Monday, October 29, 2007

A few photos

A lot of people are wearing masks these days, with the smoke and soot in the air. This 711 store on 30th St in North Park doesn't want them inside.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Latest fire update

Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments on the last post. I'm watching the local news right now (10 a.m. PST), and Air Force One just dropped off President Bush at MCAS (Marine Core Air Station) Miramar, of Top Gun fame. He was with Dianne Feinstein, one of California's senators, and was met by Gov. Schwarzenegger. He and the Governator jumped in Marine One, the presidential chopper, to tour the fire areas.

I'm still working, although I did miss a couple of days because the soot went into my lungs. When I can't breathe, I can't sleep, and when I can't sleep, I can't safely drive. When I've been awake for 30 or 40 hours, I start hallucinating. Not a pretty picture.

Last night I was out working, and we're still busy. Traffic is very light, but there are still a lot of business conferences happening in San Diego. All of the out-of-town travelers are quiet and respectful and offering condolences, etc. There's a brown, smoky haze over the city, and the air smells like a camp fire.

Last night I drove a firefighter stationed on the U.S.S. Lincoln, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier HQ'd in Washington State. It has been here for a week, scheduled to leave this morning. He said he and some fellow firefighters asked their superiors for permission to go out and help the local firefighters, but permission was denied. They're needed on the ship. This makes sense -- a Nimitz carrier has a crew of more than 5,000, and is really a floating city. It can't be without firefighters. I thanked him.

Latest stats, as of this morning:

  • 1400 homes lost in San Diego County

  • 520,000 people evacuated in SD

  • Total fire destruction area, for all of Southern California, is the size of Great Britain. That seems doubtful, but it's possible.

  • Three people have died as a direct result of the fires, plus another eight in "related incidents". Maybe car accidents, fleeing? Another 20 have been injured, including some severely burned fire fighters.

  • Arson is blamed for two of the fires.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

San Diego wildfire

I went out towards Mt. San Miguel, about 14 miles east of downtown San Diego. Still shots are below the video.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fire update

It's 10 a.m. and the fires around the city are up to 100,000 acres with 0% containment. More than 250,000 people have been evacuated. The mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, said on live TV that nobody should leave home unless they absolutely must. Most shelters are full, so the city opened Qualcomm Stadium for evacuees. One news report just came out that said some people are showing up at Qualcomm corporate headquarters instead of the stadium. These are probably the same ones who think professional wrestling isn't fixed.

And it gets worse. From AP:

    In many cases, crews couldn't begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave, fire officials said.

    "They didn't evacuate at all, or delayed until it was too late," said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District. "And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources."

    One blaze devoured more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000. Several structures were burned on the edge of town and sheriff's deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, San Diego sheriff's Lt. Phil Brust said.

    "The winds are up, it's very, very dangerous conditions," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."

I've always been sensitive to the Santa Ana winds. I'm allergic to the particulate matter that floats in off the eastern deserts. With the smoke on top of the dust, I'm basically down for the count. I can't breath, and as a result can't sleep. I haven't been to sleep since the day before yesterday. I sneeze every sixty seconds. My cell phone isn't working due to high volume, and this internet connection is crawling because it uses the cell system. My problems are nothing compared to the people who are losing all their worldly possessions, so I'll curtail the whining now.

The high winds mean the fires can't even be fought. No aircraft can get airborne because the winds are 20-30mph with gusts of 50-70mph. Ground crews are not fighting the fires, either. They're evacuating people in front of the fires and also hosing down houses. We're all just waiting for the winds to stop, which isn't expected until tomorrow or the day after.

There are still no reports on injuries or the numbers of houses lost, except that one person is known to have burned to death in the Harris fire. He is believed to have been an illegal immigrant who had just walked in from Mexico.

Apparently fire crews are coming here from around the state. Los Angeles is getting hit hard, too. The Governator is scheduled to visit San Diego to assess the problem this morning. He has already labeled seven California counties as disaster areas, which opens the federal money tap.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday on fire

Today is a scheduled day off, so I stayed up late Saturday night and slept late. I woke up after dark and went outside to my car, planning to make a run to Ralph's grocery store. I knew something was wrong -- there was a strong smell of smoke in the air, and a haze was all around. As I drove down Pershing on the way to the downtown Ralph's I turned on the radio and heard that the northeast suburbs are on fire. San Diego doesn't get hurricanes or tornadoes, and large earthquakes are extremely rare, but the one natural disaster we see are the wildfires. It's part of living in a desert.

