Night Crawler

Bless Me Father, For I Have Driven

Sliding into the seat next to Consuelo Ramirez, a 32-year-old night driver with a thick leather jacket and a delicate voice, I am immediately comfortable as she pulls into the Thursday night hubbub of double-parked cars and erratic drunks.

"I am very careful about who I pick up," says Ramirez from underneath her baseball cap, "but I always pick up women. There are very few lady drivers, and it's important that women feel safe and comfortable."

As she pulls up to a corner, Ramirez tries to guess her potential passenger's taste in music. It matters little; the minute the Irish-born general contractor is seated, he begins talking. Within a 15-minute cab ride, Ramirez learns about his friends, his girlfriend's imminent return to Ireland, his thoughts on Irish and American violence, his economic status, the exact whereabouts of his Mill Valley home, and his drinking plans for the night. Another fare, picked up in the Castro, speaks wistfully about his trip to New Orleans, and the loss of community in San Francisco, and his work for a federal housing agency.

Perhaps because of the anonymous nature of the driver-passenger exchange or the length of the interaction, cabbies like Ramirez often find themselves in the surrogate role of confidant and solace-giver. It's a role Ramirez seems completely at ease with, even as a litany of recent driver holdups and shootings rolls off her tongue. "This can be a very hard business," she says, zipping through a tangle of traffic as if by divine providence, "but this town is hard on everybody. I just try to take care of myself out here and make my passengers feel as comfortable as possible."

A middle-aged woman hops in and is vocally relieved that Ramirez is a woman: "The male drivers seem so uptight and miserable. The stress seems to get to them. All that road rage."

Mike "Ferrari" Farrugga (a nickname given to the 30-year-old New York transplant when a fare paid him to drive his sports car all night) believes road rage might be the product of sexual frustration, or something else equally unsettling.

"It definitely has nothing to do with traffic," says Farrugga. "Traffic is like the weather. There's nothing you can do about it. It's either raining or it's sunny. It's beautiful either way, you just have to relax and work into it."

Farrugga, whose sister is also a night driver, never turns down fares, no matter where they're going or where they've been, though he admits his kick-out rate is probably higher than most.

"I don't care what a person looks like, if they're homeless, or drunk, or poor," says Farrugga, who has been driving for six years. "I have to, at least, give them the benefit of the doubt. Two girls flagged me down once for a black friend of theirs. He'd been waiting for over an hour. He's nice as can be, he went to Yale. This is the '90s, that's just wrong."

Although Farrugga got in several accidents during his first few weeks driving in San Francisco (cars don't stop for jaywalking pedestrians in New York), he is a natural-born driver, and the taxi seems to be little more than an extension of his thought process. Like Ramirez, Farrugga picks radio stations for his passengers and prefers any passenger from the service industry over a yuppie (though he does accept stock tips and psychic readings). He laughingly recalls the Mad Masturbator and other such commonly known characters. Most of his rides end with the gentle reminder, "Be good to each other."

Of course, kindness is sometimes not paid in kind.

As a fare gathered in the Marina icily directs us into the unlit hills of the Presidio, profiles of middle-aged white men who shoot people in the back of the head emerge on my notebook. The man orders us to stop in front of his house and, as the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention, he just sits there, for what seems like a very long time. Farrugga shrugs it off; I'm reminded of the quote from Taxi Driver Wisdom: If someone else gets your cab, then it wasn't your cab.

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