By Lee Vilensky
Every major hotel in SF has a cab line, and each cab line caters to a different clientele, and therefore a different type of cab driver. The Palace Hotel is traditionally the old timers’ line. This used to be a money maker, but dried up sometime in the early ‘80’s. Old habits die hard and older cabbies can still be seen sleeping in the line, Chronicle resting on their chests, dried spittle on the corners of their mouths, youth gone. The Nikko attracts Middle Eastern drivers who park in the line, then go eat at a variety of nearby curry joints. The Kabuki is a napping spot for Asian drivers and the Downtown Hilton is for suckers drawn in by its 7:30PM-7:45PM flurry of activity. Young cabbies like to keep moving and rarely line up, but a wise driver knows when to stop wasting gas-stop chasing around empty cabs. I like the cab line at the Hyatt Regency. I line up there on weeknights, or in cabbie parlance, “play the Regency”. We say “play” because it’s a game-a game of chance. I invest my time (and time is definitely money) in the hopes that 2 things will happen.
- the line will move quickly
- the fare will go somewhere far, far away.
Major hotel cab lines come with regular panhandlers. Between hotel guests and sympathetic cabbies, it can be a moneymaking endeavor for someone sans job. The average citizen may view a cab driver as cold, callous and surly-the kind of person least likely to give a handout, and we generally are, but many of us are a few short steps from unemployed, or unemployable, and can sympathize with someone who’s fallen through the cracks. We take care of our regular guys and brush off the rest-the “Johnny Come Latelys” who try and horn in on someone else’s turf.
My line, the Hyatt Regency line, has two panhandlers, both old-timers. I only give money to one guy, because the other will not accept coins. He prefers folding money. So do I. There’s a conflict. He’s a scary looking hirsute gentleman, dressed in rags and of indeterminate age, whose menacing appearance is greatly compromised by his Yiddish non-sequiturs. He talks to God and God talks back. Let him get a buck from some other schlomozel, I can’t give money to 2 guys at one location.
My guy has been camped at the Hyatt Regency for at least 18 years, although I haven’t seen him in 2 or 3 months. I know this because he was there when I started my cab career 18 years ago. He’s always in the same exact spot, near the front of the cab line, sitting facing the street with his back against part of the hotel’s front façade. He has a thick beard, medium length curly hair, and is usually wearing clean clothes and hiking boots. The man always, always reads a paperback, with his cap out for money. He has regular clientele from the office buildings and the cabbies. He told me he used to drink but stopped, so his party days are over. I don’t think it was much of a party.
About 5 years ago the man started showing signs of his lifestyle. Before this he looked so healthy I wondered what the hell he was doing on the street and why I was giving him money. I’d seen him fight a bum, much larger than him, who’d attempted to take some change out of his cap. He beat the man badly with fists and feet and left him dazed and hurt in the gutter. I walked over, put some change in his cap, and he said, “Your money’s insured.” waving a scabby fist in the air, then went back to reading a book. Not long after this he started having trouble with his speech. It took him awhile to say what he had to say, and what he said wasn’t making sense. Then his right hand was curled up into a claw and he walked with a noticeable limp, no doubt the effects of several strokes. He’d worked himself into a state of despair and disrepair, and I started giving him quarters instead of dimes, nickels, and pennies.
About a year ago I had my last conversation with him, at least as of this writing. I got out of my cab, put some money in his cap and said, “Man, you’ve been here a long time.” He got excited and began gesticulating wildly, trying to reply. I had agitated him and he seemed desperate to convey something to me. All he could manage was, “This is my spot, this is my spot!” I said, “I know, you’ve been here a long time.” He moved away from the wall, pointed behind him and sputtered, “This, this… is my spot. My spot!” On the wall behind him, where he’d sat for at least 18 years reading, begging, living, was a dark smudged outline of his back and shoulders-a permanent shadow of his sweat and toil. iHHHHHHis spot. Nobody could question its ownership, a perfect fit, a fingerprint. This man had gone to work every day, Mon-Fri., plus O.T., in sickness and health, punched in, punched out, like a Swiss movement. He made Willie Loman look like a venture capitalist, this B.B. King of panhandlers.
I got back into the cab and awaited my next fare, the seat cradling my ass just so. Back to my poor excuse for a job, the music career a distant memory of free Budweiser and clusters of notes and broken chords. My screenplay unwanted by the Sundance Institute, I’d settle for a ride to the airport-any airport. Back in the saddle-my spot.###