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Bess Kalb Headshot

Pickup Artists

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If you've just flown across the country with all your stuff and it's late and your leg sockets are sore and your TylenolPM/gin situation makes the BART map look like a pretty spider, it's likely the first place you will go upon arriving in San Francisco is a taxi.

At first glance, it's a crapshoot. There's no uniformity, no Platonic "Taxi," but a caravan of sedans and mini-SUVs from 30 or so companies in varying states of repair and size and smell. Their two-tone paint jobs call to mind team jerseys, with important names like "Alliance," "Arrow," "National," "Royal," and "Luxor." You'll likely wind up in a redolent backseat, wedged into the particular 60-degree angle that induces equal parts torpor and submission. Or maybe that's the gin.

And then, let's give it an unscientific 39 percent of the time, the monologue starts.

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In New York, you can (hypothetically) weep openly in the backseat and the driver will remain disinterested. My mother politely spent 20 minutes in labor while a stonefaced cabbie caught every red light on West End Avenue. You twiddle your thumbs reading the "Passengers' Bill of Rights" signed by Michael Bloomberg himself as the driver rants into his Bluetooth and tries to manslaughter a bike messenger.

"Where to?" got replaced by eye-contactless silence a decade ago when Giuliani installed recordings of Joe Torre and, later, Elmo telling New Yorkers to buckle up, which is the vehicular equivalent of eating pizza with a knife and fork. In 2007, touch-screen TV monitors intensified the force field, automatically blaring the "Taxi Entertainment Network" at the start of each ride, where talking heads in news anchor tableau natter on about "hot spots" and "must-sees" and ways to "beat the heat." The plastic partition has become all but redundant.

Since San Francisco cabs are just painted cars jerry-rigged with meters, you're in each other's airspace ("Gesundheit!") and earshot ("Your grandma sounds like a very nice lady"). Without the wall, conversation starts casually and flows liberally, and for all the various types you'll encounter, for all the moods and agendas, they're the city's ambassadors.

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Some are, unapologetically, peddlers. A stout, balding man is an anti-government blogger who quotes Gibson and Chandler and Phillip K. Dick, and sells his laminated cyberpunk manifesto, price negotiable (Veteran's Cab, dispatcher calls you "Madame," blacklists no-shows for life). Another is a DJ in a fedora who plays his demo CD ($7) for you to give to someone in the industry because "everyone knows someone who knows someone," which is true.

You might get a showman, who slows down when the light turns yellow and fixes the rearview on the backseat. One is a hippie who will hit on your visiting mom and instruct her in the art and science of, as a friend puts it, "Aboriginal throat chanting, I think." There's the "Disco Cab Driver" (Haydar Alhakim, who cruises around the Mission in a portable nightclub. And there's the guy who calls his ride the "Kabaret Kab," and will sing you a spontaneous limerick about your neighborhood (Buzz Brooks). Another will take an alternate route to your doctor's appointment to show you a series of exploded meth labs. Keep smiling when he says, "You can still find the bones."

There are the occasional preachers, and with them, you'll hear yourself saying "yeah, man" and "totally" and "I hear that" until you are no longer for real. A 70-something Beatnik with a jingle-jangle inflection tells you about almost jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge on acid ("doesn't mean don't trip, just don't trip and fall"), and explains the key to longevity ("no stress, spend less than you earn, and keep company with beautiful women"). Another, Dean Clark (National Cab), ran (unsuccessfully) for District Six Supervisor on a platform of taxi driver safety reform. Now he's fighting against city-mandated credit card processing fees and electronic monitoring systems, a set of truly Mr. Burnsian measures that charge drivers five percent per transaction while spying on them.

In the middle of June, Clark and a hundred other drivers converged outside City Hall to honk in protest for two hours straight before walking in on a Municipal Transportation Agency board meeting. The board was unmoved. When you brandish your plastic at the end of the ride, everything gets very quiet. A few will tell you the machine is broken and drop you off at the nearest ATM. Some will pull out the analog contraption to take a carbon paper imprint instead.

Adding insult to it all, the newest card-readers are also TV screens. Without New York's barrier wall to mount them, San Francisco installed the monitors on a bendable arm that branches out from the passenger seat headrest, askew and obtrusive like a clip-on fan. For the past few weeks, the screens have played a single clip of an uncomfortable-looking Kate Hudson talking to Jimmy Kimmel about her pregnancy. It is irrelevant to life in San Francisco or anything remotely anywhere, but it succeeds in establishing the instant camaraderie forged by shared loathing in an intimate space.

"Is there a way to turn this off?"

"Sometimes you can, sometimes not."

"Man."

"Yup."

And then he'll drown it out with whatever's on NPR, and the two of you cruise over the hills, nodding along to a story about missile systems all the way home.

Bess Kalb is a writer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Wired, GQ.com, The New Republic's website, The Nation, and Salon.com.