Alice Wong, Project Coordinator of the Disability Visibility Project, had a chance to interview her friend and former ramp taxi driver Mike Rothstein on September 18, 2014 at StoryCorps San Francisco.
The following are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On how Alice met Mike
Mike: I’m here to talk to Alice. Whose an old friend of mine and I was her cab driver for a long time.
Alice: It’s pretty funny that first you’re a cab driver that gave me rides around San Francisco, and we just hit it off and I don’t know [it’s so] unusual and just so wonderful that we became such good friends over the years. I know your family and, you know, we’ve done stuff together, and it’s just been a wonderful friendship and I feel like…these are the amazing kind of little miracles, chance encounters with people. I think I first met you in the late ’90’s when I first moved to San Francisco.
I had a ride from you and I think you offered me your number in the future. So, I think that’s how we started having these regular trips and you’ve always been so reliable…and we just naturally started sharing our stories and our lives together. So it’s, I don’t even remember when the transition from taxi driver customer relationship turned into friends, but I think one of the things was, when you dropped me off to my workplace. You told me you’re wife worked in the same building and I’m like, “No way!”
On paratransit services and the ramped taxi program
Alice: I will say that as somebody who moved to San Francisco from the Midwest, paratransit ramped taxi services, [were] really a gateway to independence. And for listeners who don’t know what paratransit is, paratransit is a set of complimentary services to public transit that’s mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. So very often, cities are required to provide shuttle services for people with disabilities who for a lot of different reasons can’t use public transit. So they’ll do these shuttle services from your door to wherever you want to go.
And it’s often [these are rides] where you have to schedule ahead of time and a lot of times they may or may not be late. But it is an alternative for a lot of people with disabilities for, who just cannot manage to take public transit and that ensures that all people, all public people can have access to transit services. And what’s unique about subway system is that.
The ramped taxi service is another alternative. It’s another option to these kind of shuttle services. I noticed on the website of the San Francisco paratransit broker, they list ramped taxi services as a premium parent transit service that goes beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I feel like having this option of ordering a yellow cab…is really liberating and it makes you feel like you’re you can take a cab like any other person.
On becoming a driver in the ramped taxi program in the 1990s
Mike: Well, I think it was about 15 years ago, maybe a little longer. It started out as an experimental program with five vehicles.
Alice: Only five? Wow.
Mike: Might have been six…. And a guy named Nate [INAUDIBLE] who was the head of Yellow Cab, was very supportive of it, and a lady named Laurie Graham who is a cab driver [and it was] kind of her inspiration to, to do this. I’m not sure why she got involved in it. And there was a guy named Bruce Oka who was in a wheelchair, and he was very instrumental in the beginning and was six vehicles they put a lot of resources behind it so that we could talk the ramp drivers had their own radio channel so we could call talk to each other.
Alice: Oh wow.
Mike: So when someone called for a cab we’d talk among ourselves who was closest or where you were going if you were dropping somebody off near that person. And over, over time, it expanded. And Laurie Graham talked to me, and said, why don’t you get involved in this? So I started driving a regular cab three days a week, and a ramp taxi two days a week.
And at first we had a lot of troubles with the vans. They were not built for this kind of, the hills of San Francisco and the extra weight of having the ramps and the sliding doors on the right, on, on the right side, never worked right. And we asked, we always spent a lot of time trying to get the doors working right.
Features of a ramped taxi
Alice: Would you mind describing for the listeners about what are the features of a ramp taxi… and how it’s different from driving a regular taxi?
Mike: A regular taxi is just a standard car, where, where a, a ramp taxi is a van, with, they originally started off with a ramp that folded out on the side door, and a person in a wheelchair would come up the ramp and sit in the, what you’d consider the passenger front seat. And that was, it was very nice, cuz you had a much easier time of having a conversation with somebody. And then there were straps …and different mechanisms to tie the wheelchair and make it very secure to the floor of the van and seat belts are very secure for the people, but the main problem was those sliding doors. They just couldn’t stand the…hills and the sliding up and down. And we didn’t get good support from the paratransit program, as far as getting good vans.
Alice: Mm hm. And events change over time as I recall now, on the, seems like, all the ramp taxis have ramps coming from the back, rather than the side. In all the taxis that I’ve been in now, I enter from the back and there’s still a middle like passenger area. So, I’m really behind that passenger bench in the middle of seats. So, in a way, the driver’s kind of really far away in the front, so if I have to communicate something, it’s a little bit more difficult, but, other than that, I think, supposedly [the taxis are] getting better…is that… you’ve experienced over the years?
Mike: Yes, I think the rear entry worked much better…straightforward, in and out, or the side, [that is, if there’s a good] wheelchair driver. If it was a big motorized chair you have to scooch back and forth five or six times before you get lined up right cuz you have to come in, and then turn around to the right.
