This is The City, San Francisco, California. Forty-nine square miles of hills, valleys, canyons and mountains. Surrounded by water on three sides, from the Bay on the east to the sand dunes of the Pacific, it was the West's first great city. There are roughly three quarters of a million people in The City: Bankers and lawyers, pimps and whores, fags and hippies. They all seem to have somewhere to go, I take them there. I carry a badge. Passenger Vehicle Driver #54131. My dispatcher's name is Tommy. My name is Whalen.
I was working the day shift out of Veterans cab one weekend in 1979, or was it '80? No matter. The weekend day shift is a real grind; little old ladies going grocery shopping, tourists to the Warf, families visiting granny. There are few orders and what there is you have to ride for. (That is, respond to radio orders that you are not close to). I had left the garage late as usual, a little hung over from a night at my watering holes trying to impress the chicks with my rugged good looks and boyish charm. I was at Market and Van Ness when the weekend dispatcher, Steve, called out:
"Who's for upper Market?"
After receiving no response:
"Who'll ride to upper Market? Good fare."
"246, Market and Franklin." I came back with my location.
"Okay, John, let me know when you're up there. I'll give you the address."
This is to prevent other drivers from stealing the order after I volunteered to ride for it.
I began my trip up the main boulevard of The City. At Castro and Market, two leather queens flagged me down from the Standard station across the street. I was the only cab around and any chance to double up on a slow weekend was worth the shot. If they were going short or up Twin Peaks, I could pick up and make an extra couple of bucks. I made the illegal turn across six lanes of nonexistent traffic and pulled into the lot where they were standing. Before I could ask them their destination they were tugging at the always-locked door handles.
"Whoa, wait a minute, where are you guys going?"
"You don't have to know where were fuckin' goin', just take us to where we say!" said the fatter fruitcake.
"Well I do need to know where you're going because I have a fare waiting up on Twin Peaks. So where you headed? I'll try to take both."
"We're going to 330 Ritch Street!" (The Ritch Street Baths, a notorious gay whore and orgy house.) It was about six miles in the opposite direction. I couldn't take them. I was obligated to the fare up the hill.
"Sorry, I can't take you I've got to go get my radio order."
"You'll do what we tell you to do!" The fat one demanded.
"Yeah we have rights!" The other fruit piped in.
It was a hot day and these two queers were covered head to toe in leather and sweating like pigs. They were drunk and clearly had been up all night.
"Didn't you see the special on TV last night?" one asked.
One of the major networks had run a two-hour special on gays in the U.S., specifically focusing on The City. They felt empowered.
"Well la de da for you. The guy I'm pickin' up is gay, too, so that trumps your rights." Naturally I had no idea that my fare would be gay, but in that neighborhood it was a good guess.
"You're not leaving without us!" shouted the dominant fag and he proceeded to sit on the hood of my cab, preventing me from moving or so he thought. I threw it in reverse and he fell to the ground. As I tried to pull around, his buddy squatted on the trunk of the cab rocking it up and down like a monkey in the zoo. The fat one came over to my open window apparently to punch me. I turned the wheel in his direction and accelerated forward causing him to run for his life and falling at the same time. I showed him mercy and stopped short. The little monkey held fast to the trunk so I jerked it to a stop thinking that would cause him to fall off. He still held fast. With the fat fag getting up and coming toward me again with murder in his eyes and having had enough of this game, I threw it in reverse and gave it all she had. The little monkey fell off the trunk and rolled under the rear bumper out of my view. I heard and felt a distinctive crunch as his upper body crumpled under the bumper, gas tank and transaxle of my powerful Plymouth Fury. I sped out of there post haste, crossed the same six lanes of traffic and flew up 17th Street to Burnett. On the way up I got the address from Steve. He didn't need to know the details of my fun and games at the gas station.
I picked up my passenger on Burnett Street predictably a gay guy and headed down the hill again. I think he was going to work at Union Square. We were enjoying our conversation when Steve called.
"246 did you just run over a couple of gay guys at Castro and Market?"
"Yeah! They deserved it! Did they live?"
I could hear woops and laughter in the background as Steve, the weekend manager Ron Troxell and whoever else was in the dispatch room broke up.
"Okay, Whalen, never mind!"
That was it. My passenger's eyes grew large in my rearview mirror.
"Where were we?" (in the conversation), I asked.
"Huh ... umh ... ah ... I don't ... I don't recall," he stammered.
I could sense some trepidation on his part so I explained.
"These two drunken leather queens assaulted me at the intersection while I was trying to come up to get you. They punched me, jumped on my cab in an attempt to get me to stop, and fell off as I sped away." That eased the tension some.
