take people to the Richmond or Sunset. The cabs smelled horrible. The drivers were rude. They wouldn’t accept credit cards. And when you called dispatch, they never showed up.
I listen to his jeremiad patiently. It’s all I can do. I’ve heard these complaints repeatedly since I started driving a car for hire in San Francisco. As much as I want to apologize for the past transgressions of taxi drivers, I can’t help but wonder why he’s in a cab in the first place. Oh, Uber must be surging like crazy.
I want to tell him I actually enjoy being a cabdriver. I feel more connected to The City than I ever did with Uber and Lyft. And I admire the veteran cab drivers, many of whom are longtime San Franciscans. They have the best stories. Becoming a cabdriver was like joining a league of disgruntled gentlemen and surly ladies. The buccaneers of city streets. Taking people’s money for getting them where they need to go. By whatever means necessary.
After a while, though, the guy’s vitriol gets to me. When I drop him off, I’m bummed beyond belief. At least he gives me a decent tip. I turn the Slayer back on. Full blast. Take Portola down the hill. Should be plenty of fares in the Castro. Especially if Uber’s still surging.
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.”