For the last six months or so of the two years that I drove nights, I often began my shift by driving Tito, who had been driving cab for more than thirty years, to his home in an apartment building on Bush at Stockton. The beginning of my day and the end of his was a twenty minute conversation while driving downtown from the Luxor yard. I asked him questions about the business, and he generously gave me some advice. He also paid me $20 at the end of each ride, another bit of generosity, one that embarrassed me but which I could not afford to refuse.
Most often we spent the time talking about politics in the broadest sense, that is, about whatever affects the life of the polis. We talked about the declining quality of life in San Francisco, the declining value of the dollar, the declining earnings of cabbies, and about the corruption rampant in the City's current administration. I always talked too much, blabbing on with no editorial filters about the inhumanity of capitalism's drive for individual accumulation of wealth and about my longing for a shared sense that we are all in this together and must rely on one another.
As he got to know me, Tito asked the scheduler to assign me to his cab every night that I worked. He appreciated the care I took to keep the cab clean and to monitor its performance in case it needed maintenance. I think (or hope) that he appreciated other qualities in me, too. I remember an off-hand comment he made one day: "I like your politics, Howard." As for me, I just plain liked Tito.
Tito suffers intense back pain constantly, a condition that has been aggravated (if not in fact caused) by the decades he spent sitting in a car for ten to twelve hours a day. I have watched Tito take five minutes or more just unfolding himself from the driver's seat and trying to rise to his feet. Still, he never complains, and even on days when I could see that the pain was cutting deep, Tito always had a smiling greeting for everyone he encountered. He seemed to know everyone at Luxor and to have a bit of repartee ready for each.
I no longer drive nights. I switched to driving what is called a "ramp van," a cab fitted with equipment allowing it to carry a person in a wheelchair. I miss my conversations with Tito. So I was excited when, a couple of weeks ago, Tito pulled up next to me as I was walking from the bus stop to the yard. He offered to give me a ride the rest of the way. He was ending his shift early just as I was beginning mine late.
I got in the cab and asked Tito how he was doing. "Not too well," he said. Then he told me why.
Tito is what's called a "medallion holder." Any vehicle used to transport passengers for a fee (called a "commercial livery vehicle") used to have to display a medallion, which looks like a miniature license plate, on the dashboard of the car, making it visible from the front of the car through the windshield. By limiting the number of medallions issued, the city was able to control the number of livery vehicles on the streets, to limit traffic congestion, and to enable the quick identification of any cab and its driver should the cab be involved in an accident or be the scene of a crime.
The medallion was a license to operate a transportation business and hence a license to make money. They were valuable. Every cabbie had to own one or rent one when its owner was not using it himself. Cabbies put their names on the waiting list for medallions the minute they were hired and waited twenty years or more to get to the top of the list. Then they were able to buy a medallion from the city for prices that eventually reached two hundred and fifty or three hundred thousand dollars. The medallion system is still the law, and every day that I work, part of the gate fee I pay to use a particular cab goes to the person who owns its medallion. So when I was driving nights using Tito's medallion, he received part of my gate fee.
When Tito gave me a lift to work that day he told me that he used to get a check for $2400 from Luxor each month for the use of his medallion by other drivers. At some point last autumn, the check was cut to $1900. Now it has been cut to $1000.
Tito has worked hard for thirty years and invested $300,000 in his medallion, expecting the income from it to provide for his retirement. He played by the rules, paid with his health and his life savings for a position in the business that should have taken care of him in his old age. His body is broken. He has neither the youthful energy nor the time to start over.
This is what the Tech enthusiasts gleefully call "disruption." I call it an injustice, and I curse the lives and the fortunes of those who have brought it about. The lesson is clear: you can take all that crap about playing by the rules, obeying the law, working hard, and being loyal and toss it all out the window. None of it has any place in the new millennium.