It was warm that Sunday afternoon in San Francisco; not hot, but with no need to wear a jacket. Sundays are much quieter than the mid-week, when hundreds of thousands of commuters cram the streets and sidewalks with the locals and tourists that make this city buzz. Without those workers the streets can seem deserted. The City is so small and intimate that it is not unusual to come face to face with celebrities, movie stars, ball players, musicians, politicians. In my line I've met many of them. My name is Whalen. I carry a badge. (Passenger vehicle Driver #54131).
I was working the weekend night shift out of Veterans Cab in the early 1980s. The shift manager was Ron Troxell; the dispatcher, John Moss. I was driving cab number 205.
Getting an early start on Sunday was essential because what little business that was available would taper off before midnight. As always, getting the first fare was the most difficult. After that a good cabbie could get a feel of what was going on in town and establish a roll. That first ride was crucial.
I started my trolling as usual by leaving the garage and heading up through the Civic Center headed for Union Square. I knew the Square would be full of cabs, especially Yellows as they didn't have a clue how to make money on this job. I was right, of course. The hotel stands were full of those second-rate drivers who knew neither The City, the language or how to use their radios. I quickly headed up Taylor Street toward Nob Hill expecting the same situation there. As I passed Sutter, I looked down and saw a small crowd forming near the intersection of Sutter and Mason Streets in front of the Marine's Memorial Building. I immediately recognized it as a "break" from the theater housed in that multi-purpose building which served as hotel, gym, museum and stage theater. A break is cab parlance for when an event is over and the patrons emerge looking for transportation. I quickly circled the block and approached the intersection from Mason Street.
Now a lot of cabbies will announce a break to the dispatcher who will in turn put it out on the air as "possibles at Sutter and Mason." This is fine if you know for certain that you have yours and you won't be returning. I had learned, though, that I could often get as many as three trips out of a single break by racing back and forth from the scene. I expected many of these potential riders to be going on short rides, perhaps just the two blocks up Nob Hill as the streets were too steep to walk. By keeping it quiet, I could earn more money so I said nothing.
Some cabbies will pick up anybody, anywhere. I have found that in a crowd, the party that pushes themselves out ahead of others waiting patiently is the worst possible fare. They are arrogant, rude and egotistical. They were often of a group that we then called yuppies. Their lives are more important than anyone else's, so therefore they must go first. They also have a need to tell you that they are important and that you are not. We still have these people today, only now we just call them assholes. A good cabbie will take the fare which is queued up properly. If there is a doorman, you always take his fare rather than those that run up or into the street to beat the system. There is no doorman at the Marine's Memorial, but there was a queue.
As I sat at the light at the intersection I pointed to the couple that was first in line, indicating that I was pulling up for them and they waved back. As far as I was concerned it was as good as a handshake. We had a bargain. Just as the light turned green I pulled into Sutter Street towards the couple when a crazed woman came running from the rear of the line and jumped directly in front of my cab almost giving me a new hood ornament. I recognized her right away from her many appearances in film and television. She was an award-winning actress of much repute. I say was because at that moment she was a nut case, her face contracted in rage, anger, maybe even fear. It was a face I had seen before on others: drug addicts, violent criminals, mental cases and, naturally, yuppies. It was not the face or action of a sane or safe individual. It was certainly no one I wanted sitting behind me in an enclosed vehicle.
I motioned her out of my way and tried to get the other couple in, but the actress (my editor says that I can't mention her name for legal reasons) was adamant that she was getting in. The couples in line were horrified and just stood back in fear and amazement. As the party I stopped for wouldn't stick up for themselves and the actress wouldn't move away from my locked doors, I decided to just pull up a few car lengths and see if anyone sensible would understand that I was available for a sane and sober rider. That didn't work. The actress just ran up pounding on the trunk of 205 and cursing.
Oh yeah, I thought. Calling me names will endear you to me. Other cabs were now arriving on the scene and I could see the idiot Yellow drivers putting their mics to their lips obviously announcing the break to the rest of their 300-cab fleet.
Shit! I was here first and didn't get a fare while the Bananas (Yellow Cabs) were getting pick-ups all around me. I had no choice but to circle the block again and make another pass. The nutty broad should've been gone by then and I could get on with my life. When I rounded the corner I found the same scene, actually worse. Bananas were yelling obscenities at the famous Hollywood actress and refusing her service. Her face was purple, her fists doubled-up in a fighting stance, her mouth spewing filth that, well, a cabbie couldn't even accept. She ran frantically at every approaching taxi throwing herself in front like a desperate crack-head New York whore in Times Square. You didn't need a medical degree or any professional training to see that she was seriously mentally impaired. Whether this impairment was caused by drug addiction, alcohol, mental disease or just her normal personality I have no way of knowing. I do know that I have seen this before and it was almost always caused by the drug of choice of that period (especially amongst the well-heeled), cocaine. My judgment was that she had had too much or was in desperate need to get some. Of course, I could be wrong but that was my call to make. The fact that Yellow drivers wouldn't pick her up was a dead give-away that she was a non-desirable.