Alice: That’s right, and that can be a pretty tight. Turn, depending on the kind of wheelchair. So.. going straight in is probably better for a lot of different kinds of wheelchairs. And tell me about, was there any, like, resistance from drivers…it does take a little bit of extra time, and a little bit of extra work involved when it comes to securing that a wheelchair and opening the doors. Was there any kind of resistance from drivers to participate in this ramp taxi program?
Mike: It was purely voluntary. And, I think the novelty of it was, was fun at, at the beginning. So that why, that’s why we got a lot of drivers who were interested.
And at that point it also gave, you, you had a better chance of getting a good shift working…And our dispatcher would cooperate with us…he would, he would say, you call him out and tell him how long we’d take to be there so they had a heads up.
The regular wheelchair-using customers of Mike’s
Alice: …sometimes, you know, as a person with a disability you’re waiting out in the rain or in the weather and you really have no idea if that person will show up. And it’s a real sense of like, almost like insecurity, you know, or fear that, “Oh my gosh it’s been 30 minutes already, like, are they coming?” Because there are so many limited options, [especially] in the middle of the night, [when] you need to get home. You know, you can get really kind of scared and waiting for a ride but I’ve think having good communication has been really key. So obviously you’ve driven a van taxi for a long time. Tell me about your experiences picking up all types of people with disabilities…
Mike: Although we’re different sized people. I remember one guy who lived at Third and Folsom in an apartment building on Shipley. He must have weighed about 400 pounds. He had a huge wheelchair. It was always a challenge for him to get in and out. He was a great guy though so I was always happy to get his call. He knew most of the, the dispatchers calls when they would say 4th and Folsom. When you knew, when he called for Harriet, you knew it was Alice.
Alice: Yeah. [LAUGH] So, it seems like [you have a] familiarity with a lot of regular customers and you know? I [feel so lucky] I was one of …your regular customers and were there other kind of notable customers that you really grew to care for.
Mike: Well, there’s a guy named Peter Belton who had polio when he was a young man and he went to law school and eventually became the assistant to the Chief Justice of Supreme Court of California, a guy named Stanley Mosk, and Peter Belton was the smartest guy you ever wanted to meet. And he wanted a regular ride down to the Supreme Court building near City Hall, five days a week and a ride home. And one of my buddies, Fred, was also a ramp driver.
Alice: Yes, I know Fred.
Mike: It was too much for us, for either one of us to always pick up Peter… Cuz Peter demanded, he couldn’t understand if we weren’t exactly on time. Between Fred and I, we always pick them up within a few minutes of his time and if not we call them up and explain to them, we had his phone number and you would be sitting eating his breakfast when we got there and he would get ready in a hurry and he would come out with us. We always had great talks, he was a very liberal guy. And then we eventually met his girlfriend, Celia Bloom, who was also a polio survivor and my wife and I ended up going out to dinner with Peter and Celia many times. They were spectacular people. We were very lucky to meet them.
Alice: Yeah, so these are a lot of these regular longtime [customers]. And, I mean, you really provide a vital service to this community of people who, you know, for a lot of reasons, for example, like Peter Belton, who works, you know, having reliable transportation to and from work is key to his employment and his independence. And, I think, for a lot of people with disabilities, who cannot afford to buy their own van [this is key] because if you wanna drive your own van, it’s really, on top of the cost of a minivan to get it modified. It’s another 30-40,000. So, for a lot of reasons for people in San Francisco, not only do you not have a garage space, but you need to learn how to drive, get the modifications. It’s really an undue burden. And I think having the flexibility with ramp taxi drivers has been a real life saver. I know for me, it’s really great to have the actual driver’s phone number, so that I can call a few days ahead and say, “Hey Mike, are you busy on Wednesday at 1? Can you take me to…?” And…I think that kind of one on one relationship really makes it different from any sort of typical taxi driver-client relationship.
On the importance of being a ramp taxi driver
Mike: I just love the people. And it seemed like a very worthwhile service that we were providing. I always felt that being a cab driver was a very important service… And the people were just incredibly wonderful. And it was just fun. I used to do sometimes ten or 15 ramp rides a day.
Mike: I did it for about ten years. And I think at the end it got to be too much of a financial burden for Yellow Cab to, to buy and maintain the ramps. The ramp taxis so they made the drivers who got the ramp medallions buy their own. That got to be very expensive for the drivers…. And if the cab companies could have kept buying and maintaining the, the ramp taxis, I think that’s, is to be a much better program now. The program is just kind of a shell of it, what it used to be.
Alice: Yeah, and I feel like That Golden Age of the late 90s, early 2000s really. I mean there was such a vibrant community and a really active ramped taxi driver community who supported one another and that’s really special period of time that you were part of.
On being diagnosed with Parkinson’s
Alice: Is it okay if we talk about another subject now?
