The San Francisco International Airport Blues
1980 was not a good year: The mayor of San Francisco was assassinated, propelling the incompetent demagogue, Diane Feinstein, into that office. Inflation exposed itself in the form of major rent increases across the City (driving me from my apartment). Iran held U.S. citizens hostage, eventually bringing on the devastating Reagan era. I had a fight with my supervisor, Bill Skiff, who traded me to another franchise and amazingly, the Phillies won the pennant.
My name is Whalen. I am a cab driver.
I am on the night schedule, but being summer it was daylight for much of my shift. I didn't really like to work the airport but I hated even more the afternoon rush hour traffic of downtown or any other part of the City. To avoid it, I got in the habit of heading the sixteen miles south to the port right out of the garage. It was just as well, as, having just gotten out of bed not long before, I was in no mood yet for work.
The San Francisco International Airport is one of those pseudo-government entities that has more power and less public control than an ordinary bureaucracy. Though owned and operated by the City of San Francisco, it is actually in San Mateo County. It had its own director (who earned more than the mayor and was not answerable to him), its own organizational body, contract medical facility, food services, bus line, police force (though at the time with no police power) and so on.
As with everything government in San Francisco, it was an organization as crooked as a leprechaun's shillelagh. From the vending machine contractors to the mafia-run Airporter bus service and everything in between, there wasn't a person or business who escaped the grip of this mob, neither airline passenger nor cabbie.
The taxis were "managed" by a private contractor whose curbside employees were called "starters." In theory, the starter's job was to call up, via walkie-talkie, cabs from a holding lot hidden from view of the public in the bowels of a dark, dank, tomb-like garage basement when needed. Of course the question begs of why the cabs couldn't sit on the stands themselves? Simple answer: The starters took bribes from the Airporter bus company to steer business to them. When passengers would arrive at the taxi islands the starters would tell them that there were no cabs available and put them onto the buses. When the mob-owned coaches were full, the cabs would miraculously appear.
Among other things, this led to the mistaken belief by the public that there were not enough taxis available in the City's fleet. Also, the starters allowed (for a fee of course) limos, out-of-town taxis and gypsy cabs to bypass the garage and go directly to the pick-up line, completely hidden from view of the licensed taxi drivers. I have even heard of the starters themselves taking passengers to the City in their own vehicles (at two to three times the going rate) at the end of their shift. When San Francisco cabbies exposed this by spying on the starters, the airport administration barred the drivers from leaving the garage on foot. Naturally the airport didn't want the truth out; they were part of the corruption and their staff, too, made a tidy profit from the venture through their cut of the take.
Of course, I don't know how the graft was spread but the number one criminal was the head of the airport himself, a man who is still in office to this day and is paid more (and has more power) than any other city employee. He is also untouchable. Even that great political manipulator, Willie Brown, was unsuccessful in his attempts at firing him during his years as mayor. Strangely, he is said to be a retired British Army officer, a graduate of Sandhurst, and to my knowledge not even an American citizen. This raises a further question: Why was a former foreign military officer running one of our nation's most important points of entry and what makes a retired army colonel qualified for such a position anyway? Don't ask me, I just pose the question. I have no answer to it other than corruption makes strange bedfellows.
To be fair, a recent inquiry to the airport administration about the "Colonel" brought a denial that he was the director but merely a major financial officer. That still wouldn't answer why he was employed, there but even that denial had a ring of untruth to it as I once spent a night drinking with him at the 2211 Club on Polk Street. Anyway, SFO is a den of thieves, not unlike the rest of this nation's institutions.
On one particular day, shortly after I started driving for DeSoto, I pulled into the airport garage. The usual suspects were there: an assortment of sleazebags playing fairly high stakes poker on the hoods of their cabs; tweakers pacing the floor unable to sit still with so much cocaine in them; the old drunk cab drivers, their breath fresh with the combination of brandy and Binaca, and, of course, the potheads, getting high for that first ride. Yeah, that's right, folks: there is a good chance that your taxi driver is high or worse.
