It was Christmas Eve, 1991 and I was driving the streets of San Francisco for Yellow Cab. The cool dark night found me restless, driving people here and there. Most were happy, in search of friends and relatives. I drove folks to and from parties in Nob Hill, carried people warm and glowing from Union Street drinks, and others sated with food from the Avenues. Picked up a middle aged couple in Park Merced then a bunch of doctors at UC. Back down Geary to Downtown then turned toward North Beach. The bars were crowded and I made good money that night, over $200 due to a lot of fares and generous tips. Unlike me, my passengers generally knew where they wanted to be that evening.
Christmas has always been a mixture of complex emotions for me. Growing up Jewish puts Christmas at odds with my upbringing and heritage, and it’s difficult to ignore the pervasive holiday spirit, gift giving, commercial appeals and Christian as well as secular frivolity that leads up to December 25th. I’m always left outside looking in, to somebody else’s party. The lights just aren’t as bright, as I sigh and make my way in the world. I try to force joy and happiness into my heart, but usually end up sad and distracted. Driving a cab is as good a way as any to beat the holiday blues.
I was antsy, wistful, and envious driving that December 24th. And hungry too, since almost every late night restaurant in the city was closed for the holiday. I did however, find one burrito place open on Mission and 30th packed with revelers and loners. All kinds of people were there, so I knew I wasn’t the only one. I bought a smoky Christmas Eve burrito and ate it back in the cab, listening to the news on the radio. Not much happening in the world, it seemed.
I’d just finished my dinner and was about to hit the streets when an old Chevy Nova came up silently behind my cab. It parked close, too close for my comfort and blocked my exit. This is a danger signal to all cabbies; you always need an exit. A guy climbed out and approached my cab as I tensed and waited for any sign of trouble. He raised his hands to surrender. “Yo man, can you help me?” He asked. “I’m lost - can you help me find Arago Street?” He slurred a little and his voice was thick.
I looked him over. He was shorter than me but built up, like a weightlifter or an ex-con. He had a heavy Hispanic accent that I couldn’t place. He could break me into little pieces if he wanted. He was drunk. This was certain.
I got out of the cab, still wary but relaxing a bit. He didn’t seem violent. “What do you need?” I asked.
He said, “Hmm, can you help me find Arago Street, I have friends ...they are expecting me.” He rolled his RR’s on Arago. He played with the top button on his jacket.
I was feeling more at ease and asked, “What’s your name?”
“No names friend, no names.” He smiled as he said this.
I repeated my question and wondered about this man.
He replied, “I might be Jesus.” And gave me a goofy grin.
I raised my eyebrows at this statement. I might have coughed.
“Don’t worry man, I’m not crazy.” He paused then said, “I was in Airborne. Army Airborne. Let me show you.” And at that he took off his bomber jacket, then half undid his shirt to show me a huge Double A tattoo on his biceps indicating Army Airborne.
The conversation seemed weird. A military guy? What did it mean? I knew that I didn’t want to see any more of his body. I stammered, “Yeah well ugh, put your clothes on. What...do you want…from me?”
“Arago Street. That’s all. I’m lost.” He opened his arms as he said this.
I sighed, then pulled out my well creased AAA city map. We studied the map on the hood of the cab. Actually I studied it, he didn’t seem focused . He repeated the name of the obscure street and I finally found it deep in the Outer Mission, near City College. I explained where it was, but he didn’t comprehend. I looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll drive you.”
“No, no. I drive.” He was pointing at himself.
I laughed and shook my head. He was in no condition to drive to his friends’ house, or anywhere else. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I said though I realized he was serious.
He protested. “No, I’m okay. I drive. I follow you, you show me the way. I follow YOU!” He smiled and gestured for me to get in the car. This could get dangerous, as he was drunk and disoriented. Besides it had money loser written all over it. However, not much else was happening and I figured it would be good to somehow, safely get him off the road. I knew he was going on with or without me. I made the decision.
“All right, all right. I’m turning the meter on, and you follow me, close, but don’t hit me! And be careful.” I raised my voice. “Got it?” This could be chancy.
“Okay, yes friend, yes, thank you. I follow you.” He nodded in approval.
We got into our cars. He revved his engine way up and I took a deep breath and hoped that this wouldn’t be a disaster. He backed up with a jerk and let me to pass. I slowly took some back streets on toward Alemany. He followed wildly, far away then coming up very close to my bumper. I tried to keep a safe distance between us as I checked the map. I made a few careful turns as we snaked our way through the deserted Mission streets. Christmas trees glowed in the windows. The night air was silent as I waved to him through my open window. I kept wanting him to slow down to avoid a wreck, and the cops. I wondered what they would say. I always try to avoid cops, even on Christmas Eve.
The meter slowly clicked away as we got closer to our destination. I heard a shout from behind. It broke the stillness of my meandering. “Over there!” He was pointing to the middle of a tiny but otherwise ordinary block: Arago Street. We turned the corner and he remarkably found an empty spot across the street. He parked without hitting anything and quickly walked toward a house.
He turned to me on the dark sidewalk and said, “Here, come inside, my friend. Thank you.” He grinned broadly.
I parked in the driveway and followed him up the stairs. Before we reached the top, a middle aged couple flung open the door. They were smiling. I could see pink lights on their tree near the window.
“Thank God you made it, we didn’t know what happened,” cried the man as he hugged my traveler. He looked at me and said, “Come inside, please” My cab sat silently below, very yellow in the night street light.
“This is my friend, he led me here” said my drunken companion to his friends. “I never would have found you without his help.” He turned to me. “Gracias.” He shook my hand firmly. His was warm and rough.
“How much do we owe you?” asked the man at the door.
I didn’t know what to say. This adventure had cost me about an hour on this busy night, but now it didn’t seem so important. I was relieved that it was over, and safely too. “Well, the meter says about $40... but…” I shrugged.
“Oh,” said the woman as she looked at the floor. “I, I only have $10, but please come in and we‘ll feed you. Come inside.” She sounded sincere.
I thought about it for a moment. This fare was different. This ride was about more than money, riding the pulse of the city, dark streets, and getting from here to there. This man really needed my help, and I rescued him from who knows what. Yet, I still felt that I should go. The woman pulled a ten dollar bill out of her purse and pushed it at me. I looked up. “It’s okay, the fare’s on me. Keep it, I really gotta get back to work.” I moved toward the stairs, then turned and said, “Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you, thank you sir, and Merry Christmas!” The man and the woman shook my hand then waved to me from the top of the landing as I opened the door to the cab. Then laughing, they all went inside. I heard their muffled laughter bounce of the curb and dissolve into the quiet night.
I started the engine and chuckled, then turned off the meter. I made my way back to the lonely garage driving slowly, observing the signs, the stars, the bumps and the lights. I had seen many strange sights and met many odd and wonderful people while driving the San Francisco streets. This man was another inebriated fare out of thousands, but somehow, he made me feel better about the world, and my little role in it. Maybe I did pick up Jesus on Christmas Eve. Lousy tipper but a pretty good guy.
- - -
c. Bob Ecker