“We don’t have the shields here like they have in New York,” says Joe. Not the plexiglass variety, anyhow. His arm is draped over the passenger seat and he keeps turning right around to talk to me, as if he’s backing up, or we’re having brunch. But we’re not backing up. Nor are we having brunch, though it’s Sunday morning. He’s driving me to work down Folsom Street, which is smooth as a desert highway at this hour.
“Driving cabs is mostly pretty safe,” he says, with his back to the oncoming traffic. Some years ago there was a spate of armed robberies, but they’ve had little trouble since the drivers took care of ten or a dozen guys, he says. I ask, cautiously, what that means.
“There was one guy, Blackie, he was a legend. He picked up a guy at the Greyhound Station once; guy was acting funny from the minute he gets in. They’re a few blocks away when he pulls a gun. Okay, okay, says Blackie, and makes like he’s getting out his wallet. But he has a clamshell holster under his arm.”
Joe slides his left hand across his chest, then cocks two fingers at the empty seat beside me. “Shoots the guy right through the seat. He drives round the block straight back to the Greyhound Station, dumps the body in front of the guy’s buddies, and stuffs the Red Cab receipt in his mouth. ‘Anyone else need that kind of a ride?’ he says, and they’re just sta-a-aring at him. So he says, ‘Tell the cops I’m at the Black Crow.'”
Blackie got off. Word got around that drivers would radio each other and hunt guys down. Word got around that there were easier pickings than cab-drivers.
“These days it’s quiet. We have the camera right here,” he says, tapping the little eye above the rearview mirror. “If someone gets in and they’re acting strange, got the hood pulled down over their face or something, there’s a button I can push on the door handle to take another twelve photos. Anything worse, I’ve got a panic button between the gas and the brake. We got GPS in all the cars now, so they know where I am.”
There are a lot more women driving cabs these days, he says. “It’s not a bad job for them, especially during the day. You get a run of good fares, and by that I mean in the nine- to twelve-dollar range, you can pull down four hundred bucks on a long shift. Flexible. Not too much trouble.”
“Your drunken Irish brothers are okay, colleen,” he says, craning around. When he smiles it’s plain our faces have borrowed features from the same drawer. “They just get in and say, ‘I’m drunk, mate, I won’t give you trouble, just take me home and if I have to puke I’ll let you know.’ You know where you are with them. It’s the Marina yuppies the cabdrivers don’t like. I won’t pick up anyone at Bush and Gough after eleven at night. First they’ll hold the door open and say their friend is on his way out–and you know he’s in there still throwing up his beer or hitting on some woman who’s not interested. Then they finally get in, and they want to go three blocks to an ATM. Then they want to go another two blocks to some pizza place with a line out the door. They want to drop someone off. And when they finally go home, it’s maybe six blocks total of a fare. They wonder why the taxis keep passing them by…”
I tell him about the rates posted in Dublin taxis. It’s $35 to go to the airport, and $75 if you puke up your paycheck. Typed up and laminated, though not in those words. The drivers shrug. It just pays for the cleaning, not for the loss of a night’s business, and so they hope the barfers and the bleeders stay away at least until the end of a shift. Nobody seems to think it’s odd that there’s a standardized charge for getting too pissed to hold your dinner.
He asks my favorite Irish bar, and when I can’t name one, he prompts. The Dubliner? The 32 Counties? The Oscar Wilde? Perhaps to make me feel at home, he starts a tangled story about meeting an old IRA guy and his sister in a raw juice bar on Haight, and I become convinced he’s talking about Jimmy Smits from Law & Order. It’s a familiar feeling, holding up a slippery conversation with smiles and nods, and for a moment I pretend I’m back on the road in Peru rather than heading to an office in SoMa.
“You know, sometimes people get in, and they have no idea where they’re going,” says Joe. “I picked up this one guy, he says, ‘I want to do a round trip.’ No problem, I say, where to? And he gets all mad. ‘Here, of course, where do you think, I said _round trip.’_ Well, I tell him, sir, I think you’re already here. “Oh,” he says, and gets out. Twenty per cent of the time, people act surprised to find themselves in a cab. I swear, it didn’t cross their mind until they saw a taxi that they wanted to go anywhere. And these are normal, ordinary people. Just acting on impulse.”
He’s been driving cabs for twenty-five years. “I love it,” he says. “People tell me stuff.”