It was just like the old days. Before the taxi industry went to shit. Back when people still called cab companies when they needed a ride. Especially on Friday nights, which is when the following aberration occurred.
Of course, as a driver in the post-Uber/Lyft world, the notion of taxis being in high demand is mostly abstract, based entirely on stories form drivers who were around then and still around now.
On this particular night, though, I got a taste of that bygone era…
It happened just after last call. During the transition period between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m., when most cabs are prowling the bars in the Mission, the Castro, Polk Street, SoMa and Union Square, while others begin forming ad hoc taxi stands outside DJ clubs like Public Works, the Great Northern, Audio, the EndUp and the Cat Club.
As I’m cruising down Valencia on my way to check out the line at Public Works, the dispatch radio comes alive.
Sometimes, I forget the two-way is even there, occasionally restarting the device to make sure it’s still functioning. There are nights when the only activity is drivers asking for radio checks. So I’m surprised to hear Jesse’s voice break the silence.
“Guys, there seem to be orders on the board,” he says. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I have phone numbers. If anyone wants to check them out …”
He starts listing off cross streets.
Since I’m only a few blocks away, I check in for Duboce and Valencia. I pull up outside Zeitgeist and ask for a callout.
“Hold on, 182.” After a short pause, Jesse responds, “On the way out.”
A few minutes later, a guy gets in the back of my cab, and I take him to Bernal Heights. I want to ask questions, figure out what’s going on with the sudden demand for taxis, but he isn’t chatty.
As I make my way down the hill to Mission, Jesse is still calling out orders. I check in for 30th and San Jose, but when I get there and ask for a callout, the number goes straight to voice mail.
“Take off, 182,” Jesse tells me. “Go to 3158 Mission.”
Outside El Rio, a woman waves me down.
Heading to the Upper Haight, Juneaux texts me: “What the fuck is going on with all these orders?”
“No idea,” I text back. “But goddamn!”
“Hell yeah! Just give me all the orders!”
Not all calls are valid. Several are no-gos. Many are corner jobs, which are “possibles” at best. The orders from bars are the most reliable, since they’re usually bartenders.
After 30 minutes of nonstop radio action, I get a call from Colin. He’s in the National office, witnessing the tsunami of mysterious orders pop up on the dispatch computer screen.
“It looks like these orders were supposed to go to Yellow,” he says. “There’s been some sort of mixup, since we use the same system.”
“This is crazy! I wonder how long it’ll last?”
“Who knows?” Colin laughs. “But Jesse is breaking a sweat over here.”
“If anyone asks why you’re not driving a Yellow cab,” Jesse yells in the background. “Just … make something up.”
When I pass other National and Veterans cabs, we look at each in ecstatic bewilderment. Who knows why this is happening, but who cares? We got orders!
I also notice Yellow cabs with their top lights blazing as they linger in areas where the orders are coming in. Maybe they’re used to regulars calling and wondering what’s going on …
The orders keep pouring in for the next hour until they stop completely, as if a faucet has been turned off.
Slowly, I meander back to the yard.
Drivers are buzzing around the office in high spirits. Daniel is lighting the grill for a celebratory barbeque. Late Night Larry passes around a pint of Bulleit. Everyone is laughing and trying to figure out what happened.
“It must have been a computer glitch …”
“Wires got crossed …”
The hows and whys and what fors will always remain a mystery. But for that one night, with only a skeleton crew of 25 or so cabs on the streets, National/Veterans took care of business like it was the old days.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.