As the Bananas were busy cursing her and pushing her aside I tried to get into the respectable queue. The looks on the faces of the amazed crowd, who had just paid $50 to see her in a matinee performance, was a mixture of humor and horror. Many of them were disgusted with the situation and were themselves now trying to get cabs out in the middle of the street. Other drivers, mostly from the better companies, were taking the high road and, just like me, driving off with no fare at all. On a slow day this was sacrilege. I was going to get a fare and it wasn't going to be her!
That was not to be. If I slowed for just a second she was on top of me. I kept pointing at reasonable people just a few short feet away but either from fear or for the entertainment value they stood frozen in amazement. The famous actress' face was in my window pane just inches from mine demanding to be allowed in, that it was an "emergency!"
"If it's an emergency, dial 911!" I said as I tried to ease up the block to gather up some of the now dispersed flock. She banged and kicked my cab, swearing epitaphs about my lineage (Irish: How could she have known that?), as I slowly pulled away her hand still grasped around my rear door handle. I saw her give me the finger in my rear-view mirror.
I got no takers on that pass but undaunted I decided I would give it one more attempt and circled the same block for the third time. On my way down Mason Street from Bush, about halfway down the block, was a nice looking, well-dressed, well-mannered young man holding his hand up at the side of the street.
"Ah ha!" I thought to myself. "Finally."
I pulled over and with a beckoning index finger and a nod of the head I gave him permission to enter my domain. I saw him motion to an attractive young lady, apparently his date, a little farther down the street and she hurriedly began walking up, lest, I thought, the crazed actress with the mental fit should see me and run up to commandeer me away from them. The middle-aged nutty actress broad was still visible down in the middle of the now-busy intersection of Sutter and Mason, a sea of yellow, pink and orange cabs blowing their horns at her to move and her cursing and kicking them in return. I was so glad to now have my riders, a smile finally came to my face as the young girl jumped in the back seat and I anticipated making a nasty remark about the crazed, famous, middle-aged, award-winning (Emmy, Oscar and, I think, Tony) actress when the young man, who stood at the side of the open rear door yelled out down the street.
"Hey Mom! I got one!" It was a fait accompli. The girl was in the back seat directly behind me, the young man had my door open wide dangerously protruding into a lane of traffic so I was stuck. The crazed thespian began running up the hill towards the cab. For fifteen minutes she had been throwing a tantrum trying to get a cab and had already cursed me personally and assaulted my valuable property. The look on her face was one of extreme terror. She sprinted like an athlete constantly looking in all directions as if an assailant were chasing her. The young man, obviously her son, got in the front seat as she approached. The nut flew into the right rear seat and without shutting the door behind her began screaming at the top of her powerful lungs (she has a reputation as a singer, too).
"Go! Go! Go!"
I held up my hand calmly and asked her in a soft voice, "Could you please close the door?"
She did so and continued to look around while screaming to "Go! Go! Go!"
Now besides the obvious need for a driver, any driver, professional or otherwise, to know the destination of a trip, it was actually the law in San Francisco (and no doubt other large cities) to keep a log of taxi fares. The destination on the Way Bill (sometimes called a Trip Sheet) had to be entered before the ride began or the driver could be cited by the police. People who don't ride in cabs much think it is like a Hollywood movie.
"Follow that cab!" and "Just drive!" are not acceptable instructions from a fare. I call them instructions, not commands, because I am in charge of the vehicle. Many of these type of people (yuppies, egotists, narcissists) think that cabbies, hotel clerks and other service workers are modern-day slaves that they order about for the five or ten minutes while in their presence. They think their two dollars buys them the right to be verbally abusive and to own, if only temporarily, another human being. In some industries such as hotels and restaurants, the management does allow a certain leeway in this regard. Those employees are encouraged to take as much abuse as possible. Cabbies take none. They don't care who you are, who you think you are or how much money you have and this is the way it should be. No pilot of any aircraft, no captain of any ship would allow a passenger to give orders and it is the same in the professional driving business.