Alice: Okay …a few years ago…you started developing some symptoms and you now have Parkinson’s disease. So, it’s up to you, but would you like to tell me a little bit about how you first came to notice something was different?
Mike: I was starting to notice that I was getting these freezes, where I’d start doing something and my body would kind of stop and I was also getting very slow in my motor skills. And my wife noticed it. And I had low energy. And I didn’t get a tremor. But there were other symptoms and my wife knew about it. My wife worked in medical sciences. And she was pretty sure what it was. She never said anything to me. And once I went for my regular visit to my doctor, my family doctor. And Dr. Strokoff did a couple of tests and she immediately said, I think you have Parkinson’s.
Alice: What was it like when you first heard that word, Parkinson’s and the possibility you might have this disease? How did you feel what did you think?
Mike: I was pretty stunned. We were going to the museum to see an art show that afternoon after the medical appointment. And it took me quite awhile to really like have it sink in. I think. Several hours. And was I kind of shocked. But I had to, I had to go see a neurologist. To get it confirmed and he confirmed it almost instantly. And then, I started taking Levadopa… Artificial dopamine and that got rid of a lot of the symptoms.
Alice: And how do you feel now, after, you know, having this diagnosis and this disease for several years now? How, how has it kinda changed your life?
Mike: I think the main thing is I get tired a lot. So I, I have to take rests. I work a much shorter day. When I work, I only work seven hours. I used to work ten or 11. And when I’m finished with work I come home and I usually take a long nap. I love my naps. And I, there’s some side effects to the medication. I get kinda twitchy and, there, different facial mannerisms that I’ve noticed in myself, which I feel kind of weird about.
Alice: Yeah, I’m sure as new things show up [you might feel] kind of feeling uncomfortable about how it’s changing you, but also the way when you’re in public…Have you seen any changes in the way people have treated you or, perceived you or, has it not really been an issue?
Mike: Well I think I must look older.
Mike: People get up and offer me a seat when I get on the bus these days and I find this is really a good deal cuz I really appreciate that. I can’t stand very long…. And I’ve never talked about it with my grandkids. They know that I have Parkinson’s. My daughter’s talked it over with them, I think. And they’ve noticed that, that I was slower. And, sometimes, I just feel high energy, you know. They usually have remark about the fact that Grandpa’s walking faster or looks like has lots of energy. We still do a lot of things with them
Mike: And that’s the main thing I worry about is I don’t wanna look too weird for them but they’re very accepting.
Alice: Yeah, and I think…your kids, your grandkids, you know, they love you no matter how you express yourself and how you move, because they, they know you intimately and you know, I do know that sometimes people are afraid of scaring the kids around them, with their various mannerisms.
I think it was a privilege and honor for me to have this you know, lifetime of friendship with you, out of this very simple interaction, that could have just been…something that you could say oh…that’s just my taxi driver, but you are, you and your family are so much more to me. And I really wanna thank you so much for your friendship and I love you, Mike.
Mike: I love you, Alice.
Additional post-interview notes from Mike
Design of ramps and changes – the original ramp taxis had ramps that opened to the right side through a sliding door– it sometimes was easy to parallel park the van and open the ramp onto the sidewalk — the person in the wheelchair had to maneuver to the front passenger position so had to be able to go into the van and execute a 90 degree turn – this was quite difficult for some people as space was tight – it was usually not a problem for non-motorized wheelchairs except a few passengers who were exceptionally large or heavy – the present style is a van that has the ramp open straight to the back and the wheelchair goes in straight and then backs out straight – is a much easier maneuver – also the tie down device was improved to provide a quicker and safer transaction
Finance of vans– at the beginning the pilot program purchased the vans and the cab companies maintained them and temporary medallions were issued – that evolved into medallions being given to the drivers with the cab companies buying and maintaining the vans and the drivers were able to concentrate on picking up wheelchair rides whenever they were available – now the drivers must buy and maintain the vans so they have much more financial demands and are not as likely to have their first priority be the pickup of wheelchair orders – although the paratransit program has offered financial incentives to pick up ramp orders – this should work better for the drivers who lease the cab and are not the medallion holders – but I think the motivations of ramp van drivers has changed somewhat over the years but I actually do not know any ramp drivers to understand the present system
Mike Rothstein has lived in San Francisco for over 40 years. Mike drove a ramped taxi in San Francisco for over 10 years. He’s currently driving a Yellow Cab part-time. He lives with his wife Joyce McKinney and a gorgeous Maine Coon cat named Maytag.
Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Alice works on various research projects for the Community Living Policy Center, a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administration for Community Living. She is an author of online curricula for home care providers and caregivers for Elsevier’s College of Personal Assistance and Caregiving. Currently, she is the Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project: A Community Partnership with StoryCorps and an advisory board member of APIDC, Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California. Alice is also a Presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies on disability policy.