We drove by the scene of the crime and no one was there. I wasn't worried about any repercussions. Neither the company nor the cops would take those guys seriously. My fare got out at the St. Francis Hotel and gave me a large tip, probably for not hurting him.
My rules regarding jaywalkers are the same: I don't drive on the sidewalks (okay, maybe once or twice) and they don't walk in the street. It's a policy that works well if everyone cooperates. Unfortunately, they don't. Jaywalkers think that they are pedestrians and that they have the right of way. The Motor Vehicle Code describes pedestrians as people on foot crossing the street legally. Anyone else is fair game and many jaywalkers are shocked to discover that they are sued by motorists (especially cab companies) for the damage their body did to our grills and bumpers. It's not cheap cleaning that blood off. They often use a little ruse that doesn't work with me. When they see you coming they try to make eye contact with you. They then seem to think that they can safely violate the right of way. My way of handling that situation is to look off to the side when I see them trying to pull that. That usually changes their mind.
One evening on Bush Street another swishy fruit tried to pull that one on me. He barely stepped out between parked cars in the middle of the block and began a dance. I don't know why they dance but I have seen that before. I looked off in another direction and then heard the thump of human body against Detroit metal and looked in the side view mirror as I passed. He was dancing all right, on one foot while holding the other in his two hands.
In cabbie parlance we call these hood ornaments. The company allows you three before they take a closer look at your driving habits. At the time I think I only had two. (I completed my ten-year career with six, a strong finish). Mad Dog Mark Heller had three in the first six months on the job. There was a reason he was called Mad Dog. He proudly displayed three stickmen figures on his driver's door. Naturally the company made him remove them but every time he left the garage he'd pull over, take out his masking tape and put them back up. I had to admire his audacity.
My other pet peeve and cabbie enemy number one is motorcyclists followed closely by bicycles. (Or is it the other way around?)
One night I took a radio order at Market and Van Ness. I was headed straight down Market. I could see the order standing on the sidewalk. It was just a matter of waiting for the light to change, pull on ahead and turn into a driveway near where he was standing. I was at the red light at Franklin Street in the left lane, which can either go straight or turn left. I was the only vehicle on my side of the intersection. There was heavier traffic facing me but as I was not turning so it would not be a problem. A motorcycle came up from behind and pulled around in front of me and began signaling a left turn! Motorcyclists call this "lane splitting" and think it's legal. I call it taking cuts and think they should all be killed. Now when the light changed instead of driving up to my passenger in ten seconds, I was stuck behind him while he waited for oncoming traffic to clear. I guess his life was more important than mine. He could have accomplished the same thing by waiting behind me where he legally belonged.
In the cab business, no radio order is sacrosanct. If another cab can beat you to the address he can "steal" it fair and square. I waited a full minute 'til this biker jerk finally turned onto Franklin and then I saw a Veterans Cab turn the corner on two wheels from Van Ness and snag my ride. The dispatcher told me to back off. I turned left onto Franklin now myself, fuming with anger.
I want you to understand the frustration of working out in the public. The traffic laws were written for a reason. I obey them (usually) and I expect others to. Too often, however, guys like this jerk cost me money because the rules just weren't made for them. Can you imagine someone coming to your place of business and standing in your way? Blocking your path, leaning against your file drawers so you can't open them? Pushing buttons on your keyboard while you're working at your computer? You'd call the police or security and have them removed. Cabbies don't have this option. If we are going to enforce some rules of respect then we have to use street justice.
There wasn't a soul on Franklin Street at that hour. Not a car or a pedestrian, just me with a powerful V8 Chrysler and a dick on a motorbike. He was sitting at the red light at Fell waiting for it to change when I got a brilliant idea. I rammed him! Not hard, only enough to let him know that I disapproved of his driving habits. The moron was so concerned about his precious little Suzuki or whatever it was (I would never do that to a Harley that'd be un-American) that he just looked over his shoulder to the rear taillight looking for damage. He paid no attention to the big red Plymouth with cop-like solid steel push-bars attached to the front that had just slammed him. Feeling slighted and realizing that he had not received a just punishment I reversed one car length and rammed him again, harder this time. It was a good one. Tailights broke, fenders bent, rider fell to the pavement with his toy scooter astride him. The light turned green and I went on about my business. He was so arrogant, in his own little world that he probably didn't know what hit him and still to this day hasn't learned the lesson I was trying to teach. He was so concerned about his child's toy that he didn't even look at me as I drove off. Warning to you bicyclists and motorcyclists out there: The laws are made for you, too. Obey them. Cabbies are watching and we're bigger than you, perhaps even a bit crazier.
