(Courtesy photo)

The loneliness of the late night taxi driver


In the small hours, Howard Street can be the loneliest stretch of asphalt in The City.

Driving through the quiet streets of SoMa after midnight is like starting into an abyss. Behind you are the glass high rises of downtown and straight ahead, the rowdy clubs on 11th Street. Beyond that, the hustle and bustle of the Mission.

Between those two points, there isn’t much activity and I tend to drift into despair. Especially when it’s my last chance to redeem another pilfered shift.

With only eleven hours to make gate and gas, I spend the first half of the night in the red. Once I have my nut, then it’s my turn to earn a little scratch.

But one false move and I’m chasing the shadows of fares until I have to turn in my cab.

Maintaining a positive outlook isn’t easy when there’s so much at stake.

Even though the clubs are all hopping and partygoers are spilling out onto the sidewalk and into traffic, scoring a live one is tricky. And despite the doom and gloom that can overtake you on nights like these, you still have to be ready to force a smile once someone does flag you down. Because no one likes a party pooper.

So you just keep circling and hoping for the best …

After popping and locking up Valencia, followed by a creepy crawl down Mission, I cross myself at 13th and drive-by Monarch at Sixth. I circle the block in case the signs of life aren’t just my imagination, then head towards 11th. From there, I do the Folsom Street shuffle.

At Eighth, a line of cabs is wrapped around the Cat Club and F8 like a birthday gift that no one wants to open. Outside 1015 Folsom, the doormen point flashlights at the drivers who try to stage.

At Fifth, I take a right and cruise Blow Buddies on Harrison, where there’s always at least one cab posted up. I investigate the End-Up and consider whether to circle back to Union Square or head to the Mission.

Waiting for the light, I gauge my level of desperation and decide whether it’s worth the effort to troll Polk Street.

As if the gods were suddenly compelled to show some love, my dispatch tablet starts chirping. A radio order at Eighth and Howard. I cut through an alley to reach the address as quickly as possible.

Outside the location, I grab the dispatch mic. “This is cab…” Since I drive a different taxi every day and can never remember the number, I pull the medallion out of the slot and recite them to the dispatcher. “This is cab 922.”

A few minutes later, a woman opens my back door.

She’s going to Lucky Chances. As I take 10th Street to the freeway, she makes herself comfortable for the 20-minute ride to Colma. Reclined in the backseat, the glow from her phone reflects off the windows.

I race down 280, winding through the darkened hills. After a few miles, I consider striking up a conversation, but never really know what to say in these situations. People who go to casinos in the middle of the night seem to have specific demands. I don’t want to inadvertently jinx her or anything.

I take the Serramonte exit to the end of the line and pull up the casino. She hands me two $20 bills and thanks me.

Do I wish her good luck? Is that bad luck? Instead, I split the difference and say, “Have fun.”

On my way back to 280, I whistle past the deserted shopping centers and car dealerships, where there’s hardly another soul around. At least none living.

Beyond these megastores and massive parking lots are fields of gravestones. I try not to think of the memorial parks filled with the dead, though. Right now I need to get back to The City. It’s last call. And after that, it’ll be time to work the DJ clubs.

With only have a few hours left before turning in my cab, this is my last opportunity to turn away from the abyss and get deeper in the black.

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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