IN MY 15 YEARS as a cab driver, I have never once taken a customer "for
a ride." I have always returned correct change down to the last nickel.
Whenever someone accidentally slipped into a wad of bills an extra $5 or $10 -- or even, once, a $50! -- I've always given it back.
A Saturday night, around midnight, I'd just dropped a fare in front of the
"Beach Blanket Babylon" show in North Beach when I was flagged by two men
wearing tuxedos and two women in evening gowns. Three of them looked to be
about 45 years old. The fourth, a portly, balding man with a horseshoe of
white hair hooked around his ears, looked about 60.
As they arranged themselves in my cab, the woman nearest me said, "The St.
Francis Hotel on Union Square, please, sir." She spoke precise English with an
accent I couldn't be certain of.
"Where are you folks from?" I asked.
"CHEE-lay!" they chorused, as practiced as a cheerleading squad.
"Chile!" I said. "I don't hear that answer very often."
The older man, seated right behind me, said, "I should think not." His
accent was stronger than the others.
"Is this a vacation?" I asked.
"We are trying to make it a vacation," said one of the women, "but really
we are here for work."
"What kind of work?"
The older man named a credit-card company. "You should be accepting our
card," he said, lightheartedly.
"We do!" I said, tapping the credit-card processor on my dash. "There is a
"Oh, then we'll pay cash tonight," he said, "since it's a short ride."
"How are things in Chile these days?" I asked.
"Excellent," the older man replied.
"Is the U.S. government leaving you folks alone?"
They all laughed, but one woman said, "They were giving us a bit of a hard
time during the Pinochet thing. I can't remember exactly what it was, but
I'd followed the saga of Gen. Augusto Pinochet for a long time. Chile's
iron-fisted dictator from 1973 to 1990, Pinochet, now 85, was arrested in
Britain in October 1998 on charges of genocide, torture, kidnapping and murder
filed in the World Court. The charges stemmed from the disappearance of
thousands of opponents of the military regime after Pinochet seized power. But
the British released him, citing health reasons, and Pinochet returned to
Chile in March of this year. Although the Supreme Court dismissed kidnapping
and murder charges against Pinochet on Dec. 20, it ordered psychological tests
and suggested that Pinochet could be re-arrested and charged agin.
"How is Pinochet?" I asked.
"Pinochet is a great man," said the older man. The women both laughed --
"How is his health?" I asked. "Was he faking to get out of England?"
"Pinochet's old now," said the older man. "He's 85 or something. He does
have physical problems. But he is still a great man."
The women giggled again. I still couldn't decipher this crowd. Were they
true Pinochet supporters? Were they pulling my leg? Or were they divided on
the topic, and my questions made them nervous?
The older man wasn't finished: "They should put statues of Pinochet at
every intersection in Santiago."
The women's laughter was weaker now.
I was baffled. "Really?" I said.
"Really," said the man. But then he, too, sort of chuckled: "They should
put statues of Pinochet at every intersection, not only in Santiago, but also in San
"But you're laughing as you say that," I said, trying to sound casual. "I
don't know whether to believe you or not."
"Well," he said, "you decide."
We had pulled up in front of the St. Francis Hotel. The meter said $4.90.
The older man handed me a small stack of bills that he had folded neatly in half. The St.
Francis Hotel doorman, uniformed and smiling, said, "How was your evening?"
He helped them climb out onto the sidewalk. As they left, each of them called
out to me something polite, something gracious: "Thank you, sir . . . Good
night . . . Thank you, sir . . ."
I watched them climb the steps of the St. Francis until their smiling faces disappeared.
I sorted the bills to tuck them into my wallet. There were six: a single,
another single, another single, another single -- and a $100 bill! The shock
of it was as startling as a cattle prod. And one last single.
I glanced out my window. I could still see the men's shiny black dress
shoes and the glittery hems of the women's evening gowns, floating up the
steps toward the lobby.
I might easily have called out after them.
I really might have.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle