(Courtesy Trevor Johnson)

No skin off the meter


Each afternoon, when the summer fog rolls into The City, so thick it casts a shadow and blots out the skyscrapers downtown, I start looking for cold tourists.

Depending on my location, I prowl the usual hotspots: Fisherman’s Wharf, The Castro, Upper Haight, etc.

Clad in t-shirts, shorts and miniskirts, the shivering out-of-towners are always grateful to see a taxi emerge from the monolithic gloom. And I’m happy to be of service.

The best rides begin with a sense of mutual appreciation. Just as they’re relieved to escape the frigid mist, I’m thankful that plenty of people still come here expecting to find the same weather they left behind in Houston or Atlanta.

It allows me to trot out the frequently misattributed quote about the coldest winter… which pretty much guarantees a laugh. Does it even matter who actually coined the phrase? Or that many folks leave San Francisco thinking they got a ride from the wittiest cab driver around?

Besides entertaining my passengers with anecdotes about weather for manic depressives and bumbling the science behind the omnipresent fog in July and “Fogust,” I take advantage of any opportunity to sell San Francisco out of the back of my taxicab by suggesting a detour. Or two.

“So, have you guys seen the Painted Ladies yet? You know, those famous Victorians from the TV show ‘Full House.’ They’re along the way.” Adding, “Don’t worry, it’s no skin off the meter.”

Meaning, Hayes Street won’t cost much more than Oak, but tourists want to seem like they’re hip to the scam, smarter than some enterprising taxi driver.

Once we get to Alamo Square, though, they want to snap a bunch of photos for “the ’gram.”

“I’ll wait here,” I say, offering to turn off the meter too, “If it’s a problem…”

“Oh, no!” they insist. “You don’t have to do that.”

I know. But the gesture makes them feel better about giving me that $20 bill at the end of the ride, even though the meter says $12.85 …

The other day, while transporting an Italian family to Pier 39 from Civic Center, where they hopped off the Hop Off Hop On bus and couldn’t figure out where to hop back on, I suggested going down the most crooked street in the world. Even though we aren’t anywhere near Potrero Hill …

“It’s the same distance,” I point out. “Just takes a few extra minutes because … you know, the curves and all …”

“It’s on the way, yeah?”

“Oh yeah.”

How does one say “No skin off the meter” in Italian?

“Now get your phones ready! Here we go!”

During tourist season, driving a taxi is about more than just giving rides from point A to point B. It’s about the ride itself. And San Francisco.

Even when the guy up front says something like, “It’s nice to have a taxi driver who speaks English.”

All I can do is nod and smile, thinking about the drivers before me who undoubtedly spoke English, but just didn’t want to speak to them …

Or the guy who gets in at the Hilton Union Square and immediately exclaims in a Southern drawl, “Hey, you’re white! I didn’t know they still had white cabbies!”

That’s when I pretend not to speak English.

While driving tourists who aren’t overtly racist, I listen to their attempts to figure out landmarks and glance in my rearview to make eye contact.

Eventually, sensing my willingness to talk, they ask me, “Excuse me, driver. Is that the Golden Gate Bridge?”

Since the Golden Gate Bridge is on backorder until September, I correct them: “No, that’s the western span of the Bay Bridge. The eastern span, which connects San Francisco to Oakland, is on the other side of Yerba Buena Island. When it was constructed in 1939, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world …”

On and on, so on and so forth, until I’ve earned that $20 bill …

At night, the fog settles over The City, until the Financial District and SoMa look like they’re practicing for air raids. There’s no escaping the omnipresent vapor. The cold wind never lets up. Not even four layers can repel the chill. Elsewhere, just a few miles away even, there are sweltering heat waves. But not here.

When I get back into my cab after using the facilities at the Fairmont, I look around. With no more cold tourists to rescue, I turn up the heat, load a Neil Young CD in the stereo and head toward the Bay Bridge.

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.com.

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