Like at a rock concert, the trick was to "peak" just when you picked up your fare. People think cabbies are stupid, but believe me it takes a keen knowledge of anatomy, chemistry, airline time tables and business trends to estimate just when to take your swig of hooch, line of blow or hit of herb to coordinate with the start of your day. Don't believe me? You try it and get back to me. (Note: Not to be attempted by children or amateur drivers. You must be a cabbie, trucker or UPS driver to handle the effects of these substances.)
So I parked my little K-Car, the DeSoto Cab company's answer to the gas shortage (seems like we always have a gas crisis in this country) that, in fact, were a gift of the Chrysler Corporation to test their new model. What better way to test a vehicle than to give it to drunk and drugged ne'er-do-wells to race up and down the hills of San Francisco for twenty-plus hours per day? Any car that can survive that can survive Armageddon, along with the cockroach and lizards, cabbies' nearest living relatives. (By the way, they did not survive the test. That is why most of you reading this now don't know what a K-Car is.) One of the main drawbacks of the K-Car was that it could only hold three passengers comfortably (instead of the standard five) but it did have reasonable luggage capacity.
Well, no sooner had I parked in the lot than all my old friends from Veterans came over to admire my shiny new blue cab, they not having seen a new taxi in their fleet for, well, ever, as Vet's owner always bought used police cruisers, rental cars and junks. One of my favorite Veterans cabs was a Dodge Aspen-Plymouth-Volare hybrid. The cheap boss bought two wrecks from a junkyard, one of which the occupant had clearly died in as its entire front end was accordioned into the back seat, and the other the rear end of which was similarly squished into the front. What did they do? You guessed it. They cut the car in half with blowtorches (one of the few tools that our mechanic had, along with a ball peen hammer and vise grips. What more do you need for the quality of work that they do?) then connected the Plymouth's rear end to the Dodge front end. They cleaned the blood off the seats, painted it red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag (an honor to the Italian North Beach mobsters who founded the company) and Veterans official paint scheme and voila, it was taxicab! I used to drive it from time to time. It did angle a little to the left, but having had flying lessons as a young man I just gave it a little right rudder to compensate, keeping it as straight down the road as possible. It was the closest thing to "side-slipping" that you could perform without an aircraft. Not that many passengers noticed the Volare logo on the rear panel and the Dodge hood ornament on the front, but once in a while someone would ask:
"How do you like this model car? I'm thinking of buying one."
To which I would reply, "Well the Dodge has a good engine under the hood but the Plymouth's transaxle is the shits!"
Only the most savvy car enthusiast would question that response, and not wanting to frighten the passengers any more than my driving already was I wouldn't go into details. It was probably best that they didn't know their vehicle was held together by some spot welds made by a guy who flunked high school auto shop and driven by another guy whose "love" of his job drove him to get high before going to work. One of the benefits of this configuration, though, was that while slide-slipping I could actually talk face-to-face with my rear seat passengers without looking in my mirror or turning my head.
So the other cabbies gathered around and marveled at my new machine and how I had snookered Skiff, the Vets manager, in setting me up with a better job rather than being sued or having his teeth rearranged during one of my moments of ... well ... social disconnect. I saw there one of my best driver buddies, Ralph Deming. Ralph always credited me with getting him started in the business. I considered it more of an accusation and denied it, but he is still driving so he must find something attractive about it.
I used to pick up Ralph late at night from one of the three gay bars that he managed. I can't remember their names, but I think one was the "Bootcamp" and another "The Trench." I don't pretend to know all there is of that culture, but these bars were frequented by gay men who were ... well ... obsessed with the dirtier aspects of military life. They usually dressed in some sort of combination army fatigues and boots with any manner of leather accoutrements.
