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Cabbie-Columnist Takes Readers on Dark-Side Ride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is a mystery man who writes about the city he wanders at night, telling tales from behind the wheel of his taxicab, chronicling the dark hours when most of his readers are home in bed.

Like the cabbie himself, the “lost souls” who people his twice-monthly newspaper column surface then--the orange-wigged streetwalker, the frantic loner in search of his missing drag queen brother, the German fare who boasted that he could identify American crooks by their “sour eyes.”

For five years, San Francisco readers have been drawn to the narrative voice of this unlikely author, who is part Raymond Chandler and part Robert DeNiro’s insomniac in “Taxi Driver.” Every other Monday, first in the old Examiner and now in the morning Chronicle, they seek out the unvarnished insights of this San Francisco original who writes under a pseudonym: the Night Cabbie.

His column carries no revealing mug shot--the Night Cabbie refuses to be photographed--just a rendering of two piercing eyes reflected in a rearview mirror. The persona is old San Francisco, the anecdotes delivered like talk over drinks with a thick-necked longshoreman who speaks out of the side of his mouth.

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The Night Cabbie is no average taxi driver. He tells readers he’s an MBA graduate and one-time securities broker, and finds ways to connect simple street scenes with world politics and oil import quotas. He knows the difference between expensive wines and reads several newspapers daily.

He doesn’t suffer fools. Like the guy who approached him at the airport one night, asking, “Are you a cabdriver?”

He wrote: Good guess. I’m at the terminal at 3 a.m., I have a ball cap and baseball jacket on. I have a cab badge around my neck. I haven’t shaven in four days, maybe five. And I look like I’ve slept in my clothes. I’m also the only one here besides this genius.

Yes, I tell him.

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Then there was the wine saleswoman enlightened when the Night Cabbie told her where to buy “La Crema, Monterey Vineyards, BV, Vichon,” cheap.

“I’m going there tomorrow to see,” she says, paying me. “Maybe you’ll be the first cabbie who ever taught me anything about wines.”

She tips me five. I drive off laughing. This is San Francisco. We have lots of wines, lots of sommeliers and lots of winos.

Everybody Has a Hunch as to His Identity

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The Night Cabbie plays a wry game with readers: Here’s a clue to who I am. See if you can guess.

He’s an East Coast native. He has two daughters. He was married for nine years. Cal Ripken once attended his high school. He prefers coffee with cold pizza for breakfast.

The come-on works. The column, which also appears on the Chronicle’s Web site, inspires letters and e-mails from around the world, many from people who have visited San Francisco or once lived here.

It seems that everybody has a hunch about the Night Cabbie. The mystery of his identity causes tiffs in coffee shops and in taxis. Some people swear they know who he is. Others insist he doesn’t exist, or doesn’t drive a cab at all.

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They say the column is ghostwritten by a newspaper editor. Or that the Night Cabbie is a hack who lifts his stories from the Internet.

“A lot of cabbies read it,” said Jim Gillespie, general manager and part owner of DeSoto cabs. “And they all think they know who he is. But nobody really does. Heck, he could even work for me.”

An Examiner reporter, Ed Iwata, once tried to solve the cabbie conundrum. He checked records, interviewed cabbies, nosed around the Examiner’s payroll department, only to find that the writer’s checks were cut at Hearst Corp. headquarters in New York to protect his cover.

“Finally, I just gave up,” said Iwata, now with USA Today. “He won. I have no idea who he is.”

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That’s how the Night Cabbie likes it.

“Nobody out there is smart enough to figure it out,” he says. “No matter how many puzzle pieces readers have, there’s 200 more. They might create a good composite, but they’re never going to really know.”

Playing the provocateur with readers and passengers alike, the Night Cabbie gets people to open up about their personal lives because “they know they’re never going to see me again.”

Anonymity Affords Him Freedom to Criticize Job

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His stories make some cab riders cautious.

“Now any time a cab driver asks questions, I make sure I register the photo of his face for my memory banks,” said San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom. “It makes people pause and consider what they say in the back of a cab. You never know if you’ll end up in the column.”

The Night Cabbie says he’d be fired if his employers knew he was the writer. Anonymity gives him freedom to criticize what he calls the graft in the city’s taxi industry.

And he has another, vaguely conspiratorial explanation: Dozens of cabbies are killed each year, and not all by fares. Insisting that he’s not paranoid, he says he doesn’t want to go looking for trouble.

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He rarely responds to queries from fans and never goes to the newspaper office. His voicemail message at the paper begins: “If you recognize the voice, then you’ve got the right guy.”

When he recently met with a reporter at a local cafe on the condition that his name not be disclosed, he expressed concern about surveillance cameras.

Walking into the place, he carries himself like a weight lifter or a no-nonsense truck driver. Later, wolfing down a club sandwich, talking between bites, the Night Cabbie sounds distinctly white-collar as he tells his own story.

In 1996, his life was a shambles. He’d lost his job, endured a messy divorce and developed a bleeding ulcer. Broke, he began driving a taxi and became fascinated by the variety of his fares, from society types to the losers who offered, “Hey, man, what do you need? I got the drugs.”

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As a kid, he had fallen in love with the telling details that filled Ian Fleming’s novels. He began collecting a few details of his own. He chronicled chance encounters on scraps of paper. Then he wrote a letter to the two biggest local newspapers.

Phil Bronstein, then editor of the Examiner, responded. He liked the writing voice and offered the letter-sender a column. Bronstein has been reluctant recently to discuss the Night Cabbie, now a Chronicle exclusive. But in an interview last year, before he moved there from the Examiner, he talked about his literary find.

“A copy editor once wanted to cut an anecdote, saying it didn’t go with the rest,” Bronstein said then. “I told him, ‘That’s the point. In his mind, it does. Things make sense at 4 a.m. that don’t at noon. He’s got a stream of consciousness going. Let’s not get in the way. . . .’ ”

The Night Cabbie’s fares don’t jump into the front seat, they ride “shotgun.” Instead of paying with a $20 bill, a customer “shoves a Jackson into my face.”

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“I’m not sophisticated--it’s the secret of my success,” the author says. “I keep it simple. Short sentences. No double syllables.”

He turned down Bronstein’s suggestion to use a tape recorder for authentication. But he continues making notes of memorable rides on scraps of notebook paper. Eventually, at his home computer, surrounded by hundreds of such notes, he composes his column.

For days on the road, nothing will happen. Then “bam, bam, bam,” he says, the wild rides explode.

Someone Is Smart Enough to Unmask Him

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Yet the Night Cabbie doesn’t know how much longer he can keep driving. With San Francisco tourism down and taxi business depressed, “each month brings a new low,” he says. After paying his cab rental, he often earns as little as $3.80 an hour driving the streets all night.

So he’s searching for a new line of work, perhaps again as a securities broker. And he’s busy compiling a collection of his columns he hopes to publish soon.

Recently, to the Night Cabbie’s surprise, there was someone smart enough to unmask him.

She was in her 20s, heading into the city from the airport. She asked a lot of questions, and the driver mentioned that he had two daughters.

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She leaned forward: “You’re him! I read your column. You’re the Night Cabbie!”

The driver played it cool. He cracked a smile, checked his rearview mirror.

“I admit nothing,” he said.


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