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The Isles of Langerhans


It is a blazing hot afternoon and I am sweating like a hog with all the windows buzzed down. My checkered boxer shorts are sticky and snag my crotch as I look frantically for another place to pull over and pee. San Francisco is hell when you’re looking for a parking space and downright cruel for its lack of public accommodations. I wonder how those homeless guys get by. My fallback is stopping at a hotel and dashing to the lobby bathroom for relief, then finding a water fountain or a place to buy a soda to sate my maddening unquenchable thirst.

The problem with hotel lines is they move at a snail’s pace and it’s always a gamble whether you get a worthless short or hit the jackpot with a fare to the airport. I’ve tried to adapt to the urgency of my bladder by listening closely to Doris, the cranky dispatcher on the radio. When she barks out a fare that might steer me close to a toilet I shout out my number and race to the scene. I don’t even know why I’m driving today. I’m wasting time and losing money at every pit stop, which I’ve done five times already this morning. Nature isn’t calling at me, it’s screaming at me.

I see a white zone in front of a Chinese restaurant and I grab it. I don’t care if they yell at me in Cantonese for sprinting to the toilet without ordering a plate of bok choy. This is war.

Back behind the wheel of my yellow Plymouth Volare I can see clearly what I got to do. Get out of the city and go to the mountains. The City is poisoning me and sickening me and making me piss away toxic fluids percolating inside my body. It will bust me if I took time off from driving. Yellow won’t give me back my shift when return, but health is the priority. Backpacking in Sierras is the medicine that I need. Instead of choking on exhaust fumes and dealing with psychotic passengers I’ll be breathing fresh air and drinking pristine spring water. It will be a chance to get away from Mayumi and her bitter unhappiness and resentment. Living with this girl is afflicted me with unadulterated stress lately. Whatever happed to the notion that Japanese women are cheerful, sweet and compliant? She changed the minute we stepped off the jet way and headed to baggage claim. She’s killing me. She might as well be a ninja assassin. Or even worse, an American.

Oh shit! I got to piss again. It’s getting so bad it’s – what is the word those business wonks say? Unsustainable. Pissing fluid and guzzling fluid and pissing again – that’s my life, I’m sleepy all the time but I don’t dare drink coffee in my condition.

There’s a fare, an old woman waving her umbrella furiously like a club. The lady is going to smash my windshield if I don’t stop. She’s perched there on the curb in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel using hate speech in case the umbrella doesn’t get my attention. I must hesitate because this does not look good. I’d judge her to be a healthy specimen in her late eighties wearing a black wool overcoat in the midday sun. I write it off as a public service as she barges into the back seat. An African-American doorman dressed a red Beefeater’s costume stands aside, looking very relieved to have this battle-axe  off his hands.

“Nob Hill!” she shouts as if I was deaf. Great. That’s three block away. “Go to the Fairmount driver.” On arrival I play the gentleman and hop out to open the door for her. She takes off her white gloves to meticulously count her coins for the one-dollar eighty-cent drop. Then she scowls and tips me a dime.

At least it’s an opportunity for a bathroom break and maybe I’ll have a smoke if the doorman takes pity on me and lets me pull into the little parking lot. He kindly nods in consent.

I do not smoke. I roll a little Drum tobacco in a Zigzag paper now and then, but that’s a harmless habit, just a way to pass idle time and something to do with my hands. Okay, I did buy a pack of Marlborough Lites yesterday feeling very ashamed of myself. I stepped outside last night and coughed my head off on the first one but I lit another anyway and one more and then one more, then last one forever. Nobody was looking when I pissed on my neighbor’s roses in the dark. I can’t worry about killing myself by smoking while I’m facing the immediate threat of death by urine. It’ll be easy to go cold turkey when I’m in the mountains.

The uber-pissing started four days ago, completely out of the blue. I was recovering from the snottiest cold I can remember, a cold that choked off my breath with gobs of mucous. Just a very bad virus, I thought. But the following day the parched throat and the urge to pee began. Mildly at first but it’s getting worse, day-by-day, hour-by-hour. I wake up with the painful sensation that a bomb in my bladder is about to blow me to smithereens if I don’t get to the bathroom in three seconds.

