All I Want for Christmas Is My Cabbie
This is a true story:
Christmas Eve, San Francisco; I was working the night shift for Veterans Cab that cold clear evening in 1981. I was hoping the other drivers would take the night off giving me more of the slack business typical of that holiday. I needed every fare I could get and every sympathy tip I could whine for ("Woe is me. I'm a poor loveless cabbie working on Christmas."). My name is John. I'm a cab driver (Veterans cab #205).
I got out of the barn on Harrison Street about 5:30 and headed to the neighborhoods to work the dinner and party trade there was nothing downtown or in the hotels. The rookies, morons and Yellows would be working that traffic. This was a night for radio work. I tipped the dispatcher heavier and in advance (unusual for me as I liked to pay for what I got later, not on spec). He knew I was a poor tipper (of course, he treated me accordingly) so was surprised when I dropped ten dollars in front of him as I said, "Make it last, that may be all you'll get from me until next Christmas." Not far from the truth.
The way to make money in this business is volume. The more riders you can handle in ten hours, the more you'll earn. Simple math. The trick is in getting the passengers to take things seriously. On normal nights, patrons generally have a good attitude about being ready, coming out to the cab, getting out of the cab and so forth. After all, they have some place to go, a schedule to keep. Not so on holidays. They are not pressed for time and certainly don't care that you are. It was going to be one of those nights.
I took my first order at the Bunkhouse in Hayes Valley. The Bunkhouse was a gay pension famous for its all-night orgies and other unspeakable forms of debauchery. I remember one night our dispatcher received a request from them for two gallons of Crisco (no, they weren't baking pies!) to be paid for on delivery. None of our drivers wanted the order, so it was passed on to City Cab and a leather queen friend of mine (and sometime herb connection) named Tony picked it up at Cala Market and made the delivery. I think he stayed awhile, too.
Anyway, although the Bunkhouse had an official address on Fulton Street, you had to know where it was as it had no number attached to the outside gate. It was actually down a dark walkway behind another building and had only one discreet buzzer on the fence out front. Gay riders were always a safe bet in this business; still are. So I rang the bell and instead of coming out they buzzed me in. I never leave the cab unattended in a bad neighborhood and in 1981 Hayes Valley was one of the worst. Whores, drag queens, hustlers, drug dealers and muggers prowled the dark streets and alleyways shaded by the now-gone Route 101 elevated freeway. Shots were often heard and bodies would be found in the morning when the more respectable Civic Center employees returned to work in City Hall and at the Opera House only two blocks away.
I did not enter and ignored the incessant buzzing coming from the gate. My dispatcher called.
"Are you in front of the Bunkhouse?"
"Yes Tommy, I am"
"They want you to go in and help them."
"Tom you know I can't leave the cab in this neighborhood, even locked up. They're lucky to get a cab at all on Christmas Eve down here. Tell 'em to deal with it themselves, I'm getting antsy just waiting here with the criminal element hovering around."
"10-4, I'll send 'em out."
A couple of minutes later a big drag queen with a beehive wig and a low-cut red dress exposing his hard unnatural silicone breasts came out with a real attitude.
"Hey honey! I'm performing at a Christmas party at the Trocadero. I'm Missy Clause and I need your help in carrying my gear!"
This guy was dressed as Mrs. Santa Clause, at least Fellini's interpretation of what a drag Mrs. Clause would look like. Why did I always feel like I was in an Italian movie on this job?
"Sorry fella (I never referred to them as females; it really pisses them off), I can't leave the vehicle in this neighborhood even for a minute." I nodded to the street creeps hanging out eyeing us, waiting for an opportunity. The drag queen, from out of town, seemed to understand this; besides he was twice my size so I fail to see what kind of help he needed. He returned with several boxes, one at a time, and I put them in the front seat rather than the trunk as I didn't want to turn my back on the street scum eyeing me from every door and alley way of this filthy spot.
The queen came back with his last load and I hustled him into the rear, which his 260-pound frame barely fit into. His face was covered with makeup and he had enough perfume on to delouse a donkey. I rolled my window down all the way.
