Note: This entry in the series immediately follows the previous entry. I strongly recommend a quick review of part II to re-establish the mood and setting.]
“Don’t pick up any black people, especially if there’s more than one of them,” the experienced cabbie told me. “Stay out of Third Street, and Bayview/Hunter’s Point. Don’t stop for anybody there”
I’d stopped after midnight for a passenger on Market Street, who’d turned out to be a young black male, and then two young black males, and they’d taken me down Third Street to Bayview/Hunter’s Point, into a deserted warehouse district, where I expected to die, only to drop them off at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard: two sailors who’d thanked me and tipped me well.
Chagrined, but still shaking off the stress of believing I was about to be shot point blank in the back of the head, I was headed back up Third Street to familiar territory.
“Stay out of Third Street, and Bayview/Hunter’s Point. Don’t stop for anybody there”
I’m not going to.
Stopped at a traffic light, I see a guy wave at me from across the intersection. Black, middle-aged, wearing a Muni uniform, a bus or streetcar driver, maybe the cable cars.
I’m not going to be that guy, and a middle aged bus driver surely can’t be a threat, unless he’s behind the wheel and I’m on my bike. The light changes, I roll forward and stop in front of him.
He’s in a good mood, relaxed, smiling and friendly. He gives me directions, and I recognize the hill we’re going up. It’s the route toward my friend’s home in the feudalistic white enclave above the poor black peasants.
As we skirt around the top of the hill we pass an open grassy area, on fire. Sometime past one o’clock in the morning, and there is a grass fire, and there is nobody around. Weird. We’re both silent.
We descend the hill, heading down toward the Bay, heading through the projects. I’d heard about these projects, World War II temporary housing for shipyard workers still in use a half century later. I make a sharp left, an acute angle, into a narrow dead-end street. There’s a trash dumpster, flames boiling from its depths into the dark sky, with people sitting around it in chairs, drinking and talking. It’s surreal, and coming so soon after I thought I was about to be shot point blank in the back of the head and after passing the grassy lot burning with no one around it’s too much for me to process.
They’re calling out to me. “Cabbie, hey, cabbie! Beautiful night, isn’t it?” The man pays me and gets out. The street is so narrow I have to back up and pull forward a couple of times to make the turnaround, a 5 point turn. All the while these strangers drinking deep into the night by the light of a burning dumpster are calling out to me. I’m freaked out. This doesn’t happen in small midwestern farm towns. This doesn’t happen in the small town where I want to the small conservative religious college. It doesn’t happen in my neighborhood in San Francisco. I wave, trying to seem friendly, trying not to seem rude…trying not to seem racist…and drive out as fast as I decently can.
“Don’t stop for anybody there”
Believe me, I’m not going to. The sailors turned out to be all right, the Muni driver was friendly and pleasant, but the circumstances were just too freaky. I’m getting out of there as fast as I can, back on Third Street charging north towards downtown, north of the speed limit.
An arm waving, a middle-aged lady, nicely dressed. I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not that guy. And I’m not going to leave a woman without a ride in the middle of the night.
First a stop at a nearby liquor store where I idle in the parking lot while she buys a bottle of wine, then then on to her home. No problem. She’s nice, chatty, friendly. The route home is familiar. I’d been there just minutes before.
We skirt the edge of the hill. The grassy lot is still burning, but thank you god firetrucks have just arrived, restoring some semblance of normalcy to this increasingly crazy night.
Back down the same street towards the Bay, the same acute left turn into the same narrow dead-end street of WWII temporary shipyard housing still occupied a half century later, past the same burning dumpster, past the same people sitting around it drinking.
It’s been 15 minutes, tops, since I was there before. They recognize me and they’re calling out to me again, “The cabbie’s back!” Hey, cabbie!
Deja vu, but it’s real, surreally real. I make my 5 point turn again, wave again, heart racing, drive off as fast as I decently can again, get to Third Street again, turn north toward downtown again, toward familiar territory, toward the cab shop because while I could have the cab a couple more hours I’ve made decent money for my first night, and I’m now so freaked out by the weirdness of the night to want to drive anymore at all.
I have tunnel vision. I don’t know if anybody is trying to flag me down or not. All I can see is pavement ahead of me. Every light I hit green or yellow and blow on through. I cross Mission Creek, back into the South of Market area, and head back to the shop.
Arriving home, I find my girlfriend has waited up for me, scared, expecting me home a couple of hours ago. I tell her I meant to drive until 4, for the full 12 hours I had the cab. Then I tell her about my night, my first night as a cab driver, and together we relive the craziness of it; a hell of a night, never to be equalled in the four months I drove.
Long after, I realized what an opportunity I missed. Had I gotten out of the cab, walked over, and shared a drink with them, I would have earned the respect of those folks sitting around the burning dumpster: a white guy, getting out of his cab in the projects, at nearly 2 a.m., to share drinks with black people living there. I imagine they laughed about me–I do, too, now.
What makes me kick myself is that inside, I knew it. I could tell their calls to me, while slightly mocking, were friendly, not threatening. They would have loved it if I hadn’t acted like the scared kid I was, but had joined them. I regret that moment.
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