I’m wasting time and losing money. It’s already halfway through my shift and my day is turning out to be an un-fucking-mitigated disaster and if it continues like this I won’t be able to pay for my gates and gas. I’ll have to pay the company for the privilege of driving this fucking taxi. Why did I quit graduate school anyway? So I could literally piss my life away?

I’m turning out from the white zone, horning my way into traffic and gritting my teeth so hard I’m afraid I’ll crack a molar. I know what I have to do. I’ll tell Yellow I’m sick and I’m taking time off when I get back to the yard. They won’t’ give a damn. I slam on the brakes to avoid mowing down a J-walker dressed like a Hari Krishna. He’s yelling at me and flipping me the bird. His saffron robes are flapping in the hot wind, holier than holy.

This has to be more than just stress. I’ve had lots of stress in my life but this is very different, like a feeling that something ominous is building up inside me foreshadowing a cataclysmic event. I haven’t had a bowel movement in three days. It feels like there’s a meatloaf in there squeezing my bladder and forcing me to piss like a crazed hyena. The pressure is on my brain too. My temples are throbbing. It’s unrelenting.

I remember an old movie I once saw about the first ever brain operation. It was set back in the nineteenth century when a surgeon, or maybe it was a barber innovated the technique of drilling holes through the skull to release pressure on the brain.  Something trapped inside the patient’s head whistled out like evil gas when the surgeon lanced the cerebral boil. The guy in the movie was so elated with relief he hopped up on one foot and started singing Camptown Races. Doo-da. Doo-da. Okay, that wasn’t really in the movie but it was the same kind of dramatic response. I need to sign up for something like that to get rid of this headache.  I need a good laxative.  I need to hike all day and camp under the stars and get the kind of natural decompression that doctors can’t provide.

I’m hunkering and squirming in the drive’s seat and scanning the street for someone hailing me with a raised hand. Why not a beautiful brunette in a red cocktail dress on her way to the airport? But I’m not sure I could hold it that long. The radio crackles and spits out an unintelligible voice then retreats into a maw of static. I’m bug eyed. I feel the Sufi veins in my forehead popping and pumping bubbly blue plasma.

I suppose I’ll need a hiking partner for the mountains but that’s going to be hard to work out on short notice. My brother the doctor is in the Republic of Cameroon doing something about chicken pox or cholera over there. My hiking pal Jack is in rehab somewhere in Marin County, the place where Jerry Garcia goes. My best friend Gus has a bum knee and can hardly walk. It’s a stupid idea to hike alone in the high country.

Maybe Mayumi’s French friend would work, the guy from her ESL class at City College. He said he wanted to go backpacking when we had dinner with a bunch of her friends not long ago. He stands out as one of the most arrogant and unlikable person among the French expatriate artistes Mayumi hangs out with, churlishly smoking unfiltered Gitanes and sighing in disappointment at everything around him. He’s a parody of the lugubrious French intellectual but at least I wouldn’t have to make small talk with him on the trail. His name is Bruno and he has an annoying American wife who brags about being “native Californian” and can’t stop talking about herself. She reminds me of that Mose Allison song: “Your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime.”

At last Doris’s voice rises over the static and announces a fare at Geary and Polk and I spit out my number and race to scene some five blocks away. It’s a stroke of luck and I pull over to claim the prize just as two other Yellow cabs close like buzzards. I recognize one of the drivers. He’s a grizzly veteran in his sixties giving me a nasty look like he’s going to smash my face next time he sees me at the yard.

The passenger is morbidly obese. He jumps into the front seat because he obviously can’t squeeze into the rear.  The whole time on our way to his destination in the Inner Mission he’s commenting l in a screechy voice about the Iranian hostage crisis using racist terms like towel-heads and sand nags. He thinks he’s making a hilarious joke when he lashes out at “Aya tolja How-many?” I don’t know what to think about Iranians these days. Never met one outside a falafel stand.  I wish I were strong enough to push this ball of blubber out the door without slowing down and watch him bounce on the sidewalk.  But I have more immediate needs, namely finding the next place to do you-know-what.

