I work in San Francisco. About a million other people work here too, in the offices, the banks, the stores. My job is to drive then there and back, really anywhere they want to go. My name is Whalen. I carry a badge (San Francisco Passenger Vehicle Driver No. 54131).
I was working the night shift out of DeSoto Cab on Geary Street in the spring of 1980. DeSoto was a sleazy operation even by taxi standards. I didn't have a regular cab assigned to me, so I had to play the weekly "lottery." The lottery consisted of one of those caged tumblers with numbered ping pong balls inside. Each driver without his own cab was assigned a number. Problem was that there were forty unassigned drivers and only twenty-five ping pong balls. My number wasn't in the tumbler so I had to wait every night for a cab, sometimes hours. I'd be given a cab if a driver called in sick, came in early, was killed on the street or otherwise just didn't show.
The driver's room was small, dark and dank with benches along each wall like a holding cell at the jail. The dispatchers (all of whom were scum) sat inside a wire cage. Even though he was the one in the cage, he was the jailer and we were his prisoners. Whether or not we went to work that night depended on his generosity. His generosity depended on how much we were willing to bribe him. In my ten years of driving I don't think I have ever seen a dispatcher outside of that cage. If they had homes or cars or even lives they wisely kept it a secret. I don't think they would make it far outside of that cage if you know what I mean. I suspect most of them just slept in a refrigerator box under the counter, there being no boulders in San Francisco to slither under.
One night as I was sitting there staring at the cob-webbed forty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling with an frayed wire, out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone looking at me. Now normally, someone eyeing me in a public place in San Francisco wouldn't draw my attention. I mean, what with my good looks and all I got it from both hot females and disgusting queers but this was the DeSoto garage, after all, and DeSoto drivers were known to be a bit deranged if not downright dangerous. As I was new to that garage, having been fired from Veterans for offering the manager Bill Skiff (we called him Stiff) a piece of my fist instead of the extortion he demanded, I did not know these guys yet. I glanced over cautiously and the guy was not only grinning, he seemed to wink. He was roughly middle-aged with redish curly hair and wearing a leather flight jacket. He was a big guy, too, and not in the fat way but broad across the shoulders.
"Hi ya buddy, how's it goin'?"
In those days when a stranger grinned, winked and spoke to me in a dark room, especially a guy in a leather jacket, I usually gave him a shot in the eye and made a quick escape out the nearest exit. But this was where I worked now and I needed to stay near the cage in case the dispatcher called me.
"My name's Jack; you look familiar to me."
Now I knew something was special about this guy and frankly he looked familiar to me as well.
"I'm Whalen, John Whalen," I said, and he offered his hand. His grip was tight and his hand rough. Not like a fisherman rough, but more like a weight-lifter or athlete.
"I feel like I know you from somewhere, too," I found myself saying. His grin was infectious and his eyes seemed to see right through me into my soul.
"Ha ha," he laughed. "But you do, you do."
This was the beginning of a great friendship and an even greater spiritual experience for this man was no ordinary taxi driver. He was a saint, a seer, a guardian angel. We talked for what seemed like hours that night and in succeeding nights for the next few weeks. Jack knew everything about me and my past, but he wouldn't let on how he knew these things. He also seemed to know things about my future. I don't think I would be writing this now if he hadn't told me that I would one day write about it; the thought of using the written word to express myself being the farthest thing from my mind at the time.
Jack had an interesting (to say the least) and exciting life. He had briefly been a professional football player, an Army intelligence officer in Korea (where he was severely wounded at Little Pork Chop Hill), an actor, stuntman (head of the union) and all round jack-of-all trades in the film industry. Unfortunately, he also had that bane of all men everywhere: an angry female, his wife, who had all of his assets tied up in a divorce. It didn't make sense to him to work in his regular field as she would attach his earnings, so he took a studio at the nearby Paramount Apartments and started driving cab part-time for a few bucks spending-change while waiting out his legal ordeal.
Jack and I spent a lot of time together that year. We often had lunch or just sat around his place watching TV and chatting. Jack encouraged my creative side, urging me to write and take acting lessons, but I was young and foolish and had what I felt at the time were better things to do. He did instill some spirit in me; in fact, that was one of his favorite expressions and salutations: "May the spirit be with you." He'd say, "Remember to keep the spirit."
Every week or so I was in the habit of phoning Jack around noon or 1 p.m., that being roughly the time we graveyard drivers woke up. We'd usually go to a diner or a deli and relate stories of our experiences that week or just the general poor condition of the world and our lot in life. Jack was always able to put a good spin on most everything. It took a lot to make him angry or to arouse a negative emotion in him. He had a kind spot for all people and a good attitude toward life. Things just didn't bother him and he wasn't in the habit of getting into the kind of adventures I seemed to get involved in on this job.
One day at about noon I made my weekly call. A drowsy voice at the other end answered.
"Jack, Jack ... you up yet?"
"Who's this?" he responded quizzically.
"It's John, John Whalen! Aren't you up, yet?"
"Oh John," he slurred. "I thought you were the police."
"The police? Why would I be the police?"
