I'm Gonna Shoot the President! ... I'm Gonna Shoot the President!
This is a true story:
In the summer of 1984 the Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco. Jimmy Carter had lost the presidency four years earlier to Ronald Reagan, his popularity having waned due in part to his perceived failure in the Iran hostage crisis. Dianne Feinstein was the relatively new mayor of the City, caught in the national limelight she needed to showcase her town in the best possible way.
In the weeks leading up to the event the streets were lightly repaved to give the appearance of new when in fact the job was done poorly and the paving came up in chunks following the departure of the Democrats. Contrary to her liberal image, Feinstein had the police arrest every petty criminal, prostitute and miscreant; the jails were overflowing. In a series of late-night sweeps (to avoid the public eye), her police and other city forces surrounded and apprehended all the homeless bums they could find. I witnessed one of these sweeps in the Civic Center at about four in the morning. Squads of police descended on the area, cordoned it off to block any escape, then picked 'em up like so much trash, putting their belongings into garbage trucks, their shopping carts on flatbeds, and them onto Muni buses commandeered as paddy wagons. Those who offered stiffer resistance were placed in cuffs and taken away in black and whites (well, powder blue and whites in those days). There were medical personnel on hand for those unable to walk on their own. They were transported out to Candlestick Park, where a concentration camp had been set up, a mere chain-link fence around a series of broken-down Municipal buses towed into position serving as barracks with porta potties for toilets. Each "detainee" was given a blanket and told to relax for a few days.
I witnessed this at that late time of night in my somewhat unique position: I was a cab driver. My name is John, and I drove Veterans Cab #205.
The City was excited that summer. It was hotter than normal 80s, 90s, day after day. The upcoming convention was on everyone's lips, especially hotel and restaurant workers. "Would it be busy? ... Would they tip well? ... How much money would I make?" These concerns didn't impress me and the other cabbies; we knew it would be a bust for us; politicians are lawyers and lawyers are cheap, plus locals were planning to be out of town that week or at least maintaining a low profile, and they were our bread and butter.
I was in the habit of walking the ten or twelve blocks to work with one of my buddies, Steve, who worked at Yellow, just a short distance from my garage south of Market. Steve was right out of central casting if you needed someone to play a cabbie, he was it. He was counter-culture; actually he was counter-counter-culture, five-foot-four (he insists it's five) with a mouth that is not bound by the constraints of common sense or the mores of decent society. Intellectually he was capable of both great insight and even greater imbecility. He could talk endlessly on politics, but couldn't tell you where Venice was. He was a follower of Da Freejon, Werner Gerhard and the Big Kahuna, but disdained the traditional Western religions.
I lived in what I called the Larkin Corridor near the Civic Center on the edge of the Tenderloin; Steve lived at Union Square, so would stop at my place on the way into work. One hot day, about a week before the convention, he stopped by while I was still getting ready, and for reasons known only to himself (or perhaps not even him) he yelled out the window of my fifth-floor apartment, "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!"
Naturally I lunged at him, striking him in the shoulder telling him to "Shut up! ... That's not funny!"
"Ah, who's gonna hear? No one cares ... It's a free country."
After expressing myself further in no uncertain terms, we headed out the door. Steve had found a button and he was going to push it. Two blocks down the street was the Federal Building, I don't know how many stories of glass and steel. Called the Ice Cube Tray when it was first built due to it's resemblance to that device, it housed the San Francisco and western regional offices of the U.S. Marshals, the FBI, Secret Service, Treasury, CIA, ATF, U.S. Appeals Courts, and so forth. There were more guns and badges in and around that building than in any spot in San Francisco and we had to walk right by it.
"I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!"
"Shut up, you moron!" I said, "Are you tryin' to get us busted?"
"Oh, they can't hear us! What's the big deal?"
"The big deal is that I want to work this week, not sit in a little room in the basement of that building for four days and they can hear us, they have cameras and listening devices all around this place!"
"Ah you're just paranoid, ha, ha, ha, ha! They ain't shit! I'm the great Steve _____ [name deleted to protect his identity] and I don't take crap from no one!"
