[This post is part of a series. Part I is here.]

“Don’t pick up any black people, especially if there’s more than one of them,” the experienced cabbie told me. “Stay out of Sunnydale, Third Street, and Bayview/Hunter’s Point. Don’t stop for anybody there”

It was my first day, we were playing pool on the immense 9′ long and slow rolling pool table that appeared to suspend the laws of gravity and friction in order to prove Newton’s first law of motion. No matter how slowly the balls rolled, they kept going until they reached the other bumper far far away. And between shots he was giving me tips on making money and staying alive as a cabdriver.

I didn’t want to be that guy. I remembered Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings talking about how hard it was for him to get a cab in D.C., and thinking no matter what kind of person he might be personally, that wasn’t right. And I knew I’d have no trouble stopping for a professionally dressed black person, or an older black person. But…

I was only a couple years removed from my no-stoplight Midwestern farm town, and my safe little religious college. And I knew that cabbies had the highest homicide rate of any profession, mostly from getting shot in the back of the head without warning, mostly at night, the shift I’d chosen. And only a year and a half before I’d gotten jumped and beaten while riding my bicycle through the projects. It had been tough working through my fear of young black men afterward. When I heard footsteps behind me at night, I would tense up and turn, and I would relax if I saw anyone other than a young black male. And because I had friends who were young and black, I like I was insulting my friends every time I did that, so I consciously worked on overcoming that fear, and did so pretty successfully, mostly by telling myself that’s guy’s probably as nervous about me as I am about him.

But as a cabbie? Young black males, particularly in groups, particularly if they were dressed a certain way? I wasn’t sure if I’d pick them up. 

I was nervous as I began my first shift driving a cab, but it was uneventful through the late afternoon and evening of an unusually warm Saturday. The first $85 I earned went to paying my daily fee for the cab. The next $10 or so went for gas. Everything after that was takehome pay, and on a Saturday evening you get into take home pay pretty quickly. This was gravy. Most of my fares were in the North Beach, downtown and South of Market neighborhoods, which I knew intimately from being a bike messenger, with a few up to the Haight or Fillmore areas, which I knew well from living there. There were parts of San Francisco I didn’t know at all, but I hadn’t had any real challenges yet.

Rolling northeast on Market Street near 5th, a little after 1 a.m. I saw a figure wave and immediately braked and pulled over. A young black male dressed a certain way stepped off the curb and opened the back door. Oh, well, I thought, I’m kind of glad I pulled over before I had a chance to think about it, because I really don’t want to be that guy. And I knew the odds were strongly in favor of him being ok, because cabbies didn’t get killed that often in San Francisco, and most young black men didn’t rob or kill cabbies.

Then suddenly there were two young black men in my car.

Oh, shit.

Of course I knew why they’d played it that way. Almost no cabbie was going to stop for two young black men dressed in baggy clothes. And I knew then that I, too, would have passed them by if I’d seen them both. I wasn’t angry that they’d done it; in fact I thought it sucked for them that they had no choice but to do it if they ever wanted to get a cab. But still the situation made me nervous.

They didn’t give me a precise destination. “Go down Third Street,” they said. That wasn’t a good sign. “Stay out of Third Street and Bayview/Hunter’s Point.” Third Street ran down through the South of Market district, full of bike messenger shops, advertising photography and art studios in beat old buildings, warehouses, and bars, crossed Mission Creek at the future site of the Giants’ stadium, plunged through another warehouse/artist district and then into a poorer black neighborhood.

This wasn’t really that bad a neighborhood. I’d ridden down Third Street on my bike during the day a few times, on my way to visit a friend who lived in an uncomfortably feudalistic white enclave atop a hill surrounded by lower class and lower middle class blacks below, and each time I’d gotten friendly chatter and callouts from neighborhood residents. But I’d been warned not to ride my bike there after dark, and I’d heard stories–true? who knows–that on the night of the Loma Prieta earthquake the previous year, with the city pitch dark and the police overwhelmed, drivers had been randomly pulled from their cars and beaten on Third Street. I had been supposed to stay with my friend that night, having just returned from working in Yellowstone, and bedhopping until I found a new apartment. I had decided against it after the quake hit, mostly because I didn’t want to try navigating the streets on my bike with all the streetlights out. Not only were there potholes I couldn’t see, but in some parts of the city the storm drains had grates that ran parallel to the street, ones where you could run your front bike tire directly into without warning and end up flying over your handlebars. But partly  I didn’t go because I was scared of the neighborhood at night.

Beyond this initial neighborhood Third Street went down to Bayview and Hunter’s Point, known for ugly projects and gang violence. “Stay out of Third Street, and Bayview/Hunter’s Point.” I wondered how people there ever got cabs, or if they just didn’t. We continued on down Third Street, well lit, filled with traffic and people on the sidewalks and front stoops enjoying the balmy weather, my passengers talking quietly in the back. I was increasingly nervous, heading into unknown and dangerous territory.

“Turn left here.”

Towards the depths of Hunter’s Point.

Shit.

I don’t want to. I don’t know where we’re going and I don’t like the look of this street. We’re moving away from well lighted areas with people on the sidewalks. I want to stop right here and kick you out. I don’t want any money. I just want out of here. Please, don’t do this.