Still groggy and confused, Jack stammered out, "I just got back from the Hall of Justice at 10 a.m. I've only been asleep for two hours."
"The Hall of Justice?" My thoughts raced wildly. That was police headquarters. "What happened?"
I was concerned as Jack never had any trouble in the cab. He just had that kind of karma and it never dawned on me that he would ever do anything wrong.
"Call me back tonight and I'll tell you all about it at dinner."
I spent the afternoon doing chores and wondering what had befallen Jack. At least he was alive. I had recently had a scare that had bothered him (and of course me) when I had been shot at and the bullet had creased my cheeked and knocked out my hearing in one ear for a few days. That was the first and only time I had seen Jack angry or curse anyone. His young buddy (me) had nearly been killed by some street scum and I saw a side of him that showed that he really was human: volatile anger. I looked forward to seeing him that night and we made arrangements to meet at a neighborhood place, I think it was the White Horse on Sutter Street. The White Horse was an English pub with grub. If you were foolish enough to eat shepherd's pie they had it on the menu. I think I had Irish stew and Jack a corned beef sandwich. He looked fine but seemed sheepish. He was embarrassed and regretful.
"I did a bad thing last night, John," he started out.
"You, Jack? Not possible. Tell me about it."
"Well it was late, very late, about 4 a.m. and I was just about ready to call it quits when I got an order from the bath house at 8th & Howard. The little fruit went up to Sacramento and Steiner Street and told me he had to go in to get the money."
"Oh no, Jack. You didn't fall for that did ya?" I never trusted anyone. I'd have gotten the guy's watch or jacket as security, but Jack loves and trusts everyone. I used to worry about him out there.
"Ha ha. You know your shit, John. You're right, of course. I sat out there for twenty minutes running that meter up."
I started laughing because the only thing dumber than letting the guy go without security was waiting twenty minutes for him to come back.
"It was a bad night, John, and you know I don't need the money. Hell, as soon as my divorce is finalized I'm going to move up to my ranch and retire on my SAG benefits, but for right now I'm busted. I wasn't gonna let that little priss take me for eight bucks!"
"Jaaack, what'd you do?" I said, anticipating something a bit out of the ordinary for him.
"Well I had seen him go into the upper flat so I went and rang the bell. Naturally no one answered, so I continued ringing it. I jammed a match stick into the bell so as to keep it buzzing. That'd bring him out!"
"Good for you, Jack. What happened?"
"Eventually the lights came on and they buzzed me in."
"Oops," I said. "That was their first mistake." Jack agreed.
"The guy at the top of the stairs wasn't my fare and said that he lived alone," Jack continued. "'Bullshit asshole! I saw him come in here. Now where is the little rat fink?!'"
Jack said that he started to climb the long stairs up while the man protested. "'I know he's in there and I'm comin' to get 'em!'"
The queer at the top of the stairs started squealing like a thirteen-year-old girl. The fare showed his face at the railing and Jack started up at a gallop after him. "'Oh no! He's going to kill me.!'" Jack said he picked up speed as the fare ran into the kitchen and he heard the back door open. This part of Sacramento Street is one of the few places in The City to have an alley in the rear. Jack, as all drivers, knew this well. He turned and ran back down the front stairs. The flat was the second one in from the corner, so it wasn't far to the alley. Jack got there just in time to catch the freak coming over the fence.
"Gotcha!" he exclaimed. He could still hear the roommate screaming that he was calling the police.
"Go ahead and call the police, asshole," Jack said he told him. "I'm making a citizens arrest on your pal anyway!"
I was laughing heartily now over the sight of this drama.
"Whatcha' do with him then, Buddy?" I asked. "What did the police do?"
"I didn't take him to the police" he went on. "I took care of it myself."
"Did you take his shoes? That's my favorite. Nothing more humiliating than taking their shoes."
"Worse than that, John." Jack said sheepishly as he looked down at his plate in shame. "I took him for a ride," he said softly.
"Cool." Sometimes drivers, when stiffed, would take the non-paying fare on a fast ride across town and dump them out on some lonely stretch, preferably in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
"Where'd you take 'em? To the Pink Palace?" There was a dangerous public housing project in the nearby Western Addition about twenty stories high and painted pink, where muggers and other creeps could be found at all hours of the night.
"Worse John, way worse. I'm so ashamed."
"Ashamed? You? This must be good!" I said in glee, anticipating a great story.
"I got him in a headlock and walked him back around front to the cab. I was driving a K-Car, so it was a tight fit. I put him in the front seat through the drivers side never releasing my grip on him."
"Way to go, Jack! Is that when you took 'em to the cops?"
Jack knew the cops. He had spent some of the years of his youth in The City and had gone to school with other Irish-American types who went on to become cops. Many of them were ranking officers by now. He also knew lots of them from working on the sets of TV and films shot in San Francisco. On top of it all, his father was a retired local judge. With connections like that, he could get away with taking a fare-evader to the police. They would laugh at other cabbies for trying it.
"No John, I'm sorry to say that I didn't take him downtown. I took him to the beach."
"Whaaat? What beach?"
"Ocean Beach, the Great Highway, near the Cliff House."
