I was dragging my feet one day, walking in kind of a westerly direction toward the poorer part of town, where I felt more comfortable. I needed a new start, I needed a new beginning. I needed something to regain my self-respect. I needed an experience.
As I turned the corner, made a sharp right. I saw all these funny-looking cars painted orange and black. I thought to myself, “Wow. I can do that job. I’m the best damn driver you ever saw.” So I walked into this dimly painted building, half old, half new — an old house that had been converted into an office.
Inside I asked if they were hiring, which was a stupid question seeing that there were at least twenty cabs sitting in the back lot, quite visible to my eyes. The dispatcher said to wait one minute and take a seat, so I did. That gave me a minute to check things out and fill out the application he handed me. I had rather negative feelings about my chances of landing any job in the first place, due to my atrocious driving record. But I knew I could explain that all off — all those tickets were on motorcycles. I don’t drive cars that way.
After filling out the form, I talked to a heavyset man with a reassuring smile on his face. He looked as though he had been sitting in that chair forever. He looked as though he really didn’t have a lot to do. But somebody had to be the boss, I guess. We talked and he asked me why I wanted to become a cab driver, anyway? Why did I want to drive for this company, anyway? He asked was I aware of the danger? “This city loses more cab drivers in a year than the police lose cops. We offer long hours and, sometimes, low pay.”
I told him I was aware of all that. I sat there, expecting a lot of questions about my driving record. Where I was from and how much trouble I’d been into with the law. To my surprise, the man had only one question: “Will you ever steal from me?” I looked the man dead in the eyes and said, “I’ll never steal from you.” I may be a lot of things, but a thief I’m not.
Then he asked, “Do you know what high flagging is?” I said, “I’ve heard of it, and I’ve seen cab drivers do it. But I don’t intend to do it. The dollar amount wouldn't be worth the loss of my job.”
The man said, “Well, I’m going to take a chance on you, young man. But first you’ve got to get your hair cut — not a lot, just a little. We don’t want to freak out the entire community. Ha ha. We don’t want them to think that we gave this wild-eyed crazy person a license to speed and make illegal U-turns, to stop and park wherever he likes.”
I guess everybody has heard the term “piece of cake.” I thought on my first day it was going to be like that. Hell, I’ve been in this town for thirty years. I thought there wasn’t anything about San Diego that I didn’t know.
I pulled up on the cab stand at Eighth and National, called Little Times Square. It’s a square block of nothing but bars, liquor stores, and restaurants. It looked like a good place to start. It took me about fifteen minutes before I found out there was more to this job than just taking people from one place to another. The first thing I learned was that it’s easy to go where you are used to going — your favorite bar, your friend’s house, your usual shop or store.
But it’s a different story when you all of a sudden have to go where other people shop or eat or do their drinking. Most of them are shocked if you don’t know where the Cargo Bar is. Some of them are insulted and make comments like, “Where do you live, in a cave?” But mostly things worked out for the best. I found that most people like to give directions, like go straight or forward, turn right or left, or pointing at a street that you’re approaching. Sometimes they’ll yell, “Turn here!” After all, they have a boss yelling at them to do this and that. For only a few dollars they get to be the boss, and they feel good about themselves again. I’ve had people tell me, “Well, just go straight ahead and I’ll tell you where to turn.” Then all of a sudden they start yelling at you for missing the turnoff, forgetting to tell you where it was they wanted you to turn. My answer to that from Day One was, listen lady, if I could read minds I wouldn’t have to drive a cab for a living. Usually they laugh and say they’re sorry. I really didn’t mind that so much. Hell, I didn't know where the heck I was going anyway and it made them feel good.
Then you get the professional businessman, maybe from the airport or from one of the hotels. You load up his luggage. He doesn’t even attempt to help. He climbs into the back seat, dusting it off before he sits down. Then he looks at you very professionally, very sure of himself, and says, “Take me to 2635-1/2 Via Alicante, La Jolla.” You try to write down the numbers as he speaks because you’ll never remember them if you don’t. You miss them anyway, you ask, “Would you repeat that, please.”
Not that it makes a lot of difference. You’re already lost. You know it’s in the map book, the Thomas Brothers bible. Now all you have to do is find it. All of a sudden you realize — there must be forty pages of Via this and Via that. Hell, we’re so close to Mexico that half the street names are Spanish. The rest are named for trees and presidents. I sure don’t want to lose the twenty-dollar fare to some other cab in line behind me. I’m no dummy, I know where La Jolla is, so I head that way. This man has his shit together, or so it seems, and you sure don’t want him to know that you don’t have yours together. It seems to me that nobody is really happy with their lifestyle. They always secretly want to be something or someone else.