I slowly pulled out my clipboard with the Way Bill attached. Now frankly I normally fill this out as I drive, time being of the essence in making a living on this job. I had been warned by the San Francisco Police before that they could not read my writing on my Way Bills (which they go through from time to time at taxpayers' expense) and to quit using cabbie shorthand for locations such as "B of A" for 600 California Street or a pyramid symbol for the TransAmerica Building. They wanted exact addresses even if you picked the people up off of corners. Naturally I always said that I would comply, but in ten years never did in spite of their many warnings and at least two official face-to-face meetings with ranking officers of the Taxi Detail. I picked up my pen and scanned the nearest building on Mason Street looking for the address. The crazy woman continued shouting, "GO! Go! Go! Are you dumb or something?!"
As I wrote down the numbers I sighed and responded.
"Please control your language. Now what is your destination?"
"Just Go! Go! Go! I'll tell you when I get there!"
"How will I know where to go if you don't tell me?" I said calmly. The nutty diva kept looking around as if she were running from the paparazzi or assassins. There was no one in sight. She momentarily seemed to come to her senses, so I put the car in gear and, against my better judgment, pulled away from the curb but continued to ask her the destination. Apparently the two young people didn't know it or were too afraid to speak up. I would be, too, if she were my mom. I turned the corner onto Sutter Street headed west. This had given her thirty seconds or so to calm down and decide where she was headed, so I asked her again.
"Okay, did you remember it?"
"Just do as I say and drive!"
I jammed on the brakes in the middle of the block and for the first time made my position perfectly clear.
"Ma'am. We are not moving another inch until you give me a destination!"
"Alright then!" She quickly responded. "California and Taylor!"
She evidently knew the City well enough to invent an intersection that actually existed. There was only one significant address there, the Huntington Hotel. It was two blocks away, though straight uphill. With all of the time and physical and emotional energy she had drained trying to get a cab, she could have easily walked it. I knew she wasn't going there, but I wrote it down anyway and pulled away again. Within two car lengths she blurted out, "Union and Steiner Street."
"What?" I asked.
"I just remembered the address, Union and Steiner and hurry!"
I nodded politely and said, "Okay." We traveled another half a block in silence when she snottily remarked.
"You guys just have to know everything, don't you?!"
Besides the obvious need for a driver to know where he is going I was sick of her antics and attitude. The inferred insult in her voice was not lost on me. I knew I was a cab driver. I wasn't happy with my lot in life or my financial situation, but Goddamn it I was not this Dom Bitch's personal servant! If she wanted someone to lick her boots she'd have to go to one of the many professional dungeons South of Market and pay some gay boy for it like everyone else! I again jammed on the brakes hard so she would go flying forward into the back of the front seat.
"That's it! Get out! Get out now! I don't have to take shit from anyone, especially a has-been like you!"
She looked stunned and was momentarily silent. I'd seen this before. Bullies are often shocked when people stand up to them. They're shocked to discover that they aren't actually a God. Sometimes, as in the case of Zza Zza Gabor and others, they actually strike you. I was hoping this bitch would. Her Emmy would look good on my bed stand or maybe I‘d use it as a hood ornament. Instead, she settled into the back seat with a little wiggle of her ass as if she would somehow stick like glue and blurted out, "No! You're nothing but a cab driver! Do as I say!"
I looked her straight and hard into the eye, and said, "Well you're nothing but a pedestrian. Get out!"
For the first time she spoke in a normal tone. "No." She said meekly. "Make me."
Naturally I wanted to ring her neck but with two witnesses and her celebrity status, I thought better of that. "I won't, but if you don't get out here and now, I will take you to our garage where a couple of greasy third world mechanics will haul you out with their filthy hands and you can then explain yourself to the police!"
"Go right ahead, asshole!"
I threw it in gear and raced down Sutter turning left on Jones headed toward the Tenderloin. We passed Post Street, the cab leaving the ground as I leaped the intersection.
She stared at me stoically in the rear view mirror, her two children in obvious embarrassment.
"Go right ahead. I dare you!" She encouraged.
What type of world did this bitch live in where total strangers, businessmen, were at her beck and call? How was her two dollars worth more than someone else's?
In San Francisco, the neighborhoods can change dramatically from one block to the next. Geary Street was the boundary between respectable and upscale Union Square and Nob Hill and the seedy and dangerous Tenderloin. At thirty-five miles per hour, as we approached Geary, she suddenly opened the rear door and attempted to exit. I stopped short, laying down rubber. She bounced her body off the front seat and in a single motion was out the door running down the middle of Jones Street with both arms raised above her head screaming "Taxi! Taxi!," though there was no other cab in sight. Her agility was admirable; she didn't miss a beat or step. (Amongst her many talents, she is also a dancer). It was quite a view and I wasn't the only one enjoying it. A congregation of hookers was on their corner at Geary Street along with the bums, pimps, crazies and others of their ilk, attending to their business. Arab grocers and patrons of the corner gay bar stuck their heads out to see the commotion. I saw a look of recognition on one of the queers as he nudged his buddy's elbow.
