Bay Shuttle | California | Living in Mexico

Bay Shuttle

We're considering selling our car; joining the ranks of the carless. Because driving in Mexico is a hassle.

We got:

• Cobblestone streets and many, many potholes, shaking everything loose
• Corrupt police stopping and extorting
• Dead, bloated animal carcasses littering the road
• Live, dangerous cows, horses, burros, sheep, goats and dogs wandering in front of the car
• Double parking and illegal parking, blocking streets
• Inept drivers making dangerous maneuvers
• Rude drivers
• More corrupt cops...

You get the picture.

A friend of mine sold his car, after making arrangements with a taxi driver to become his personal driver. Whenever Bob needs a ride, he calls the taxi driver's cell and asks him to come over and pick him up. The guy drops off his fare if he has one and arrives at Bob's house almost immediately. Basically, Bob has his own personal driver. He tells me that even with occasionally hiring the driver for an entire day, it costs less than owning a car. No maintenance, no fuel, no insurance, no repairs, no depreciation. And no hassles.

• Hit a pothole? Driver's problem.
• Cop on the take? Driver's problem.
• Rude driver cut you off? Driver's problem.

Bob just sits in the back seat and reads the latest Lee Child novel.

—§—

When we got to SFO at about 2 AM (Thankyew Continental), we decided to test the No Car Hypothesis. Instead of renting a car, we'd use public transportation. What with the high cost of taxis, this might cost us a little more, but we could relax in the back seat and talk or read, or... you know... whatever.

We picked up our luggage and walked out to where the airport vans congregated. A man steered us to a van marked "Bay Shuttle." Two other travelers were sitting in it, waiting to be taken to their hotels. The driver loaded our luggage and then made us wait another 15 minutes just in case another fare came along.

Anyone who has traveled much in major cities knows that one of the most popular entry-level job opportunities for those new to our shores is driving a taxi or a shuttle. Which means that travelers often have to cope with communications and cultural problems, and erratic driving.

Our driver was Chinese. He spoke very little English. He didn't know anything about San Francisco. I think he learned to drive by playing video games.

He floored the van, shot out onto the freeway nearly sideswiping a car, turned on the dome light, handed us a clipboard and asked us to write down our destinations. We four captives... er... passengers... dutifully wrote down, "Stanyan Park Hotel," or some such and handed the clipboard back. The driver, now traveling at more than 80 mph, intently studied the clipboard, wandering back into his lane only when prompted by angry horns.

He asked, "Ess... tee... Yes?"

Jean replied, "Yes. That's the Stanyan Park Hotel."

"Yesss" he said, unconvincingly.

"It's near Kezar Stadium. You know Kezar Stadium?," Jean added, hopefully.

"Yesss."

He took the Seventh Street off ramp, pulled into a no parking zone and dialed his cell phone. Rapid-fire Cantonese ensued, interspersed with street names. "Stanya Pok! Ess... tee..."

We passengers looked at each other. This was not looking good. The male passenger asked the driver to take the single female passenger to the Omni Hotel at 500 California Avenue, because it was the nearest destination. The driver said, "Hokay. Cee aeee..."

The male passenger, now in charge, said, "Just go straight ahead up Seventh..."

"Rye. Stray."

The driver floored it.

Giving the driver turn-by-turn directions, we came to the Omni, which happened to be on the left side of California Avenue. Accompanied by a blare of angry horns, our diver swung a sudden U-turn across four lanes of traffic and a double yellow line, to bring his passenger right up to the hotel front door.

The female passenger got out, paid him and thanked him. The male passenger got out, told the driver there was no way he was riding with him any farther, and that he wasn't going to pay him the full $16 fare, since he was going to have to pay for a taxi to his hotel. He paid the driver $5 and stomped away.

Our driver walked back to the van, slammed the passenger-side door, got into the driver's seat and said (No kidding!), "Gloddam no pay! Fok!"

Well!

Now it was just Jean and me and an angry, inept, lost driver who spoke almost no English—except for a fair amount of profanity, that is.

I told him, "Go straight up California for a long way."

"Stray."

"Yes. Straight."

He floored it. Every time he did that, an expensive, screeching noise issued from under the van. We bounced through a red light. The van had worn out its shock absorbers 100,000 miles ago. I clamped my teeth so I wouldn't bite my tongue when we hit a bump.

At the next intersection, the driver braked for a red light. The brakes made a metallic squealing accompanied by a rumbling, ringing sound like a machine lathe turning, cutting metal. The van slewed to the left. The driver pulled on the wheel, bringing the car back over to his side of the street.

The cross-street light turned yellow. The driver floored it. We shot through the intersection. Approaching the next one, he asked, "Turr hee?"

"No. Go straight."

"Rye. Stray."

Clearly, he had abandoned all responsibility for navigation. Now it was up to us. Fortunately, we were familiar with the streets of San Francisco. What if this had been Philadelphia? Baltimore? Cleveland? (OK. It could never have been Cleveland.)

"Turr Hee?"

"No. Stray."

"Wha?"

"Sorry. Straight. Go straight."

"Rye. Stray."

Running two more red lights, we reached our hotel. We collected our bags and I paid him. He looked at me, shook my hand and said, "Sorry. New Drivah. Sorry."

—§—

The next day, we hailed another cab piloted by a recent Chinese immigrant. We gave him our destination address, and he promptly took off in the wrong direction. I thought to myself that maybe he knew some short cut, some way of beating congestion by going away from our objective. I was at the point of saying something to him when he said, "Sorry. Wrong direction. I make mistake. You no pay."

Fair enough.

Turning around, he sped down Stockton, through the tunnel. I heard a siren behind us. Motorcycle cop. Our driver pulled over. The cop walked up to the window. "You were doing 45 through the tunnel."

"Yes, suh."

The cop walked back to his motorcycle to get his ticket pad. Our driver put his face in his hands and said, "Oh God." We got out, paid the amount on the meter, and walked the rest of the way to Market Street.

—§—

Our friend Maria listened to our tale of woe and gave us the name of a driver she uses in San Francisco. Jean called Raymond. I said as she was calling, "If his name is Raymond, he's probably Chinese." (In my experience, Chinese-Americans are partial to the name Raymond.)

Listening to Jean's end of the conversation, I heard:

"Hello. Raymond?"

"Yes, Raymond? Is this Raymond? I want to speak to Raymond. Yes? Raymond?"

"Uh-huh. Are you a driver?"

"Could you repeat that?"

"..."

Most people would have hung up and written off drivers forever. But we trust our friend Maria, and if she vouched for Raymond, we weren't going to write him off. Not without trying him, anyway.

The next morning, exactly at eight as promised, Raymond picked us up in a spotless, new Town Car. He was friendly, courteous, trustworthy and brave. Well, I don't know about that last, but he had the first three down pat. We had a smooth ride direct to our destination, relaxing in the back seat, talking to each other. Exactly what we'd had in mind.

They tell you it's a bad idea to hail a cab. Better to hire a driver you know.

They're right.

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