A few more turns, and we’re in a warehouse district; dark, deserted.

I’m a dead man.

We’re here where there’s nobody to see them shoot me. I’m tensed up, waiting for the bullet in the head. On my first night as a cabbie. I’m thinking of how worried my girlfriend will be when I don’t come home; how distraught she’ll be when she learns I was murdered on my first night driving a cab.

The road is blocked by a gate. This is the end of the line.

In the headlights I read, San Francisco Naval Shipyard. Why do it here? I wondered.

I heard a rear door open, saw a hand extend from the backseat, handing me money. “Thanks for the ride, man, have a good night,” one of them said. And they walked through the headlights to the gates; sailors.

And they gave me a good tip.

Why not tell me their destination was the shipyard? I wondered, but the answer was obvious. In civilian clothes I can’t tell if they’re sailors, and the shipyard was deep in Hunter’s Point. An obvious ploy, from a nervous cabbie’s perspective, probably leading to a refusal. I wouldn’t have, perhaps out of naivete rather than goodness, but they couldn’t know that.

Relieved, a bit chagrined, feeling like I should apologize, but still unsettled by the long minutes of dread, I headed back to Third Street to return to familiar territory. “Don’t stop for anybody there.” The sailors were good guys; they were quiet and tipped well. But the skin on the back of my neck was still crawling from what I had believed was about to happen.

“Don’t stop for anybody there.”

I wasn’t going to.


Category: Road

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13 Responses to Taxi Driver (II): First Night, part 1

  1. A couple months ago my wife and I had to go to a fedex drop off point in Big City that has a reputation for being a very bad neighborhood. It’s the former site of one of the most notorious housing complexes in the country, although those (prison-like) buildings have now all been torn down. We went after work and it was about 8pm or even later that we left. Because we were kind of far from home and we had just missed the bus, we tried to take a cab. Most of them passed us.

    Finally, one stopped and picked us up. The driver said that most cabbies didn’t stop in that neighborhood, probably for reasons that you were told not to stop in those areas. And my wife and I are about as plain vanilla white as you can get. However, we were dressed casually (and for what it’s worth, I tend to wear oversized, but not baggy, clothes), and the driver did point out that I was wearing a winter snowcap over my head, which probably made me seem an iffy proposition (I get cold easily, and even in warmish weather, I sometimes need a hat to cover my head and ears).

    At any rate, we were grateful (and if he hadn’t stopped, we could have waited for the next bus). If we had been black or hispanic and dressed the same way, it’s quite probable that even that driver would not have stopped for us.

    I really like this post, by the way. The mixture of fear, caution, guilt, and racism you describe pretty much describes how I often act in my everyday life.

    A question about the $85 per day: Is that purely because of the medallion system, or are there ways in which that’s just a part of cab’s upkeep (maintenance, cab co.’s advertising and other operating expenses)? I imagine it’s both, but whatever it is, that sounds pretty steep.

    • jhanley says:

      I don’t know of any other source of revenue they had, so I assume that $85 covered all their business costs.

      I also imagine that it was somewhat higher under the medallion system than it would have been in a decartelized market. E.g., if I could have just used my own car, I might pay their fee to avoid tearing up my own car, or I might use my own car to avoid paying their fee, with the decision really being determined by the fee. At a lower price point it would be cheaper for me to use their car; at a higher price point it would be cheaper for me to use my own car.

  2. Dr X says:

    I wouldn’t drive a city cab without a bullet proof barrier and a security camera that photographs every passenger (yes, some cabs have them). The barrier isn’t good for connecting with customers, but I just wouldn’t chance driving without it.

    An old friend of mine was a police officer in the South. He drove a cab part-time to pick up some extra money. One night, he picked up a young black male outside a hotel. After they’d driven a bit, the passenger put a gun to his head and, whatever the reason, my friend felt sure it was going to end with a bullet through his head. He swatted the gun away just as the passenger fired. He felt the bullet whiz by his head. It was that close. He fought with the passenger over the seat before the guy escaped through a back door. He was so rattled that not only did he quit driving cab, he aggressively pursued an engineering degree so that he could get out of policing.

  3. trumwill says:

    I’m enjoying the series!

    A long time back I participated on comic book usenet. Also participating was Christopher Priest, who wrote Steel at the time. Priest is black, as was the Steel character. In one issue, Steel (out of costume) was conspicuously passed by a cabbie. Someone remarked on that as a good example of racism being brought up in a comic without beating characters over the head with it. Others thought it had nothing to do with racism.

    Anyway, the ensuing conversation was interesting. Priest chimed in to say that he didn’t especially have making a point racism in mind when he wrote that and that he figured that it was as much a product of Steel’s size rather than his race but it’s a part of the ambiguity of daily life when you’re black.

    And then everybody continued to debate the subject (“Racism!”/”Not racism!”) as though Priest hadn’t said anything.

    Another interesting participation with a writer, which has nothing to do with this post but is actually topical… Peter David had a scene in Young Justice with a belligerent and drunk hunter. A couple hunters objected to the characterization. Non-hunters (and a few hunters) said that was off-base and that it wasn’t a comment about all hunters.