I think the crown jewel of my jaywalker vs. cab career occurred late one night on Larkin Street. Larkin is a northbound, one-way, three-lane boulevard that runs through the Civic Center, skirts the Tenderloin and reaches Nob Hill at California Street. The lights are timed so if you drive at the right speed the trip will take ninety seconds. If somebody screws you up, it'll turn into minutes as you try to get back with the flow of lights. I was traveling in the number three lane at the appropriate speed when I saw a person on the corner of O'Farrell. He was dressed in blue jeans, an army field jacket and army boots. He had a shit-eating grin, and was clearly drunk. I made the mistake of making aye contact. I knew instinctively that he wanted to cause trouble. He had a red light but saw me coming so hurriedly jaywalked across two lanes so that he could stop me by blocking my path in the last lane. It wasn't enough fun for him to just slow me down. He came to a complete stop and started to dance! (There's that dancing again.)
I revved my engine to express my impatience and he thought it would be funny to sit on the hood of my cab. I was driving 258 that night. Five-eight was always an odd car. One year it would be a Dodge Dart, another year a Chrysler Imperial. This year it was a Coronet 440, a former highway patrol cruiser with a 440 cubic inch hemi and four four-barrel carburetors. It could go from 0-60 in twenty seconds.
I nudged the cab a little to give this guy the message. In a flash he went from a happy drunk doing a dance to a full blown violent nut case out for blood! He jumped on the hood of the cab screaming and pounding his chest like Tarzan the ape-man. He did bear a strong resemblance to the latter. Astonished, I just watched the show from my front row seat. Suddenly he kicked his army booted foot right through my windshield throwing glass into my head, hands, arms and face. Most of the safety glass held but there was an opening the size of a beer can just in front of my steering wheel. I was momentarily stunned but quickly realized I needed to get him off the hood. I lurched the cab forward so he would fall or jump off. Instead he fell face down on the hood and began hitting me with right crosses through the open driver's window.
"All right, enough is enough!" I said to myself. I floored the throttle. The sound of that hemi engine with its four by four carbs sounded like a rocket taking off. The drunk held on for dear life as I accelerated most of the way up the block to Geary Street. His face was pressed against the broken windshield and he was screaming something incomprehensible in Spanish at me or maybe about me. I think I heard something about "putas!" and "Dios con mio."
As I neared Geary I slammed on the brakes laying down a patch of rubber two car lengths long. I don't know what speed I reached but it was certainly in excess of 45 mph. He flew backward off the hood like Superman in reverse, my wiper blades in his hands. He went at least forty feet before he tumbled and rolled all the way across three lanes of Geary Street. Amazingly he landed on his feet. Anticipating another attack by this drunken nut and being filled with insane rage myself I prepared to finish him off by running the son-of-a-bitch over. Instead he ran down Geary Street like an Olympic sprinter. Angry that I hadn't killed him I pulled up into to the intersection and saw him running away. That part of Geary was one-way against me but even though it was clear of traffic and I was willing to commit vehicular homicide, the professional driver in me wouldn't allow me to drive down a one-way street the wrong way! I quickly raced up Larkin to Post and came around the block properly. If I was going to kill him at least I wouldn't ruin my driving record in the process.
At Geary and Hyde I pulled into the intersection. My heart was racing, my lungs gasping for air.
"Where is that asshole? I want to kill him!" I looked in all directions but didn't see him. "He couldn't be that fast!" I figured he ducked into a bar or maybe a doorway. I cruised down Hyde slowly looking for him and contemplating the joy I would find in his hideous death. Slowly I began to come back to reality. The adrenaline and testosterone quickly wore off. I returned to the garage, inspected the damage and wrote a report. I noted that in addition to the smashed windshield, the hood ornament was also missing. I envisioned it stuck up his ass where it belonged. That gave me some comfort. I went into the hell-hole of the Veterans bathroom and pulled bits and pieces of glass out of my face and forearms. Naturally I called it a night.
By late that night, after smoking a dube and watching the late show I realized how hilarious the whole thing had been. It was worth a few cuts and scratches for the story value.
On my next night off I made my weekly trek to the Rose & Thistle and John Barleycorn to wow and amaze the assembled bar rats whose names I had still not mastered and cared even less about. The Rose was by far my favorite hangout. Filled with hipsters, cabbies (some of them even off-duty) and construction workers, I felt more at home than with the posers and wanna-be yuppies at the Barleycorn. I told my story to the patrons who responded with big guffaws and remarks like "you shoulda' killed the prick!" and "Next time shoot the wetback!" I was a hero. I left so as to spread the joy around. I walked past the Lands End pub but decided against going in. The Lands End was a well-known coke connection and the cops monitored it. I saw Rick the Hat at the bar. There were two dealers named Rick that worked out of there so one of them wore an Abe Lincoln type top hat so as to be noticeable. He passed out business cards with a top hat logo and the words "For All Your Party Needs." I said he was a dealer, not a rocket scientist.
