When the meter is running, the stakes are too high to be getting lost or taking

Navigating new terrain in familiar places


Deep in the cut, I play the radio hard. Taking one order after another. Mostly short rides, along with some no-go’s, that push me further into the outlying neighborhoods of The City.

Since my shift began earlier that afternoon, I’ve been loading shopping bags, folding carts and walkers into the trunk of my cab and letting passengers guide me to their destinations through the unfamiliar streets of Visitacion Valley, Ingleside, Crocker Amazon and Balboa Park. Places I know, but rarely worked before switching to Yellow.

So far, most folks are happy to give directions. Except for one lady, who, despite limited English, ribs me for asking her the quickest route from the Glen Park Bart station to the Foodsco in the Bayview.

“You’re supposed to know that!” she responds with a chortle, then leans forward and uses hand gestures to show me the way.

It’s not that I don’t know how to get around, but with a meter running, the stakes are too high for detours. And this being their home turf, wouldn’t they know the best shortcuts?

Plus, deciphering broken English and heavy accents can be even more challenging than navigating new terrain. Especially with streets named Cayuga, Farragut and Onondaga. Or even Jones.

That evening, I get an order for 5th Avenue and Irving. Filipino couple. When the man tells me their address, I hear 435 Dolores and take 17th to Douglass. As I turn onto Market, he asks me where I’m going. It quickly becomes apparent that I’m going the wrong way.

Turns out, he said Taylor. Not Dolores.

Despite the language barrier, I manage to assuage their consternation, charging them just $12 for the ride. By the time they exit the taxi, all’s well. If not better. They’re smiling and waving at me from the curb, like I’ve done them some huge favor.

Later that night, after circling through the metro area, I head towards the Mission, ending up in the Excelsior. As if on cue, an order comes in for Paris and Persia.

Rolling down the street slowly, trying to find the correct number, I see people standing in a bright doorway near the address. I pull over.

A few minutes later, a guy walks up. “Are you available?”

Seems like a strange thing to ask the driver of the cab you just requested, but, “Sure.”

On the way to Mission and Richland, I pass two flags. So once clear, I head back to see what’s up.

One minute later, an order for the same address on Paris appears on my screen. Followed by a call from Yellow dispatch, asking why I didn’t pick up the right patron.

“There was a mix up,” I say. “But I’m just a few blocks away.”

This time around, three very intoxicated men are waiting for me. They’re so wasted it’s difficult to get inside the cab. Two climb in back and one sits up front. The next task is figuring out where to take them.

They seem to be saying, “235 gooda-dinga.”

Struggling to understand their slurred speech and heavy accents, I ask the guy in back, the most cognizant of the three, if he can show me the street name on his phone.

“Ah, Goettingen!”

I take Lisbon to Silver and diligently watch for the sign after University. But still miss the street.

“Hey, man,” the guy in back says. “I think you passed our house.”

I apologize and make the next right.

Outside their address, the men wrestle the doors open. Just as slowly as they got in, it takes them twice as long to disembark.

“How much?” the guy in back mumbles.

The meter reads $11.20, but I tell him, “It’s just $10.”

“No,” he says. “How much? I’m paying for the ride!”

“$10 is fine. I missed that turn.”

“What?” He puts $12 on the center console. Then adds $5 more.

I try to refuse, but the look in his eyes expresses more than words can convey. I pocket the money. He extends his hand and thanks me.

After clearing the meter, the dispatch tablet starts chirping again. San Bruno and Wayland. I head out, wondering where I’ll end up getting lost this time.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. He is a guest columnist. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit www.idrivesf.com

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