Madera Is Not Just A Portuguese Wine
It was perhaps the lousiest night I had ever had. It was late, there was no one on the streets, the radio was dead, I hadn't made my rent and in fact all I had earned was the roughly hundred bucks I needed for the gates and gas. Ten hours and I was going home with nothing, maybe less. What type of idiot works for free? My name is Whalen, I am a cab driver.
It was summer 1988 and I was on my last legs as both a cabbie and perhaps a human being. I was working six nights per week, ten or more hours per shift and only making enough money for the rent of a dreary room in a flea bag hotel and sometimes only one cheap meal per day. My biggest thrill in life at the time was enjoying my three-mile walk home through the deserted streets of the City smoking a precious small joint purchased on credit from my good pals Tony and Jude of City Cab fame. I was sometimes able to get up to a viewpoint atop Potrero Hill and watch the sun rise over Mount Diablo before heading up into the Tenderloin for a day's sleep just to get up and start the monotonous grind over again.
Being a San Francisco cabbie in 1988 was like being a soldier in a never-ending war; you were out in the field for ten to twelve hours per day with people trying to harm or even kill you and the pay was lousy. Worst of all, you didn't know what the fight was all about. You only knew that it was your duty and you plugged on. If you screwed up, you died or got fired Ѿ putting you on the street. Perhaps that would be preferable, but self-preservation is an odd yet deep-rooted human trait. People around the world suffer the greatest indignities just to go on another day. Why should I be different? I was not special.
Those who have found themselves in this predicament know what I am talking about. You're not in a position to move on because you have no resources: no car, clothes, telephone or permanent address. Most of all, you have no time. From the moment you get up you are getting ready for and/or travelling to work. Then at the garage is the big wait, sometimes hours followed by the long, unproductive and in the late '80s even longer, lonely shift. You're stuck. You can't move on but you can't afford to stop.
The cab business in San Francisco dropped off in the mid-'80s for many reasons, but I believe the most serious impact was the AIDS epidemic. It decimated the gay population, a true backbone of San Francisco nightlife at the time. Gay men were literally dying in the hundreds and others were moving out of town as if changing scenery would save them from a deadly virus to which they had already been exposed. I can't say how many gay men I knew in those days dozens, hundreds, I don't know. I do know that only a few survive to this day.
The straight scene had soured, too. The baby-boomers were pushing forty and many had sowed their wild oats, married and moved to more reasonable climes and/or pursuits. They, too, were in fear of the new deadly epidemic. The last of the hetero-singles had become soured of the bar, restaurant and dating scene. Generation X (or was it Y? I can't keep track) was much smaller and less, well, fun. They were the yuppie generation and no greater vainglorious egotists or just plain dicks ever before existed on planet Earth. We'd have to wait a decade before the dot.com generation arose with their party attitude and pockets full of money to see nightlife again flourish in The City.
In addition to all of this, for some reason the landlords, who had raised their rents three- or four-fold between 1978 and '85 refused to lower them in spite of the fact that entire apartment buildings were empty. Evidently they had never heard of supply and demand. Most apartments in San Francisco are studios, usually occupied by singles but being single was passé. I had been made redundant. Society was not in need of a thirty-something, handsome hunk outlaw cabbie. I felt like Sam Elliot in the 1976 film "Lifeguard." I was a dinosaur, a child of the '60s, a young man of the '70s. The '80s was the beginning of my thirty-something years but my mind, ego, temperament and personality were ten years out of date.
Anyway, my current routine at this time was to walk all the way from Lower Nob Hill or the Tenderloin or the Mission, depending on which dive I was living in at the time, to work at the Luxor Cab Co. I usually tried to pick a crib with the least number of rats, both four and two legged, who also shared my building. Oh yeah, and the cheaper the better but in most cases it was about $250 per week for a shoddy room, cockroaches and mice free of charge. Considering that I was only making about $250-300, well you can see my predicament.
I had tried going legit. I had worked in a law office for about six months, but the things they asked me to do were either unconscionable or just plain illegal. They paid me $8 per hour (I think I got a raise to $9) but billed $125 per hour to the client for my services. You may think that lawyers charge on an hourly basis, but in fact they charge in blocks made up of minutes. I recall that at this firm it was seven minutes. For example, if an attorney phoned a client or really anyone on behalf of a client and spoke for two minutes or even if the party was out, the client was billed for seven minutes. The going hourly rate was $600 per hour at this firm, so that unanswered call was billed to the client (who simply passed it on to the consumer as this was a business law firm) as $70. There was quite a controversy at the time when this practice was made public by a client of some law firm when he realized that he was being billed for services in excess of twenty-four hours a day by the same attorney! Of course, the Bar Association and the courts backed this up as legal. After all, judges are lawyers too.