I can't explain the interiors of these establishments because my editor would be dismayed, he not being as socially open-minded as homosexuals of the late '70s. [Editor's note: Hey now!] Sexual activity was open and widespread in the gay bars at the time, as was after-hours drinking. Naturally, The San Francisco police did nothing about it (allegedly because of the bribes or "pad" paid by the bar owners) so the state ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control Commission) conducted its own investigation. After uncovering the obvious after-hours drinking and sex in plain sight at the bar rail itself, they closed his bars down. I suggested driving a cab until he could find other work. He came down to Vets the next day and well, for Ralph, the rest is history.
So Ralph came over and, after oohing and aahing over my new wheels, invited me to join him and his friends in a Yellow Cab to try some new bud. I looked at my watch (okay, I never wore one but someone else's watch) and the cab line and determined that I could time it just right to be at my "peak" when finally called upon to pick up my first victim ... I mean passenger.
I was a little concerned, though, that I'd be seen by a Desoto "vice president." DeSoto was a co-op type of company and every medallion holder was called "Vice President" the same way that every old Kentuckian is called "Colonel." DeSoto was a seriously conservative company. They drank, drove like maniacs, carried guns (and weren't afraid to use them), but thought it unprofessional to smoke pot. I looked around furtively and, though worried of the repercussions, quickly answered.
"Shit yeah! Where's he parked?"
We walked back to the beat-up old banana (Yellow Cab) in the rear of the lot and of course the other two young drivers were gay as well so I was to be the token straight guy. Not worried about my manhood and never one to turn down a free dube, I climbed into the rear seat. While we took turns smelling and feeling the mota as if wine connoisseurs, taking in its ambiance and color, commenting on its lineage (Humboldt of course, it's the Napa of the pot industry) someone rolled up a bomber. As it was passed around, the old Ford Torino quickly filled with smoke so, it being a hot day, we rolled down the windows. The garage was always filled with gas fumes so a little pot odor could only make things better. My first hit was a killer I didn't think I'd even need another, but when my turn came again I democratically took my toke, as to do otherwise would be insulting to my hosts. The group of sleazy gamblers playing poker nearby sneered at us between swigs of their booze as if we were some sort of demon children out to destroy the reputation of this upstanding profession. We didn't notice one of them leave to use the nearby pay phone our only communication with the outside world as radios didn't work under zillions of pounds of cement that made up the monolithic garage which was to be our tomb in the event of a big earthquake.
We talked and giggled the way you'd expect post-pubescent young men under the influence, until just after I passed the joint up to Ralph. As he turned back to face me, he uttered these words, whose inflection I'll never forget:
The look in his eyes told me all I needed to know. I was in the right rear seat and slowly turned my head toward the window, the direction in which he was transfixed, and there, not three inches from my nose, was the barrel of a WWII surplus M3A1 submachine gun, often called a grease gun. The other officers, all San Francisco Airport Police, were armed with M2s and shotguns. They wore old-fashioned armored flak jackets and helmets. Naturally they started yelling, threatening to kill us and such, as cops like to do, while we either shit or wet our pants as the case may have been for each individual among us. I had wisely gone to the bathroom before leaving the City, so I only lost a pound or two from perspiration.
Thank God the cops quickly figured out that this was not a serious offense, and just as quickly noticed the poker game nearby and upon approaching the card players they all ran off. About $500 in various denominations was left on the hood of the Diamond Cab. The dumb-ass driver who had phoned the cops on us as a prank had foolishly not had sense enough to think that he might draw attention to himself with a pile of cash and cards on the hood of a pink cab. As we were being cuffed by two officers, two more went over to the now abandoned illegal game and picking up the cash, held it up asking out loud to the gathered spectators, "Whose money is this?"
As stupid as these cabbies were, you could see their little brains trying to think of a way to get their money back while at the same time avoiding arrest for gambling, actually a more serious crime than we had committed. Cops, to the their credit, don't like to be called to false alarms. Turns out they had received a tip that there was a "big drug deal" going down in Yellow Cab number 526 "right now." Guess the prankster thought it would be a big laugh, breaking the monotony and tragedy that was our daily lives.
