Deciding between sustenance and income is no laughing matter. (Courtesy photo)

Deciding between sustenance and income is no laughing matter. (Courtesy photo)

The top light is on, but I’m not

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Tonight, The City is a ghost town. Burning Man, Labor Day weekend and the end of summer vacation have all conspired to make this shift as excruciating as possible.

Last call comes and goes with little fanfare. I still need $20 to hit my quota, preferably in cash since I don’t want to use my debit card to pay my gate. But I’m exhausted. I’m starving. My head hurts. I’ve waited too long to eat. My stomach has been rumbling for hours.

After sitting in line outside the Cat Club for half an hour, I finally get a $10 ride to the Dogpatch. The guy pays with a card. From there, I head to the Mission.

I really need to eat. I contemplate making a beeline to the gas station on 17th and South Van Ness for some fried chicken, but I’m only halfway to my quota. I take a right on Mission Street instead.

I cruise past Faralito. There’s a line out the door. Is this where everyone is tonight? I wonder. At 19th, a few people linger outside Beauty Bar. I drive by slowly.

Thankfully, no one flags me. I’m too hungry to deal with a passenger anyway. At 17th and Mission, I take a right. As I approach the signal at South Van Ness, I can see there are no cars in the station. And no line at the register. I’m as golden as the chicken strips I’m about to order.

Just then, a black woman in a wheelchair on the corner waves at me.

“Hey! I need a cab!” she yells.

But I need chicken!

Heading south is a Yellow cab. Heading west is another Yellow cab.

“I’m not available. One of these other taxis will …”

Even though there’s not a fare around for miles, when they see the situation, both Yellow drivers speed away.

She looks at me. “So, are you going to give me a ride or not?”

“Can I just grab some chicken real fast?” I point at the gas station, practically inches away.

“Oh sure, leave me out here in the cold.”

“No, really.”

“Whatever.”

I walk into the store with her gaze on my back. When I return to my cab, she yells at me from across the street, “You got your chicken. Now can you give me a ride?”

“Sure. Where you heading?”

“Third and La Salle. I have money,” she adds testily.

“Hold on.”

I swing around. She climbs into the backseat while I try to shove her wheelchair into the trunk. I angle it one way, then another.

“Don’t break my chair!” she yells.

“It doesn’t fit,” I tell her.

“Are you even trying?”

“Yes!”

“Alright, put it in the backseat. I’ll get up front.”

I push the passenger seat as far back as it will go and she squeezes in. I slide the wheelchair in the back.

As she struggles with the seatbelt, I tell her she doesn’t have to use it since she’s disabled.

“I ain’t no damn crash-test dummy! What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m just trying to be helpful!”

She laughs and squeezes my arm. “I’m sorry. Thanks for picking me up. My name’s Tanya.”

“No problem. I’ve just had a rough night.”

“Me too. You mind if I listen to the radio?”

“Help yourself.”

She finds an R&B station. Al Green comes on. She hands me a $20 bill, tells me to keep the change and starts singing along to “Tired of Being Alone.”

And just like that, my night has sorted itself out nicely. I got food. I got my gate in cash. And I’m dropping right down the street from the National yard …

As I pull up to the corner of Third and La Salle with TLC blasting and Tanya singing lead, there’s a crowd of people standing around on the sidewalk.

“Look at these damn fools,” she mutters.

A couple guys move toward my cab. Tanya opens the passenger door and they retreat.

“Mrs. Tanya!” someone shouts. “What you doing in a taxi?”

I get out to retrieve her wheelchair.

“And look here,” a girl sitting in a parked car says. “You got the white man helping out in the hood.”

Everyone laughs.

“Someone’s got to do it!” Tanya snaps at her.

“Yeah, you right,” she concedes. “Someone’s got to.”

With that, I tip the proverbial hat and beat it back to the yard. I got a box of gas station fried chicken with my name on it.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.I Drive SFKelly DessaintLyftSan FranciscotaxiTransitUber

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