"Right on, Jack! That's a long way to walk home!" It was about five miles from the fare's apartment.
"That's not why I took him there. I was going to kill him." He said it deadpan.
My jaw dropped. Naturally, he was kidding. A grin and a snicker came to Jack's mouth.
"Okay, okay. I wasn't going to kill him but I wanted to and I told him I was."
I started laughing out loud, stuffy English types and tourists turning in their chairs to see what was so funny. Jack started laughing, too.
"All the way out there I kept telling him in gory detail how I was gonna cut his nuts off and shove them down his throat for ripping me off! I was going to teach the sissy not to trifle with a working man's income."
I had a vivid picture of this scene. It's late at night. A burly, angry, ex-football player cum cabbie, twice the size of his prey, has a wimpy and arrogant little faggot who thinks society's rules and laws weren't made for him in a headlock in the front seat of a little blue cab. They're cruising down an empty Geary with the driver whispering threats of torture and death into his ear. The little queer must've been thinking that maybe now was a good time to start believing in God and a bad time to start stiffing cabbies.
"How bad did ya hurt 'em Jack? I know you didn't kill him. Even you wouldn't have gotten away with that."
"No, I didn't kill him but I literally, literally, scared the piss out of him. He wet his pants and begged for his life."
"Ha, ha, ha, ha!" The crowd in the pub was looking at us again. Some English-looking twit in a tweed hat and jacket was sneering at me from the bar. I could just hear him thinking, "obnoxious Yank," and sort of hoped he'd come over and say it. Jack was making me feel empowered.
"So the cops caught you and took you in for a few hours?"
"Not exactly. When we got out to the seawall I pulled over and took him down the steps threatening to kill him while he begged for his life. He gave me his watch, a cheap Timex. I remembered what you said about taking their shoes so I got those ... and ... well."
"Well what, Jack?"
"Hhhhm" He let out a big sigh. "I made him strip down completely naked."
I burst out laughing again. Jack looked guilty but also started to guffaw. The English twit sneered again so I laughed louder. How could this get any better?
"You didn't hit him?"
"No. I told him to turn and walk down the beach naked into the darkness and if he turned around I'd kill him!"
As I was roaring with laughter, Jack continued with the story while snickering between words.
"He thanked me for his life. I took his clothes ... ha ha ha ... shoes, ha ha ha ... and watch and drove off. I found a dumpster about ten blocks away and tossed 'em inside."
"It was cold last night, especially out there!"
"Yeah and it started drizzling awhile before sunup." Jack added.
"Then what?" I stopped laughing for a moment waiting for the great climax.
"Then I went back to the garage. I was a little late but they didn't say anything. I went home to bed. A few hours later a captain of inspectors, a guy I went to high school with, phoned and told me to come on in to Headquarters. Seems the little nudist waited a couple of hours for daylight and then started flagging down cars."
I laughed loud and heartily, the stuffy English-types raising their eyebrows. I momentarily wondered why they would come halfway around the globe to one of the greatest restaurant cities in the world just to eat fish and chips and drink ale.
"Naturally no one would stop for him, but someone must've phoned the cops because they sent a cruiser down there looking for him."
I could imagine the police call: "Attention all units, attention all units. Naked queervert sited near Seal Rock. Believed unarmed and disgusting. Approach with caution. Only units with a blanket need respond."
"Jack, you are so lucky that you are connected they would have crucified me for that! Did you get arrested or what?"
"No. It took a lot of talking but the little asshole was threatened with arrest for defrauding an innkeeper (what cabbies call fare-evading) and made aware that I had the backing of the police and DA in the whole mess."
"Ha ha ha! I guess you could say he was lucky to get off with his shirt!" Jack thought that was funny and laughed with me. The little twit at the bar dressed like Sherlock Holmes said something to the bartender and he sent the waitress over.
"Is everything all right here guys?" She was nice and American too.
"Everything is great! Bring us the check!" This place was too tame for us so I talked Jack into going for a pint at the Edinburgh Castle. He wasn't much of a drinker but I needed more details on the story or to just hear again. Although Scots can be a dour bunch, they're a step up from the English so we could be a little louder. The Castle had a parrot named Winston (as in Churchill) who probably had more intelligence than all the gathered Scotsman combined, so the three of us had another great craic there before shoving off for home.
I eventually got fired from DeSoto for refusing to pay the manager some payola, the number one reason for termination in this business. Jack encouraged me to continue writing and to give acting a serious shot. He gave me the names of coaches and contacts in London and Ireland. I worked my way over there where I ran into Steve Sullivan from The John Barleycorn and was having so much fun that I couldn't be bothered with trying to make something of myself. I returned to San Francisco the next year after a few stops along the way and went to work for Yellow. I didn't see Jack much after that. He settled his legal hassles, bought himself a nice condo in The City and had his ranch up in the country. I ran into him just a few years ago at the bank. He looked real good; retirement suits him fine.
We exchange Christmas cards now. I never did become an actor or make a serious impact as a writer but I'd like to be there to see the look on his face when he reads this.
"Keep the spirit with you Jack."
Published November 2005