For the next several days and nights when we went to the diner, the pub, the movies, anywhere, he'd yell out "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!" When I would catch a glimpse of him while on duty, no matter where or what time, "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!" If within my reach I'd either throttle, slap or punch him. Oh, he thought my reaction was just so funny!
For days the City had been filling up with newsman, delegates, Secret Service all the flotsam and jetsam of the political sea. It's was hot, very hot, over 90 degrees all week. Steve and I were working the day shift that year and by check-in time we were candidates for a shower, a cold one and whatever else might relax and prepare us for the next shift in twelve hours or so. It was literally the day before the official beginning of the four day and night circus. Steve and I were at the airport waiting for our final fare of the afternoon. This is a tough position for a day driver as you had to get the cab back to the barn at a particular time so the night driver, who was always impatiently waiting, could get out. Steve was about five cabs behind me on the stand and was due in soon, in perhaps less than half an hour the pressure was on. I had a little more time.
I was standing by the rear of my hack with the trunk open in anticipation of loading luggage when a middle-aged black man came out, cheap suit (with an American flag pin in his lapel), carry-on, and a vinyl "fag bag." In the late '70s these sling bags, reminiscent of women's shoulder purses, were all the rage with gays, the disco crowd and Europeans; no real man would be caught dead with one. However, the Secret Service found that they were a handy place to keep their Uzis and anyone who had ever watched TV knew what they were and who he was. I loaded his carry-on, then went to reach for the shoulder bag. "Only I handle that" he said, and proceeded to place it in the trunk.
I said, "Why don't you take it in the cab with you?"
"Oh no," he says. "I don't think I'm going to need it just yet."
"Ha! You don't know how dangerous this job is," I responded. "When I was on the night shift, I wished I had you to ride with me all night long."
"Is it alright if I sit in front?" he asked.
"Of course, I couldn't ask for a better person to ride shotgun."
We pulled out of the airport and onto the Bayshore Freeway, a twenty-minute ride to his destination, the Holiday Civic Center. "Good," I thought, it was near my garage. As I said, it was hot and all of my windows were down no AC in those days. Although we never used the words "Secret Service," we talked about how the City was jumping, everyone's excitement and, of course, security. I told him that the local authorities had picked up the bums, whores, drug dealers, drag queens, pick pockets, thieves, anyone with a warrant, nuts and crazies his job would be easy. I had momentarily forgotten one nut who had thus far slipped through the cracks. My attention was directed to my rear-view mirror where I observed a Yellow cab maneuvering wildly in traffic, high speed, unsafe lane changes, tailgating. I felt that worlds were going to collide, not just autos ... my heart sank.
My Secret Service friend had grown quiet and contemplative after his long flight from Washington; he no doubt had a lot on his mind. One of the great things about cab driving is the people you meet, the things they've seen and done, the stories they tell you or you tell them. The social intercourse is like no other. Normally when a passenger grew quiet like this, I would just let him rest, but knowing what was screaming up behind me, the yellow comet that was going to strike my world and make all that was comfortable and known to me vanish in a burst of childish asininity, I knew I had to take both evasive action and distract my passenger from the certainty of impending doom.
At first I tried to distance myself from Steve but both his speed and daring were greater than mine. If I couldn't outrun him, then I would maneuver to lanes farther away, outside shouting range. Nothing worked. My passenger became suspicious of my driving. I made some kind of excuse, but his face showed disbelief; years of reading people told him I was being deceptive.
The comet grew closer. I knew he would pull up on the passenger side and get my attention. I tried a final time to race ahead, then I slowed so he would overshoot fast, slow, fast, slow ... he was coming alongside, pacing me. My new friend from Washington showed more concern. He started looking around. I began distracting him with conversation: "How 'bout them Senators?" I asked. "Aren't they having a good season?"
"Well considering that they've been outta business since I was a kid, I guess I'd have to say no."