The cop asked again, "Who wants to claim this money? If no one, it will go to the Police Charity Fund!"
As big an idiot as this unknown prankster was, he still had enough smarts not to claim it. Though now on my knees with my hands tied behind my back with plastic thumb cuffs, I was still able to enjoy the looks on those jerks' faces as they realized that they had lost their money and were now the center of the officers' attention. While two cops escorted those knuckleheads over to one side, a sergeant who was not a member of the Airport detail but a real cop showed up and had our cuffs removed. At the time, the Airport cops had no police power and needed the San Mateo County Sheriff to make their arrests for them. The airport SWAT team left somewhat dejected. Not only had they not been able to use their firepower on defenseless citizens, but the deputy sergeant also refused to arrest us. Instead, he had us paraded through the garage to a better-lit area near the starter's box for all to see. We were being made an example of. The taunts of the other drivers ranged from comical to political.
"Hope it was worth it, Whalen!"
"That's what ya get for hangin' out with fruits!"
"Free the SFO Four!"
That remark was followed with the raised fist salute borrowed from the Black Panthers.
So the mature sergeant asked us how potent the pot was. He put his nose to the plastic baggie.
"Hmmm ... smells pretty good! Humboldt?"
We couldn't argue with him. While the other guys looked stone-faced I spoke up, "Allegedly, but we were trying it first to make sure it was safe for public use. You see, we were just concerned about consumer safety."
Thankfully the sergeant found that amusing. He asked who actually owned it and the offender, whose name I have long forgotten, immediately confessed.
About this time, one of the biggest, fattest, oldest and most drunken Desoto "vice presidents" walked over, interrupting the officer. (They really like it when citizens comes up to "assist". If you don't believe me, try it yourself someday.)
"Which one of these guys is the DeSoto driver! Whoever he is, he is fired right now! We don't tolerate that at my company!"
"Who are you, sir?" The veteran sergeant asked.
"I'm (so and so) Guillespi, vice president of The DeSoto Sedan Car Service!"
"That's quite a fancy title for a man who is about to be arrested for interfering with an officer. Is DeSoto going to fire you, too?"
"Uh ... well ... uh ... no, but I want to know which one of these men under arrest is the DeSoto driver!"
I kept my mouth shut.
"Well, so far sir, no one is under arrest except maybe you if you don't get out of here!"
The cop approached him face to face.
"You been drinking, fella"?
The sergeant was only inches from his face and I could smell the booze from five feet away.
"Well ... uh ... uh ..."
"You have five seconds to get away from me! I'm going to give my card to these drivers and if any of them lose their job, I will be calling on you at Marv Grolnick's (the boss of DeSoto) office. Now, what is your name?"
"Well I uh ... I ... uh ... didn't mean any ..."
"Just give me your name!"
It's (something or other) Guillespi."
"Go back to your cab, Guillespi, sit in it and don't move. You stay put and I'll overlook this."
"Yes sir," the dirt-bag old drunk meekly responded.
"Okay" the sergeant continued with us, "Tell me, will you be fired if your bosses hear about this?"
We all nodded and said yes.
"Well, seeing as how jobs are hard to come by these days and you guys look like you can't afford to be unemployed, I've got an idea."
We said nothing but awaited his offer.
"You say this stuff is pretty potent?"
"Yeah sergeant, the best."
"How long would you say it will take you to come down from the high about an hour maybe?"
"Yes, sergeant, that sounds about right."
"Okay, here's what I want you to do. The four of you pull your cabs out of line and pull them up to the front here. I'll order the starter to have you move out into the airport stands in exactly one hour. You think you will be safe to drive by then?"
Of course I thought I was safe to drive now, but not wanting to be a wise-ass, said, "Oh yes sergeant, yes! Yes!"
