Herald Flashback (early 2000s)
By Lee Vilensky
Cab drivers are liars. Having been one for over 13 years, I feel I can make this statement without malice, toward my associates, and with a certain degree of self-deprecation. I’m not judging, simply reporting, and as a social scientist, I have to explore two hypotheses:
A.) The taxi industry attracts inveterate fibbers.
B.) Driving a cab will make an honest person into a habitual bullshitter.
My only conclusion is that this "liar phenomenon" is a combination of the two. If one don’t get you, the other one will. You have to understand that to choose cab driving as a career, some very basic things have to have gone wrong in your life, like being forced out of your country into the U.S., and taking the only work available; being disabled mentally, physically, emotionally, psychically, sexually, politically, or morally; or lacking the ability to hack the straight, corporate, 9 to 5. Many drivers have impressive criminal records, and couldn’t get a job wearing a paper hat, but cab driving was waiting for them. And it’s always a temporary job, until our other "things" take off, which rarely happens. We’re stuck in the taxi trap; quick easy cash, flexible schedule, no boss, unlimited coffee breaks, zero upward mobility. It’s a subordinate "service" role, especially in a cosmopolitan city like the "Willie Brown" version of S.F. A 22 year old Stanford grad, will move to the city and immediately make 2.5 times what the average cabbie makes, plus Med., Dent., 401K, pats on the back, bonuses, paid vacations, and little or no fear of high school reunions. So we make shit up to pad the numbers, and alleviate the embarrassment.
Most of the lying takes place amongst ourselves. Pathetic one-upmanship. A ten dollar tip magically turns into a $70 tip. A ride to Novato becomes a round-trip to Yosemite. A smile from a female customer upon exiting the cab escalates into a night to passionate love making in her suite at the Ritz. And yet, every cabbie has their one story that’s amazing, ridiculous, ludicrous, impossible, unbelievable, and completely true. If you drive around the city long enough, especially at night, you’re going to be exposed to, and involved in, some unusual activities, initiated by people who live in the shadows. You can’t see them, until it’s too late, and then you’ll have a story to tell that will stop a card game in the SFO taxi lot.
Here’s one of mine:
I picked up a young man at 12th & Folsom, and took him straight up Folsom, to Bernal Heights. I dropped him midway up the hill, near Precita Park. It was about 10pm. On the way down the hill, I saw a large man lying in the street near the curb. I passed him and said to myself, "Not my problem."
I went another block, towards Army, and stopped, thinking how still the man was. I backed up, stopped in the middle of the street directly parallel with the man, and hopped out of the cab to see if he was breathing. As I approached the body, a dark green Olds sedan, say about ‘72, came around the corner, ran right on top of him, and stopped. I yelled at the driver, "I think there’s someone under your car."
I’d assumed he hadn’t seen the man lying there. The driver, a Latino man with dark eyes, gave me a blank look and didn’t seem to comprehend what I was telling him. Again I said, "You just ran over a man in the street, and he’s under your car."
This time the driver gave me a look of pure evil, put the car in gear, and slowly drove off down the hill, dragging the man with him. The body dislodged from underneath the car, about 40 yards down and I ran towards him to see what was left, wishing I’d never stopped, never gotten out of my cab, never gotten involved. I opened his jacket and saw that he was breathing very hard. His head was a featureless mass of blood, which was trickling down the hill in a small, but steady stream. A Blood River. I ran back to the cab, radioed the dispatcher for an ambulance, then started yelling in the middle of the street for help. Within minutes there was a crowd of maybe 20 people hovering around the man, including an RN and a woman I had slept with, once, 4 years prior.
Nothing like a river of blood to liven up the evening.
15 minutes later the paramedics arrived. They started taking off the man’s shirt, and he became conscious, howling like some kind of blown-up guy in a bad Hollywood movie about Vietnam (maybe Oliver Stone isn’t full of shit after all.) The cops arrived and tried to talk to the guy, but he was incoherent, and busy dying, so they took my statement instead. I told them what I saw, and gave a pretty good description of the car, although I didn’t get the plate number. Then one of the cops asked me to show him the exact spot where I first saw the man, before the car dragged him down to his present location. As we walked towards the spot, he explained that one of the man’s ears had been ripped off his head. We reached, what I determined to be, the area where I first noticed the man, looked down, and saw a greyish lump lying there. The cop knelt down, looked at it closely, pulled out a large piece of white chalk (the same chalk my daughter uses to draw a hopscotch board in the street) circled the lump, and says to me, "Watch that ear."
Well, I didn’t exactly watch it, but I did stand guard over it, until the cop came back with a little plastic baggie (the same kind my daughter brings her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school in.) He picked up the ear, which now looked like form-free gristle, put it in the bag with forceps, and zip-locked in freshness. At this point, I was given a case number, a telephone number, and was free to go. I turned in my cab and went home to drink, and take a 10mg. Valium I’d been saving for a special occasion.
The next day the SFPD called me asking for more info on the car and driver. I repeated what I had told the police the night before, and asked if the victim was alive. The cop told me he was doing fairly well despite having most of his ribs broken and an ear missing. Apparently he’d been badly beaten and left in the street, over some kind of gang-related drug deal gone sour. What I had witnessed was the finishing touches of that ordeal. The victim gave the cops this information but refused to reveal his attackers. I guess he was afraid of retaliation. Probably thought they’d come after his other ear. It’s amazing how firmly people will cling to a criminal code of conduct, although thinking back to the driver’s eyes, I had no doubt his vengeance knew no limits. The cop also mentioned, in parting, that I was lucky the driver didn’t kill me for being a witness. This little tidbit bothered me for a long time, and for months afterward, I carefully looked at any car driving by me, searching for those two black holes for eyes. I don’t think that guy ever got his ear back on his head, at least not the one he was born with. Maybe they grafted one on him from some meat borrowed from his ass, or inner thigh. I’ll probably never know. The whole thing’s a little hazy at this point, except for those eyes, devoid of windows, not a soul in sight.###
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