There are days when L-I-F-E gets in the way of driving a cab, especially when you spend 12 hours behind the wheel for three to four days straight, with several hours each day commuting to and from the cab yard and the rest of the time trying to squeeze in as much sleep as possible.
Sometimes I really need to buy cat litter. Without a personal car, it’s simpler to use my taxi to transport a 20-pound box of Fresh Step to my apartment in Oakland than schlepping it on BART. Not to mention perishable groceries like yogurt, frozen pizzas and burritos.
I usually make a Safeway run during a lull in my shift so I can get back to The City for last call.
Other times, L-I-F-E creeps into my schedule unexpectedly. Like a phone call from you-know-who …
A few months back, I’m pulled over on Van Ness, reluctantly hashing out the details of what went wrong with my marriage, when a young woman taps on my window. I’d noticed her walk by a few seconds before, as she seemed to be staring at me.
“Can you take me to Pacific and Laguna?” she asks. “I know it isn’t that far, but …”
I’m looking for any excuse to get off the phone, so I say, “Get in.”
“You’re with National,” she states the obvious, slurring her words. “I used to call you guys all the time to order a cab, and the dispatcher always said, ‘Hey, Magnificent Meg! Where you going tonight?’ You guys made me feel so special. And always made sure I got a cab. Sometimes it would take a while, when it was busy, but you’d call me back and let me know when the driver was going to show up.”
“Why’d you stop calling?” I inquire, anticipating the answer.
“Well … I started using Uber … Just at first, you know, to check it out. Then, later, it was easier to use the app than make a call. And it’s cheaper. But I hate Uber now. The drivers don’t know where they’re going and they’re creepy. It’s just, like, a habit.”
She pauses for a few seconds.
“Still, I miss the old days when I’d call National and I was ‘Magnificent Meg,’” she said. “That’s why, when I saw you parked there, I wanted to tell you how much it meant to me.”
Before she gets out, I tell her to give us a call again sometime, adding, “Our number’s still the same.”
She says she will, though I have my doubts. As she walks away, I feel like the guy who’d been dumped and now, months later, I’m trying to rekindle the lost connection, knowing it’s already too damn late.
There’s not much action on the radio these days, but I still monitor the two-way during my shift, waiting for Artur, Ben or Phil to call out an order I’m close enough to take.
Dispatch calls rarely go unanswered, even if it’s busy or the pickup location is out of the way. I once took a call for 45th and Judah when I was at Haight and Stanyan, because no one was in the Outer Sunset and I knew it would just take me 10 minutes to get there on Lincoln.
I’ve only been in this racket for a short while, but when people tell me they were “NEVER” able to call for a cab and have one show up, I’ll ask which company they’d call. “All of them! Yellow! Luxor! DeSoto!”
But what about National, Veterans or Arrow, the smaller companies that pride themselves on providing excellent dispatch service?
When Jesse, who runs the National window at night, talks about his days driving for Arrow, he says he only worked the radio.
“I’d drive past 20 people with their hands in their air to take a dispatch call.”
To this day, drivers sit in front of office buildings in the Financial, like 101 California or 405 Howard, so they’re a “bingo” when an order comes in.
It’s easy to lump all San Francisco cabs together and throw the baby out with the bathwater, because dealing with L-I-F-E and all its complications is never fun. But sometimes it’s unavoidable, which is why after dropping off Magnificent Meg, I head to Van Ness, find another place to pull over and call back you-know-who.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at email@example.com and @piltdownlad.