"Okay! You!" He pointed straight at me, almost putting his index finger in my chest. "You look like the smartest." Which I was, but that's no big accomplishment in a group of cabbies. "I want you to come with me to the bathroom and witness me flush this (holding up the $300 bag of pot)."
"Oh that's not necessary, sergeant, I ..."
"You will come with me to the bathroom and witness!"
"Yes, sergeant!" (I had to go to the toilet by then, anyway, bad!).
So the old San Mateo County deputy sergeant and myself left the garage and crossed over into the terminal. We entered the nearest large public bathroom, with travelers of all types, nationalities and descriptions coming and going. They eyed us queerly as the deputy opened a stall door and there not being enough room in there for both of us at the same time, the door remained ajar for all to see.
With one hand he dumped the ounce of herb out of its standard-issue plastic sandwich bag into the toilet while holding onto the zig-zags and joint roller in the other.
After flushing the pungent and potent herb, he turned to me with a broad smile, looked around to see that no one was watching and handed me back the papers and roller.
"Here!" he said with a sly grin, "You may need this later."
We walked back to the taxi-cab holding pen and after getting our cabs lined up near the starters gate, the deputy sheriff went straight over to "Vice President" Guillespi who still sat dutifully in his cab where he had a short discussion with him. The sergeant returned, gave me his card and told me, "You won't be having trouble with your management. I made it clear that if you're fired I'll take his hack license! Give me a call if you have any trouble with him."
"Yes, Sergeant, thanks a lot!" we all said with squeaky voices like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
"No, thank you! I drive around all day armed and don't see half the criminals and creeps that you have to deal with. You guys don't get the credit you deserve. I'd get stoned, too, if I had your job."
With that peculiar compliment we again thanked him, he shaking all of our hands individually like we were his personal friends who had just won the two-legged sack race at the sheriff's annual picnic.
With his departure, the other cabbies came around patting us on the backs, listening to our stories (ah,the cab story, my favorite part of the job) and generally worshipping us as heroes. The sleazy gamblers just leered at us. Of course, they had no one to blame for the loss of their money but themselves. When the brouhaha slowed down and the other drivers went back to their drinking, pot smoking, poker playing, reading racing forms or dirty magazines you know, the usual stuff I caught Guillespi staring at me from out of the corner of my eye.
I turned, looked straight at him across the garage floor, pulled the cop's card from my shirt pocket and waved it at him tauntingly. (I never had a problem with this "vice president" for the entire year I was exiled to DeSoto).
Our one-hour "time out" passed quickly, so quickly in fact the I actually got out into the airport taxi zone faster than I would have had I not been sent to the front of the line.
What did I learn from all of this? Don't use pot on the job? Don't get caught using pot on the job? Get another job? None of the above. Life went on as always, only now I had a good taxi story with the bonus of having the "vice president" of my new company by the short hairs. Just like being traded to DeSoto the week before, I somehow again came out ahead.
I didn't spend much time on the cab stand. A fare, a youngish businessman, rushed out to my cab and threw his one bag into my open trunk. I offered him the front seat as the rear of the K-Car was too small for most men.
"Take me to the Hyatt Regency please."
I nodded in acknowledgment.
"How are you doing today driver?"
Being usually candid, I nearly told him the events of the previous hour, but thought better of it. Besides, I was coming off the high and not much in the mood for banter. I reluctantly answered, "Okay, I guess ... could be better, I suppose."
He looked at me quizzically, as if sizing me up and replied, "Well, we can't have that!" He thrust his right hand out while using his left to reach into his inside suit pocket, "My name is Larry!" I took his hand, but before I could reply with one of my many anonymous monikers (like Deter, Seamus, Big Al, etc.) that I gave to suspicious strangers, he produced a joint from his pocket. He held it up tantalizingly before me.
"Is it cool?"
I beamed. "Shit, yeah, it's cool! Fire that thing up!"
Published March 2007