    Then Peter David came in and said he loathes hunting, considers hunters to be moral cretins, and wrote that plot to express his utter loathing because f*** hunters and hunting. I, who was on team “You guys are taking this too personally”, was kind of embarrassed.

    • I know almost nothing about those literary scenes, Will, but in general, I’d like to think that an author’s stated intention is, while not irrelevant, subservient to and not as important as what the author actually does. I.e., I would like to think a work can stand or fall on its own.

      At least until it doesn’t. Hermann Hesse wrote an introduction to a later edition of Steppenwolf where he pushes back against a popular interpretation of his novel, and I think that’s important. T. S. Eliot added notes to the Wasteland that undoubtedly influence how readers (or at least how I) interpret the work itself. One of my problems with “Dear Committee Members” was that I wasn’t too clear on the author’s own politics.

  4. Peter says:

    Many NYC taxi drivers (almost all of whom are minorities) say they are reluctant to pick up blacks not so much because of crime fears, but because black riders often want to go to destinations in upper Manhattan or the outer boroughs. As there is less demand for taxis in those areas, the drivers often have to travel back into Manhattan below 96th/116th streets before they can get their next fares. Drivers count on being able to pick up new fares soon after dropping off prior ones.

    • Jhanley says:

      That’s reasonable. It’s less of an issue in San Francisco because of its smaller size. If you ended up in an area where fares were sparse you could get back to a better area within 5-10 minutes usually.

  5. Michael Drew says:

    Sorry if you don’t want to hear from me, but I drove cab too (not in a big city; Madison), and I’m wondering about the “turn here” kind of ride. I drove for a co-op that controlled fares centrally pretty closely. Certainly flags were part of the business especially at night, but they were a relatively de-emphasized part. And I drove during the day, so planned trips were almost the whole business on my shifts. Airport calls and a lot of social-services rides to various appointments. So that certainly colors my view.

    But I’m just thinking, there’s no way I would ever see a driver as ‘that guy’ if he drove a cab with a no-exceptions ‘destination(s) or you don’t ride’ policy, and applied it no matter who got in the cab, as long as he also kept to a ‘if you tell me where you’re going, I’ll take you there’ commitment (maybe with reasonable exceptions). Do you see that as a “that guy” kind of policy? it seems like it might have alleviated a bit of your nervousness about the situation in a way that didn’t require choosing among potential fares by… other indicators. Did you eventually adopt an informal policy like that? Or maybe the “you can get in and just ride” service is too lucrative a kind of fare to take off the table; I didn’t make much money as a cabbie.

    I’ve got driving cab in the back of my mind as an option in a bigger metro now, so I’m asking (risking your ire for speaking to you) partly to get some input on the question for practical reasons.

  6. Jhanley says:

    Step-by-step directions happened only occasionally, but were often employed even when giving a specific destination if it was obscure. “747 47th Ave.” (a real address to which I drove, and about which the homeowner was quite enthusiastic) is easy. “Peru and Athens” is very obscure. London famously requires a test of street and city knowledge that requires years to pass–San Francisco required no such test (apparently it once had in the past, although not nearly as rigorous as London’s, and of course it’s a far smaller area), so there were remote places in that 49 square miles that I never heard of.

    Bear in mind that these guys probably either had experience with giving that specific destination or had been warned by others not to give that destination.

    The vast majority of my business was flags. I’d listen to the dispatch radio and if something was convenient I’d grab it, but that was a slim minority of my business. I’d pay closer attention to the radio on slow days, but on a weekend night when people were leaving the bars those bars where were you wanted to be.

  7. Michael Drew says:

    Well, the point wouldn’t necessarily be that you would know exactly what the location was (though when you did, cool), but that you would generally know, and moreover, confirm that there actually is one at least. Just a little bit of a screen against those with an intent other than to actually get somewhere. Also, certainly once a destination is named, then certainly input/requests about the route to take there would be on the table, especially if the driver actually needs directions.

    But I hear you that when you’re loading from the bars, it’s cumbersome to be sure you know exactly where you’re going before you head off. One time I was off and running before I even realized I had a lap-sitter and a full cab besides. A rival cab company called it in, since that’s a no-no (I was taking someone else’s fare by over-loading). I got dressed down on the radio for all to hear. That was when I decided, eh, I’ll just do the relaxed-pace airport rides and nice-tip lunch deliveries during the day.

    • jhanley says:

      A rival cab company called it in

      Assholes. I have a 5 member family, and when we can’t find a minivan cab we’re usually able to find a driver who’ll let us all squeeze in. He’s not taking a fare from someone else because it’s my goddam family and my goddam money and it’s a goddam private economic exchange and some butthurt pissant who thinks I should pay double so he can get some of my money is welcome to fuck a hot tailpipe.

      This is just another consequence of cartelism.

      When I drove a cab I never cared how many were in it. If I took a large number they usually tipped me well out of gratitude: they paid less, I made more, so it was a win-win.

  8. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    “Don’t pick up any black people …,” the experienced cabbie told me.

    Did he actually use the term “black people”?

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