We're having Santa Ana winds again, which means an east wind off the desert. Normally we get a cool, westerly breeze from the ocean, but when a high pressure system is around, the winds change direction. It's hot and very dry, which makes for dangerous fire conditions. Several sprang up this afternoon and went out of control. The towns in the foothills and mountains, like Ramona and Julian, are close to a raging inferno, with at least one dead and many injuries. Several homes have burned to the ground. The affected areas are being evacuated, and the schools have been closed for tomorrow. The Santa Ana winds are predicted to continue at least through tomorrow, which is very bad news.

Google Map here

The worst of the fires is being called the Witch Fire, named for its point of origin, near Witch Creek. It's an apt name, with Halloween 10 days away. Another big fire, called the Harris Fire, is along the USA-Mexico border near Tecate. It has crossed into Mexico, and the Tecate border crossing is closed.

I know most of the mountainous areas like the back of my hand. It's some of the best motorcycling territory around -- both on-road and off. I'm in the North Park neighborhood, right in San Diego, which is about a 1.5hr drive to the Witch Fire. Note: San Diego's mountains aren't huge like the Sierras or Rockies. The tallest point is about 7,000 feet (2100 meters). Snow falls in winter in the high elevations, but not enough for skiing and snowboarding.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

    An out-of-control wildfire burned more than 8,000 acres between Ramona and Santa Ysabel Sunday, and fire officials were requesting more resources to battle it.

    Two air tankers and 60 engines with 350 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has been named the Witch Fire, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Audrey Hagen. It earlier was called the Highway 78 Fire.

    State fire officials have requested 1,000 more firefighters be assigned to the blaze.

Compounding the problems with evacuations are the horses and livestock that people in the mountains keep. Everyone up there is used to fires, and they know how to pack and leave quickly, but packing up the large animals takes time. Traffic is thick, too.

This reminds me of the Cedar Fire from 2003. That was the last time I walked outside to see (and smell) smoke and ash. That fire destroyed around 2200 homes and took 15 lives. It was the worst fire in San Diego history.

From the Union-Tribune story:

    “This is almost a deja vu of the Cedar Fire,” Scales said, referring to the weather conditions. The Cedar Fire killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,200 homes and burned more than 280,000 acres in October 2003.

    Many residents who live near Witch Creek and San Diego Country Estates have been evacuated, and residents are being told to go to a Red Cross shelter at Poway High School on Espola Road at Titan Way, county emergency officials said.

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks extremely bad, with 9% humidity expected around noon. The winds will be down around 10 mph.

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego weather forecast
Cedar Fire memorial, with statistics

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Thursday had a little of everything. With the exception of customer interaction, it's a good example of a day in the life of a cabbie.

Paying the lease

One of my cab partners usually pays the weekly cab lease, but this week he's off, so it fell to me. Thursday afternoon I arrived at HQ for the first time in weeks. I normally avoid the place like the plague. The owner likes to come into the yard and inspect the cars, searching for anything wrong. It's better to stay away than be treated to an irrational outburst. I keep my car clean, inside and out, and I don't need anybody inspecting it.

I hate paying the lease partly because I have to show myself at HQ, and partly because I have to deal with Al, the guy who accepts the cash. Al is a great guy -- he's funny, well educated, has traveled the world, and I enjoy speaking with him. The problem is that he's about 300 years of age. It takes him FOREVER to count the damned money and even longer to hand write a nearly illegible receipt (the owner is a Luddite, so it's on paper). He takes the stack of bills in his left hand, then peels off the top one with his right, s-l-o-w-l-y brings it up to his nose so he can read the number, then s-l-o-w-l-y lowers it to his desk. Repeat a couple hundred times.

When I first started driving, I saw the lease payment as a good opportunity to unload my ones and fives. After watching Al count them at an average of three seconds per bill, I quickly changed to 50s and 100s just to speed up the process. Now I buy all of my groceries with 1s and 5s.

