City Cab is usually thought of as the last bastion of the hippie but I think calling it the last stand of the Hole in the Wall Gang might be more appropriate. In fact, one rumor has it that the company started as a drug pushing front and only gradually switched over to customers. I don't know if it ever quite lost the connection.
One night, for instance, I went to the dispatching shed to talk to Manager Jim Miller about something or other. When I arrived, two guys who looked like they'd stepped right out of The Wild Bunch were stretched out on their stomachs sucking a white powder off the filthy floor up their noses through straws. A third cowboy sat on a nearby couch saying, over and over again, in a stoned, zonked voice, "This is madness. This is madness."
Miller was standing on the other side of the bullet-proof glass partition overlooking the scene but paying no attention to it as he ran figures on an adding machine. I went over and we had a brief conversation. As soon as we finished, he went back to his numbers. The third cowboy apparently decided that, madness or not, he was going to get his share because he was splayed out on the floor sucking powder with the others as I stepped over him to get out the door.
Most cab companies have signs threatening to fire any driver who so much as opens a beer on the premises. At City, they had two picnic tables that were usually filled with guys drinking beer, doing shots or smoking joints as they relaxed after their shifts. The gasmen supplemented their incomes by selling alcohol, marijuana and, maybe, that white powder. Heavy drinkers in the know would take cabs out to the City yard at 3:00 am or 4:00 am because it was the only after hours bar then functioning in San Francisco.
There was a small community of the homeless who lived in deserted cars at the back of the lot, including a few drivers. If you were too stoned to drive yourself and couldn't afford a cab you could always crash in one of the cars - at least until the driver showed up to start his or her shift.
I confess that, of all the companies I've worked for, this was my favorite. I don't use drugs and try to get up in the mornings to enjoy the days so I rarely stayed around after work but I liked the idea that City was there. I liked the wildness, the non-conformity, even the harmless criminality. It was nice to have one place left where people could do just about anything they wanted.
Naturally, a lot of characters hung out there. One of them was a small police dog that never barked. He liked everybody and loved leaping to grab tennis balls out of the air. One day I came in to see him frantically trying to pull out a tennis ball that had been wedged in a wire fence while two middle-aged junkies laughed sadistically. The dog didn't even bark then. I walked over, pulled the ball out and gave it to the dog. Then, I asked the creeps how well they thought they'd do at pulling a ball out of a fence with their teeth. That was the last time they tormented the bark-less dog.
One night I decided to stay after work and celebrate paying off a bill. I'd stopped to buy an $8 French bordeaux at Trader Joe's and was just about to open it when the gasman, Larry, came over and asked me,
- "Does that bottle have a cork in it?"
- "Yeah," I answered as I opened it with my corkscrew.
- "Boy," Larry said, "you don't see too many guys around here drinkin' wine out of a bottle with a cork."
- "This is the good stuff," I told him. "I'd offer you a glass but I wouldn't want to waste it on your barbaric pallet - no offense meant."
- "None taken," he replied as he sat down across from me at the table, opening a beer as he did so. "Wine isn't my thing."
He set a pint of Jack Daniels on the table and we shared a joint while he regaled me with tall tales about his wild youth. He claimed he'd been a bouncer at a whore house in Acapulco ("Don't Know why I ever left?") and had worked as a rodie for Willie Nelson. He said he'd once fallen over on motorcycle at a 100 miles an hour and had played a game of Russian Roulette with a driver using live ammunition.
- "After the third round it started feeling sort of weird," he said, "so we quit."
Do I need to add that gasmen are often ex-cab drivers who've become too eccentric for the job?
My favorite person at City was a guy named Star. I don't think I ever heard his real name. He was small, upbeat and sweat. I mean, he was just a warm bubbling person. He came from, I think, Liverpool, had a cockney accent and got his name because he loved Rock & Roll and knew everything about it. He was so enthusiastic and clearly enjoyed life so much that you couldn't help but smile every time you saw him.
He always started his shift at midnight with change for a $20 in his pocket. One night at about 1:30 am, he was found shot and murdered in his cab in Richmond. It didn't make any sense. There's no way that he would have confronted a person who pulled a gun on him. I think he was probably killed because he only had $20 on him. His killers probably thought that he was lying to them about how much money he had at that hour of the night.
I say "they" but nobody really knows. Like most taxi murders, Star's was never solved.
City was not the same after his death. It seemed somehow right when the company went bankrupt not long afterwards.