I expressed outrage to management so many times about the criminality taking place at this large and well-known world-wide firm that I was routinely transferred to different departments to shut me up. Once I was sent to the copy room were I was told that my job was to copy documents all day long and immediately shred them! They were charging the client twenty-five cents per copy (that cost less than one cent) and also billing for the shredding! I just plain refused to do it. Naturally, as there was no ethical position in this business, I was finally fired.
I tried another job as a hotel clerk, but was dismissed from that after I was told by the landlord to no longer allow a particular tenant to have guests until he both paid his back rent and also quit dealing drugs. As a result of following my instructions the much younger and better-built ice-head ambushed me in the lobby with a knife and a tile cutter! Much to my amazement, at the advanced age of thirty-five I disarmed him of one weapon and managed to smash his head multiple times into the soda machine until he fell bloody and unconscious. I broke my finger and destroyed the soda machine in the process. It reminded me of a scene out of "Dr. Strangelove. Oh yeah, and the cops didn't consider his attack criminal as I had "provoked" him by not allowing his guests upstairs. They also did not consider his knife and razor-sharp tile cutter as weapons because he worked as a carpet installer. The owner fired me to avoid legal problems.
I was offered a good-sounding job as a teacher at one of those non-accredited trade schools that get their students government loans and then give them training and diplomas that have no value. They wanted me to teach paralegal studies, which of course I was not qualified for. When I balked they offered me more money. I still turned it down. I may not have had money, ego, libido or even a decent roof over my head, but I still had ethics.
So I returned to cab driving, where I felt both more dignity and a safer environment. As I had been fired from all the big taxi companies in town in the previous ten years I went to Luxor, the last large operation in that business that didn't know me. I "convinced" my former manager, Bill Skiff at Veterans, to give me a recommendation or else I'd go over his head and have the Vets owner hire me back to work for him. Naturally he called the manager of Luxor, known as "Big Fat John" throughout this business, and said I was the best cabbie in The City so I started work the next night.
There was virtually no business anymore at night in part because Luxor's main clientele had been the gay bars, clubs and bath houses, which were now mostly closed or dead. No pun intended. I was shocked at the lack of business. I only made money on two nights a week the others I either broke even or reached into my pocket to pay the nightly cab rental and incidentals (bribes, fees etc.).
Like I said, I was in the habit of walking home both to save the seventy-five cent bus fare and to get some exercise, which I needed terribly after ten hours of sitting. I no longer had time for any recreation or exercise, so this was my only opportunity. Also, in an urban environment, late at night a lone person at a bus stop is a target whereas one walking is less likely to be assaulted.
I usually walked down Potrero Avenue as that took me by the SF General Hospital, which had police on staff and Potrero itself was a well-lit, wide boulevard that patrol cars seemed to pass by on more often. I could see people coming from a safe distance and if I ever felt threatened I could just walk out into the middle of the street and feel secure. One of my favorite pastimes during that walk was to stop and play with a family of white cats that lived in an old hippie school bus parked in the same spot every night. The owners collected cans or whatever at that time of the morning so the cats could exit via a small crack in the school bus' bi-fold doors. At about 17th Street I would sometimes take a chance and walk a block out of my way to a dark pedestrian bridge that crossed Highway 101 and connected the Lower Potrero with Potrero Hill itself. From there, I had a great view of The City skyline and if late enough (or early enough depending on your chronological viewpoint) could watch the sunrise. This was an iffy proposition as it was off the beaten path and there was potential for criminal contact. From there, I would toke my precious small dubie that I rationed myself and try to see some good in the world before continuing two more miles home.
