Driving: Lawyers, reporters and crackheads, oh my.

Sunday was a busy and good day, buoyed by City events and nice weather. Monday and Tuesday were a bit slow.

  • As usual, I picked up a few lawyers going to or from work. (Work seems to always be the destination or origin for lawyers in my cab.) One lawyer was late for work but needed to pick up her dry cleaning first. She hadn’t been able to pick it up in 3 weeks because of work.

    Both hadn’t yet paid their student loans. This is one of my standard lawyer questions now, “Have you paid off your loans yet?” I’m surprised at the frequency of the answer of “No.” Perhaps those that have paid off their loans no longer identify as being a lawyer?

    One had a strong desire to change from commercial law to being some sort of public defender after paying off loans. The other seemed happy where she was.

  • I picked up a lady from a hospital in an outer neighborhood. She was heading back to her apartment downtown.

    After a few minutes of standard opening chat I learned she had lived in the City for many decades and lived through the 1989 earthquake. I hadn’t talked to other passengers about this yet, so I asked her what it was like. To my surprise she had quite a story.

    She had been heading back west toward the City over the Bay Bridge. She felt the quake as she was approaching Yerba Buena Island. Her car swerved and she described the feeling like her tires were melted rubber, or something to that effect. She came to a stop, as did the few other motorists around her. She wasn’t sure whether or not to continue, but figured it’d be safer to get off the bridge than wait for aftershocks to knock it down. She kept heading west and was happy to hit solid ground. She drove through the City back home, noticing the wreckage. Back home people asked her how she got through — they had seen on the news that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. She was stunned — she missed by just a minute that section of collapsed roadway to return home. She was one of the last people to successfully cross the bridge after the quake.

    I know luck is a human construct in a feeble attempt to rationalize chance, but I thought and said, “Gosh, you sure were lucky!”

  • Early Monday morning, around 4:30am, I was in my standard ‘Marina early morning radio hunting mode’. Along with a sizable chunk of the rest of the cab fleet, I hunt around for fares on Polk, Union and Fillmore Streets while monitoring and checking-in for radio calls in the area.

    As I was turning from north bound Van Ness to west bound Lombard to position for some deep marina radio calls, I heard a guy yelling for a cab at the hotel on the corner. He was a white guy in his late 30s, with facial hair classifiable as ‘stubble’, wearing a giants cap.

    I could tell from the start he was an odd character, but I had a hard time then (and still do now while writing this) identifying the particulars off his oddness. First off, he was heading to the Tenderloin from his Marina hotel at 4:30am. That’s odd. Well, it’s not really odd, it just means he’s picking up drugs.

    RE: Drug policy. I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to hear about it. But, if someone heads somewhere to “pick something up from a friend”, I have no real qualms about the object they’re actually up-picking. As long as they don’t take too long I don’t really care what they do. Usually drug runs are good runs — we head quickly to a destination across town, they do some sort of business, then we head right back. It’s a quick $20 or even $30 depending on distance and tipping.

    When we arrived in the Tenderloin he didn’t know exactly where he was going, changing his destination once or twice. (This is always a bad sign.) Finally he found the right corner and he said he had to go pick up a ‘diskette’. Okay, whatever. He runs across the street and around a corner. I see him appear again in a minute as he runs across to the diagonal corner, gets money from an ATM, and then disappears around the corner again.

    About this time a smartly-dressed young black guy comes up to my cab, with iPhone in hand, and asked for a ride. I explained that I was waiting for my passenger to pursue a transaction and then return to his hotel. I’d be happy to take him if I wasn’t taking somebody else. This guy wouldn’t have it. He tried all sorts of persuasive verbal techniques to let me take him, “I’ll drop you $10 right now and we’ll head up. I’ll pay for this guy’s fare. Let me just share a ride with him back to the hotel and you can drop me at my place.” His insistence was impressive and we had a nice ancillary chat about the relative ‘roughness’ of the Tenderloin vs. other economically depressed cities’ ghettos. Our shared thesis: the Tenderloin is rather tame.

    But, upon arrival of the original passenger sparks flew. The passenger got in the cab and the younger guy kept asking to share the ride. I asked the original passenger and he said, “No, let’s head to the hotel.” The original passenger looked very, very uncomfortable. The young guy started insulting the passenger and vice-versa. Perhaps I should have left before that started, but at this point I said, “Goodbye, nice to meet you,” and took off.

    The passenger was irate. “How could you let that guy talk to me like that?”

    He soon calmed down and went on a different track. “Let’s get something to eat. What’s open right now?” I mentioned I’d be happy to drop him off at the 24 hour IHOP down the street from his hotel. No, this wouldn’t work. He specifically needed fast food.

    At this point my passenger’s lack of focus became clear. He wasn’t making rational decisions, especially with regard to my time. He was just spouting off random things he wanted to do. “I need some cigarettes. Can we stop by a 24-hour market?” “I’d even be happy with a Taco Bell. Is there a Taco Bell around here?”

    “How about I just drop you back at your hotel — there are a few gas stations open around there.” This satiated him enough for a few more blocks. At this point I learned another fun fact, he was leaving the country with a quarter of a million dollars in the bank to go see the world. Wow. How’s that for odd?

    Finally we arrived back at the hotel, but, of course, by then his cigarette need resurged. “No, no, let’s go to the gas station down the block. It looks open.”

    I grudgingly accepted — the station was within sight after all. I dropped him off and he wanted me to stay to take him back to his hotel. (Yes, his hotel two blocks away.) I told him I couldn’t keep running around doing errands and expect to make any money. This was a true statement — this run was taking too much time. And pursuing errands with an erratic drug addict is not my idea of a fun time. He was pissed again, “I just don’t get the cab drivers in this city! You can’t just wait a few minutes? I’ll pay you for the metered time!” He paid just the meter, no tip, around $12, and I wished him luck on his trip and offered an apology.