"Could you please roll that window up, Sweety? It's mussing my hair!" Queens are famous for their whining and demands. It's part of their schtick.
"No, I can't; it smells like a French whorehouse in here. I can hardly breathe!"
My night was starting off badly. I'd already wasted fifteen minutes on this order, loaded boxes with who knows what inside and was going on a $4 trip to Fourth Street where there was no action. I was definitely not getting a tip queens didn't give them and therefore I didn't try to please them in any way or go to any extra effort. Naturally when we arrived at the disco "he" asked me to help him carry the stuff inside which I of course refused and put them on the sidewalk in front of the doorman.
"I can't, it's Christmas Eve and I've got to work, they have security, he'll watch 'em."
"Well I never in my life ...!"
I stopped him by raising my hand.
"If you never have then it's about time you did. The fare is $4!"
"No it's not, it's $3.90!"
Which was correct. I quickly whipped out a dime and a dollar and gave him/her the change for a five. This night was starting out all wrong.
I deadheaded out of that area, driving by our garage again, right where I had started 35 minutes earlier and with less than four dollars to show for it. The radio was crackling with unfilled orders in the neighborhoods, none of them very close.
"Duboce and Guerrero, who's for Dubuce and Guerrero?" Tommy called out.
It was a quick shot up Division Street from the garage to that order. I quickly responded.
"205, the garage."
"205, get 393 Dubuce."
Oh no not again, another well-known gay whorehouse!
"393 Duboce", I responded.
Not only was it a man-whorehouse but it was also on a busy street with one lane that I would have to block and those residents were famous for taking their time coming out. Further, I had to make a dangerous u-turn to pull up in front of it unless I made a long detour.
I blasted on up there, rang the bell and ran back to the cab. This place had no return buzzer so you were acting on faith that they heard you. In addition to all of the aforementioned hazards at this address, it was also on the slope of a hill and vehicles traveling too fast would crest it from your rear with little time to stop. Tires squealed, brakes screeched and voices cursed as the angry and incompetent drivers pulled over the double yellow line around me. I was not famous for giving people much time to come out of their apartments. My attitude was that if you called a cab and it arrived you must be ready, so therefore I estimated how long it would take an average human being to put on a coat, shut out the lights and walk on down. If they weren't down in that amount of time, I usually left without them. I had work to do and riders needed to learn to respect that.
This guy came out right away. He was a regular, a leather hustler who worked the streets south of Market. That meant that I was going back to my starting point again near our garage. He was dressed in his usual outfit: black leather vest, no shirt, leather chaps with leather thong, leather cap, bicycle chain around his neck and of course two bare asscheeks.
"Ringold Alley, please."
Ringold was a one-block-long alley with a few cottages and some warehouses off of Eighth Street at Folsom that was crowded with man-whores working their trade. At the witching hour of 2 a.m. there was literally a traffic jam down there with all of the cars cruising for a pickup.
"How are you tonight driver?"
I feigned that all was well. "Fine, how are you?"
I collected my three bucks (including tip), dropped the freak and headed the four blocks over to the garage for a piss and a cup of machine coffee. While there I saw a day driver who had been hanging out after work playing pool and needed a ride to the Tenderloin, flat rate $2. (Day drivers are notoriously cheap; they're all scum.) I took him just to get moving again, even though it was taking me to a sleazy downtown area and away from the neighborhood business I wanted.
After dropping him at his residence, a dive hotel on Ellis Street, I headed straight out of the Tenderloin ignoring the pimps, whores, bums and assorted skuz hailing me down.
"Take a bus!" I said to myself as I passed them by. "What do I look like, the welcome wagon?"
As I approached Franklin Street, I had to make a decision to either head down to the Mission and work the gay and hipster crowd or up to Pacific Heights and Marina and get the yuppies. Not much of a choice, but after two bad experiences with the former I was ready to give the Yups a chance. Besides, there are some normal people in that area, too.
I proceeded to get the usual slowpokes going on short rides. These selfish prigs seem to think that cabbies are public servants rather than independent businessmen and take their sweet time getting their asses out to the cab. I drove off on several, which not only frustrates my dispatcher, who has to refill the order, but doesn't do me much good either.