I didn’t used to hate my passengers.  I was able to tolerate the cloying tourists looking for postcard locales. I was able to restrain my contempt when I ferried men in designer suits from the financial district to five-star restaurants. These fuck-heads insult my professional skills by insisting I go the wrong-way to their destinations. Smug carpetbaggers from New York who think they knew the City better than the residents and suspected I’m ripping them off  by taking detours.

I have a great deal of affection for the local characters, drunks and lunatics who hop aboard and tell me delusional stories. On the night shift I make good money shuttling gay men from the Castro to the baths south of Market.  They’re the best tippers and they speak to me with respect as if struggling taxi drivers were kindred sprits in a cruel world. It’s not condescending like the idiots who tell me how cool it must be to drive a taxi on the mean streets of San Francisco. Do they think I have a choice?

Today I loathe all my passengers.  Disaster is near and they’re getting in the way between me and the next urinal.  I’m trawling down Market Street for prey but there’s nothing. No tourists lugging suitcases or shoppers clinging to more bundles than they can carry. I’m thinking about turning north at the Ferry Building and heading up to North Beach on the Embarcadero freeway then to Fisherman’s Wharf. But hey looky here – it’s   a short line at the Hyatt. I take advantage of the facilities on the street level of the hotel then briskly pull into formation and soon watch a giant man hop into the back seat with a grace that is at odds with his size. He looks like a Samoan wrestler wearing a finely tailored Armani suit, a teal shirt and a tasteful burgundy necktie. He gives me an address near Geary and Kearney and blabs the entire way about the differences between baseball and cricket.  When we get there he tips me five bucks and hops out like ballet dancer. I have no reason to hate this man but he annoys me anyway. Two fatsos in a row should be amusing but I’m pissing away my sense of humor.

I hear an ambulance shrieking and honking behind me. I pull over to curb and watch the driver weave through obstructing cars past Union Square sending pedestrians leaping aside for safety. The mad ambulance races so close to the left side of my cab I think he’s going rip off side mirror. I can’t resist pulling out and riding in his wake. My instincts tell me I should catch up with him and open my door to leap on the vehicle’s sideboard and shout “take me with you!” But he’s driving too fast and it’s a stupid idea anyway. I’m going to the mountains, not to the hospital. I come to my senses and obey the next stop light as the ambulance races ahead wailing and strobing its cherry lights. My heart is pounding. I’m out of breath. My teeth hurt from gritting too hard. I feel like it’s only a matter of minutes before I wet my pants.

I’m in luck.  There’s a coffee shop with a white zone in front. One more fare before I call it a day, as though this was just one day instead of an eternity.

At home Mayumi tries to ignore my problem but she does complain about the stink in the bathroom and she nags me to turn off the bedside lamp when I return from my midnight visits to the toilet.  I don’t bother with the bathroom cup anymore.  I put my face in the sink and suck water from the tap. My friend Gus came over for dinner Tuesday and watched in amusement as I repeated my routine.

“Why you’re the Urinator,” he said. “Hasta la vista, peepee.”

“Why you’re an asshole,” I said to Gus. “Explain the cultural reference to Mayumi. She’s still working on her English.”

”Gus made a joke,” I told her.  “He’s had too much shōchu.”

“I got it. I saw that movie,” she said. “We have everything in Japan.”

“He’s a real pisser, Mayumi,” Gus said. “He’s urining to be free!”

Gus’s remarks were not helpful.

Now is the last chance to make a little cash. I take Geary to Mason intending to turn south. Oh shit!  I’m drifting through the intersection turning left on Mason and there before me is a burly motorcycle cop. He raises his hand with exaggerated authority then motions me to the curb. I’m busted but I honestly don’t know why. Mason goes one-way down hill at that point and I properly signaled turning into the near left lane.

The policeman is dressed in a black leather jacket and jodhpurs looking like a German SS officer. I think I remember seeing a uniform like that in old movies where CHP officers chase suspects like James Deans down Highway 1 with everyone riding Harleys.

I get out the car to ask,  “Is there something the matter, officer?”

“You didn’t see the sign?” he barks. There’s no left turn here. It’s a traffic violation and you just earned yourself a twenty-seven-dollar fine.”

He flips open a narrow pad with thin pink pages, looks his watch and starts writing.

“What sign,” I say. “There’s no sign! I didn’t see any sign.” I’m confused and I feel rage welling up inside.

