Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dumb Cab Drivers: or the Skill of the Unskilled

I've been told that I was stupid a couple of hundred times when I've been driving a taxi.

I think my favorite was the time when a Safeway truck tried an unsuccessful U-turn, got stuck and blocked the street. Nobody was on the sidewalk, so I slowly and carefully drove up on it and went around the truck. Just as I was getting back onto the street some guy yelled at me at the top of his voice, "That was stupid!"

Now there are a lot of criticisms you could make of that maneuver, but I don't think calling it "stupid" is one of them. The knee-jerk use of the word simply points out the clique that all of us who drive taxicabs live with. In the rest of my 40 years of adult life, the only person who ever told me that I was stupid was an ex-girlfriend.

Indeed, the concept of the "dumb cabbie" is one most hallowed and iconic stereotypes in the entire culture.

Take you, for instance, gentle reader. You're probably thinking of the cab driver who couldn't find your place on Retiro Way or the one who drove in the opposite direction to go to the Bay Bridge or the one who pulled a left turn from the right lane at Third and Market against a red light. You're no doubt asking yourself, "How much skill does it take to sit in front of a hotel? How much intelligence? If they had any brains, why would they be driving a cab?"

In your heart of hearts, you think - you know - that, if you drove a cab, you'd have it down by the second day. If you're humble, you might think a week - or two at the most.

And you'd be wrong.

When I started working at Yellow Cab, they only hired people with perfect driving records. Within three months, these same perfect drivers averaged one accident, one ticket and one complaint. When you drive a cab, it's a whole different town.

While you know how to get to your place on Retiro Way (I hope), would you know the most direct routes (for some easy examples) to go from there to: Stillings and Baden, Magellan and Castanada or Avalon and Le Grande? And did you know that going Baden to Stillings to go from the Excelsior to the Sunset is the best short-cut in the city? It's $4 cheaper than going through Glen Park.

There are thousands of streets in San Francisco and dozens of ways to get to most locations. Some routes are better at different times of day, under different traffic and weather conditions. Learning all this actually gives people bigger brains and makes them smarter.

Knowing how to get places is only part of the job. The most consistent problem, of course, is dealing with the traffic. Your daily rush-hour commute may drive you half-crazy but imagine what it would be like to deal with such traffic for ten hours as I do every Friday night. I also have about 30 deadlines to meet while I navigate the mess. That means 10 hours of avoiding bicycle riders blowing through red lights, pedestrians wandering onto the street talking on cell phones, tourists taking right turns from the left lane after signaling left, woman pushing baby carriages out from behind parked trucks, runners jogging in front of me from my blind spot, and of course the guy in the SUV backing through a red light to get a parking place. Not to mention dealing with your typical brain-dead San Francisco driver - arguably the worst in the world.

Dealing with the traffic is only another part of the the job. If you are going to drive someone somewhere, you have to find them first. This means that you have to know where the customers are likely to be at different times of day. And every time you pick one up, you have to be planning on where you'll find the next customer when you drop the current one off. If you listen to the taxi radio for dispatched calls, as I do, you have to calculate how long it will take you to get to the fare and the odds of the potential customer actually being there - meaning the odds that the dude isn't going to step outside and flag a cab or call three other companies two seconds after calling you. If I spend ten minutes on a "no-go" on a busy night, it could cost me $10 or $20. Even sitting at a hotel requires the skill of knowing when to be there.

And then, there is dealing with the public. Coping with 30 unique personalities (not to mention yuppies who have no personalities but are pain-in-the-ass demanding) can be exhausting even if everybody is friendly and polite - a rare experience.

You know about rude cab drivers? Until you've driven a cab, you don't know what rudeness is. How can I explain this? I had 38 customers one night and five of them used the word "please." However, all of them put the "please" at the back of a command and used a tone of voice that people reserve for servants on TV. That is to say, I worked for ten hours without having one customer who met the minimal standards of politeness - a not especially rare experience.

Servers and bartenders also complain about their ill-mannered clientele but there are no witnesses in a taxicab. People will do and say things in a cab that they would never do in public. I could wax novel-length on this subject but, instead, I'll simply recount the low point of my driving career. A business woman (who appeared to be perfectly sober) accused me of taking her "the long way." I pulled a map out and turned around to show her that she was wrong. She leaned forward and spit in my face.

And then there is the actual violence with which cab drivers have to cope: the threats, the assaults, the attempted murders and the homocides - facts of life that are always at the back of our minds. Taxi driving is one of the most dangerous and stress filled jobs there is.

The people you think of as "cabbies" - the ones who race wildly down the street or don't know where they are going or refuse to take you on a short ride - are usually rookies. People who act like this don't last very long in my profession. As one old-timer put it to me when I was a rookie, "They don't make money, they get complaints, they get into accidents, they get robbed, they get fired, they get killed."

Taxi driving actually requires a high level of knowledge and skill. I've been a jack of many trades. I've worked in marketing, been an insurance underwriter, a numbers man and I'm a writer. I once did a study at the Bank of America that changed the way they did their traveler's check business. Some of my other jobs have required a more specialized (and perhaps higher) type of intelligence than driving a cab but nothing I've done demands as many different kinds of intelligence - and demands them more or less simultaneously.

Cab driving calls for a kind of hyper-alertness, a level of super awareness, that reminds me of nothing quite so much as the high I once felt as I raced down a mountain path in order to beat the dying light to the bottom before it turned pitch black.

Last Friday, for instance, I was driving up Mission trying to get my customers to a restaurant before they lost their reservation. I was moving fast and smooth yet keeping a safe distance between myself and the other cars. I was concurrently: checking the traffic flow for possible lane changes, scanning the streets for potential danger shots, paying special attention to the bus up ahead that didn't want to stay in its lane, checking my blind-spots, glancing at the computer to look for dispatched orders, and making repartee with my passengers in order to amuse myself and encourage them to tip large.

We were all laughing at a joke when suddenly a huge, white van swerved directly into my lane. I simultaneously hit my horn, checked the rearview mirror for tailgaters and hit the brakes. The startled driver almost lost control and the van swayed wildly from side to side before going safely back into its own lane. My customers couldn't believe how quickly I'd reacted, that I'd missed getting hit. But for me it was just business as usual - one of maybe 50 crashes that I've avoided over the years. And this brings up the most important kinds of intelligence that cab drivers need - flexibility and the power to make split-second decisions.

To drive a taxi well you need constantly to change and re-change both your plans your concept of reality. A route you expected to be open might have gridlocked traffic. A street you thought too busy might be clear. The business you expected to find might not be there and a customer can appear in the most unlikely places. The opera might be getting out 10 minutes late and those 10 minutes could take you half-way to the airport. Your friendly customer, Dr. Jekyll can suddenly turn into Mr. Hyde. The smiling guy behind you might pull a gun. A tire might blow out. The brakes can go. And, of course, you always have to be ready for that huge, white van.

You frequently have to modify what you are doing and react instantly to new situations. This may be what a psychologist/passenger had in mind when he told me that cab driving required more real-time intelligence than any other job.

So the next time one of us shows up to take your radio call, be respectful. We're more than likely smarter than you.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that you identified the issues in fare hunting. To me, the easiest way to measure who is the best cab driver between two empty driver is who has been empty the shortest time, (of course as a statistical function).

    The job is a combination of fishing and chess.

    I may discuss with you at the garage sometime.