One night while coming back across that bridge from the Hill side to the lower end I stopped midway as I thought I saw movement in the bushes adjacent to a very small children's public play area. I let my eyes adjust to the light and watched carefully for more movement. The eye notices movement more easily than actual shapes. That is why predatory animals are in tune to movement or sound. If you remain perfectly still you can more readily escape detection. I realized that what I was seeing was most likely a couple of homeless people tossing and turning in their sleeping bags, so I continued on by them thinking that they'd not be a source of trouble. I was mistaken. As I drew closer I saw the figure of a man and woman stand and begin putting their clothes on. They had evidently been having sex. I needed to go down a circular ramp very close to them and then another city block downhill to reach the relative safety of the bright avenue. I didn't see any reason for the male of the party to approach me but I guess he didn’t like having an audience.
As I reached the bottom of the bridge I moved quickly downhill glancing at the pair as I did. The female was getting into the passenger side of a late model Pontiac Firebird with hood scoops, spoilers, mag wheels and the whole thing, while the male was bending over the back of the inside of the open trunk. I hurried along minding my own business but realized that I was being followed. I immediately moved out into the middle of this small well-lit residential side street and turned back to check the position of my stalker. He was a tall, well-built bare-chested white male, not at all homeless-looking and was in the process of removing his wide leather belt with a large cowboy type buckle. He also had a huge Bowie knife shoved down the front of his pants. Though he had a mean and determined look he hesitated when I spotted him, turned and moved off quickly back to his muscle car. Normally that would have been the end of it, but I still felt something was amiss so I quickened my pace. There was still danger. I passed by a green 1952 Chevy sedan parked at the curb and noted that the driver's door was wide open. It caught my attention both because I am an antique car buff and it's a bit unusual to leave your door open like that at 4:30 a.m.
I heard the Firebird burn rubber as he pulled away and thought what a jerk this guy was. Must've been really pissed off that I had interrupted his love life. I stood at the intersection of 17th and Potrero where I both heard and witnessed his powerful sports car run the red light in front of the old White Front at high speed, bottoming out as it did so. This of course made no sense to me. He could have been killed running that light even at this time of night. You couldn't see potential cross traffic without stopping. I waited a bit to make sure that he didn't come around the block but I heard his vehicle move off in the distance. I continued home forgetting all about that old Chevy a half block behind me.
The next night I was off and, as I had no money, sat in my room to watch black-and-white television. I was shocked to see the old green Chevy in a local news story on the five o'clock news. Seems that a man was found stabbed to death in the front seat with no apparent motive. I had no phone in this dump so went to a pay phone and called the SF Police. The detective working that case was not available, so I left my name and where I worked as there was really no other way to get ahold of me. No one from the SFPD attempted to contact me at work and my further calls never found that detective available. I left a message that I had seen a suspicious person at that locale at the time of the homicide but left no details or description. The coroner believed the victim, a gay man, was killed between three and four a.m. The police apparently didn't consider the bloody murder of a homosexual of any serious consideration. No one ever tried to reach me at work or my address. Guess they couldn't be bothered.
Some weeks later, I was cruising downtown near the end of my shift. I had driven nine and a half hours non-stop and had but $100 in receipts, roughly what I needed for gates and gas. I had made no cash at all for myself. I would not even have enough money to eat the following day.
"Who's for the garage?" The dispatcher's voice broke the silence of the night.
No driver responded.
"Who's near the garage or willing to ride to the garage?"
I was in the Tenderloin about three miles or more away, and though I was headed to the barn I saw no sense in bidding on the order. Surely someone must be closer.
"I've got 127 at Lake Merced (all the way across town), anyone else?"
I realized that the freeway was a couple of minutes away and with a heavy foot I could be there in about six minutes. I had no money of my own and as the Luxor garage was way off the beaten path the order had to be for a driver, always a safe ride.
"2112, Seventh and Brannan, freeway ramp!" I came in about twelve blocks from my real location, a common practice in bidding on a radio order called "stretching."
"2112, the garage."
"Garage" I acknowledged.
My foot pressed the pedal and I jumped across Market Street officially leaving the 'Loin headed for the freeway and the 75 mph trip to the Produce District. If I didn't move along, even the driver in Park Merced might beat me. First come, first serve in this business and I knew he needed the money, too. We all did.