This Thursday I had collected money from my two cab partners before going to HQ, put it together with my own, and dumped it on Al's desk. I noticed my partners choose large bills, too. They're not stupid. But there were also several vouchers in the mix, which slows down Al even more. ER fares typically come with a hospital voucher, which we turn in with, and place against, the lease. We had no less than seven vouchers this time, which is probably a record. I saw Al look at the huge stack of money and paper and I knew I could kiss my afternoon goodbye. Okay, it's not quite that bad, but it's excruciating to watch a man spend a half hour counting a stack of money that I can count in 30 seconds.

Surprise inspections

While at HQ I saw Fred the mechanic, who is usually hidden away at the secret mechanic location, doing small spot repairs to several cars. He was doing headlights and mirrors and I saw a headliner ready to go into one car. Another had a wheel off. All of this is done out of doors, under San Diego's perfect, sunny sky. Fred was moving a hundred miles an hour, and looked flustered. He said the city called a couple of hours earlier and announced they would be conducting inspections the next day, including some "snap" inspections on the street. That's a first. For as long as anybody can remember, inspections occur the first week of January. I suspect a city council member got a ride with one of our dirtier drivers (maybe Catheter Cab). That would have led to a snap inspection. Fred had to prepare a lot of cars with almost no notice. Feeling bad for him, I changed a few brake light bulbs and tried to install the headliner, and failed. It's harder than it looks.

Fred asked me if my car needed anything. Since I'd been through inspections a couple of times before, he didn't need to inspect my car himself, he could just ask.

    1. Parking brake
    2. Horn
    3. Velcro on the dash, which holds the permit and a lost-and-found notice for customers, fell off
    4. Missing lug nut -- it's amazing how often lug nuts fall off of taxis

He jumped in my car and stepped on the parking brake. It's the old style foot pedal, not a pull handle in the middle like almost all other cars. I saw him grab the wheel tightly and strain, apparently with all his strength, against the pedal. Once he was satisfied, he started the car and put it in Drive, then Reverse. It didn't move. He deemed it okay. Note: it's not okay, but it'll pass inspection.

Then he grabbed a ratchet and a 1/2-inch socket and slid under the front of the car. In a moment he came out with my horn in his hand. He turned it over and a cup of water poured out. "Bad location," he said. "When it rains, water from the road gets splashed inside." I gestured to a row of crashed cabs being stored, for cannibalization, at HQ. "All the horns are gone," he said. "And I don't have time to go to Ford."

One of the crashed cars. A large truck backed into this one, breaking the
windshield and sending shattered glass onto one of our Brazilian drivers.

I suggested that I could go to my house and pull the horn from the Falcon, which I bought a few weeks ago. "Great idea," he said. I explained that he could only have it on the condition that I get it back right after the inspection. I don't want to go hornless with my civilian car. Before I could leave, he remembered he had a horn sitting in his work vehicle.

He quickly installed the horn, velcro on the dash (on the airbag cover on the passenger side), and a new lug nut.

By the time all of this was done, Al had counted the lease money. He said we were $40 over. I had to make a bunch of calls to find out why that might be. One of my cab partners, as it turns out, had rear-ended some civilian a few months ago with a loaner car (I would have known about it if it had happened with our taxi), and was paying the cab company owner $40 per week to pay off a $900 repair bill (the owner had paid off the civilian).

The last thing required to get my car through inspections was easy: remove a small, handwritten note taped to the dash. It says "Don't use overdrive. Drive gently." shortly after we got the car, maybe a month ago, we discovered the transmission was going out. Rather than getting the tranny repaired or replaced, we got that note. Since I don't want the city to know the car has a bad transmission, I decided the note had to go.

Gambling debt

When I was getting ready to leave, I noticed Fred was gone. Then I heard some yelling. Serious, angry yelling. Fred was out past the gate, on the street, getting yelled at by some guy I had never seen before. The tongue lashing was so severe I thought Fred was going to get killed. Fred is short and skinny, and would probably lose a fight. I started walking towards them, thinking of offering backup. I'm not much of a fighter, but Fred and I together could take him, if it came down to that.

