“Save the heels, use the wheels,” Rudy says. “Actually, that line’s better in the evenings.”
“Carryout to the Marriott…”
The guys, including a taxicab driver named Mark Stauffer, who leans against his orange Ramona Cab car, all laugh. Mark’s been stationing his cab here for 30 years.
“If you get somebody to smile, it breaks the ice,” Rudy says.
None of the ferry passengers takes the bait. “When the J-1s leave in September, then I start prospering,” Matt says. “Except, then, right around Christmastime, here come the J-1s from South America. It started with a trickle, maybe 10 Brazilians, like four years ago. Now it’s climbed to 150, from Colombia, Chile, all over South America.”
“Why do they let so many [foreigners] come?” says Rudy, who is himself relatively new to the game. “They should have a ratio, like two of us to every one of them. Not four of them to one of us.
“This is what I do to eat, pay my bills. I mean, I know this is America: This is the melting pot. People are going to come from everywhere. Still though, man, when people are just out here visiting and they’re taking [our jobs], it really hurts.”
“I feel bad for the people who have to deal with it, like the tourists,” says Mark. “Some don’t even speak English. They give tours when they’re not even from here. Me, I’m San Diego born and raised. I speak English. I consider myself a professional conversationalist. Most of the rides go to Seaport Village, the Star of India, Gaslamp, ballpark, tours. It’s a fun way to get somewhere. If it was up to me, I’d just let Americans be out here. [The foreigners] trick people. They say ‘$10.’ Then they get to the destination, and they say, ‘Oh, I meant $10 a person.’ That gets us all a bad name.”
Farther down the Embarcadero, I again run into Abdullah Akan, the Kurdish student, riding toward the Star of India, trolling for business. In the daylight, I notice that his left arm has been badly burned. “That happened when I was a child, and the Turkish army attacked our village,” he says. “They came through in armored cars and started machine-gunning our houses. My mother and I lay down on the floor. A pot of boiling water was knocked down by the bullets.” He says how lucky people are here in America. How everything is done by machines. “Traffic is safer. In Turkey, every ten minutes there’s a crash.” And, he says, nobody here has to spend three months going up into the mountains to collect wood (for fires to heat the house) for the next winter. “It’s very different here, about life, arts, culture. But the big shock for me was seeing many homeless people. At home, if somebody has a problem, everybody in the community helps them. Here, people are harder than I believed.”
How do American pedicab drivers treat him? “Some, not good. An American driver in front of the Hyatt said, ‘I have worked here five years. All Turkish drivers need to go home.’ We have to wait in a line for the customers, while they go straight to the front and take customers. Every time.”
He points to the old sailing ship. “Here, I took from the Star of India four people. The American rider said to my passengers, ‘Just give him a dollar.’ I took them four blocks, and they gave me just one dollar. I didn’t say anything.”
A motorcycle cop rumbles past. I notice he’s been speaking to some of the American pedicab guys at the ferry wharf. I’m on my bike, so I pedal like crazy after him and ask if we can talk. “Come under the pine trees where it’s cool,” he says.
Officer Scott Thompson says that, yes, he knows quite a bit about pedicab issues because he’s one of two officers who have been working out the regulations the city council is considering to clear up some of the problems.
“It’s not an easy issue,” he says. “Bicycle laws are in place, but the vast number of pedicabs makes them difficult to enforce. My partner and I have been working on the new ordinance for two years. The aim is to create laws that are easier to enforce, to reduce the numbers, and to bring pedicab [laws] more into line with those for cars.”
And, yes, he interviewed Sukru Safa Cinar, the Turkish student whose passenger died. “He was devastated when he found out the woman died. He was a good student, hoping to do his master’s here in the U.S. He was clearly remorseful. He in no way anticipated that she would fall out of his cab, hit her head, and die. Witnesses said he was moving from left to right. I think he was probably just showing the ladies a good time. Pedicab owners are required to maintain $1 million in insurance. I’m sure they [the company he leased his pedicab from] will be hearing from the family. The pedicab did not have seat belts.”
So are foreign students the root of the town’s pedicab problems? “They’re causing competition, that’s for sure,” he says. “And the foreign student may not have the pride in the industry that [local drivers] do. Someone who’s only here a few months may be more likely to gouge the consumer pricewise because they’re leaving. Unlike these guys.” He points to where Matt and Rudy and others are still gathered at the ferry landing. “They have to keep their reputation.”
There’s no way the city can set quotas for foreign students, Thompson says. “That’s an immigration issue. The State Department is currently allowing J-1 students to operate pedicabs. So we can’t step in.”
Thompson says the recently passed city ordinance, which he helped to craft, should help. “Hopefully, the ordinance moves forward. Then a lot of things begin to take effect — the licensing of the pedicabs, equipment requirements, and vehicle inspections — in order for them to get their permits next year, starting in January. The number hasn’t been solidified, but pedicab-leasing companies would be required to reduce their fleet by certain percentages.”