After exiting the freeway, I raced down the pitted and potholed old brick streets of the once-active Produce District to be certain to get the driver. It was going to be the only profit I made that night and if it paid even five dollars at least I'd eat the next day. I rushed up to the gate, ignoring the two creeps hailing me outside and looked for my fare. As I got out to talk to the dispatcher one of them approached saying they were the order. I was, to say the least, shocked. First, there is no housing or legitimate business anywhere near this garage and I had never had a fare from there in two years who was not a driver. Most importantly, the fares were "undesirables." Of course this is a tough subject for readers not familiar with inner city life or the taxi business. Now days they call it "profiling." We called it common sense and made use of all we knew of society to protect our lives. The two would-be passengers were a "Mutt and Jeff" couple. One young male Black, possibly a teen, and one heavy-set Hispanic, late thirties or older. The Latin wore sunglasses at night. I never pick up passengers who wear shades at night unless I know them to have a medical condition. Also, picking up teens is dicey because as they are minors they can not enter into a contract and technically don't have to pay. I asked where they were going and they answered 23rd and Wisconsin, a very iffy neighborhood just a hundred yards from the worst housing project in the City. That was another red flag. Many times people know that you won't take them to the projects so they lie about their destination. And another odd fact: it was close, walking distance, though straight up a steep hill. Most people would walk it. It was going to be a two-dollar fare and I likely would not be paid, anyway.
I had been going through a lot of stress recently over my life situation and with the company management who were squeezing us tighter and tighter due to the economy. In the previous ten years on this job I would never have even looked at these two guys, let alone driven them anywhere. Perhaps, I thought, the dispatcher had a reason for ordering them a cab. I know that Veterans would never have ordered one for them, in spite of laws to the contrary. Maybe the dispatcher knew they were cool. I walked up to the window.
"Do you know these guys?" I asked the window man.
"Do they work around here?" I continued before he could respond.
He just shrugged his shoulders and said that he would take them if he were me. My radar said that this was a bad scene, but some inner self-loathing, some primordial sense of destiny made me decide to take them. It was like seeing a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk and closing your eyes to see if you would miss it instead of avoiding it altogether. I sometimes wonder if it was some sort of pseudo-psycho death wish on my part. I was about to step into the shit.
They both got in the rear seat and off we went. The kid, who sat directly behind me (the most dangerous position to a cabbie because you cannot see him or take any defensive measures if needed) was talkative but the Julio was completely silent even when I asked direct questions. This was no good.
I had earlier in my career briefly carried a gun after having been shot at twice, once at close range, which burned my face and deafened me in one ear for three days, but I had long since quit carrying it. I thought that I was more likely to kill some yuppie prick than a genuine bad guy and as I tended not to pick up bad guys, having the gun was a lose-lose situation for me. I really wished I had it now.
So I had already broken I don't know how many of my common-sense rules of cab driving when I broke another. When I arrived at 23rd and Wisconsin I asked them where they wanted to be dropped and the kid told me, "Turn left."
Now, I never took directional commands from passengers especially at the last minute. This was one of the first things taught to you by the San Francisco Police when they issued you your license. People intent on robbing you, or worse, will give you last-minute directions to put you in a position of benefit to them for either their intended crime or escape. A driver is under no legal obligation to go anywhere than the location that was first given them by the fare. I stopped and wouldn't continue.
"Sorry guy, you said 23rd and Wisconsin and this is it."
"Oh that's because I couldn't remember the name of the street. It's Madera."
Sure enough, there is a Madera Street. It's only about a hundred feet long and I am not certain there are even any houses on it, but it is a connector between Wisconsin and Arkansas Streets. As that sort of made sense, and wanting to get this over, I complied and pulled the last few car lengths down to the corner of Madera.
"Okay, turn right here."
I just sighed aloud and obeyed. I moved the short distance to Madera and Arkansas Streets stopping under a streetlight facing out for a possible escape if need be. Of course, I always did that. I never pulled into a position that I couldn't pull straight out of and I never shut the engine down. In extreme cases, like this one, I didn't even put the gear in "Park."
I turned partway around and said, "That's a buck ninety" as Jose got out of his side of the rear.
Suddenly my hair was grabbed from behind and my head jerked back. A knife was pressed to my throat while the little punk behind me demanded the money. Of course, I didn't give a damn about the money but I did give a damn for my life so my unconscious reaction was to shoot my right hand up, grab his wrist and push the sharp weapon out and away from me. I could now see that it was a common paring knife, but none the less potentially lethal. Naturally, this irritated my assailant so he tried to stab me in the chest but couldn't overcome my strength. I was simultaneously concerned about where his accomplice was. I imagined the worst; that he was approaching me from outside my driver's window and was about to shoot me in the head. The little creep still had a gorilla grip on my hair with his left hand but I twisted his right wrist as he screamed in agony until his knife fell to the floor of the front seat, out of his reach. If not for my uncertainty of the whereabouts of his partner I would have pressed the issue right then and begun giving him a beating.
