"Hey, You Talkin' to Me?"

A YOUNG WOMAN strolled out of Joxer Daly's Irish Pub on West Portal Avenue around midnight and climbed into my cab. She was barhopping, heading to La Rocca's over in North Beach, and seemed to be in a fairly advanced good mood. A New York Yankees baseball cap hid her eyes, but in the mirror I caught her smile and her straight white teeth, gleaming as she talked.

She asked how my night was going, so I told her about the young couple I took to the airport. After a passionate kiss at the United terminal, the guy ran to catch a Los Angeles shuttle and the woman rode back to the city with me. Forty minutes, $60 - including a $10 tip. A nice jolt to a slow Sunday night.

The barhopper said she worked as a host (she did not say "hostess") in a famous North Beach restaurant. "Last night a man I'd seated shook my hand and palmed me a 20. Made my night. If people knew how happy big tips make people like you and me, they'd give 'em more often. I love tipping big," she said, "and I always take care of cabbies."

And out the window went our fledgling camaraderie.

Why? Because atop the list of things cab drivers least want to hear are: 1) "I've got a gun." 2) "No, it's OK, you keep the dime for a tip." and 3) "cabbie."

Oh, come on! you say. Cabbie is an affectionate term - like "cop." It's an accepted part of our language. (Yes, we do see it in newspapers almost daily. "Cabbie beaten." "Cabbie robbed." "Cabbie murdered." And you wonder why we're always sulking.)

Well, consider this: Police officers do indeed call themselves "cops," but during 10 years of hanging around cab yards not once has any of my esteemed colleagues called me "cabbie" - unless attempting sarcasm. If we know each other's given names, we use them; otherwise we call each other Driver or Nimrod or Dipstick or whatever is handy, but never cabbie.

My fares also have called me lots of things other than my name. I certainly don't take offense at the women, usually elderly, who breathe Dear or Sweetheart or even Kiddo at me. Or the occasional seaman or Australian tourist who calls me Matey or Cap'n. And long ago I learned to endure the legions of bluff Saturday night idiots who clamber into my back seat spewing names like Chief and Boss and Big Guy and Pal and (yuck) Slick. But call me cabbie and you can hear my teeth grind - even after I've slammed and locked my safety shield.

The movie "Taxi Driver" played the Castro Theater recently, and one night as it emptied out three men flagged me. One sat up front and informed me, "We're all cab drivers, too." If he had used the c-word I would have been as shocked as if I'd glanced up and seen the marquee reading: "Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster starring in "CABBIE!"

The answer: "Only one person - but he was a politician."

Our conversation degenerated: If a politician calls you cabbie, can you call him Polly? Wanna cracker? If a stockbroker calls you cabbie can you call her Stocky? Can you call a restaurant hostess Twinkie? Can you call your fares fairies? I don't think so.

So what should people call cab drivers?

I'm charmed by my very young riders who call me Mister Cab Man, but that's a bit much to ask of everyone. Bro and Brother? Those I like, but lately I've been enjoying the switch to "Homes" or "Homie" or - my favorite - "Homeslice."

A few women and perhaps a few too many men have floated Cute and Handsome in my direction, and, when done right, that can sure perk up a shift. I'll never forget the drop-dead raven-haired beauty who smiled at me through pupils resembling tiny black derringers and said, "Hey there, Awesome."

But if you can't come up with a gem, I'd suggest sticking with Driver - which has accuracy going for it, plus a certain straightforward dignity.

The barhopper who called me cabbie? She gave me 20 bucks for her $14.90 ride, and I got over it.

San Francisco Chronicle, 1996

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