By Erin Sherbert
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"People in California can't drive to save their mother's life," says Zino, a 22-year veteran cab driver. "It is only by the grace of God I haven't had a major accident." Zino gives me a craggy grin, superstitiously knocks on his forehead, and pulls his taxi in front of St. Boniface Church, which stands in the heart of the Tenderloin. Father Floyd Lotito OFM -- wearing the long brown habit of the Franciscan order and his well-known "I Am a Franciscan" baseball cap -- leans into Zino's window, smiles, and blesses the driver, the car, and the passengers fortunate enough to choose this conveyance; all are liberally sprinkled with holy water. Zino thanks the father and swerves back into traffic. Another cab pulls up to the curb and Father Floyd smiles broadly, reaching again for the holy water held by the delightfully bald and bespectacled Brother Bob Brady OFM.
It is Sept. 1, feast day of St. Fiacre -- patron saint of gardeners (for his selfless labors in the soil), proctologists (for his preternatural ability to heal fistulas), and cab drivers (for apparently no other reason than the first vehicles for hire in 17th-century Paris came from the Hotel de St. Fiacre; in France, taxis are still called fiacres today) -- and, as is the Franciscan way, cab drivers of every denomination are given the protection and care of their God. As evident by the motorcade -- comprised predominantly of Yellow Cabs; General Manager Nathan Dwiri has been directing all his day drivers to the church by radio dispatch -- the cabbies are grateful for any and all divine benediction.
"For me, cabdriving is both an economic and a spiritual vocation," says Christopher Allen Paul Fulkerson. "In the spirit of St. Christopher, I help people travel safely from one place to another."
The first beneficiary of the day, a Luxor driver named Bret Nickerson, is instantly swallowed by a swarm of pushy TV camera operators, photographers, and journalists with big microphones and fluttering notebooks. Father Floyd, accustomed to a similar sort of frenzy during his annual blessing of the pets in Washington Square Park, indulgently waits for the reporters to throng around the next supplicant before delivering his prayer in hushed tones. Nickerson, a little surprised by the furor, shakes his head and laughs at the line of questioning: "I came to be blessed today because it's important to me. I am a spiritual person, and this is what I do for a living. I am grateful for the blessing. I believe in it."
If a media presence seems more than a little ham-fisted at such a moment, the parish of St. Boniface is grateful for the exposure. For more than 140 years, the mendicant friars have been quietly, thoughtfully, and diligently living and working in one of the poorest communities in San Francisco. Neighboring St. Anthony's Dining Room, which was established in 1950 by Franciscan Father Alfred Boedekker, serves more than 2,000 meals daily; Franciscan Brother Kelly Cullen OFM serves as executive director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., which provides affordable housing for more than 2,000 low-income residents; the church itself -- an easily missed but breathtaking oasis of Romanesque architecture with vaulted ceilings, colored glass, empyrean woodwork, and gilded paintings of saints and martyrs lovingly restored by the local homeless -- offers cots, blankets, and meals without sermons or questions, as well as classes in English and U.S. citizenship, shelters for men in crisis, and retreats for those with AIDS. For the devout, there are masses held in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog, and, perhaps more important, the church provides a quiet place for solace and reflection.
Since the 1989 earthquake took its toll on the church's foundation, millions of dollars have been needed for seismic retrofitting. Margarita tours and tamale sales aside, the Franciscans cannot depend on their impoverished parish to raise the funds, so who better to spread the word than the city's taxicab drivers?
As quickly as they descend, the media disappear, leaving the Franciscans to complete their taxi-blessing work with little fanfare, but warm smiles. Father Dan Lackie OFM greets shambling passers-by by name and stops to clasp hands with a muttering man who looks in his eyes as much for recognition as guidance. Father Floyd continues blessing the cabs, one and all, individually, laughing noisily when one man exclaims, "I figured I needed at least one blessing; so many people have damned this cab since I've been driving."
Not knowing of the church's monetary need, Arthur Castillo has a donation already in hand: "Driving a taxi is dangerous business. I pray before I go to work, and I pray when I get home. The blessing makes me feel more secure and safe." There is much talk of safety among the drivers -- most have families and swear they will never again work nights, when cabbies make the most money but are most likely to be put in jeopardy.
A few night drivers arrive on foot with their medallions hanging around their necks. They are pale and earnest as Father Floyd welcomes them.
Paul Ranieri, an eight-year driver and volunteer with St. Boniface and St. Anthony's, tells of a harrowing night he found a badly beaten pregnant woman in the middle of a Tenderloin street: "She was going into labor, and there was no time to call an ambulance, so I put her in my cab and got her to the hospital a few minutes before she gave birth."
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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