A Story with Legs: Stumbling into the San Francisco Transportation War
One of the last things she said to me before walking out the door was, “I’m so sick and tired of hearing you talk about taxis and Uber! Uber this! Taxi that! Blah blah blah.”
Now I’m not about to blame, much less give credit to, San Francisco’s transportation problems for ruining my marriage — I’ve done a pretty good job of that myself. But it didn’t help.
At first Irina enjoyed hearing my crazy stories when I got home late from driving Lyft, then Uber in the city. She usually waited up for me and, while she drifted off to sleep, I’d regale her with the details of my rides. But eventually, she got bored. Because, as she pointed out once, they were all the same story with only slight variations. Some drunk girl did this, some drunk guy did that, fuck these techies, the Marina sucks, police activity in the Mission, Lyft sucks, Uber sucks, everything sucks, etc. etc. etc.
After a night of driving in the city, though, the need to purge the experience from your brain is like puking from drinking too much cheap booze. I assume most, if not all, fulltime drivers go through this same predicament, regardless of whether they drive an Uber-Lyft, a limo or a taxi.
Or any combination thereof.
Driving isn’t an easy job. It takes a toll on every aspect of your life. That’s why we flock to Facebook groups and Twitter and start blogs to express our frustrations, air grievances, share the occasional positive anecdote and offer advice to newbies. If you’re smart, you spare your loved ones the mental garbage you collect during the long shifts.
The need to release the pressure that builds up from transporting people around a city is what makes this job different from others. Sure, everybody talks about their coworkers at home or relates some funny incident that happened, but generally, you forget about work at the end of the day until you have to deal with it again.
Driving gets inside you. And it’s almost impossible to get out.
My friend Colin, who holds medallion 1434, told me a while back that you had to be a little off in the head to drive a cab. At the time, I took it as a compliment. Now I’m not so sure.
When I first started driving for hire, I had no clue I was stumbling into a cesspool of festering absurdity. How was I supposed to know a battle was raging in the streets? I just wanted to make some money and explore San Francisco. I figured I’d get a few good stories out of the experience, make a zine about it and move on.
That was a year and a half ago.
As I delved further into San Francisco’s vehicle for hire debate, I realized I was in the front seat of a story with legs.
Hey, it’s no Benghazi, but it makes headlines.
Even though I had a book deal and the manuscript was already past the publisher’s deadline, the Uber- Taxi debate continued to be an irresistible distraction.
From the beginning, I was astonished at how the narrative practically wrote itself. I was like a prospector who’d struck it rich. I just held my pan in the creek and collected nugget after nugget of golden material.
Most of my passengers didn’t know their words and actions had any significance to me. But they were actually telling the story of the new San Francisco. And I was there to document the vapid attitudes of so many of these new transplants who complain about the weather, the fog, the hills, the filth, the bums, the dating scene, the tech scene and the fact that there aren’t enough restaurants open late at night. But they love the money. That’s all most people talk about.
And just like those “tiny little boxes” on the hills of Westlake, they all look just the same.
One night I was driving up Franklin and this guy stuck his head out the window and screamed, “I made thirty million dollars so far this year!” Then commandeered my stereo and really got the party started…
After I started driving a taxi, Irina liked hearing about the other cab drivers. Now there were reoccurring characters in my stories. Not just random drunks who cycled through our car. Eventually, she even put faces to some of the names.
When she was in the city at night, I’d take her with me the yard to cash out. She thought the wreckage of the place was phenomenal. And she really wanted to go to one of the barbeques to see the spectacle first hand.
I loved telling her Late Night Larry stories. I even tried to imitate his inflections so she got the full experience. I’d tell her about Chucky, who told me, when I first met him, there was no business at the Cat Club cabstand and he only goes there because he doesn’t drive a cab to make money.
“If you go there, you’ll just be hanging out with my ugly ass.”
So guess where I was the next night?
“You’re still a green pea,” Chucky said as he bummed a cigarette. “Now let me tell you how this cabstand works…”
All roads lead to Uber. It’s around you all the time when you’re on the streets, like an insidious black cloud. Somehow all conversations came back to Uber..
A New York Times reporter contacted me once, wanting to know what I thought of the taxi versus Uber debate. At the end of our interview, she just sighed. I didn’t know what to tell her. How do you make sense of something so ludicrous as people who are so desperate for money there are willing to use their personal cars as taxicabs?
I had assumed the whole “rideshare” phenomenon was a passing fad. An oddity worthy of comment, but I just figured, since it’s technically illegal, how long could it possibly last?
Maybe in a few years, people will laugh about how they used to ride in the backseat of some random dude’s Honda Fit chewing on Starburst. But now we can only hold our breath…
Despite the hardships and the sacrifices drivers have to make to survive these days, the story of the San Francisco Taxi Industry is far from over. We all know something needs to change.
As far as I can tell, after 10 months of driving for Uber and six months in a cab, they’re both unsustainable in their current models.
The livelihoods of all drivers are being held in limbo because of a debate over semantics. Uber is just beating the cab companies at their own game. A game they invented.
It might actually be comical if all the drivers in The City, taxi and otherwise, weren’t rats on a sinking ship.