Their business has its cycles, but they like it just the same
San Francisco — THE damp, gray fog oozes across San Francisco Bay, enshrouds Alcatraz Island, slips quietly ashore, and slams this tangle of pedicab pedalers right smack in the wallet. ``When it's cool and cloudy like this, people would rather walk than leave the driving to us,'' Ole Worre remarks in a lilting Danish accent.
Ole, with his Harpo Marx scramble of blond curls, stretches like a spider over his cherry-red, three-wheeled pedicab, resigned that this isn't likely to be a very profitable day.
He is one of 35 or so young drivers, many from distant lands, who have gathered here at Fisherman's Wharf for a few months of casual, if somewhat iffy, summer-fall work.
``We rent these bikes for $20 per shift a day. Twenty-five dollars a shift on weekends,'' he continues. ``If you hustle, you can make maybe 200 bucks, maybe 225 a week, depending on tips of course,'' he adds.
Then there are the occasional surprise rewards. ``Some guys get invited out to dinner. So far I've only gotten a cappuccino, but I've only been doing this for two months.''
Ole's been in the United States for 10 months and plans to return to Denmark sometime this fall. Although he's appreciated this chance to polish his English, he has not liked all the conversation the job brings. ``Everyone asks the same questions: `Do these things have motors?' `You really have to be in shape, right?' `Don't your legs ache?'
``I like it here, but it's all money, money, money. Back in Denmark it's more relaxed.''
Helena Sears and her husband, Jeff, started the Barbary Coast Pedi-Cab Company about five years ago with only eight bikes.
Helena, an attractive native of Brazil, has the dark Latin good looks of a young Bianca Jagger. She studied gemology in Santa Monica, Calif., but is now happily resigned to being a ``pedicabologist.''
What does she look for in the drivers she hires?
``Well, they've got to be clean looking, but personality comes first. Some people may not look that great,'' she says, ``but they really all have great personalities.''
They are, for the most part, as colorful as the three-wheeled bikes they pedal.
Enter Rob Bracciale from Brooklyn, N.Y. Rob has a way of standing out even in a San Francisco crowd -- yellow pants, green jacket, red shirt, red shoes, white socks, and braided hair.
``This is kinda dull for me,'' Rob says, giving himself a quick once-over. ``I usually wear Bermudas.''
He may take some kidding about his Brooklyn accent, but he won't admit to being here to improve his English. His are loftier goals. ``I'm in pursuit of fame and fortune,'' he says with a grand Shakespearean sweep of his hand. So far, he confesses, he hasn't made much progress. ``I'm workin' on the fame and I definitely haven't gotten the fortune. Yet.''
Rob is a musician by trade and speaks rather seriously about playing guitar in the Ordinary Hero band. ``Went to college two years. Studied broadcasting, not music. Don't need lessons to play. Music,'' he says, ``comes from the heart, not the head.'' He looks up at the sky and agrees that cool, cloudy days are not the best for business. ``Pouring rain. That's what I like. Brings out the craziness in people.''
Most of Helena's crew are male. But there are three women among the drivers. ``They make more money,'' she says, recalling her first two years in business, when she was the lone woman ``pedaler.'' ``They get bigger tips because people feel sorry for them.''
Most of them are from the States, but Helena starts listing the other countries represented in this United Nations on wheels. ``Denmark, England, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Austria, and even Egypt.'' PEDICABS have been more or less accepted here in San Francisco, but that wasn't always so. When they first appeared, some of the local merchants wanted to close them down.
``They said we were honky-tonk. Tacky,'' says Helena. ``Tacky? Look around! It's ridiculous. There's a lady that comes here every day with her dog. She's very nice, but she dresses up this little dog and puts sunglasses on it. That's tacky! And there's a wax museum up the wharf, and the T-shirt and brass shops. That's tacky!''
Brian Joseph, with a grin that won't wipe off, came to the job with some experience. ``I pedaled these things for two weeks in Waikiki,'' he explains. Brian is from the Midwest originally, as his conservative dress suggests. But he's beginning to realize that a gimmick may help in this line of work. ``Maybe I'll braid my hair,'' he muses, glancing at Rob.
I asked Brian what brought him here.
``Ever been to Detroit?'' he retorts. ``Came here on vacation when I was about 9. I knew then I'd be back.'' Brian has a BA in English and hopes to get to Japan soon to teach.
Has he had any unusual experiences?
``Sure, been taken to dinner. You meet all kinds here. You get the usual remarks like `What do you charge for a ride to Alcatraz?' That's funny once. Found $40 one time. That was nice.''
Brian, like the others, charges $3 per person, per mile. And no, they don't pedal up the San Francisco hills. They leave that job to the cable cars.
``Sometimes,'' Brian says philosophically, ``when business and the weather are good, you eat steak, and other times you have to borrow to eat egg roll.'' But the possibility of this being an egg roll day hasn't removed Brian's grin.
J"urgen Heinz -- ``you spell it the same as the catsup'' -- is a free-lance photographer from the Black Forest in Germany.
``The strong dollar. That's what brought me here,'' he says. ``You can make maybe a $100 a day on the weekend, and if business is good on the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, then I try to keep going on the 6 to midnight shift.''
He, like Ole, appreciates the opportunity to learn English, but misses the fatherland. ``I miss the countryside and landscape,'' he says. ``This is nice for a while. Europe is too crowded in the tourist season.'' WORKING six days a week, J"urgen has managed to salt away some dollars. But he, too, will go back home to Germany in the fall. ``I guess I miss most the German food and people. Americans, you say `hello' to them and they tell you all about their family. It's nice, but superficial. You meet them but you don't know them. Let's say communications are more deep in Germany. It's not so easygoing.''
Franois Roux steps shyly from the tangle of bikes. His huge black eyes and dark hair set off a pale and innocent, almost angelic, face. He wears a white knit sweater, new blue jeans, and a red-and-white headband.
``I'm from South Africa,'' he says quietly. ``Orange Free State. Studying law back home, but decided to take a year off to tour a bit of the world. Started out in New York, then worked on a horse ranch in Texas. Soon I'm going back to New York, then London, then home. I guess I like this job because it's a lot like me. Kinda carefree and easy.
``I gave this woman a ride to her car the other night, just down to the parking lot there,'' he continues, pointing to a spot a few hundred feet away. ``She wanted to give me $50. But she had too much alcohol. I only charged her for a few meters.''
``It's wild,'' says Rob. ``Sometimes they'll come and try to haggle you down in price and then give you a $20 tip. Figure that out!'' There are ups and downs to the job, but Rob sums it up this way: ``The worst part is when you don't make enough a day to pay the bike rent. But it's so free-form, this kind of job. You don't have to conform or put on any acts or airs.''
John, a tall blond with a red-and-white-striped muscle-shirt, snagged a rider before I could get his last name, wheeled out his bike, and yelled, ``Great job. Especially in the summer. You don't have to show up if you don't want to, and when the surf's up, I'm on the beach.''