“It’s a small sign,” he says. “But it’s in plain sight. Why don’t you go over there and check it out, sir.”

There is sign all right but it’s hung on the pole so low and so inconspicuously nobody without laser vision could possibly see it.

I walk back around the corner to confront my Hell’s Angel traffic cop. The fool is wearing a policeman’s cap instead of a helmet. He could be could be the cop character in the Village People for all I know.

“That’s not are real sign. How do you expect me to obey a miserable little sign like that?  Real signs have a black arrows pointing left inside a red circle with the diagonal bar clearly say no! This is a fucking trap! I’m not going to pay twenty-seven dollars for getting caught in a god-dammed bullshit left turn trap.”

“I don’t make the signs buddy,” he says. “I just enforce the law.”  He thrusts he pink citation in my face. “Sign it and get the hell out of here.”

I feel sick to my stomach. The sudden need to piss again is overwhelming and making me gnash my teeth. My throat is so dry I try sucking moisture from my tongue and palate but that just makes it worse. It’s this asshole’s fault. I rip up the ticket and scatter the pink confetti on the pavement fuming with the injustice of it all.

“I’m not going to sign this ticket. I’m not going to pay for getting caught in an illegitimate trap.”

On my left I see a crowd is gathering on the sidewalk watching this tragedy unfold. I have a little flap of skin on my neck that’s always bugged me and I scratch it now. It starts to bleed.

“Well then,” he says in a remarkably calm voice, “You’re under arrest.” .His hand was touching the hilt of his gun.

“You will follow me down to Bryant Street where I am going to book you for obstruction of justice. You’re going to spend the night in the can with the stinking drunks and perverts.” He mounts his 1200 cc Yamaha and instead of using the key he kick-starts the engine for effect.

Time stopped. Then an anvil of realization falls on my head. What have I done? I’m so fucked up!

“No please officer. I’m really sorry! I didn’t mean it. I don’t know what’s come over me.” I hang my head low. He’s I astride his motorcycle looking down at me like I’m a piece of trash.

“Please. I’ve been really sick lately. Honestly, really sick. I’m not like this. This is not who I am. I can’t stop pissing and it’s driving me crazy!”

The cop’s face went ridged. He was disgusted at the sight of me.

I’m not sure what makes me do this but I get down on one knee in utter humiliation begging for another chance to set things right.

The crowd on the sidewalk says “Awe . . . ” in unison, supporting my plea for mercy.

The cop turns off the engine and dismounts. He swaggers over and pulls out the pad. He writes a new citation, licks his fingers and thrusts it in my direction to sign.

“Your lucky I’m feeling nice today,” he growls. “You god damn cabbies are all the same arrogant hotdogs who think they have special privileges to break the rules. You’re a shithead too but at least you’re apologizing.”

He gives me the copy and I sign with shaking hands. Then he leans in close to my face to inspect my breath. I am incensed that after all this he thinks I’ve been driving under the influence.  “I can smell it, the sweet stinking breath,” he says, with his scowl softening. “You’re on trouble. You better check your blood sugar buddy, and your ketones and take your shot. My niece has it too. We worry about her.”  He mounted his bike and roared off, leaving me in a daze. The crowd applauds and hoots before dispersing.

What the fuck is he talking about? Blood sugar? What the fuck are ketones?

Now that I’m shred of all human dignity the first order of business is to get back in the cab and find a toilet before I die. Three’s a little park in the Tenderloin that has a porta-potty and my instincts take me there hoping there’s nobody smoking crack or napping inside. I double-park and see a guy in a red suit approaching as I sprint to the green box. He shouts “I’ll watch your cab for a dollar!” I check to see if my keys are in my pocket and not in the ignition. I’ve smelled worse smells in shit cans like this. Outside I see there’s a drinking fountain waiting for me but I hesitate just a moment to consider the risk of contamination. It’s the best water I ever tasted.

This madness has to stop. I’m exhausted. I’m going end my shift three hours early after a cursed and  miserable day. When I get home I’ll ask Mayumi for that French guy’s phone number. We’re going to the mountains.

* * *

This story is adapted from the novel My Life as a Cadaver: A Survivor’s Tale  (Osirus Press, 2014)



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