When I heard the news that the Yellow Cab Co-Op, the largest taxi fleet in San Francisco, was filing for bankruptcy, I thought of the last time the company faced calamity. I had just started out driving for Yellow Cab when its owner, C. Arnholt Smith, a Republican financier and close friend of Richard Nixon, went to jail for embezzlement and fraud. The company collapsed, before being restructured. Now, of course, Yellow Cab faces a different kind of existential threat: ride-sharing companies like Uber, for whom I drive now.
I still remember that Sunday morning in the early '70s when I first found myself behind the wheel of a beat-up cab, wearing a cartoonish yellow plastic hat with the company name stitched over the visor and thinking it was funny that someone like me would be doing this. I expected I’d last a week or maybe a month. I just wanted a job to get through art school.
As I eased into the job, my feelings swung from rhapsodic romance with the city I loved to frustration at dealing with the rougher edges of society. One day a couple tried to rob and stab me. The cops told me I was the twentieth cab robbed in six weeks. The Zodiac killer was active then, too, but I figured that in a city of more than 700,000, my odds were good.
I struggled to hold onto my values while watching my back. One afternoon, a black man in a suit hailed me on the expressway. After pulling over, I watched him in the mirror. He hesitated, then walked up to the window and asked, “Did you stop for me?”
“You’re hailing a cab, aren’t you?” I replied.
“No one stops for black people out here,” he said.
“I have about five seconds to make up my mind that someone isn’t going to rob me, kill me, or get out without paying," I told him. "After looking at you, I decided to stop.”
“Amazing!” he said, and got in.
I was proud of that moment because it showed me that my intuition could transcend my fear.
I picked up famous people, too: Count Basie, Leonard Nimoy, Donald O’Connor, Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, and pianist Van Cliburn. One day, I pulled into the carriage entrance of the St. Francis Hotel to drop a fare when the bellhop asked if I was free. A woman and young boy got into the back seat. Then, much to my surprise, Marlon Brando got into the front seat. As I drove toward the airport, I wondered what to ask him.
Finally, I said, “If you’re having a really bad day, what kind of music do you listen to?”
He smiled and said, “Mongo Santamaría”—the trailblazing Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist.
We chatted amiably about the patterns in the smoke from a tall chimney and the beautiful batik print of his wife’s dress. At the airport he smiled and said, “At first I thought you were just another cab driver looking for a tip.” He handed me a twenty-dollar bill and walked away. The fare was $10.65.
During less exalted encounters, I came to understand that San Francisco's liberal reputation didn't match the daily experience of its poor and disenfranchised. In the booming '80s, I watched as the homeless population swelled disturbingly, a problem for which the city seemed to have no solution.
I felt the intimacy of San Francisco most late at night, when I brought home the women who worked at the phone company. They belonged to the large middle-class population that lived in the neighborhoods near the ocean. Talking to them felt like talking to family.
After I quit driving in 1987, I watched the city continue to transform. But I didn't understand how different it had become until 2011, when I responded to an ad on Craigslist that I thought was for a limo driver, requesting someone who “knew their way around the financial district at rush hour.”
I wrote back that I'd driven cab for 10 years, and what did they really want?
“Someone just like you!” was the reply.
At a limo parking lot near the airport, a man explained that a company called Uber could use smartphones with GPS to offer limo drivers fares in between their regular customers. In exchange, the limo company and the mysterious Uber would take a cut.
I saw the practical efficiency of the scheme. With the new system, other drivers wouldn't be able to hear the radio dispatcher give out orders and steal your fares. Better yet, cashless transactions would remove the threat of robbery. There was a new attitude in the air: “We don’t need no stinking regulations! We’re making your life better for you!" I had entered an experiment in the new digital age. I figured I’d give it a month.
It was surreal driving streets I’d known all my life, but seeing a population I no longer recognized. The old residents had sold their homes at huge profits or had been priced out or moved away or died. Formerly underutilized neighborhoods had new energy, and there were construction projects in almost every part of the city. Developers were cashing in, building new apartments and condominiums. But who could afford to occupy them?
To find the answer, of course, I had only to look at who was in my back seat: a new millennial population that shares the neo-libertarian values of companies like Uber. Most have been in the city between two hours and two years. They work in digital advertising or for the big tech companies that define the city's zeitgeist. A $15 minimum fare is nothing to them.
Some are drunken frat boys who call me "bud" or "pal" and demand that I take illegal turns or carry five passengers when only four is legal. There are also many who treat me with respect. They're interested to see my artwork, hear my many stories. They too, are undergoing their experiment in the new digital world. For them, this is the first flush of excitement. Everything in the past is just an anecdote from someone their parents' age.
Peter Ashlock is an artist living in Crockett, California. His website is peterashlock.com.