After waiting an hour for an available cab, the window guy finally calls my name. He throws a medallion and key into the drawer. I exchange them for a fiver. More than ready to hit the streets, I quickly vacuum and wash the latest clunker.
I race out of the yard and head over Potrero Hill to Caltrain. Before the 5:05 p.m. train pulls into the station, I get my accouterments in order, log in to the Flywheel phone and load a Motörhead CD into the stereo.
My first ride has multiple stops. All the while, the guy’s telling me he’ll tip me big. On an $18 fare, he gives me $20.
Whatever. I head down Market Street. A hand goes up, but a Yellow Cab jams in front of me and snakes the fare.
Undeterred, I continue on Market. At Seventh Street, I’m waiting for the light when an elderly woman approaches my cab. She opens the front door and, despite my protests to get into the back, takes the passenger seat. The light turns green. A bus is right behind me.
“Where to?” I ask impatiently.
She looks me in the face and says, “Momomomomomomomo.”
I glance in my rear-view mirror surprised the bus driver hasn’t started honking yet. They’re usually so unforgiving.
I swallow the gob of panic rising in my throat and ask again, “Where?” “Momomomomomomomo.”
There’s a slight inflection in her chant as she motions to the left. “Momomomomomomomo.”
“The Tenderloin?” She shakes her head.
Since I can’t turn left off Market, I head down Sixth Street. My brain is bouncing around my skull, slapping itself in desperation. Think! Think! Think! I try to remember what I learned in taxi school about transporting passengers with special needs. But the ADA videos we watched didn’t cover situations like these. As much as I believe in taxicabs as a public utility, sometimes I have to remind myself that, unlike my previous Uber-Lyft experience, I drive all of San Francisco now. Not just the people with smartphones who don’t mind having their personal details catalogued. I’m a taxi driver. This is the job I chose.
I look at the woman. She’s wearing grandma clothes. Her hair is styled. She reminds me of my mother. At least before the Alzheimer’s got so bad they had to take her away.
At Mission Street, she directs me to the right. At Ninth Street, she has me take another right. It seems we’re starting to communicate. I still assume we’re heading to the Tenderloin, but she indicates the lane that goes onto Hayes Street. So, Van Ness Avenue?
Stuck in traffic, I watch as she calmly digs into her purse and pulls out a pair of glasses, wipes the lenses and replaces the ones she’s wearing. Even her purse is like my mother’s, jammed full of papers and mementos.
We cross Market and she hands me a $20 bill. I realize I haven’t turned the meter on. I hold the money as I get in the middle lane on Van Ness. A few blocks later, she signals to the left.
“Ellis?” I ask.
After the turn, she emphatically has me pull over. I give her $10 change. She walks back to Van Ness.
At this point, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I can’t stop thinking about my mother. In less than a decade, she forgot how to talk and then how to eat. We were all so helpless. It was sad as hell.
I turn right on Franklin Street. At the light on O’Farrell Street, I see the woman walking up Van Ness.
I take off, heading toward Union Square. But I can’t keep going. I have to know she’ll be OK. I circle back around on Geary Street.
As I wait for the light at Van Ness, I see the assisted-living facility next to Tommy’s.
Everything comes into focus. I freaked out for nothing! She knew where she was going all along!
I laugh away the tension and wipe my eyes. It’s 6:15. I’ve had the cab for over an hour. I’m nowhere close to making my gate. When the light turns red, I come out of the pocket like a bullet and race into the belly of the beast.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.