Instead, while still holding his right wrist in a painfully twisted position (and him howling in pain), I nonchalantly reached with my left hand into my front pocket, pulled out my wallet, took the money out and handed it over the back seat! No way was I giving him my wallet. Remember, I still did not know where his compadre was and feared he'd soon join in the attack. This all happened very fast. The kid needed his left hand to accept the cash so released my hair while I simultaneously released his right arm telling him to, "Get out!" pointing to the open rear door.
Believe it or not, before he began to exit he started counting his take! In the meantime, I quickly turned to my left to see where the other gangster was and not seeing him turned 360 degrees to be certain but he was nowhere in sight. He had abandoned his buddy. I then turned back toward the kid in the rear just as he was slowly sliding across the seat to casually exit. With one arm I reached for his jacket, getting a piece of it and with my other arm swung a poorly trained left hook at the side of his head, only landing a glancing blow.
"Shit! Damn it!" I was pissed, but at myself. I couldn't believe that I had walked right into this. It was truly Freudian. I knew these guys were going to rob me and I went right along with it anyway. All for two dollars so I could have a cup of coffee and a danish the next day.
I jumped out of the driver's door only to see the little dick's backside disappear into the nearby hilltop park. Man, he was fast.
"Of course!" I thought. "That's why they picked this location." The Potrero Hill Park was their escape route, the projects being just a hundred yards beyond it. I couldn't believe myself. I couldn't believe that I spied dog shit in my path and stepped right in it. Freud? Adler? Where are you when we need you? It was my own fault. Naturally, I didn't really lose any money because the company never charged you the gates and gas after a verified robbery. All the money I had with me that night was the company's. I had earned none of my own.
I leaned against the side of the cab gathering my breath and my thoughts for a second before calling it in. Guess this was phase one of shock syndrome.
"2112, clear the air for an emergency."
"2112 what is it?"
Before I could speak some other driver interrupted.
"Stay off the air 257, 2112 has an emergency! 2112 go ahead."
"2112, Madera and Arkansas, I was just robbed at knifepoint by those great fares you gave me at the garage a few minutes ago."
There was a few moments of dead silence.
"2112, did you copy me?"
"Yes 2112 ... where are you again?"
"Idiot," I thought. "2112 ... Madera and Arkansas!"
"Madera?" The stupid dispatcher asked.
"Yes Madera, its a street at the top of Potrero Hill!"
Another long moment of silence.
"Madera? Are you sure?" He returned.
My heart was beating a mile a minute from my brush with death and my own stupidity. Phase two, anger, was coming on.
"2112, Madera ... M-A-D-E-R-A! It's a street that connects Arkansas and Wisconsin between 23rd and 22nd. What, do you think, it's a Portuguese wine?"
My sarcasm was understood.
"No reason to get snooty, 2112! Are they there now?"
"What kind of a question is that?" I thought, but said, "Yeah, were getting to be real close friends. They said to say 'hello' and 'thanks.' "
"2112, knock off that kind of talk! I mean are they still in the vicinity?"
"Why? Won't the cops come if they are? Of course, they're not here, they're home getting high by now."
My anger was at a peak but the knowledge that it was Luxor's money made me feel a kind of victory. I had lost nothing, except maybe nearly my life, but the company owner thought a hundred dollars lots of dough. I was really gonna rub it in to her that the dispatcher and night manager had called this order after seeing that the fares were undesirables.
"2112, I have the police on the line. What are their descriptions?" I laughed to myself. The description of a taxicab robber in 1988 San Francisco was always the same: Young and black.
"Well, one was young and black and the other not-young and Hispanic." Concise, but accurate.
"What was their clothing?"
"2112, the black one wore a gray jogging suit and the Mexican a leather jacket, dark slacks and sunglasses. They were at your window for fifteen minutes, you spoke to them, don't you remember what they looked like?"
"I don't need that, 2112!" The dispatcher, whose name I don't recall and may never have known, was really asking for it.
"You're the one who saw them in the light, you should have a better image of them than I do. All I remember is the knife." I needled further.
"2112, that's their next question. What type of knife, length, etc." I was getting very annoyed.
"If they want to know that they can come up here and look at it. It's on the seat of my cab."
