Some people have tried to convince me that I’m lucky to be a cab driver, since fewer livelihoods offer greater variety of human experience, the better to hone my wisdom with, I suppose, or to write about. I put my case succinctly: this is NOT the life I signed up for when I got Ph.D. in Musical Composition. I feel lucky only that nothing truly tragic has happened. But there have indeed been some dramatic incidents, like the time I was called at two o’clock in the morning to an apartment on Pacific Street on San Francisco's Nob Hill.
I have a characteristic way of ringing a doorbell. It is a simple ring that does not suggest urgency, so that no matter what I have had to go through to get to an order, the first message my customers hear from me is one of relaxed ease. On this occasion I am sure I rang the bell this way, with two groups of three rings composed to give deliberately different musical values for my first and last names: Christopher, dotted quarter-eighth-quarter; Fulkerson, quarter-quarter-quarter. You can think of it as "very long-short-long" and "long-long-long." It’s easy to remember, I don’t seem monomaniacal, and I always know how I’ve rung the doorbell.
In reply from the customer there immediately came a long series of two dozen or more spastic, frenetic doorbell rhythms. It didn’t sound humorous.
Then, in no more time than it took for me to walk the fifteen feet back to my cab, a message had been relayed to its dispatch computer screen: the order was cancelled, specifically because the customer wanted a different driver than me. The reason? The customer objected to the way I had rung the doorbell. Supposedly, I had rung it too many times!
My twice three values were fewer that the customer’s partial gross, but I’ve learned not to take unreasonable behavior too personally. Cab business is one industry in which it is suicide to pretend that the customer is always right (and authorities overconcerned with customer satisfaction put drivers at physical risk). I drove off, not overly unhappy to miss out on such a personality.
I quickly got another fare, whose destination just coincidentally brought me right back to within a half a block of where I had been. Immediately I noticed what we call a “situation” at the site of my recent untried rejection. Parked nearby was another cab from the same company I worked for. A wildly dressed woman was talking frantically to the other driver through the window of his cab. He shook his head and drove away without taking her. She then looked up, saw me, and hailed me.
She got in my cab, not knowing that I was the same driver for whose inappropriate doorbell ringing she had just (and oh, so hypocritically) called another cab. She brusquely requested that I drive her to the Western Addition. That’s a term for a certain pretty dicey neighborhood, in San Francisco. The name was so identified with a bad neighborhood, that Real Estate developers have worked to make the pubic forget it. I started the meter and we proceeded.
She was in an extremely agitated state of mind. Making no mention of the earlier incident that I happened to know about, she gesticulated and railed against the other driver that I had seen her with, who had refused to drive her into the ghetto toward which we were now headed.
She then said that when we got there she hoped I didn’t mind waiting while she went upstairs to get money to pay me with, since, she claimed, she didn’t have any money on her.
Now, in this place we are told is Planet Earth, reasonable people don’t ask cab drivers to go into what, in that cab company’s dispatch scheme, was called “zone fifty one” and patiently watch them walk away from the cab in the middle of the night. Guess what, such passengers are very likely never to return. To a taxi driver, a request like that is like a flashing neon sign saying, “danger, potential stiff,” or worse. The woman had lived up to her crazy and possibly dangerous indications. I balked as politely as I could.
She went into a virtually hallucinogenic tirade about how people in this world have to trust each other, did she really look like the type (she certainly did), and so on. She had already run up a small bill, so what I now had was a fare dispute, to be settled according to SFPD protocols by the police. I changed course toward the nearest city station, enduring high-flying lunatic abuse all the way.
By the time we got there the woman’s crazy defensive verbiage was completely florid. She claimed she should not have to pay me, and in a manner charged with hysterical high moralism she tried to convince the officer of the watch of this by claiming that she was actually an F.B.I. agent. I wish I had said I thought she was actually an L.S.D. agent. The officer did not acknowledge her claim, but asked what I was owed, by now perhaps eleven dollars. It turned out that the woman had some money after all, what a surprise. The officer made her pay me what she had, maybe nine dollars, and I felt glad to get it. I left the woman at the police station, still talking to the officer, sure that I would never hear from the F.B.I. that in this world, we all ought to be more trusting of each other.
First posted 1/12/2010.