Driving Your Karma

ONE SUNDAY NIGHT shortly after I was issued my cab driver's badge, I picked up a young guy at the cable car turnaround near Fisherman's Wharf. I was still green enough to think he might be a tourist, but then he said he was headed to the corner of Griffith and Fitzgerald, out by Candlestick. I used to park my own car near that very same corner to save five bucks during Giants' games, and I knew it was the boundary of one of the city's most pitiful housing projects. Sir Francis Drake was probably Griffith and Fitzgeralds' last tourist.

The way this kid started chatting me up made me wary. I'd had a couple of over-friendly fares before, and later, after they'd run on me without paying, I recognized their exuberance as an (effective) attempt to loosen me up, put me off guard. Still, you can't convict someone for being friendly: almost everyone, even chatty people, usually comes up with the fare. You never know until a ride's over.

We talked about Joe Montana the whole way—he'd brought the 49ers from behind in the fourth quarter that day—and by the time we reached Griffith and Fitzgerald there were fifteen dollars on the meter. "I'll be right back," the guy said, and then, leaving the door yawning wide behind him, he dashed off into the projects like Joe Montana himself slipping away from a safety blitz.

Even if you see it coming, and even if you consider that a customer running on you is just part of the territory (it's called a "no-pay" in the cab world, and I get maybe ten of them a year) it still aggravates when it does happen. And now I was almost too angry to drive.

Fortunately it was 9 o'clock, time for the Sunday night airport rush, and Griffith and Fitzgerald is just ten minutes from SFO. I drove down Highway 101, entered the bowels of the parking garage, took my spot at the end of the cab line, and told my tale of woe to a couple of other drivers I knew. By the time I was called upstairs to take my next fare I was feeling a lot better.

The new guy was an older, gray-haired, very dignified looking fellow. He wore a suit and said he was going to his home in the Marina District. When I started chatting him up he told me he'd been a lawyer in Atlanta when Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia. When he was elected President, Carter brought my fare along to Washington to serve in his cabinet. One of my fare's first assignments was to fly to Taiwan to convey the new administration's greeting to the apprehensive Taiwanese government. Chiang Kai-shek's son and a full red-carpet state reception were waiting at the bottom of the airplane steps.

Later during the Carter administration, my fare and Andrew Young went on a three-week tour of Africa aboard Air Force One. Andrew Young had been the first black mayor of Atlanta, but now was the United States' ambassador to the United Nations. Young could have been elected president in a landslide in any one of the dozen or so countries they visited, and everywhere they went the entire entourage was first mobbed and then feted like royalty. For reasons of his own, Andrew Young did not want to sit in the President's seat on Air Force One, so my fare sat there for three heady weeks.

The meter read twenty-five dollars when we reached his house, which looked to be about a two-iron from the looming Golden Gate Bridge. He gave me two twenties, forty bucks, and said keep the change, the biggest tip of my young career.

I drove away almost euphoric, thinking about the two human beings who had most recently warmed an identical spot in my back seat; thinking about the wide gulf separating and coloring their experiences of life; thinking that if lives could somehow be calibrated and assigned spots on a graph, wasn't it quite possible that my life would wind up smack between theirs (the way my apartment in the Haight lay halfway between their homes); thinking about getting a $15 no-pay and a $15 tip back-to-unlikely-back; and thinking that in the cosmic scorebook everything, somehow, added up darn close to perfect.

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