Cab driving past and present

Michael Raffety


The last cab ride I took was in Paris. I had figured out the subway system and my wife and I were able to get to every art museum on our list. The only exception was the Musee Marmomattan Monet. No subway stop and couldn’t find its exact location on a map. This was a job for a cab. Cab drivers know where everything is.

The Marmottan has the largest collection of Monet paintings in the world. From the Marmottan it was a short walk through a park-like setting in a light rain to a café for lunch. With cabs waiting right across the street, we caught one for a speedy and daring ride across town to our hotel.

Time is money in the cab business.

After spending a summer backpacking through the Three Sisters Wilderness, around Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula, plus canoeing down the Yukon River from White Horse to Dawson in the Yukon Territory in 1973, by the end of summer I was out of money and my GI Bill hadn’t kicked in again yet. So I took a job as a cab driver for year.

Cab drivers in San Francisco are kind a raffish bunch. I’m pretty sure the guy they set me up to be trained with was an ex con. He was nice to me and gave me a lot of good advice, but if anybody got in his way he would be out of his cab and pounding angrily on their car hood. He scared the hell out of people and they got out of his way.

Cab driving is a simple proposition with the company I worked for. You had to make at least $50, which was what it cost you to take the cab out for the night. That was called “making your gate.” Everything after that was yours to keep. Tips were pure gravy. I’ve had people give me tips for making all the green lights, for “dog food” for my chihuahua and I had one gal who who thought I was going too fast up California Street, an inherently bumpy street to begin with. She got out early in a huff. Time is money.

I didn’t always get tipped. Didn’t expect it, but was grateful when it happened.

In the 1990s I was scheduled for some journalism event at the Fairmont Hotel. We stayed at a motel on Lombard Street, so I called a cab to take us there. For sentimental reasons I called my old cab company. When he dropped us off I waited for my change so I could leave him a tip. Instead he chewed me out for not tipping him, as if he expected me to tip him all of the balance of my $20 bill for a $10 cab ride. No tip for you, Mr. Obnoxious.

And that was my last cab ride in San Francisco. We stay at a club for veterans a few blocks off Union Square now when we go to San Francisco and walk to restaurants.

Driving cab, I met another cab driver who was looking for a room mate, so I moved to Bernal Heights and set up a darkroom in my bedroom.

Rusty would occasionally smoke a joint right after he picked up his cab and would wait for the sun to set and the buzz to wear off before venturing out with his cab. I only mention this because, according to the Matier & Ross (Phillip and Andrew) column in the Nov. 9 San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency voted to begin testing cab drivers for marijuana. From the reports I’ve seen in the Wall Street Journal, marijuana is at least 10 times more potent now than it was in the 1970s.

In typical San Francisco fashion, though, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency will except those cabbies with medical marijuana cards.

The columnists quoted one cab company owner who told them, “ It has not been a problem. I believe in drug testing … but there are 20,000 Uber and Lyft drivers out there and only 1,800 cabbies, and we don’t want to make it any harder on them to get a permit.”

There are 400,000 Uber drivers in the U.S., according to a Dec. 10 Wall Street Journal column by Greg Ip called Capital Account.

My experience is that cab driving requires a person to be sharp and always on your A game. It requires a level of intensity to make money and not get robbed or your backseat puked on.

My cab company all had former police cruisers, Plymouth Furies, with beefed up suspensions and powerful V-8 engines. There was no room for error with those compared to the Toyota Priuses cab drivers are using nowadays.


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