Further silence, the dispatcher was obviously repeating my words to the cops.
"Wouldn't it make more sense for the cops to come up here and ask these questions or are they scared?"
"The police dispatcher heard that, 2112!" As if I had said something wrong.
"Good!" I responded. "I want them to hear it. It's been five minutes, I'm three blocks from SF General where there are always three police units and I'm still alone up here."
Veterans' Cab would have immediately sent other drivers up to keep me company, moral support, even after the bad guys left. Other companies had the opposite policy, not wanting to put other drivers in harm's way.
I continued, "Can you send a driver up to keep me company until the cops drop their doughnuts and get back to work?" I hoped that the police dispatcher had heard that, too. Surprisingly the Luxor dispatcher cooperated.
"Is anyone near Potreo Hill to help a driver? Potrero Hill? The garage?"
"157, 2112 has been robbed and is at the corner of Madera and Arkansas. Do you want o go see him? ... 2112, 157 is on the way, so are the police."
I got out of the cab both to be better able to see my surroundings and to cool off. A few minutes later, 157 arrived. I had never seen the guy before, he was a day driver not long out on his shift. He had a big smile on his face. I felt much better as he pulled up.
He introduced himself, though I don't recall his name. I told him what an idiot I was, how the bad guys had brazenly ordered the cab from the dispatcher's window and so forth. Told him that I had driven ten years and never been robbed, but then I had never or at least rarely picked up "undesirables." Nine years earlier, after finishing my rookie year at Vets, I knew who and who not to pick up. One of the drivers there once remarked that, "Whalen makes riders fill out an application before he let's 'em in!" Not far from the truth. I even had a "no-go" list: a list of addresses I kept on a piece of cardboard in the visor of fares that I would not pick up. Most of those listed were obnoxious yuppies rather than the criminal element because I met so few of the later due to my discretionary approach to the job. I always kept my doors locked and only unlocked them when I approved the prospective fare as they approached the cab. In those days, the taxis did not have electric locks but I had long arms so could reach all the way across the big Chrysler seats to unlock the doors for those who passed my ESP litmus test. You can deduce a lot from a person's appearance, the way they walk, what direction they come from, the look on their face. Especially the look on the face. People up to no good will telegraph it to you. The eyes speak volumes. It's a cabbie's lie-detector. For instance, a bad guy will often sneak up from the rear out of your view and be in your back seat before you've had a chance to size them up. Believe me, once they are in it is difficult to get them out not to mention the fact that you are already in danger. It is usually a fait accompli. Who gets in a stranger's car that way? A legit fare will approach from the front or side and get your attention by waving, smiling, etc.
So the cops are taking their damned sweet time getting to me but then again the unit that will respond will be from the Potrero Precinct, the worst cops in town. I say worst because an SFPD officer gets assigned to Potrero Station for being a screw-up or perhaps a bully. Most are on probation, many on their last legs. Likely they are cowards, too, and being near the projects is not a call they want to respond to.
I continued trading cab stories with my new cabbie friend when he pulled his shirt up to show me his knife wounds. My God! He had three six-inch long criss-crossed scars! His assailant knew how to use a knife. An amateur just stabs straight in and out. A professional, like a soldier, is trained to stab and then move the blade across the belly to do the most damage.
"Yeah! I was in the hospital for three weeks! I had two full transfusions of blood. Happened out at the Geneva Towers in '85. Ha ha ha!"
"And you're still driving?" I asked, incredulous.
"Gotta pay the rent! Ha ha ha."
Pay the rent. Eat the next day. That's exactly why I picked these guys up. This was a big eye opener for me. I valued my life as being only worth the price of a cheeseburger and a room in a roach hotel. I must've been in phase three now of my trauma: Self-awareness. I was much calmer.
Twenty minutes had gone by. Proof of what the SFPD thought of cab drivers assaulted with a deadly weapon. I started hounding the dispatcher for more action.
"What do you want me to do, 2112, go down in person to the Hall of Justice and make them hurry it up?"
"Actually, that would be the right thing to do!" I returned honestly. "How about calling the mayor's house, waking him up and telling him what a fine job his boys are doing? Heck, I'm only three blocks from his place maybe that's just what I'll do. They work for us, tell 'em to get movin' or Warner (the corrupt and now thankfully dead Luxor company manager) won't give to his re-election campaign. Come to think of it, Agnos (Art Agnos, the then-mayor) always has a police unit stationed in front of his house. They've got nothing to do."
