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San Francisco’s Greatest Singer

By Lee Vilensky

A man was standing in the middle of Geary Blvd searching for something. I’d gotten the impression that he was looking for something abstract- love, sympathy, compassion- as opposed to something tangible, like the bus or a cab. Perhaps something he couldn’t find or possess, in his lifetime, and, as we were to discover together, something unattainable from me, or my cab service. This was my feeling about the man before letting him into my cab, and most certainly after he’d departed.

The man looked like a bail bondsman of uneven quality, or perhaps an assistant principle at a middle school somewhere in the Quad Cities. Early fifties, straight light brown hair w/side part, slacks, button down shirt, windbreaker.  He gets in the back of my cab, tells me to head downtown and asks if I know who he is.

ME: No I don’t.

MAN: You have no idea who I am?

ME: No.

MAN: I’m San Francisco’s greatest singer. Did you know that?

ME: Yes I did.

(I’ve had June Lockhart in my cab. Lassie’s mom, Will Robinson’s mom, and somebody else’s mom as well. The greatest TV dog mom…. in my cab. So I’ve learned not to rule out anything, or anyone. Don Meredith: finest beer-drunk football color analyst ever.  Valerie Bertinelli: best example of a loving ex-wife to a rock guitarist playing a silly modification of the classic Stratocaster design. All of them in my cab. One minute I’m cruising empty with the meter off, next thing I know Grant Hill and teammates are riding with me. (Grant Hill: most intelligent, articulate, gentleman to ever don an NBA jersey.) So if a man tells me he’s something, I give him the benefit of the doubt, even against the long odds. I have no choice.

The man is drunk and high on some kind of drugs, my guess in hindsight--lot’s ‘o crack. He has a plan and I’m an integral part of it.

MAN: We’re gonna do something.

ME: What are we going to do?

MAN: My bitch, being a bitch, sends me downtown, and don’t come back until you got what you got, can you dig that?

The man has the wrong look for the “dig” verb to be used in any way other than as in making a hole in the ground. Lord Buckley he ain’t….. man.                                  

ME: I’m not sure that was a real sentence, so… I don’t know what you mean. Do you have money?

MAN: Oh, you want the money up front?

ME: No, I just want to make sure you got some. You can pay me when we get there, right? Speaking of there, could you be a little more specific as to your final destination?

The man has his wallet out and tells me he’s got “more money than I’ve ever seen.” I know this is ludicrous bullshit but figure he’s got the 10 or 12 bucks I’ll need. I’ve already written off the tip.

I head into the Tenderloin and the man tells me his grand scheme.

MAN: Give me 20 dollars, I’ll do my thing, you wait 15 minutes tops, then we’ll go to my girlfriend’s house where she’ll give you your 20 back plus the fare, plus the biggest goddamn tip you ever got, ever.

ME: What do you mean, give you 20 dollars?

MAN: I told you. Give me twenty, then we go to my lady’s house, after I do my little thing, and you get your money. Let’s fuckin’ go. C’mon.

ME: Number 1: I think you got it backwards. You’re supposed to pay me. Number 2: If you’ve got gobs of cash, why not just use that money for your drugs, and to pay me while I wait for you to get them? Do you have money?

MAN: Yeah…. no, here’s what I got right now.

The man hands me 2 dollars. The meter’s already at $11.40. I hand him the 2 dollars back.

ME: That’s really not even close.

MAN: I know. Look, pull over at this next corner, give me 20, and wait for me. C’mon.

I cruise past the corner he’d requested as he yells out the window to some street denizen, who ignores him. His reputation has preceded him. I keep driving away from his corner of choice.

MAN: Where the fuck you going!? I told you to pull over!

ME: You don’t have any money, so there’s no reason for me to do anything for you.

MAN: I told you I’d get you the money, but first I gotta see someone. Go around the block.

ME: I don’t have time for this, so I’ll take you to my special place where you can get anything you want, guaranteed.

The man says nothing. He doesn’t trust me, but is clearly intrigued by the remote possibility of getting anything he wants. Seems to me he’s already had that tonight but wants more anything. I pull over at Eddy and Jones, in front of the cop shop. The street is lined with SFPD cruisers.

ME: Do you know where we are?                                       

MAN: Yes. Are you a cop?

I don’t answer this question because I do not have the time to get into all the things I am or am not. I’m not a beekeeper or a brewmaster or a cop, but he doesn’t need to know this, what with 2 bucks to his name.

ME: Now, can you pay me what’s on the meter, or call someone who can give you the money?

MAN: No. Let’s go. Get the fuck out of here.

ME: Alright, I gave you a chance dickhead.

Now I’m a bully--a tough guy while parked in front of the Tenderloin Police Station. My big brother is the toughest guy on the schoolyard, so I can do or say the stuff that real tough guys do or say but don’t have to back it up. I’m empowered by professional bullies, who I’m reasonably sure will back my action. They’d better because I’m a coward. I get out of the cab and walk up to the front desk of the police station. The desk sergeant eyes me as I flash him my cabbie badge and point outside to my idling taxi. He runs out of the enclosed front desk area and asks me what the problem is.

ME: There’s a guy in my cab who won’t pay me.

The cop runs out to my cab and it’s empty. The guy has run away, which is what I was hoping for. I thank the cop for his assistance. He seems disappointed. I think he was hoping for some action. He goes back into his little bullet-proof room, takes a sip of some liquid in a Styrofoam cup, and sits back down.

I drive out of the Tenderloin, pull over at Van Ness and Geary by Mel’s Diner, and inspect the backseat. In his haste, the man had left 2 disposable lighters, 14 cents, a McDonalds receipt, and a small, dirty glass tube. I keep the 14 cents and throw the rest away. The way I figured it at the time…. being an optimistic person while driving a cab, but not so much at other times…. I was up 14 cents.###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney