Eric is German American and Charles is from New Mexico and of mixed Mexican and Isleta Pueblo heritage. I mention this contrast because it helps them work well together. Charles has his hair braided down his back to his waist and wears a black leather jacket. He looks more like a drug pusher than a cop. Eric, on the other hand, wears an MTA jacket with his badge on the front.
"We're like Yin and Yang," Charles told me. "Nobody could figure us hanging out but we work great together."
What they want to do is give the tickets to the limo drivers before they have a chance to take off. The usual M.O is for Charles to scope out the limos and write down the information then give it to Eric who makes the bust.
"I do my Pueblo Indian thing," Charles says, "You don't want to spook the deer ... you don't want to spook the fish..." And, indeed, he did his job without the limo drivers ever noticing that they were targets.
Charles and Eric start out most days by checking out the Park 55 and moving on to the Hilton, the Nikko, the Westin and Union Square. On Tuesday, we ended up at the Grand Hyatt.
They gave out a couple of tickets at the Park 55 and the Mason Street side of the Hilton. Then, they pulled a double on the Taylor Street side of the Monaco Hotel.
On the far right side of the frame you can see the Monaco's doorman trying to gesture to a limo driver to leave before Charles (behind the doorman) can give him a ticket. The driver understood the gesture too late and got nailed.
Of course the limo drivers and the doormen collude with each other. Giving out a few tickets has a reverberating effect when the drivers and the doormen begin calling each other and their friends. Tuesday's ticketing turned out great for the cab drivers in front of the Nikko, four of whom were given airports that probably would've gone to limos a month ago.
"All these white zones used to be lined with limos before we started handing out citations," Eric said, "One driver told me that he hadn't had an airport out of a certain hotel in five years. Now almost all the white zones are open" so cab drivers are getting better loads.
Eric ticketed a limo in front of the Clift (See lead photo.) The driver didn't like this very much and argued that the hotel had told him that he could park there.
Eric politely told the limo driver that parking in a white zone was illegal.
The doorman of the Clift (looking in the window of a Yellow Cab) gave the taxi driver an airport while the limo driver yelled expletives after Eric.
I was impressed by the professionalism of both Charles and Eric as they dealt calmly and politely with sometimes angry limo drivers.
Cab drivers, on the other hand, were applauding or shouting words of encouragement to the duo. "The real satisfaction of the job," Eric said, "is getting thanked by the taxi drivers."
Charles added that both he and Eric come from working class families so they can relate to the problems that drivers have earning a living and putting food on the table. He said that they, "want to help out and go to bat" for the drivers "to help make a level playing field."
We ended up in the parking garage across from the Grand Hyatt spying on the infamous "Big Mike" who is reputed to be the greediest and most arrogant doorman in the city. We watched as Big Mike talked with a limo driver and then pocketed a bill (below) as he walked away.
The limo drove into an alley where the vehicles usually wait until Big Mike signals them. This, by the way, is a tribute to the work of Charles and Eric who have chased the limos off the white zones and forced the doormen into backdoor deals. The usual scenario now, according to Eric, is for Big Mike to give a hand sign to a limo driver if there is an airport and then limo comes around the block to pick it up. But, if there is a short, Big Mike blows his whistle for a taxi.
One consequence of this, Eric told me, is that many cab drivers don't stop when Big Mike whistles because they know the ride has to be a short.
On this day, however, Big Mike has heard about us on the grapevine and knows he's being watched. For a change, he blows his whistle for taxis to pick up the airport rides. There are no limos around.
All in all, I saw about 15 airports being picked up by beaming and delighted cabdrivers during our short tour of the hotels.
Charles and Eric have only been ticketing for five weeks but they've already had a huge effect on the business. So far they've given out 28 white zone violations including the seven they handed out during their time with me. They have also given out three of the $5,000 citations that Chris Hayashi drew up the legislation for and these tickets all were given to people without A-cards driving Long Term leases.
This is a good start but problems remain. For one thing, Eric is fairly sure that hotel managers are getting kickbacks from the doormen. The hotels have been notified that accepting tips from limo and taxi drivers is now criminal conduct but there is a lot of money involved and, just like with tipping at cab company windows, the laws are hard to enforce.
Another problem is that limos are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Taxi Services has no control over them except for where they park. Citations for illegal limos can only be given by the PUC or the police. Fortunately, Charles and Eric have recently contacted the PUC's investigative arm and they have been very co-operative. A PUC investigator has begun working with Taxi Services and has photographed and cited several illegal limousines. The police department apparently has also set up stings for limos playing flags.
The final problem is that the District Attorney's office so far has been reluctant to prosecute. Apparently, they see this as a lot of work for very little gain. Eric and Charles are hoping to show multiple and repeated offenses that the District Attorney would find worth pursuing.
At least progress is being made and we are seeing the signs already.
Charles wanted me emphasize the "appreciation and respect" that he and Eric feel for Deputy Director Chris Hayashi's "leadership, courage and vision" and say that this "motivates them to do better" work.
In fact, Hayashi created the Taxi Investigator civil service classification; recruited, hired and trained the Investigators; got authority from the Board of Supervisors to tow, write parking tickets and create a new misdemeanor against doormen; got permission from the SFMTA Board of Directors for adjustments to penalties; and took numerous other steps before Charles and Eric could hit the streets.
All in all, Hayashi worked for two years to make these busts happen. She's now hoping to get a few more investigators soon - which would become a much easier and faster task if she became the Director of the Taxi Services Division of the SFMTA.
Eric and Charles