After dropping off a group of costumed revelers in Noe Valley, I’m heading down to Market, where I hope to quickly find another fare so I won’t be driving empty longer than a few minutes.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and business has been booming since the fireworks display ended. With Uber surging, and Lyft’s servers malfunctioning, everyone wants a taxi.
Still, this close to Castro, I’m not expecting to get hailed by an old scraggly dude with long white hair, but I pull over anyway.
“Just head down Market towards the waterfront.”
I hit the meter reluctantly and check him out in the rearview. At first, I think he might have wandered down from the Haight or something, but his stained jeans and gaunt face suggest he’s probably a street person.
He’s congenial enough, though, making idle chitchat. Asks me how my night’s going. I tell him things started off slow at first, then the floodgates opened after midnight.
Once again, I try to find out where he’s going.
“I need to catch a bus out of town,” he says finally.
“So Transbay Terminal then?”
I keep driving down Market in the red lane until we enter the belly of the beast around Union Square, where the sidewalks are crowded with people trying to flag down cabs.
As I pass Third, he says, “You need to turn right soon.”
“Yeah, at Beale,” I tell him.
“I think you need to turn sooner.”
“I want you to take a right on First.”
“But First is congested with cars going to the bridge,” I tell him. “Look.” It’s almost impossible to get past the intersection with all the cars blocking the box.
“I really want you to take First,” he insists.
“OK, you’re the boss.”
The far left lane on First is a taxi and bus only lane, but it’s packed with cars. And the right turn lane on Market is jammed. There’s no other way to access the taxi lane than by turning off Market from the middle lane, which I do as a patrolman directing traffic shakes his head at me disapprovingly.
At Mission, I try to take a left, but the old man wants to keep going down First to the bus station.
“There’s no bus station on First,” I tell him.
“Yes, there is.”
At Folsom, he realizes I’m right, and I head to the Transbay Terminal. The fare is $17.80. He fumbles with his money for several minutes, eventually handing me a brand new $100 bill. With that prominent purple strip, I don’t even have to hold it up to the light. I give him four twenties and he tells me to keep the rest.
While I’m waiting for him to exit the cab, a crusty kid approaches my window.
“How much to the McDonald’s on Haight?”
“Will you take two of us and a pup? We have money.”
While he runs across the street, two well-dressed guys ask me if I’m available.
“No, I already have a fare.”
“But we need to go to the Armory,” one explains.
They don’t want to take no for an answer. I get the sense they feel they deserve a cab ride more than the crusties loading their gear into my trunk. But my policy is first-come, first-served — even on New Year’s Eve. I tell them to walk two blocks to Market and try and find a cab there.
From the moment the guy, his girlfriend and their dog get in the backseat, an overwhelming stench assaults my olfaction. They just got into San Francisco, they inform me, after hitching and hopping all the way from Atlanta.
I try not to breathe through my nose as I tell them about the old guy and his $100 bill.
“He musta been spanging like a motherfucker to score a hundo,” the guy says. “But then, money grows on trees here.”
Back on Market, people wave their hands and scream, “Taxi! Taxi!” At a red light, some guys rush towards my cab, see the backseat is occupied and grudgingly retreat.
“We’re popular tonight,” the guy says to his girlfriend. “First fireworks, now this … I told you everything would work out when we got home. They don’t call me the Frisco Kid for nothing.”
As I fight my way up Market, cursing the idiotic drivers and suicidal pedestrians, they relax in the backseat and enjoy the ride in style.