Before I got there, Fred turned from the guy and walked past me. I caught up to him and asked what the hell that was about.

Fred: I owe him $200 and he wants it.

Me: Does it have anything to do with your trips to the casinos? (I know him well enough to ask.)

Fred: Yeah. And he knows I get paid today. He can't wait two hours for his fucking money.

With reservations I pulled my wad out and gave him $200 in 20s. "I'll pay you back tomorrow," Fred told me. I'm sure he's good for it. I also think it's kind of funny that I paid somebody's gambling debt. I should have offered the guy on the street $150 to buy the debt. Anyway, there would be no violence at HQ that day.

Drunk bicycler

A few hours later, I'm in our zone sitting at a cab stand. I'm parked, along with two other cabbies. We were standing on the sidewalk beside my car, talking. As a sort of tangent, Carey asked me if I'd driven the guy in the old condo buildings yet. I had. He's in his 90s and only recently moved into our zone. He uses cabs for the four-block journey to a restaurant for dinner, on occasion. I've already been listening to the radio to learn the pattern, if there is one, so I can avoid the cab stand by his condo around the time he leaves or comes back.

Carey: Marzetti's not even cold yet and we've got another.

Me: Yeah, but at least this guy isn't an asshole.

Carey: And he tips.

While we were talking, we all turned to see what was making an odd noise in the street. A guy was riding a bike with a fully laden shopping cart in tow -- pulled with his hand. The cart's wheels were making an awful racket on the pavement.

As he went by my car, we heard a scraping noise. I ran around to the driver's side and saw the mirror was broken off and hanging by the wires (it's electronically adjustible and heated). "Hey!" I yelled. The guy looked over his shoulder but didn't stop. I jumped in my car, cursing, and gave chase. He pulled into a hotel entrance about 100 yards in front of where he hit me, and I followed him in. I came up behind him and honked. He finally stopped. I got out pointed to the mirror and said he would be paying for it.

I saw right away he was drunk, and the cart was full of cases of Budweiser. He immediately apologized and said he thought the mirror had simply folded. That's reasonable, as it did look folded, rather than broken. "Well," I said, "it's broken, and if you don't pay I'm calling the cops." He begged me not to, and also said he was broke after buying all the beer. He held up a case of Bud. "I can give you this," he said. "I hate Bud," I said.

I called the company owner and explained the situation.

Me: I have a question for you.

Him: Does it involve Fred and $200? (How the hell did he find out about that?)

Me: No, actually, I've had an ... incident ... and I don't really know what to do.

I explained the situation, expecting him to get angry because the car wouldn't pass tomorrow's inspection, and Fred was surely gone for the night. He asked several questions, aimed at determining our liability. When I told him I wasn't driving the car, or even in it, and that the guy wasn't injured, he said: "Tell the guy he's getting a gift. I have enough problems right now; I don't need another one. I'll have Fred install a new mirror in the morning before the inspections. Don't worry about it." I asked if he was interested in a case of Budweiser, and he hung up. Maybe he doesn't like Bud, either.

Update: Friday morning. I worked straight through until 7 a.m., when Fred would be back at HQ, and brought him the cab so he could replace the mirror. Fred came up to me and asked if he could pay $100 of the money he owes me now, and $100 next week. Sure, I said. He turned his back to the windows of the office and pulled out five 20s and handed them to me. "If the owner asks," he said, "tell him I gave you $200." Then he drove me home in my cab, dropped me off, and brought the car back to HQ. When I woke up for my Friday night shift, the car was in my driveway.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that this is the strangest (and most entertaining) job I've ever had.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

ER nonsense

I'm starting to loathe emergency rooms. Whenever I get belled to an ER, it's a worthless experience. I do make some money, so it's not completely worthless, but I'd gladly give up the money in exchange for never picking up bums. Last night I got a live one -- an Hispanic male, perhaps 50, almost too drunk to speak, and that was after he had been "cleaned up", including a washing and a new set of clothes. I wouldn't have wanted to see him before the alleged cleaning.

The ER doc asked me what the fare would be to San Ysidro, which is right along the border with Mexico. It's around $45. "Okay," she said. "This gentleman has $90 in his pocket. He'll pay cash." She and an orderly went back into the hospital, and the "gentleman" sat in the back seat.