He didn't respond, but about ten minutes later, a full thirty minutes after the crime, an unmarked unit raced up. That's right, raced, just like in the movies. The cavalry had arrived but the renegades were already back on the reservation. It was the mayor's home security team after all.
Curiously, they were a Mutt and Jeff team, too. One short, fat and Chinese, the other tall, skinny and white.
I thanked the cabbie for staying with me as the two incompetent-looking cops got out. Though in a plain car, they were in uniform. Their only job was to sit in front of the mayor's house all night. Potrero Hill, like so many San Francisco neighborhoods, has the upper class living extremely close to the lowest, criminal class. Agnos lived only a couple of hundred yards from the Potrero Projects whose access street was named, appropriately, Dedman Court.
Now these two dumbasses made me answer the same questions that I had told our dispatcher:
"Yes, one was black, one Latino. Jogging clothes, sunglasses, etc."
Astonished, the Asian one asked, "Don't 'cha know you're not suppose to pick up niggers?"
"Yeah, it seems I heard that somewhere," was all I could say as an excuse for my stupidity.
The other cop braved the little park on his own while his short Chinese partner continued with the stupid questions. He returned quickly and said, "Yep, there's a hole in the fence they used to get back to the projects." Brilliant, he'll make detective in no time.
"Okay, lock up your cab and get in. We're gonna look for 'em."
"What?" I asked, surprised.
"Come on: Get in or forget it, we haven't got all night. We were pulled off our duty for this!"
"Sorry to disturb you," I thought to myself, but these guys were long gone.
I took a seat in the back of the four-door Chevy Malibu and the little cop (they always seem to come in two sizes) put his foot to the pedal as if his own house was on fire. We went in the opposite direction of the projects.
"Hey, the projects are back there!" I pointed to the rear.
"Shut up!" was their intelligent reply.
We raced around two corners squealing the tires and pulled to a screeching halt in front of a nondescript house. The two cops jumped out with flashlights and guns drawn and started beating the bushes around this place which I finally recognized as the Mayor's house. I yelled out the window to them.
"They didn't rob me and then come up to hide in Art's bushes!"
After satisfying themselves that the Mmayor was safe they returned to the unit.
"Did you find 'em?" I asked mockingly.
They then pulled away again, burning rubber, still headed in the wrong direction. For some unknown reason they went to the Potrero Station precinct house, an old school building at 3rd and 16th Streets. One of the cops went inside while the other stayed in the car with me staring out the windshield silently.
"Your buddy gotta take a leak?" I smirked.
"Shut up!" Must have been the secret SFPD code word of the day.
The taller and perhaps smarter one came back and without saying a word proceeded down Third Street and then cut through beautiful downtown Dogpatch and up to Dedman's. The road grew thinner. Overgrown weeds, trash, abandoned cars and broken glass was everywhere. This was bandit country. It looked like Beirut on a good day.
Just before entering the projects proper the cop driving stopped and looked at his partner. They didn't say a word to each other. They didn't have to. They were scared stiff. They shifted in their seats to unhook their revolvers. Now ready, they pulled forward slowly, cautiously. They put on their high beams and activated both spotlights turning them first in the direction of one group of loitering creeps and then another. I was not naïve, but this scene surprised me. It was surreal, reminding me of the scene in "Apocalypse Now" where the Marlon Brando character had his camp of primitive savages in the backwoods of Cambodia. There were hundreds of young black people huddled around bonfires, some open, some in 55 gallon drums, smoking crack pipes. Many were armed with baseball bats and tree branches. Who knew what weapons they were carrying concealed? Most of the crowd scarcely paid attention to the police except when they shined their light directly on them. That would be met with the finger and an occasional bottle being thrown. The cops kept nervously looking up at the tops of buildings and bluffs making comments to each other in a low tone like, "Did you see that?" "Check out the doorway on the right." "Keep an eye on that one." "Watch it! He's got something under his coat!" "Up there in that window!"
The sound of bottles continued to burst around us and unknown objects thumped against the car. The cops pretended to pay no notice and never altered their relatively slow speed. It was a game of chicken and they had to play the role of being in charge though they clearly were not.
