“I barely remember what it was like not to have a map of The City tattooed on the inside my skull.” (Courtesy Trevor Johnson)

When I was a newbie, Part II


SEE RELATED: When I was a newbie, Part I

At Geary, I turn right and cruise past Whiskey Thieves and the Ha-Ra. After a cursory glance at Edinburgh Castle, I take a left on Polk to check out the strip clubs before heading to SoMa.
I’m still thinking about my last fare: the two ladies who kept calling me a “newb” and their barrage of advice on how to become a good horrible cab driver …

While they were obviously joking, I can’t help but remember when I was a newb — a deer in the headlights Lyft driver, that is — and how most of my passengers had these nightmare experiences dealing with The City’s taxi service that mirrored the ladies’ acerbic suggestions: not accepting credit cards, refusing non-airport rides, talking on the phone incessantly and freaking out if you questioned their route.

It seemed like you weren’t a real San Franciscan unless you had a handful of horror stories about taking taxis. People talked about missing flights, losing jobs, getting stuck in the rain and practically left for dead.

My Lyft passengers were so thrilled to have a ride they didn’t care that I barely knew how to get around. (Or refused to attach that hideous pink mustache to the grill of my Jetta.)

I got my bearings fast, though. Before signing up for Lyft, I’d picked up a map of San Francisco at AAA, pinned it to my bedroom wall and studied the main thoroughfares and all the neighborhoods. For two weeks prior to picking up my first fare, I drove all over, crisscrossing The City and figuring out how to get from one part of town to the next. I even made hand-drawn maps of each neighborhood in a Moleskin to familiarize myself with the lay of the land.

Lyft was different back in 2014. People didn’t put their destinations in the app. They got in your car — almost always in the front seat — and told you their destination. Just like in a taxi. I put their destination in Waze or, if I were lucky, they’d direct me. I learned various shortcuts and different routes to avoid traffic from riders.

I was experiencing San Francisco in a way I never thought possible and meeting tons of people. Sure, there were occasional jerks, but the vast majority of my passengers were friendly and cool. In fact, I’m still Facebook friends with a few.

And believe it or not, I was making good money. Lyft’s fares back then were just slightly below taxi rates. On my first night, I drove someone from the Lower Haight to SFO. The ride cost $36. In a taxi, it would be around $40. Of course, hardly anyone tipped (if you don’t count fist bumps), but there was money to be made in these hills … without a doubt.

Until that summer, when Uber started the price wars of 2014 and everything went to shit. Soon, the competing apps began to merge, both price-wise and quality-wise, with only branding to tell them apart.

Before then, people would take Uber when they were going to work or had to deal with business during the ride, and it made sense to sit in back. If they were going out, they’d take Lyft because it was more fun to interact with the driver. But that quickly changed. Soon it was all about which app was cheaper or who had the lowest surge multiplier.

Eventually, Lyft sent out a press release encouraging passengers to sit in back. And fist bumps became optional.

I persevered for a while and maintained a 4.9 rating, telling myself I had to fully document the experience so as to inform the public just how badly drivers were being treated — until turning on the app was like self-flagellation, and I realized nobody really cares about the drivers. Just cheap rides fast.

I’ve been driving the mean streets of San Francisco for more than three years now, but it feels like an eternity. I barely remember what it was like not to have a map of The City tattooed on the inside of my skull. And even though I’ve probably engaged in hundreds — if not thousands — of conversations about Uber and Lyft with passengers in my taxi, I never bring up my past as a driver. Not even when I’m asked for the umpteenth time if I’ve ever thought about “switching sides.”

I just smile and say, “Nah. It’s a cabbie’s life for me …”

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.

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