I was sent to a big apartment complex at Lombard and Montgomery. I had been there a couple of times before. It's on the very short section of Lombard, where it continues east of Telegraph Hill for a couple of blocks until it ends at the Embarcardero.
A woman came out. She was short, had dark hair and an accent and was probably in her 40's.
“I need to go to Palo Alto.”
“Okay.” I got extremely excited. Palo Alto is, like, far.
“Do you take credit cards?”
“No.” I said dejectedly.
“Well, then, I guess, just take me to the train station.”
“Okay.” I was super bummed. I really needed to do something about not accepting credit cards.
“Or we could stop at an ATM, ” I tried.
“Okay, sure. There is actually a Wells Fargo ATM right where I'm going, in Palo Alto.”
“Cool.” I was excited again. We were going to Palo Alto! This was the longest fare I had ever had!
“How much do you think it'll be?”
“Let me ask.”
I asked the dispatcher how much it was to Palo Alto. He explained to me that since it was more than 25 miles from San Francisco, it would be one and a half times the meter rate, and that that would come to about $115.
The woman and I chatted the whole way to Palo Alto. She was from the Philippines and had eight brothers and sisters, all of whom except for one live in the United States. Her parents live in the Philippines though. We also talked about Burning Man. She had heard about it and had been very curious about it. She asked me all kinds of questions. She said “I really think I need to go there.”
It took about 45 minutes to get to Palo Alto. She directed me to the Wells Fargo Bank there. The meter was $88.40. I told her that since it's 'meter and a half', she had to pay “about $130.” She went to the ATM and came back. She gave me eight twenties and asked for a ten back. I was happy.
When I turned in my car a few hours later, that happiness was dampened by things the other cab drivers said. They knew that I had had a Palo Alto fare because I had discussed how much it was with the dispatcher on the air. And now they felt the need to talk to me about it.
At the gas pump:
“You went to Palo Alto today?”
“Yep. Isn't that awesome?”
“Sure. Was it a radio call?”
“Yeah, I got it over the radio.”
“Wow. It must have fallen through the cracks then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven't gotten a long fare like that over the radio in twelve years.”
“It must have fallen through the cracks.”
“Are you saying that I wasn't supposed to get that fare?”
“Well, normally when there is a fare like that, the dispatcher will call his friends on the phone and ask where they are and then give it to one of them.”
“Oh.” I was feeling angry. That seems fucked up. No wonder I had never gotten a long-distance fare before.
Inside the office I was approached again:
“You know, I have seen you slip in an envelope with money at the window. That's actually illegal. It's not fair to the other drivers and it's actually illegal.”
“Even if you have a really good fare, you shouldn't give the dispatcher any extra money. Just the standard tip is enough.”
“It's not fair to the other drivers. We don't want a bidding war to start here.”
“Well. The reason I started doing the envelope is that one time, I left a tip, and the dispatcher had already changed to the night dispatcher, and the cashier said 'Do you want some of this to go to the day dispatcher?' And I said yes, and she said that I should turn in an envelope for him.”
“I see. Well, I'm just saying.”
I was really bummed after having these two conversations. I felt like you just can't win in the taxi industry. You don't tip the dispatcher, you don't get airport fares. You don't befriend the dispatcher, you don't get Palo Alto fares. And when you do tip the dispatcher, the drivers who don't like to tip will scold you about it. But I think what bothered me the most that day was the word corruption
. I could not get that word out of my head. I suppose that by tipping the dispatcher according to my own earnings, I play a role in the corruption game because yes, it's true, I do hope that it will encourage him to give me good fares again next time. But I also see it as a way to share the wealth. I see it as sharing and giving, rather than corrupting. But maybe I'm just as much a moving part in this corruption machine as the next guy. That bothers me.