Most of the rides went local, and I found myself operating a Pacific Heights to Cow Hollow shuttle service for the personality-impaired princes and princesses of Yupdom. I finally got sick of it and to break the cycle deadheaded past other orders toward Castro Street. Maybe the gay crowd would come through for me after all.
Near Hayes Street I was bingo (that is; right there) on an order.
"205, bingo Hayes and Divis!" I shouted into the mic, as if I had just won the lottery. It was however, just another order.
"205 bingo! 1452 Hayes," Tommy came back.
I dutifully ran up, rang the bell and rushed back to my cab. I never waited at the door. The people had called a cab so they had to know it was me and my most important responsibility was to the taxi and myself. I always shut the engine down and locked the door of the cab even for the few seconds I'd be away. You'd be surprised how many cabs are stolen while the driver is out ringing a doorbell. It was also a good opportunity for the scum of society to victimize you. Upon returning to the vehicle I locked myself in, restarted the engine and kept aware of what was around me. You're a sitting duck in this position and this was not such a good neighborhood.
The rider finally came out on the stoop and gave me the "I'll be there in a minute" sign by holding up his index finger. A certainty that he wasn't going to be out for at least five minutes, the maximum amount of time any cabbie should wait for a residential order.
I gave him the full five minutes plus. I tried to be patient but I just don't have it in me. I had been averaging six dollars an hour for the past three hours because of guys like this. In the meantime, Tommy had unfilled orders all around me. After six minutes I reported a "no go" to Tom and left. He offered me another order but I declined, I was sick of this radio crowd and was intent on getting up to Castro to see what I could get off of the street. Before I got one block, Tommy called back.
"205 he's ready now."
I ignored it for a moment not wanting to give this guy service for keeping me waiting.
"Whose for Hayes and Divis?!"
Tommy was frustrated and mad; it wasn't right for me not to respond.
"Okay, Tommy, I'll go back."
"Thanks 205, he's ready now.
I circled the block and pulled up on the opposite side of the street. Normally I pulled up professionally and double-parked in front so he wouldn't be in danger crossing the street, but I thought, "fuck him," he didn't deserve any consideration.
The asshole still took a minute to come out. He was a middle-aged guy, short, fat, sort of average.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, but people kept calling me on the phone."
Like that's a good excuse.
"Well it's kind of complicated because I have to make several stops."
Oh no! A cabbie's worse nightmare, the multiple stops. As I said before, we make our living on turnover. This guy was going to stop at all of his friends' houses "for a minute" to wish them a merry Christmas. He would be inside each place ten to twenty minutes easy with me sitting outside making $10 per hour. He wanted me to be his personal servant for the night. I couldn't afford it.
He was still yammering off the addresses he was going to and giving me his life's story when I put up my hand.
"No! I can't do that! I must keep moving to make money. I can't wait for you at each address. Do you hear that?" I pointed to the radio.
Tommy was calling off the orders like an auctioneer at a tobacco sale.
"24th and Dolores, Liberty and Guerrero, 19th and Castro, Fulton and Buchanan, Haight and Buena Vista, Frederick and Stanyan, 4th Avenue in the Sunset, the Cliff House, Richmond, Pacific Heights, the Marina. Who will go? Who wants these orders?"
"I can't have you tie me up and not give service to those people." I said, feigning concern for the public when it was all about me.
He started pleading with me and promising that he would hurry at each address, which I knew from experience was untrue. Another thing I learned was that if I calmed down and went with the flow I might just get lucky and the night would go well. If I continued to be frustrated and drive off on the patrons things were just going to go downhill.
I argued back, "You're going to drink a toast at everyone of these places and take longer than you think."
"No, no, I won't, I'm a recovering alcoholic so that's not going to be a problem."
That admission didn't inspire any confidence in me.
In less than three minutes we were at his first stop at Clay and Divisadero.
"Okay, I'll give it a shot but hurry please. I've got to make a living."
I sat outside for over ten minutes, listening to all of the radio business going on around me. When he did return he had a grin on his face like a kid who had just done something nice for his dad. He was also carrying a small gift box which he had obviously just received from his friends.
