By Murray Schneider
Billy Kindle rolls through Glen Park in his Yellow Cab after he makes an airport run early on Sunday mornings. “Before BART is up I can usually find a fare,” Kindle said. “Some people don’t know BART isn’t in service before 8 A.M., and they don’t want to miss their flight.”
Kindle, 61, lives in the Mission District. He is fit and trim and has been driving a taxi since 1979. Used to swimming several times a week at the Embarcadero YMCA when he’s not threading through thickets of San Francisco traffic, the Richmond, Virginia native and Fisk University graduate landed in San Francisco in 1972. “The City was ‘peace, love and understanding’ in those days,’” Kindle said, while eating Korean BBQ on his day off at the Rincon Center Food Court. “My father gave me $200 and I came to San Francisco.”
Eleven years earlier, in 1961, Kindle had traveled west as a 10-year-old, the same year the other Billy, Billy Pierce, got traded to the San Francisco Giants and then went on to lead the home team to its first National League pennant a year later. “I saw my first long hair, my first fog and the size of crabs were unreal!” he said. “San Francisco made an impression on me.”
Early on Kindle, a college economics major, tried several jobs. He worked at a couple of photo labs, took photographs as a street photographer on Fisherman’s Wharf and delivered flowers for a Noe Valley florist when he wasn’t traveling through Latin America. But it was driving a cab where he finally found his niche
His ridership was much different in 1979 than it is 33 years later. “The last thing a kid just out of college was looking for was a job,” Kindle said. “Today all I get are people looking for work.” Kindle, who doesn’t own a car, puts in 10-hour days about average three days a week. When he’s not driving he takes public transit to avoid double parked UPS trucks, speeding ambulances and fire trucks.
He likes Glen Park, it’s “like it own village, a charming little neighborhood,” he said, “and I’m only a BART station away. Its like a separate little town,” he added, “and it has the best bookstore in San Francisco.”
He recently dropped $50 at Bird and Beckett Books and Records, carrying an armload of books from the Chenery Street independent bookstore. It’s ironic, he agrees, that his name is on the Amazon e-reader when he himself doesn’t own a personal computer.
The money he spends at Bird and Beckett won’t easily be replenished in Glen Park, he says. It’s not a great place to pick up fares. People “have lots of cars and then there’s BART,” he said, “so customers are scarce.”
“The thing about Glen Park,” he continued, “is there are lots of ‘old time’ natives there, sort of like the Excelsior but unlike the Haight, Noe Valley or the Western Addition.”
Kindle begins his shift at 4 A.M. and ends at 2 P.M. He has to collect 20 fares before he makes a profit. To keep himself grounded he performs 15 minutes of yoga and 30 minutes of meditation before he climbs behind the wheel. “Driving a cab is stressful,” Kindle said, who obtains half his riders from Yellow Cab radio dispatch and the other half by people flagging him. “Anytime you deal with the public, its stressful.”
The streets are different, too. “There are lots more cars on the streets today than when I started driving,” he added. “Add those cyclists who run stop signs, they just irritate me.”
“The City and the press haven’t done enough to educate the public about sharing the streets.” “There should be fewer cars on the street,” he added, “for ecological reasons as much as for anything else.”
While some of Kindle’s stress comes from dodging bicyclists, avoiding jaywalkers and idling behind buses, other stress comes from passengers simply behaving badly. “I once picked up a young woman on Chenery Street who lived in Presidio Terrace and who’d partied for too long and who wanted me to take her to the Richmond,” he said. “She asked me where I was taking her three times and without paying the fare she jumped out of the cab near Golden Gate Park.”
“She ended up at a police station across from French Hospital and said I’d kidnapped her,” he said.
Kindle doesn’t draw conclusions from absurdities because jockeying a cab for three decades has taught him otherwise. “If I’ve learned anything it’s that people are really decent,” he said, sounding more like a philosophy than an economics major. “They really want to do the right thing, but sometimes they just don’t know how.”
Bartenders, psychotherapists and, yes, cabdrivers make the best listeners. Kindle gets practice listening, tuned into a medium whose trumpeted demise is premature. “I’m a radio fanatic,” he said. “When I have passengers I just turn the sound down.”
He listens to KPFA and National Public radio, particularly enjoying KQED’s “Fresh Air.” He filters current affairs content through the lens of his undergraduate training all those years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. “Terry Gross has made me a better cab driver,” he says without a trace of irony about the NPR interviewer. “She knows how to suppress her ego, knows how to listen and she never interrupts her guests.”
“As much as I value tips, I value conversation more,” he continued. “If I give passengers room they’re more forthcoming with their opinions and, well, the energy just flows.” There’s the bit of the doyen about Kindle, a by-product of his line of work, he’d be the first to admit. And, if truth were told, also a by-product of listening to KALW’s “New Dimensions Radio” hosted by Michael Toms, whose thoughtful musings have entertained and edified local listens for years.
“Cab drivers are some of the best-read people I know,” he said. “It’s a honorable profession.” A honorable profession, and a calling with its lighter moments. “I once rushed a woman who was about to give birth to the hospital,” he said, remembering the pregnant lady helped by her husband into the maternity ward. As the doors to the hospital closed behind them, Billy Kindle said:
“Be sure and name the baby after me!”