It’s one of those nights. I’ve been driving empty for almost an hour, trolling the bars in North Beach as last call looms. With no takers, I head to Union Square, then venture on to Polk Street, where I quickly realize the error of my ways and exit stage left to see what SoMa has to offer.
Somehow, I end up in the Financial. Brain dead, I’m cruising down Sutter when a hand goes up. Two guys. One comes to my window. The other is slumped on the curb like a bloated sack of trash. My first instinct is to drive away. Then I hear Daly City.
Our spokesperson’s breath reeks of alcohol, but he seems mostly cognizant.
I motion to his friend. “Is he OK?”
“He’s not gonna throw up, I promise.”
Whenever somebody tells me they’re wasted companion is not going to vomit in my cab, I can’t help but think they will.
“You know it’s $100 if he does, right?” As a night cabbie, it’s my job to transport the intoxicated citizens of The City home after hours — I am the patron saint of late-night drunks. But I’m also like Charon. You have to pay for safe passage in my cab.
“Don’t worry. He got it all out. We just really need to get home. I’ll take care of you, I swear.”
Another empty promise, the “I’ll take care of you” line usually means an extra dollar or two on top of the fare. I’m just hoping my desperation for a decent ride doesn’t backfire on me. So far, after two years of driving nights, I have yet to clean up another person’s puke. And I hope to keep my streak going.
I watch the guy drag his friend over and shove the pile of drunken flesh through the door and across my backseat.
He sits up front and asks, “What’s your name?”
“Andrew. I really appreciate this. He’s my boy, and I can’t leave him out here like this.”
“No problem,” I say, but immediately realize there is a problem. I haven’t made it half a block when the most evil scent known to man rises up from the backseat and wraps itself around my head like a wrestler putting me in the sleeper hold.
“What the hell?” I demand, squeezing my nose.
“He shit himself.”
“What the hell?” It’s all I can think to say as I roll down my window.
“I know it’s bad. Sorry.”
“Has he just never had alcohol before? Cause …” I stick my head out the window for a second. “God damn!”
“I don’t know what his problem is. We drank the same amount. I just gotta get him home. He’s my boy.”
At this point, there’s not much I can do but drive as quickly as possible. The fresh air doesn’t help much. I remember the aromatherapy oil in my bag, grab the vile, put a few drops on a napkin and stick it in the vent. I turn on the heater and make sure the recirculate button is on. It does little to mitigate the stench though.
On I-280, I’m driving so fast that the taximeter is rattling on the dash like it’s about to fall off.
“You mind if I listen to some music?” Andrew asks.
I assume he’s going to grab my auxiliary cord, but he puts in ear buds and raps along quietly to the music in his head.
I try to pretend like this isn’t happening, too, but the stink from the backseat keeps tapping me on the shoulder and punching me in the face. Finally, at the John Daly Boulevard exit, he directs me to a house in the hills.
The meter reads $22.75.
“Make it $50.” He hands me his card.
I run it through my Square, and the approval notice absolves them.
“Am I home?” the guy in the back mumbles as Andrew rousts him out of the cab.
“Yeah. Let’s go, motherfucker.” He pushes him towards the house.
I look in the backseat. There’s only a little drool. Still, it’s hard to tell if the odor is lingering or just banked in my olfactory memory.
To be on the safe side, I race back to the yard, grab the container of disinfectant wipes from the office and clean every surface the guy might have tainted.
Back on the prowl for rides, I’m sure my cab smells lemony fresh, but when the next passenger asks how my night is going, I don’t tell them this story.
Like the Sacrament of Penance, it’s our dirty little secret.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @piltdownlad.