I continued on up a half block to the John Barleycorn. My favorite bartender, Steve Sullivan, was on duty. A few years later fate would find us as roommates in Dublin, Ireland shivering in the winter cold with our last bits of coal or peat for the hearth but that's a different story.
I slid up to the bar, ordered a pint of ale and began to relay my story of the amazing flying Mexican who was so limber that he could have been a member of Cirque de Soleil. I emphasized the humor of him soaring through the air with my wiper blades in his frozen hands. He even ran away with them still clutched in a death grip. I laughed uproariously as the rats dropped their mouths in shocked disbelief.
"What? What's wrong?" I asked perplexed.
"You tried to kill another human being just because he sat on your car?" Steve responded.
"No, buddy, I tried to kill him when he put his boot in my face and began punching me through the window! What would you do?"
The rats were in shock. I had gone from hero to villain in the distance of one block and the span of two minutes. These guys just didn't get it. My life was in danger. Worse than that, the flying glass could have scarred my pretty face, perhaps my best asset. Sullivan said he had a hankering to throw me out for the night. I responded, "Don't worry, I'll be on my way. See ya next week when you've come to your senses."
I suddenly realized that guys who were entertained by mindless televised sports, yelling such threats at the screen as "Kill the bastard!" and "We're number one!", who delighted in the antics of Yosemite Sam blowing Bugs Bunny away with a shotgun were looking down on me for defending my life! I had to get out of there.
I walked down off of Nob Hill to my crib at the No-Sex Hotel (Hotel Essex, a cabbie haven). I took the direct route down Larkin even though it meant passing through the drag queen whore's stroll and the phalanx of spare-change bums and other dissolute and reprehensible characters. I even had to pass the DeSoto garage and didn't have my pocket pistol with me. (I wisely didn't carry it when drinking.). As I passed the whore stroll, the chicks with dicks teased me to try a new lifestyle (for a price, of course) but I just ignored them. I found that this was the best policy as many, if not all of then carried weapons and most were bigger than me. If I had made one of my usual wise-ass remarks I could have ended up with a shiv in the gut.
I reached the corner of Geary where I had a red light and being the good citizen that I am I dutifully waited for it to turn green. You always have to be aware of what's around you when walking these streets. I kept one eye on the DeSoto garage down the block in case one of their deranged drivers threw a stray round my way and watched my back for the possibility of bums, pick pockets, muggers, goofballs and the like. (Often a person would be all of the above.)
I saw one approaching me from about 130 degrees from my rear. He was hobbling on a crutch.
"Meester? Can you spare some change for some food?"
Yeah, I thought, food. He's standing in front of a liquor store at 1 a.m. because he's hungry. I ignored him as I usually do but he was persistent and hobbled closer. I turned and looked him directly in the face. I had seen this guy before, but that was not unusual. I had seen nearly every face in The City by this time, driving cab, taking the streetcar and walking the avenues.
I looked him up and down closely. He was wearing a torn and tattered army fatigue jacket, blue jeans with a slit up the right side leg to accommodate his plaster-casted foot and he had on black army boots!
"Señor, por favor, could you help me out?"
I stared into his face. It was marked by red spots much like mine, as if he, too, had been peppered with glass splinters. He had a red-coated bandage around his head and his two hands, only half opened, were also wrapped with blood-stained gauze. His crutch had all the telltale signs of being issued by SF General Hospital, the caregiver of choice for the street set. It didn't fit his size and he had to stoop to get any support from it. Maybe he just had a bad back from whatever calamity befell him.
"Amigo, are you okay?" Now he was showing concern for me as my previous blank stare began to turn to rage. "This was the guy," I thought. "The stinkin' asshole who cut up my face, cost me money and perhaps nearly got me fired!" The guy whose story made me persona non grata at the Barleycorn. The guy that two nights earlier I had tried to kill. I again felt the adrenaline and testosterone course through my body. "Now is my chance to finish the job," I thought. He was on a crutch with a cast on his foot, his hands uselessly stuck in that permanent death grip from holding onto my wiper blades. (I imagined the doctors surgically removing them and they, too, having a great laugh at his expense.) I could easily take him down with a couple of punches and a kick or two.
"My friend, are you feeling all right? Que paso?" he asked again.
I suddenly felt the adrenaline and other male hormones release from my brain. I now saw a pathetic broken and beaten drunk, unable to work at his kitchen or busboy job that he was stealing from an American. I broke a cardinal rule of cabbing. I took pity.
As I turned away from him I noticed a Chrysler pentagram hood ornament in his rear pocket. A souvenir, I suppose, of his brush with death. With some shame I refused to give him my hard-earned money, but I did give him some advice as the light turned green and I walked on. Looking over my shoulder I said, "Vaya con Dios, amigo."
Published July 2005