"See, I told you I'd be quick."
I didn't respond to that obnoxious comment.
"Now where to?"
He gave me an address only a few blocks away. He could have easily walked from his house to both of these places and then phoned a cab when he actually needed one. I sat in front of this place on Washington Street for another ten minutes. Thirty-five minutes into this trip and I had less than five dollars on the meter.
"Okay we only have three more stops."
"Guy, you're gonna have to move faster I'm losing money."
"I promise this time I will."
He named a bluegrass bar at Chestnut and Scott, Paul's Saloon. On the way down there I lectured him further on my need to be done with him. His argument was that he would not be able to get another cab if I left him. In the neighborhoods there was some logic to that but this part of Scott Street was in the middle of the bar and restaurant area of the Marina district. There were empty cabs driving by every minute.
As I pulled up in front I shut off the meter.
"Okay that'll be $6.10 please."
He ignored me, threw open the door, looked over his shoulder as he walked in and said, "I'll just be a minute."
Famous last words. I reactivated the meter and sat there on that skinny street double-parked, blocking traffic for ten minutes while the world went by. Fares off the street kept walking up trying to hire me, the radio was crackling, "Broadway and Lyon, Bush and Gough, Pacific and Steiner, Alhambra and Cervantes, Green and Hyde, Nob Hill, the Haight, Richmond, the deep Marina, Sunset, on the Avenues. Who will go? Who will check in? Who wants to make money?"
I had been stuck with this guy for nearly an hour and only had about seven dollars on the meter while every other cabbie in the City was averaging thirty dollars per hour. My plan to relax and go with the flow had failed. I decided to cut my losses and drive off on the guy; he would just think of it as a free ride.
Tommy had orders all over. One was just up the hill at Clay and Scott.
"205, Greenwich and Scott." I reported my position.
"205 get the Final Final!"
The Final Final was a dive bar at the Presidio gate not far away but I didn't want it. No driver ever did.
"C'mon Tommy give me somethin' else," I whined into the radio.
"Which one do you want 205? I've got a hundred orders and no drivers!"
"Give me a residence in Pacific Heights," I barked back.
"205, 2562 Clay Street, ring twice."
"2562, ring twice." I responded. That's the one I wanted. I was already halfway up the hill.
I quickly arrived, rang the bell and two young teenagers, a boy and girl, immediately came out. "That's the way to do it." I thought to myself. I knew right away that something was up with these two. Besides looking stoned they also had the unmistakable afterglow of young love ... sex, that is. I was envious. Here they were fifteen years old, had just gotten it on and I was a full-grown, handsome (if I do say so myself) man and I hadn't been laid in I don't know how long. On top of that, they were high on some obviously good stuff and I hadn't seen any of that in a while, either. They were living better than me. Oh, how I longed for my school days for a moment.
I opened the back door of the cab and a small Christmas package fell out. "Oh shit!" I thought. The last guy's package. I drove off on him without realizing it was in the back. He'd probably be calling Tommy soon wanting to know where I was. Good. He can get his gift back when he pays me.
I drove these two to an address not far away. I got five bucks for five minutes work. That's the way it's suppose to be. I looked at the package, an obvious tie box. I hadn't worn a tie in my life and never expected to so I knew I didn't want it. I started thinking about the guy at the bar and decided to work my way back there. If I got a pickup I'd take it, otherwise I'd return the item, collect my fare and get back to work.
As it turned out I didn't get a pickup and arrived there shortly. I went inside. There weren't that many patrons, so I walked through the place quickly. He was gone. I figured he'd call and either have me deliver it or pick it up at the garage some other time. I returned to work.
Right then the bottom fell out of the business. Tommy had few orders. People had gone where they wanted to go. The rush was over. This had been a bad night so far and was already half over. I was frustrated and frazzelled. It was time for a break.
One of my favorite watering holes was in the Marina, Ronayne's Seafood at 1799 Lombard. It was perhaps the best seafood place in town at the time and had a good bar menu. It was well known to San Francisco society. Willie Brown and Dianne Feinstein could be seen there often. I was something of a fixture myself and had a good rapport with the staff. I used to take my dates there and get the best table and service. The chef, Claude, would come out of the kitchen to personally see that all was well. My dates were sufficiently impressed to get me laid.