Steve's face was in my rear-view mirror, big grin, the collision was nigh, he made his move to my right. "Is that wind botherin' ya? Why don't you roll the window up?" He looked at me incredulously. "Good," I thought, "Look at me, don't look to the right." Just past his profile I could see Steve trying to get my attention ... six feet away ... five feet ... four. I can't remember what I was saying to my rider; anything to keep his eyes on me ... three feet ... Steve was desperate to get my attention we were neck and neck, the comet and my beautiful planet on a collision course.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Steve pounded on the outside of his driver's door. My passenger and I both jerked our heads at the same time. "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!" and it was over, fire and ice, smoke and flame, dust and debris, the two worlds never meant to be were now one, mine of reason and caution and his of irreverence and irrationality.
He shot up ahead of me, his passengers in evident fear for their safety and now me for mine. The satisfaction on Steve's face, that shit-eatin' grin will forever be a part of me, burned into my mind by the red-hot poker of fear and failure. My world was now dead.
The agent, in a single swift motion, pulled a pocket-sized notebook and pen out of his shirt (like the Uzi and the flag pin in the lapel, they're standard equipment). He began writing. Before he could say anything, I was already begging for mercy and singing like the proverbial canary of old gangster movies. (Footnote: For all of those out there who know me, have known me or ever will know me, though I am a child of the '60s, I vow never to take a fall for you. Whether it be pot, child support, petty theft, homicide or threats on presidents, I draw the line on friendship. I will talk, squeal, testify under oath, whatever it takes to keep my ass outta your frying pan). "His name is Steve____, he lives at the Will Rogers Hotel, corner of Post and Taylor, five foot four (or five), blue eyes, brown hair, originally from Western Washington ... he doesn't mean it, it's just a sick joke!"
I realized I had to draw a boundary between me and Steve ... yeah. I knew him, but we "weren't really friends." The Fed just looked up from his notepad, stared at me emotionlessly, and said "could you catch up to him?"
"Yeah sure ... unh huh, unh huh," I muttered, not really wanting to. Steve's driving was outrageous and there is no way I could safely match it and besides if I did catch up he would just repeat "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!"
Some years earlier, a popular film with Robert De Niro, "Taxi Driver," about a wacked-out cabbie stalking a political candidate, had won critical acclaim. In it, the cabbie, Travis Bickle, drew the unwanted attention of the Secret Service and, failing in his attempt on the politician, turned his anger to pimps and street scum. At the time and for years to come, this was America's idea of a cab driver, and that image was telegraphed by the agent next to me.
"Can you get a little closer?"
I said that I couldn't, that he was just driving too dangerously (which was true).
"Then can you get him on the radio?" Of course Steve worked for a different company on another channel, but I offered to call our dispatcher and ask him to use his landline. "Vet 205 over" ... "Stand by 205, I'm busy" ... "Vet 205 over" ... "205 I told you to wait!" Our dispatcher, Tommy, was the best in the business, he could talk to three drivers simultaneously, answer the phones, call out and dispatch orders, all while reading a magazine. He also liked a good emergency if you were ever in trouble, call Tommy and fifteen cabbies would come to your rescue before the cops had put down their donuts.
"205 what is it?"
"Tommy, no time to explain, I've got a federal officer in the cab that wants you to contact Yellow and find out the destination of cab 512, it's Steve___" (Tommy knew him, he used to work for us.) "Have him stand down and wait for us, this is not a joke!"
Tommy knew I would never make up something like that and complied; he came back a coupla minutes later. "205 ... 512 is not responding."
We were off the freeway and my carmate urged me to attempt to catch Steve and it did seem possible now that his driving was modified by heavy rush-hour traffic I could see him not far ahead. At this point I wanted to catch him, not so much to see a malefactor get apprehended, not to protect the president (who was of course in no danger from this nut), but to see a friend of mine get his ass thrown on the hood of a car and his hands cuffed behind him. I wanted to see that shit-eatin' grin change to a shocked frown of resolution knowing that what I had been telling him all week was not only true but that I had been the delivery boy of this justice. I wanted to have the shit-eatin' grin and for him to see it on me.