    Looking back on the story of this fare, I realize it’s a bit confusing. I wish I could revise it to make more sense. But, perhaps it’s a good reflection of events — he was a confusing, confusing guy. His actions and requests were individually logical, “I’m hungry, let’s get some fast food,” but collectively irrational, “Let’s head back and forth across the City as each of my needs — food, drugs, nicotine, etc — wins in priority at any given moment, without attention paid to the external world.” I’m not sure if this state was induced by a long history of drug use, drug use at that very moment, or an inherent personality trait. But, I was happy to have him out of my cab.

  • As cab driver turnover rate is rather high, I see new drivers often and don’t give it much thought. One new driver, however, happened to engage me in conversation at the cashier window and we started chatting as we headed out of the garage after our shifts.

    I was glad I spoke with him. He had been a cab driver in Chicago many years back and commented that all the cost drivers — gate, gas, and the meter — seemed to have increased proportionally such that earnings are the same as before. But, considering inflation, real earnings are significantly lower. (That is, earning $150 a shift in the 70s was worth a lot more than it is today.)

    He is also a ham radio enthusiast and we spoke at length about the radio dispatch system used by the cab company. As I had guessed, there are 2 separate radio frequencies allocated to the cab company by the FCC — one for the dispatcher and one for the cab drivers checking-in across the City. He explained that they are both frequency modulated (FM) channels around the 150 MHz spectrum. (Remember, your favorite FM radio station is in the same ball park, 88.5 KQED is 88.5 MHz.)

    A neat feature of FM over AM is that the strongest broadcasting FM station will drown out other lower-power FM broadcasts on the same frequency. For some applications, like cabs checking-in for an order, this is desirable behavior. At least one cab will be heard clearly, while others are drowned out. This process is repeated until no cabs are left checking-in. During each check-in, at least one cab will be able to clearly check-in. Competing AM broadcasts bleed such that receivers hear a mix of all broadcasts. While not ideal for the application of cab dispatching, it is well suited for, say, emergency channels where you want to absolutely be able to hear any broadcaster calling for help.

    Thanks, driver, for the cool info.

  • I crested Taylor Street at California looking for fares Tuesday morning. I saw empty cab after empty cab heading outbound (west) on California toward the neighborhoods where fares are likely. Had those cabs not been there, I would have headed outbound on California at this point as well. But, I crawled northward on Taylor past California and saw a potential jackpot — a guy crossing the street after leaving his Nob Hill apartment with airport-bound luggage.

    Had I just started driving a cab I would have naively left him since he wasn’t doing a traditional “hail.” But, I could tell he needed a cab: he wasn’t waiting for the 1-California on Clay to take the BART, he wasn’t waiting for another cab at his house, he was walking with a purpose toward California Street where he would surely find a cab. So I pulled next to him, made eye contact, and scored a $45 fare to SFO.

    Of course, by no means does this learned skill make cab driving a lucrative profession. But, it sure does help on a slow Tuesday morning.

  • I picked up a van call at a Fisherman’s Wharf hotel. A Filipino family was waiting for me as I pulled up. They were heading to Mill Valley in the North Bay.

    This was a great trip. I love out of town trips. Not only do they pay well, but it’s a pleasure to see other parts of the Bay Area, especially beautiful drives like the SF to Mill Valley drive.

    I learned the family was emigrating from the Philippines to Canada. They were very excited at the move except for the cold Canadian weather. They tipped me well and I had a beautiful drive on a beautiful day. Thanks, family.

  • I picked up a group of reporters at a low cost hotel in ‘TenderSOMA’ where the Tenderloin’s trademark seedy feel extends below Market Street, especially west of 5th Street. I took them to the BAVC where they were meeting with other documentary filmmakers and reporters.

    One of the guys in the front worked for Frontline World which sparked an interesting discussion. I had met another Frontline World employee at a journalism meetup I attended to promote a website I’m developing. This led to a long discussion about the website I’m making and my motivations for making it: namely, the failure of local media to evolve with media consumption habits of persons under the age of 30.

    At a certain point we realized we were having an excessively cliche “San Francisco” moment: a part-time cab driver and ‘startup’ wannabe having a chat with visiting reporters about the failure of local media to evolve at the same pace as technology. And, to pour salt in the wounds, we both mentioned we’ll blog about it afterward. Ouch. It’s like something out of an Onion headline: “Blogging cab driver blogs about blogging passengers.”

  • A few staff members at the cab company mentioned they heard about my blog. Hi, fellow cab company staff members and/or drivers.
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3 Responses to Driving: Lawyers, reporters and crackheads, oh my.

  1. Julius says:

    It shouldn’t be so surprising that so few lawyers you speak with haven’t paid off their loans. ~$120-150K of debt from law school is pretty standard these days, so it takes a lot of people +20 years to pay it all back.

  2. desotogreg says:

    hey K
    i love the one one about the skilled tuesday am airport flag they are without a doubt the best medicine for an industry that always seems to make you feel like why am i out here so early no one needs a cab right now.but alas so many people so few actual drivers focused awake and looking for flags in the dark.man i tell ya im lookin in the bushes til about 7am and with some limited success.for all the green peas and the addicted and the just dont give a shit drivers passing by that guy instead of wondering
    (hey i wonder what hes doing with those suitcases at this time of the morning)god bless you all

    desotogreg

  3. kfarr says:

    @Greg: Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, the Tuesday eagle-eye pickup was nice proof that you can get to be a much better driver with experience, and it actually helps your take-home pay!

    @Julius: Yeah, whenever the spark of an idea forms to consider law I remind myself of the debt it would incur and I keep driving a cab and working on a website instead.

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