I cruised in past Steve Dorrinson the owner, grumbled to him about what a shitty night I was having and went directly to the bar. His brother Patrick was sitting on a stool. I was never certain what his position was there. I think he was the official bar stool warmer. Anyway he was a character and always worth a good laugh, which I sorely needed. Steve comped my first drink.
I don't know how many I had but I did get something to eat, probably fried calamari, the only way I can eat that crap. I was sufficiently sober to drive so I went back to work. I think it was about midnight. I had had a good long break.
I immediately deadheaded out of the Marina. I had been trying to get to the Castro all night to work the gay street crowd. The radio orders were just not working out for me. It was difficult to pass up an order that you were on top of, though. As I drove down Divisadero again, approaching Fell Street, the radio came to life.
"Whose for Fell and Divis?"
"Bingo! Fell and Divisadero, 2-0-5!" I yelled into the mic before I had time to think.
"205 bingo! 1332 Fell, lower floor. Where have you been all night?"
It was Steve, the relief dispatcher who had come on an hour or so earlier. I realized that I had just accepted another radio order in the same neighborhood that I been getting slowpoke fares from all night.
"I don't know, Steve. I've not been having a good night. I was on an extended break." He knew what that meant. "1332 Fell, lower." I repeated.
Fell is a big boulevard with fast moving traffic, too fast, sometimes fifty-plus miles per hour and it was dark because it was adjacent to the park. Double-parking there was always a danger. I rang the bell and ran back to the cab. The jerk came outside and gave me the infamous index finger "one-minute" sign. Shit! Would this night never end?
Naturally he kept me waiting five minutes. I was getting ready to drive off when I remembered the Christmas package. By this time I figured the earlier guy was never going to call, he probably figured it was just a tie and not worth the seven bucks he owed me. It was just a decorative box with a ribbon around it, no wrapping paper. I was sitting there thinking what a bummer night I was having, no money, no sex, no herb, when I slipped the ribbon off and pulled open the top. How ugly of a tie could it be and what would I do with it?
Simultaneous with me opening the package my passenger approached the cab greeting me.
"Hey, how's it going driver?"
My eyes focused on the interior of the box in disbelief two bags of weed! It smelled good, too.
"Great!" I said. "Couldn't be better," As I quickly closed the lid and shoved it into my backpack, I unlocked the door and let him in.
"Where to?" I asked with joy, my sour mood suddenly changed.
"Union Street, please. Perry's."
I didn't even care that he was taking me back to a neighborhood that I hated and had had so much bad luck in all night. He talked as we drove over there, though I didn't pay attention to what was said. I was adding up in my mind how this night was turning out. Two ounces of mota in '81 was worth about four or five hundred dollars. I thought that I would keep one for myself and sell the other at the garage. Nah! Who was I kidding? I was going to keep both. My passenger kept babbling to which I responded dutifully at the appropriate pauses, "Yes." "No." "Huh-huh." "Sure." I had no idea what he was saying.
We pulled up in front of Perry's. He paid and exited. I thought I should probably leave well enough alone and check into the garage even though the bar rush was about to start and I had three hours left of my shift. How could this night get any better? At that moment, before I could even put it in gear, a beautiful redheaded woman came out of the bar and jumped in the front seat. She was dressed in a sexy, low-cut Santa-type suit, her ample bosom in plain view, topped with a little Santa cap.
"1842 Pacific please. Oh, you're cute!"
I suddenly knew how it could get better. An attractive, (perhaps somewhat drunk) woman passenger, from a bar on Union Street, all alone on Christmas Eve, in the front seat. This must be what heaven is like.
We arrived at her address post haste as it was just up the hill. Miraculously there was a parking space in front. She leaned over and kissed me, kissed me hard.
"Would you like to come up?" she coyly asked. "It would sure be great if you had some pot, I like to get high while having sex!"
I checked my watch, 1 a.m. It was Christmas. There is a Santa and he loves cabbies. Ask and ye shall receive.
Copyright © John Whalen