I nearly caught him but he ran a red light at Market Street headed right for our own destination at Holiday Eighth (cabbie talk for the Holiday Inn Hotel, Civic Center, on Eighth Street).
"It looks like he's headed right to your hotel" I said, "It'll take him a minute to drop his passengers so we may get him."
The agent had hardly said a word since this pursuit began and I was still concerned over my potential complicity in all this (guilt by association). "I really like Ronald Reagan," I said feebly, an obvious lie. The officer didn't even look at me. We turned the corner onto Eighth Street, and I roared down the lane. Steve's passengers were running from his cab in obvious delight that they had survived the experience. I became excited that we were gonna catch him. Blowing my horn furiously, I tried to pull in front of him cop-style and block him in.
He just looked over with that grin and yelled "I'm gonna shoot the President! ... I'm gonna shoot the President!" and floored it just as I was moving into his path. We nearly crashed.
I was spent. "Do you want me to pursue him? He's going straight down this street to his garage, it's at the corner of Eighth and Townsend. It'll take him six or so minutes plus he'll be stuck in the gas line for quite awhile they have 500 cabs."
"What's Yellow's phone number?" he asked. "626-2345" I quickly responded (I still know it to this day). "Alright," he said, "call your dispatcher back and ask him to have his management hold him for us. Is there a phone inside?" (the hotel, this was in the days before cell phones). "Yes," I answered, "right against the back wall of the lobby." We were already out of the cab opening the trunk. He paid me and said, "Thanks," and I just stood there dumbfounded by my luck that I was still a free man while he raced into the hotel to use the phone. I jumped back into my hack and flew off to my garage. I checked my watch "damn, no time." I really wanted to go to Yellow and see the show but I had to get it in. I started laughing hysterically out loud ... I had a shit-eatin' grin.
The garage was in chaos with drivers jumping in their taxis and roaring out the gate; nobody to tell this great story to. Cab stories are a benefit of the job and drivers vie to come up with the best each night. I had the greatest and didn't even have to embellish no story about Steve ever needed it. I went into the radio room and sat with Tommy. Like all dispatchers everywhere, he was scum and I rarely talked to him socially. In fact, I had threatened his life more than once. I gave him five bucks for his help on the radio (standard operating procedure in the cab industry) and filled him in; we had a good laugh. I walked home whistling a tune, laughing out loud, a shit-eatin' grin as my companion.
I took a shower, smoked a doob, ate, watched the news. No story about a mad cabbie. Naturally I wanted to find out what happened to Steve. I suspected he was in custody. He had no phone at his place, just a communal pay phone down the hall. I walked over to the Will Rogers at the edge of Union Square just fifty feet from the back door of The St. Francis Hotel. Will Rogers: $50 per week (cabbies, barmen, winos), St. Francis: $150 per night (the wealthy, delegates, politicians). Two more worlds in potential collision.
The streets were especially jammed that night due to the Democrats not a parking space in sight, not even an illegal one. The Will Rogers had a bus stop red zone in front, but in it was parked a plain Ford Fairmont with two suits inside, American flag pins in their lapels and earphones in their ears. I hesitated going inside, I'd already dodged a bullet this afternoon by not being taken in as an accomplice. I was still young and handsome in 1984, too pretty to go to jail, if you know what I mean. I figured that they were just part of the Union Square security detail and went up the three flights and down the hall to Steve's room. Amazingly he answered the door; he was making stirfry on his hot plate. I was devastated. Through my laughter, which started immediately, I was able to ask what happened to him.
"Well, I was sittin' in the gas line when a squadron of police raced up, uniforms, plain clothes I thought the dispatch office had been robbed again. They went down the line looking at drivers; I couldn't imagine who they were looking for. Ritchie (the manager) was there he pointed me out to them." My laughter became too much, I began gagging, my heart raced, I needed to stop, to rest, but there was so much more. "Then what?" I asked.
"Well they took me up to the office right away; I didn't even have to gas up. I was questioned by some suits who said that the only reason I wasn't going to jail was because they had no space and everyone they had was considered more dangerous than me!"