"Hey! Isn't that --------- from stage, screen and television?"
"Yeah. She used to play --------------!"
"Wow, she's really a nut!"
As I sat watching this show from a hundred feet away, her son in the front seat reached for his wallet and asked in a sheepish and embarrassed tone, "How much do we owe you?"
"Nothin' kid. I feel bad for you. Good luck."
The two children exited the cab politely. It was apparent that they had seen this behavior in their mother before. I looked down at Geary Street, and there she was in the middle of that three-lane main thoroughfare screaming like a banshee and swinging her purse at cabs that wouldn't stop for her.
I left the scene immediately less I become involved further, and went about my business. I needed to make a living and had probably lost ten dollars with this wasted time, not to mention that my blood was boiling. Though amusing, I left feeling sorrow for both her kids and indeed for her as she clearly was not sane at that moment.
It was worth some story value to the guys at the garage and some suggested that I phone it in to Herb Caen, the local gossip columnist. Cabbies, waiters, hotel clerks and bartenders had a reputation for informing Caen about the private antics of public people, just to see their own names in print. I didn't mind telling my friends but I have maintained my own private code of silence, a cabbie-rider confidentiality if you will, throughout my career. People, especially celebrities, shouldn't be targeted by their service workers any more than by their professionals like doctors and shrinks. I could write several chapters on "celebrities behaving badly" and maybe I will someday, perhaps after they have expired.
I was fascinated by Caen's column (Coffee and Caen), a San Francisco institution. It had a voyeuristic attraction to it. People would read it in the morning and talk about it over lunch. The public's impression of Mr. Caen was, however, in my opinion, twisted. Mr. Caen was for some mysterious reason not available for military duty during World War Two and was thus able to move swiftly up the ladder in journalism while the real men were off serving their country. He made a living selling secrets, gossip, things that we are all guilty of. Caen could make or break any business or business man in town by a simple nod or a resounding haranguing. I knew Caen by sight and reputation. He never paid for a meal or a drink and went out every night, consuming plenty of both. One time he entered a friend of mine's establishment, the highly popular pizza parlor, the Front Room, attached to my watering hole, The John Barleycorn. There was an orderly line for service but Caen, clearly drunk, pushed to the front and demanded immediate service! He was politely asked to wait his turn but left in a fit of anger and disgust instead. The following day. he wrote in his column that he had in fact eaten there and it was terrible. So in addition to being a draft dodger, drunk and gossip-monger, he was also a liar.
I was not happy with my treatment by the famous actress. I was sorely tempted to inform on her to Caen in spite of my policy of confidentiality. After all, she hadn't actually paid me so technically she didn't deserve my silence. I hated Caen, too, though, so I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.
I phoned Caen's office and tried to talk to him personally. He wasn't available, of course (probably still hung-over from the previous night's drinking and carousing), and I discovered that he had a staff of seven writers who collected and wrote his column for him. He would come (or perhaps phone in) his personal approval of each item. So, as it turns out, he wasn't even a writer anymore. Evidently he had achieved one of the great American dreams: He could drink and eat all night while hob-nobbing with the rich and famous, have a staff collect their secrets and then have a them printed for him, his name attached as author. So let's see; draft-dodger, drunk, liar, gossip-monger and plagiarist. For this he was highly paid.
Considering that he was highly paid and had a staff that was paid, I asked the staff member what Caen was willing to pay for the dirty little trash I had on this famous actress?
"What? We don't pay for information! We're journalists!"
"Journalists?" I queried. "You write gossip, which you get from guys like me. You receive a paycheck, don't you?"
"Yes, but I answer the phone and take down the tips."
"How does that compare with me actually having the experience?"
"Well, I dunno."
"Think about it, lady."
She was still interested in the story, but I refused to tell it in full. The famous actress' reputation was still intact. I have kept this secret from the general public for over twenty years. Due to the invention of the Web I have been able to investigate this actress' biography. It seems she is well known for her abusive, obnoxious and truly nutty personality. Although she is still alive (she must be about a hundred years old!) and still active in Hollywood (she has a recurring role in a popular sitcom) I don't think I can withhold this story any longer but I will not use her name. It's up to you the reader to determine who it is if you wish. I think her actions that day have a value all their own, and besides this column is about me, about my experiences as a cabbie. She placed herself in my own story. If she wasn't changing habits them perhaps she should have been.
There are a million stories in the City by the Bay. This has been one of them.
Published April 2006