I felt like an intruder, a visitor to one of Dante's levels of Hell. This teeming mass of the lowest level of our society was as alien to me as the reclusive giant cave bats of Sarawak but twice as scary. I wanted to tell the cops I'd seen enough when one asked, "Do you seem them?"
"See who?" I trembled.
"The guys that robbed you, of course!"
Both cops jerked their heads quickly in my direction in the rear seat.
"Who, where, which ones?"
"All of them!"
"That's not funny, be serious."
"I am! It was all of them! Pick one or two and I'll identify them."
"We can't do that," They said sheepishly though I felt they wanted to that is, if they could make the arrest and get out of there alive.
We reached the end of the old Navy housing at Wisconsin Street having cruised only one of about three streets in this ghetto.
"Ya want'ta take a look down the other lanes?"
"Do you?" I responded. "They all look alike to me so I don't see any sense."
For the first time the cops appeared sympathetic.
"Look guy, you're no rookie. You've got ten years behind the wheel. You're smarter than the average cabbie I've met. How'd you get in this predicament?"
I knew he was right, and didn't know how to answer his question. Before I could the other one continued, "The guys who did it will suffer more staying on the street. They'll either OD or be shot or stabbed within a few years. If they're lucky, they may get caught and put in prison where they'll get some free medical and dental for ten years or so. Like I said, those are the lucky ones."
"You should've killed him when you had the chance." The taller one piped up. "Don't you carry a piece?"
I just thought how pathetic it was that I couldn't trust myself with one. The power to kill is just too tempting sometimes. If I had packed the past ten years there'd be three dozen dead yuppies laying around the streets of The City and a few missing taxi dispatchers, too.
"What'd you pick them up for anyway? The tall white one asked. "Didn't the Taxi Detail (of the San Francisco Police Department) tell you not to pick up niggers?"
As his Chinese partner had already asked me that, I just let out a long sigh and repeated, "Yeah, I think I heard that somewhere before."
By then we were back up at Madera Street where the two patrolman dropped me and roared back to the mayor's house to sit all night and eat their doughnuts or whatever kept them busy.
I sat there momentarily thinking under that street lamp. I remembered that when I first moved to San Francisco in '73 and was attending SF State how some racist Black Muslims dubbed the Zebra Killers were systematically killing whites at random in brazen public attacks. A young political aide named Art Agnos was one of their intended victims, shot not far from where I was robbed and curiously where he currently lived. Seems to me that the following year he ran for state Assembly and was elected in large part from the publicity of that shooting, like he was some hero. Another young political aide, Jackie Spier, who was having an affair with her much older boss Assemblyman Leo McCarthy was also propelled into the political spotlight by being shot that year. She had accompanied McCarthy on a photo opportunity down to Jonestown, Guyana to investigate reports of kidnapping and slavery among the ex-patriot cult there. After shooting the McCarthy entourage, the Rev. Jim Jones administered poisoned Kool-Aid to his flock. I can't remember how many were killed. Spier came back, took Leo's seat in the Assembly and is still there, as a senator now I think.
I smirked when I thought how close I had just come to being elected to the State House that night as I drove back to the garage.
I was too tired to curse out the dispatcher; besides, when he saw me he ran into the bathroom even though there was bullet-proof glass between us. The night manager listened to my bitch and pretended to be concerned. The only thing that bothered him was that his poor judgment at ordering a cab for those sleazebags had cost Luxor a hundred dollars. Like I said, it cost me nothing as I had worked all night for the boss anyway.
I walked on home that morning, watching the sun come up as usual and wondering how close I had come to never seeing it again. You'd think that I'd had enough, but in need of food and rent money I continued working for a few more weeks. Then one night, I pulled up to the pumps in the garage and like all cabbies who've decided to quit this biz for good, just walked away. I didn't pay the gates and gas. I used that one hundred dollars for my first decent meal in months and a bus ticket home to Oceanside. I also saved a couple of dimes to phone my mom to see if I could crash on her couch. I was through with cab driving. I was through with The City. Fifteen years in San Francisco had earned me an unfinished college education and a huge number of fond and some not-so-fond memories. I realized that at thirty-six, it was time to grow up, get a wife, kids, house, a boring though legit job, pay taxes (for the first time in years) and grow old. Didn't sound too bad.
Then as the Greyhound driver pulled into the unfamiliar new Transit Center on Cleveland Street, opened the doors and yelled "Oceanside, last stop!" I thought, "Nah!"
Published January 2008