Guns in taxis. It happens. Here’s my gun story.
A few months back, a guy I picked up might have robbed me or shot me. He easily could have done either or both, but he didn’t.
Near the end of my shift, contemplating turning in early or not, I was outbound on Sixth St at Harrison when I spotted a middle aged black couple flagging, and get passed up by a 3 cabs in as many seconds. Slamming on the brakes in the middle of the intersection, I threw it in reverse and picked them up. Few things annoy me more than watching cabs pass up a fare over skin color. Your demeanor tells me everything I need to know when I am contemplating whether or not to pick you up.
They immediately seemed like they were relieved to be in a cab on the way home. When I asked for their destination they hemmed and hawed a bit more than normal, directing me to the freeway on ramp at 7th and Harrison saying they wanted to “go to the Cow Palace”. I immediately figured they were going to the notorious war zone of public housing… Sunnydale.
I’ve taken my share of rides to this urban wasteland of public housing in the dead of night, just past “O’dark thirty,” a time I was told over and over again in taxi school exactly not to. Firmly onward through the winding hillside streets of low cinderblock attached bungalows and 2 story apartment blocks.
At night the place has the erie feeling of a war zone, akin to Beirut in the 80s’ or parts of Baghdad today. Seeing a burned out hulk of a car or thug-like characters lurking in the shadows amid broken bottles and garbage is just par for the course.
Before I could inquire further as to the true destination, which clearly was not going to be the Cow Palace, he started asking for the local hip hop / rap station.
“The radio in my cab doesn’t work”, I told him truthfully, “however, you are welcome to plug in your music.” offering him the aux plug.
The woman mumbles something unintelligible, barely audible over the static blaring transistor radio they have on, and I make out something about a charger. I offer up the USB charging cable I use to charge one of the many devices in the cab. She fumbles with the cable and her phone while he cranks the volume on full from the transistor radio. Slicing through the stations, back and forth, dialing in the tuning of the sought after station, static grinding my nerves like a concrete cutter outside my bedroom window at 8am. I put up with the cacophony, thumb on the volume, long enough to get the audio tuned to something almost bearable.
He tells me to take the Paul Ave exit, which leads straight onto Mansell, over the hill and down the back side to the projects at Sunnydale; further confirming that this was definitely a trip to Sunnydale.
I again asked him “where exactly” and big surprise, the destination he coughs up was Santos Street, deep in the heart of the ghetto.
“…a while since I been up there” I quip, mentioning something about the long gone Geneva Towers in hopes he realizes I’m a local who knows the history of his neighborhood.
At this point in the ride I am more than acutely aware that my safety might be in jeopardy. I resolved to remain calm and collected no matter what happened. As he directed me into the dead end driveway off Santos Street, another no-no in the cab biz, I flipped on the dome light and came to a full stop. I said something to him about the fare being below the estimated amount of $20 because “I’ve been doing this awhile” or some other nonsense.
Without saying a word his lady exits the cab, taking the screeching radio with her, slamming the door shut.
Dome light now on, I turn to my right and look him in the eye. If something is about to happen I want to be facing it. That’s when I spot a black powder coated Colt 45 in his right gloved hand.
Seeing me notice it, while making very sure to not point it at me, he calmly states, “dis ain’t fo’ you man.” Moving his left hand to cover the gun up slightly.
“I know man. Shit, I’d be strapped too if I lived here. My homie used to keep a grenade by his door.” I respond quite truthfully on both counts.
“I do need to ask a favor,” he says, “we just need a free ride my man…”
“Man, I just picked you up after watching three cabs pass you up, only to take you to the deepest, darkest, most dangerous ghetto in the city in the dead of night.” I tell him, sympathizing with his plight “if anyone deserves to ask for a free ride it’s you.”
“Times have been tight for me lately too,” I continue, “I just barely avoided eviction and am struggling to make ends meet. You clearly need the free ride home more than I need the $20.”
He smiled with a visible sigh of relief, and proffered up what meager money he did have, a couple of crumpled dollars and loose change.
Taking his hand and closing it around this tiny amount of money he had, I looked him in the eye and wished him a good night and to “god bless.” I figured a religious sentiment is what was appropriate and help this person will need to know it’s ok. While thinking to myself: In their reality, it was the will of their god that I picked them up that night.
As he was exiting, I commented again on the gun, how it looked like a nice piece.
“Sorry bro, if it made you nervous. I didn’t mean for you to see it.” He says genuinely apologetically.
“Guns don’t make me nervous man, only when they are pointed at me. Don’t worry, a lot of my friends and I strap up too, it’s all good.” I smile back.
Getting out of the cab and closing the door he says something to his chick. All I managed to make out was: “…zzalll good, he cool, an’ he be strappin too so nuttin ‘ad ta’ go down…” I backed out of there waving goodnight to a scowling ol’lady and a dude clearly happy he didn’t have to commit even a minor crime to get home.
Needless to say I peeled out of there, the pent up adrenaline surge flooded my system, heart racing wildly I headed straight for the yard reeling in the experience I had just been through. Thankful to be alive and not robbed.
A happy end to a very strange night.
About 3 months after this incident I was headed down Mission Street at about 6th and I see a hand shoot up. When I pull over and unlock the door so they can get in, I realize it’s the same couple from the Colt45 night.
I turn to them and see they are clearly in a much better mood than the last time I saw them. All smiles, jamming out to my house music and asking to go to, again, “The Cow Palace”.
I say, “No worries my man. I remember, Santos Street in Sunnydale via Paul, right?”
He looks at me quizzically and cocks his head to the side in partial recognition. “Uh, naw man. Da’ Cow Palace.”
“Sure thing.” Turning up the music and rolling down the back windows so they can smoke.
He starts trying to give me directions again, just like the time before, as we get off at Paul and proceed onto Mansell. This is when I lower the music a bit and insist that I gave him a ride before. After a little back and forth, rounding the curves down into Visitacion Valley out of McLaren Park, the lightbulb goes on and he smiles a big genuine smile.
He immediately starts digging in his pockets as I round the corner into the projects, deftly dodging some apparent corner boys. Heart rate accelerating slightly as I pull up, this time to the edge of the driveway as I wanted a quick escape if someone desperate saw me as an ATM.
Dome light on as his chick exits smiling wide, he turns with a huge wad of cash and tries to pay me for both rides. I refused payment and shook his hand. I now know his name and next time I see him, I’ll pick him up again and find out what his story is.
Dedicated to: My new friend in Sunnydale, in hopes that he is never left on the curb with his hand in the air.
Mister Johnson has been a licensed cab driver in San Francisco since 2007.