I asked "Did you show 'em your Travis Bickle Society card?" (Steve had a membership card to a fictitious secret society dedicated to battling for truth, justice and teenage virginity. Its logo was a crazed cabbie with a Mohawk.) "Don't they know who you are? You're Steve ____ and you don't take shit from no one!" The tears were streaming down my face, I was hyperventilating; nothing had ever been nor ever would be as funny as this. "So what else happened?"
Steve told me how they had made a deal with him and Yellow that not only was he not to drive a cab for the duration of the convention, but that he was under an unofficial house arrest and that there was a guard posted outside on the street just for him! He was to be allowed out only once per day to get groceries and such from the corner store, no booze. He was given a phone number to call when he wanted out and was to wait until an agent came up to his place and escorted him across the street. He had his own valet and guard paid for by the USA. They had searched his room. Steve was a get back to nature kinda guy; he yearned for a day when he could get out of the City and into a cabin or farm in the backwoods. To this end, he had accumulated the accouterments of this would-be future lifestyle in his room, appropriately under his bed: tools, axe, Bowie knife, machete, hatchet and the most important icon of the frontier, a lever-action 30-30 Winchester rifle. "After they found that I thought for sure I was a goner; they even took my chainsaw." How many American presidents have been assassinated by chainsaw? I imagined the sound bite, "Chainsaw-wielding crazed cabbie kills candidate at convention, film at eleven." I thought I'd die from laughter.
So they took his rifle, chainsaw, machete and so forth, and sat in front for four days and nights. I came by a couple times to check on him and to sneak him some beer; they had confiscated all of his. Another imaginary headline: "Candidate Killed by Crazed Cabbie with Coors." Would my joy ever end? On the final night of the ordeal I came by and no one was home, no Feds out front, either. I imagined the worst. He had gone goofy, attacked his guard and fled into the alleyways of the City; he knew 'em, too. They were our turf and I was sure he could elude them a long time.
The next morning I went to work. I think it was Sunday, and it was incredibly quiet. I knew the crowds would be headed out to the airport so I hooked one at a hotel stand and jumped on the freeway at Fifth Street. Right away I knew something was wrong; there was no other traffic! Not in front of us, to the rear or on the opposite side. As we passed through Hospital Curve I saw shotgun- and rifle-armed SFPD officers on the overpasses; they looked at us ominously. I alerted my passenger; we assumed there was some kind of police action up ahead and were concerned that we might have to detour.
Bang! A shot rang out, my tire went flat and I pulled to the shoulder. Before I could consider what had happened, an SFPD motorcycle officer was right alongside my driver's side door. "Stay inside, don't move!" We looked around for the trouble but saw nothing no cars, no people, nothing. The cop maintained his position, staring us out but not making any move. I knew what was up. A few minutes passed before the motorcade came by. It was former VP and now Candidate Mondale, going home; he had survived his ordeal in San Francisco. He had not been killed by a crazed beer-bottle-, chainsaw-wielding cabbie after all. Our democracy was safe, but what of Steve?
I got out, fixed the flat hurriedly, and made my way to the airport. When I entered the holding pen there was Steve, shit-eatin' grin. "What happened to you last night? I came by your place, no Secret Service, no Steve, d'they take ya in?" I anticipated the worst, and I was ready to again delight in his turmoil and travails, to say, "I told you so."
"No, they took me out for pizza and a movie."
"What?" I said, disappointed and incredulous.
"Yeah, we went to Front Room Pizza and then to the Regency; it was like a good-bye party, they were cool."
Right away I saw what this was all about, these two agents assigned to guard him wanted to make sure that he was in their sight while the nominee was giving his speech. If anything had happened they would be sure it was not going to be their charge who was at fault.
"They sat me between 'em in the middle of the theater, they bought me popcorn, too. Everything was on them."
I asked, "What movie did ya see?"
"'Taxi Driver'," said Steve, "'Taxi Driver'."
Copyright © John Whalen