The National barbecue is a cross between a hobo cookout and a bunch of pirates carousing after a night of pillaging and plundering. It takes place on Sunday mornings in a junkyard, among the remains of disemboweled taxicabs and assorted automobile parts rusting outside the front office.
The only indication the area is a driver lounge is the Coke machine and couch, which has become loudmouth Toler’s bed ever since his wife allegedly kicked him out of the house. During the festivities, he snores like a freight train. “Shut the fuck up, Toler!” is a common, albeit futile, refrain. As Juneaux, who’s an expert at summing things up, once put it: “That’s the sleep of a man with a clear conscience.”
Daniel is the chef. He handles the grilling and arranges the hors d’oeuvres and condiments on a lopsided table he fixed by shoving an old tire under the shorter leg.
With a belly full of snark, Chucky is the master of ceremonies. He brings the cake. It was Chucky who started calling me a green pea until he decided I was no longer one. Now he just reminds me that I used to be a green pea.
Speaking of vegetables, Colin always shows up with meatless victuals and a six-pack from a local microbrewery. A wonk on all things taxi, it’s hard to keep up with the boundless information he spews, almost reluctantly, in a rapid-fire slur.
Once Mary has fed the numerous cats that live in the yard, which seem to recognize her cab as soon as she pulls into the lot — it is, after all, the cleanest cab in the fleet — she joins the party.
As his sobriquet implies, Late Night Larry usually arrives last. A raconteur of the highest degree, whenever we need to know what it’s really all about, Larry is there to tell us. Though we’ll also happily settle for a ribald tale from one of his past lives.
Throughout the night, people come and go, including former Veterans and Arrow drivers like Marty, Austin, Ben “I got nothing to live for!” Valis and Trevor Fucker. Mingling in the crowd is Other Larry (aka Early Morning Larry), Mathias (“a feast of rats upon you”), Steven, Willie, Byron and Glover, the only taxi driver who gets a pass for switching to Uber because he’s probably driven a cab longer than anyone else and justifies his betrayal with, “It’s all about the money, baby!”
Occasionally, we are graced with the presence of TJ, an erstwhile cab driver and one-time medallion holder, who went nuts and now calls a broken down Town Car in Upton alley home. Wasted on cheap booze and his homemade hashish, he can be downright rude at times. But Jesse, the night cashier and the sweetest man you’d never want to mess with, keeps him in check.
In the midst of our revelry, day drivers cycle through the office. Some look at the ceremony dubiously, through bleary eyes, while others happily grab a plate of food before starting their shifts.
Standing around in small groups, we get into heated discussions about geography and chronicle noteworthy rides, what’s known as the recitation of the waybill.
Everyone gets a chance to purge the details of that week’s trips — the good, the bad and the ugly — even if you have to raise your voice to get center stage.
It’s not the bizarre rides, though, or even the most profitable rides that impress cab drivers who’ve seen it all. It’s the rides that turn into tours, where we get to show off The City and bask in its grandeur with out-of-towners, like true ambassadors/historians.
“Did you show them the mansions on the Gold Coast?”
“Did you tell them about Alma Spreckels?”
In between the breakdown of rides, there are biographies of legendary cabbies, tales of the “good ol’ days” and speculations on the future of cab driving.
Sometimes it seems the history of San Francisco’s taxi industry is the history of San Francisco itself.
Slowly, as the fire dwindles, people disappear into the darkness, and those who remain huddle to stay warm until the sky brightens and the hardliners begin to arrange rides home — an easy task in a cab yard.
If no one is heading to the East Bay, I get dropped off downtown.
Waiting for the first Pittsburgh-Bay Point train at 8:15 a.m., I roam Market Street, empty but for the few remaining street people who call out from the shadows, “Good morning,” knowing I’m a working stiff, not some mark.
That’s when the madness of driving a cab dissipates. And for a few moments, before I descend into the BART station, The City feels like … home, maybe.