Him: How much gonna be?

Me: $45 or so.

Him: Bullshit.

Me: You have to pay, or you don't go home.

Him: Bullshit.

I turned the car off and went into the hospital. I informed the ER doc that he refused payment. Obviously, I'm not driving anyone free of charge. So she gave me a hospital voucher, meaning they'll cover the cost.

The ride itself was uneventful, except that he kept babbling. Initially I made an effort to understand him, but it was fruitless. I put on some talk radio and turned it up loud enough to drown him out. Reception wasn't good way down there, but static was better than his babbling.

I got him to his address, which was a residential house in San Ysidro. Surprisingly, he recognized it. Sometimes they can't. In those cases I usually point at a house and just say, "Go." This one was slightly better. No tip, but at least I'll get the fare from the hospital.

Bicycle incident

Last night one of our cabs was hit by a bicycler. Our guy was turning into a hotel entrance when he heard a noise. It was late at night, and the cycler was wearing dark clothes and had no headlight (violation of law). He was okay, declining medical attention. The forks on the bike were broken. It was a close call, but it seems everything will be alright, and hopefully no lawsuits. I spoke with the cop at the scene, and he said it appears the cycler was not only running without a headlight at night, but he was traveling too fast.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A few photos

BNSF train in front of Petco Park.

El Cajon Blvd, North Park

A few interesting rides tonight

I drove a woman from Northern Ireland who has been living in the US for 15 years. She said at the time she left, gun shots on the streets were the norm. She said it took years of living in the US for her to not dive on the ground when a car backfires. She recently went back to Ireland for the first time in a long time, and it was a very different place. No gunfire. And she said it was the first time she ever saw streets empty of soldiers.

I also drove a US Navy guy who works in public relations. He was recently in San Francisco for Fleet Week, spending most of his time answering the public's questions about the use of sonar and its effect on whales. He's in San Diego now for the military air show, which is at Miramar this weekend. "I don't expect any questions about whales in San Diego," he said. For those who don't read a lot of news, San Fran has an anti-military reputation. In the last few months the city has forbidden the Marines from filming a commercial there, and the city council tried to prevent the Blue Angels from flying (citing safety reasons...). Last year the head of the city council said, on live national TV, that he thinks the US should not have a military.

On a lighter note, our cab drivers are still making jokes about the infamous fire hydrant. Whenever a driver gets belled to that restaurant, somebody comes on the radio and warns him not to run over any hydrants. That is fast becoming legend.

Lastly, our graveyard dispatcher, who has an IQ several points below my steering wheel, disappeared for a few days earlier this week. He didn't call in. Everyone was hoping (praying?) that we'd never see him again. Tonight, he was back, to our great disappointment.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Photos in lieu of writing

I've been down with some kind of flu for a few days, so there's nothing to write about. I have a catalog of photos from the last 10 days:

CHP officer at a Shell gas station.

After Petco Park went up (Padres baseball stadium) a few years ago, a lot of nearby business altered their names to park themes.

Convention Center in the background.

There seems to be a small, authentic Mexican restaurant on every corner in San Diego. I've gained a few pounds because of them. This is one of the few with a 24-hr drive-thru.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

BBQ and cowboy boots

I drove an Irish expat, perhap 60 years of age, who was in San Diego for a business convention. He has lived in Texas for many years, and said he loves it. I didn't ask exactly how long he had lived in the US, but, judging by his barely discernible accent, I'd say he's been here a long time. He had two interesting observations:

1. "I have never met a Texan who didn't like barbecue, no matter how bad it tasted," he said. When I asked if he thought any BBQ was good: "I can't stand it." Apparently Ireland isn't a BBQ kind of place.

2. His friends have been trying to get him to wear cowboy boots for years. "I can't stand them, either."

F1 video

Here's the video that nearly caused the FIA to act irrationally over last week's Japanese Grand Prix. It shows Lewis Hamilton pulling alongside the safety car, then slowly rapidly, off to the side. This was a factor in the resultant crash. As a side note, it's unfortunate that the only interesting F1 races are in the wet.

Thanks to filmmaniak28 for posting the video at YouTube.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Coronado Beach