Novak says the word’s out in Serbia’s colleges that San Diego is the place to pick up summer money and learn English and keep fit, all at the same time. “This is a summer-vacation thing. Earn money, travel ’round California and maybe Mexico. I’ve been here 45 days. There are too many pedicabs, but the money’s not bad. Physically, you get in shape in two or three weeks. But it’s hard mentally. You may have a whole day with no money. Even if you don’t have a ride, you have to pay the daily lease of $35. But once you get above $35, you can relax. Some start at 8:00 in the morning and stay all day. I start around 1:00 in the afternoon and quit after last call. Most customers are tourists. Locals get in when they’re drunk. For me, the best tippers are foreigners. People from England. But tourists from Texas are good, too.”
A couple of guys cruise past, looking for business.
“We are Kurds, from Turkey,” Vahap says, when I catch up. He and Abdullah had high hopes for this trip. “We have been riding for two weeks. In Turkey, everybody says about USA, it’s a good country, everything will be good because you are students. We came here through a company. It cost us about $3000 in exits, passport, visa. We had to borrow.”
“We come to U.S.,” continues Abdullah, “and it’s really for us very bad. They lied to us. The company here is okay, but the Turkish company lied. They said we’d have a place to live. But they brought us to a hotel, and now we pay $600 each. Six living in one room. We have to work all day and night to pay this rent and then $150 a week for each pedicab. And we have to eat. We are not making any money. There are too many riders, not enough customers.”
“We gave $1200 for this form,” says Vahap, pulling out his J-1, the 120-day student work-study application. “But they are free.”
Vahap is a second-year student in Turkey, art history and journalism. Abdullah studies history and language. They’re both 21.
“We were keen to come here,” says Vahap. “But our families warned us. We have ten friends who flew back to Turkey this week. They couldn’t survive. We must work and at least have some money. We are planning to leave at the end of this month.”
Yes, says Abdullah, they knew Sukru Safa Cinar, the Turkish student who had the accident. “He has flown back to Turkey. I saw him. He was in a very, very bad state. He cried. He said [Mrs. Miller and her friend] came and asked the price. They sat down, and he started the ride, and the woman stood up on the bike and was dancing. He said, ‘When I turned back and saw her, she fell off.’ The other woman said he [Cinar] hadn’t made any mistake. That’s why the judge freed him. If she said he had [been weaving back and forth], he would have been charged. Yet now people say bad things to us. ‘You are killers!’ ‘I don’t want to die.’ Normally, we took about $60–$70 a day. Now everybody’s waiting for customers.”
Vahap and Abdullah have been friends since childhood. “We came here to see another culture,” Vahap says. “We have been working every summer since we were nine years old. But now, this fall, we will go back, and no money. It will be very difficult to afford books and accommodation at university. And it is already hard being Kurdish. Abdullah and I are the only ones. Turks don’t like Kurdish people.”
I can see from their struggles with English how much harder it must be for them to charm tourists than their more fluent brothers and sisters.
Paulie has no such problem. She’s a spunky girl-rider who has her pedicab parked near the Asti restaurant. “Yes, there are too many of us,” she says. “There should be a limit of 300. People are starting to get sick of us. It’s not like an entertainment thing in the city anymore. Too many riders shouting, ‘Pedicab! Pedicab!’ It’s not funny.”
Paulie says she studies economics at the New Bulgarian University. She learned about the pedicab job through an outfit called International Educational Exchange. She thinks the accident has been played up too much. “There is a crash with cars every second. It hasn’t helped our business. But I’ll stay till September 20, because I love the city. It’s beautiful, clean, so safe. And it’s sunny. That’s my god, the sun. I think San Diego is a city of heaven. Oh…excuse me.”
She has just spotted two men, potential customers, across the road. Men like to be driven by women, just as women prefer male drivers. I watch Paulie coast with her passengers down the gentle slope of F, toward Fourth. She turns in her seat and chats, and the guys laugh out loud. They’re having a good time, nice and slow. You don’t get this in a taxicab.
On the Embarcadero, most days, the J-1’s (as the American drivers call the foreign pedicab drivers) make their play at the Midway, where the aircraft carrier’s visitors come out looking for a way back to downtown. Americans stake a spot by the Coronado ferry landing, where folks from the ferry and the Star of India are likely to want a ride to Seaport Village or up to Horton Plaza. There’s nothing official about this. Just an unspoken territorial agreement.
“All right, sir…
where can I take you today?” asks Rudy Diggs, wheeling his pedicab to intercept a line of tourists that climbs the gangplank from an arriving ferry. Diggs is tall, African-American, and he doesn’t have to shout, not with his resonant tones. He’s full of come-on one-liners. “Young ladies? Save those feet, use this seat. Sunglasses get discounts. Why stroll when you can roll?”
“Take a carriage, save the marriage!” chimes his buddy Matt Williams. Matt has weathered cheeks and a red beard and has been pedicabbing for ten years. He wears a green T-shirt that says, “Sometimes I pee when I laugh.”