Tell Me, How is Pinochet?

IN MY 15 YEARS as a cab driver, I have never once taken a customer "for a ride." I have always returned correct change down to the last nickel. Whenever someone accidentally slipped into a wad of bills an extra $5 or $10 - or even, once, a $50! - I've always given it back.

A Saturday night, around midnight, I'd just dropped a fare in front of the "Beach Blanket Babylon" show in North Beach when I was flagged by two men wearing tuxedos and two women in evening gowns. Three of them looked to be about 45 years old. The fourth, a portly, balding man with a horseshoe of white hair hooked around his ears, looked about 60.

As they arranged themselves in my cab, the woman nearest me said, "The St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, please, sir." She spoke precise English with an accent I couldn't be certain of.

"Where are you folks from?" I asked.

"CHEE-lay!" they chorused, as practiced as a cheerleading squad.

"Chile!" I said. "I don't hear that answer very often."

The older man, seated right behind me, said, "I should think not." His accent was stronger than the others.

"Is this a vacation?" I asked.

"We are trying to make it a vacation," said one of the women, "but really we are here for work."

"What kind of work?"

The older man named a credit-card company. "You should be accepting our card," he said, lightheartedly.

"We do!" I said, tapping the credit-card processor on my dash. "There is a $10 minimum."

"Oh, then we'll pay cash tonight," he said, "since it's a short ride."

"How are things in Chile these days?" I asked.

"Excellent," the older man replied.

"Is the U.S. government leaving you folks alone?"

They all laughed, but one woman said, "They were giving us a bit of a hard time during the Pinochet thing. I can't remember exactly what it was, but something."

I'd followed the saga of Gen. Augusto Pinochet for a long time. Chile's iron-fisted dictator from 1973 to 1990, Pinochet, now 85, was arrested in Britain in October 1998 on charges of genocide, torture, kidnapping and murder filed in the World Court. The charges stemmed from the disappearance of thousands of opponents of the military regime after Pinochet seized power. But the British released him, citing health reasons, and Pinochet returned to Chile in March of this year. Although the Supreme Court dismissed kidnapping and murder charges against Pinochet on Dec. 20, it ordered psychological tests and suggested that Pinochet could be re-arrested and charged again.

"How is Pinochet?" I asked.

"Pinochet is a great man," said the older man. The women both laughed - giggled, actually.

"How is his health?" I asked. "Was he faking to get out of England?"

"Pinochet's old now," said the older man. "He's 85 or something. He does have physical problems. But he is still a great man."

The women giggled again. I still couldn't decipher this crowd. Were they true Pinochet supporters? Were they pulling my leg? Or were they divided on the topic, and my questions made them nervous?

The older man wasn't finished: "They should put statues of Pinochet at every intersection in Santiago."

The women's laughter was weaker now.

I was baffled. "Really?" I said.

"Really," said the man. But then he, too, sort of chuckled: "They should put statues of Pinochet at every intersection, not only in Santiago, but also in San Francisco."

"But you're laughing as you say that," I said, trying to sound casual. "I don't know whether to believe you or not."

"Well," he said, "you decide."

We had pulled up in front of the St. Francis Hotel. The meter said $4.90. The older man handed me a small stack of bills that he had folded neatly in half. The St. Francis Hotel doorman, uniformed and smiling, said, "How was your evening?" He helped them climb out onto the sidewalk. As they left, each of them called out to me something polite, something gracious: "Thank you, sir … Good night… Thank you, sir…"

I watched them climb the steps of the St. Francis until their smiling faces disappeared.

I sorted the bills to tuck them into my wallet. There were six: a single, another single, another single, another single - and a $100 bill! The shock of it was as startling as a cattle prod. And one last single.

I glanced out my window. I could still see the men's shiny black dress shoes and the glittery hems of the women's evening gowns, floating up the steps toward the lobby.

I might easily have called out after them.

I really might have.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 31, 2000

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