Brad Newsham is a writer, a thinker, a traveler, a seeker, a cab-driver, a protester, a reader, and a fan of San Francisco like few others. He’s also a helluva nice guy. I knew Brad a little bit in college–he was a couple of years ahead of me. I was blown away by his first book about his travels, All The Right Places, but never got around to his second, Take Me With You (both from big New York publishers and both drew considerable national attention and high praise).
Newsham has traveled the world. He has worked as dishwasher, school bus driver, construction worker, waiter, underground miner, and small town newspaper reporter. He once drove a touring concert harpist around the country. He built a log house, with two buddies, in Idaho. Experiences? He’s had a few.
Brad and I have reconnected lately because he’s been a big supporter of the works of the late Gary Reilly–both the eight funny novels about cab driving (The Asphalt Warrior series) and the three gripping novels about Gary’s experiences before, during and after The Vietnam War.
Earlier this year Brad sent me a copy of his latest, Free Ride. At first I was daunted a bit by the book’s sheer heft (more than 400 pages). And I was a bit skeptical about how this was going to work–a whole book about a cab driver who gives away one ride for free during each and every shift?
Sure, cab drivers are colorful and Brad’s a great writer, but … ?
When I was done, I wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Free Ride is a piece of work. A full review follows the Q & A with Brad, below.
Somehow, some way, Free Ride deserves national distribution and a spotlight on it that’s stronger than all the searchlights at San Quentin put together.
Question: You said in a recent beach message event that you are back behind the wheel of a taxi. You said the taxi world has changed considerably in just a few short years, due to the boom of “ride-sharing” services. What’s it like out there on the streets now? Are you still giving away a free ride every day? Can you still make money and/or is it harder to give away free rides? How much do licensed cab drivers dislike those who drive for Uber and Lyft?
Brad Newsham: I haven’t driven a shift for money since I sold my cab in 2013. An offer I couldn’t refuse. No intelligence required on my part, sheer blind luck. And now, four and a half years later, Uber and Lyft have so destroyed the cab business that during the last two years I haven’t heard of a single San Francisco cab owner being able to sell his or her cab. No buyers. And that wasn’t something that I could foresee in 2013, wasn’t something that most of us could have foreseen, really. Back then the cab industry seemed eternal, indestructible. Everyone knew that even after Armageddon had come and gone, after society had collapsed, there would still be cockroaches in the kitchen and cab drivers out prowling the streets. Now we have no idea what’s coming. At least not to the cab industry.
I have missed cab driving, I have missed talking to strangers, and last year Green Cab very graciously told me that any time I wanted to, if they had a cab that wasn’t being used by a paying driver, I could come in and take it out—for free—and drive it around San Francisco and give away free rides to my heart’s content. And I went out and did just that four or five times. But the last time I did that was about three months ago, and it was depressing. I spent three hours cruising twenty-some miles around God’s Favorite City and not a single person flagged me. The radio was almost dead, one order every fifteen minutes or so, and all of them went to drivers who were better positioned than I was. I also pulled into about ten bus stops and offered people free rides, but every one of them seemed to regard me with suspicion. “A cab driver! An outcast! A felon probably! Shun him! Look away! A free ride—hah! What kind of idiot does he think I am?” That was no fun at all, and I haven’t gone back. My cab driver friends all say that their income is down 30%-70%. Talk about stress!
But I am not an Uber or Lyft hater. I have never ridden with any of them—it would be too embarrassing to have one of my old cab driving colleagues see me—but it is undeniable that they have made life infinitely easier for the person hoping to get from Point A to Point B. The public loves them. Still, it’s also undeniable that these new guys cheated. There were rules that I and so many other people played by for decades, rules that the public had decided were needed, and even though we chafed at them, we obeyed them, and then Uber and Lyft came along and said, “Fuck you. You suck but we’re special, we’re different, there are no rules that we have to abide by.” They stole retirement plans from lots of people my age and older who had followed and still do follow all the rules. I got lucky, but I think you can understand how Uber and Lyft are detested by many cab drivers.
Question: What’re your predictions? Will cabs always have a role or will everyone make the shift to ride services?
Brad Newsham: About ten years ago I was driving from SFO back into the city and as I was going around “hospital curve” I overtook a prototype driverless vehicle. I slowed down and pulled in behind and followed it for a while. And after about ten seconds I thought, “Well, there goes THIS job!” It was going precisely the speed limit without wavering. It was staying precisely between the lane lines. It was never going to get sleepy, was never going to get robbed, never going to drive drunk, never going to text, was never going to need health insurance or a vacation or workers comp or unemployment. Whenever they get all the bugs worked out of that system, driverless cars are going to be safer and cheaper than any human driver, I think.
Here are my predictions. Driving people around for hire, which has for decades been everyone’s profession of last resort—“If my life ever really does go to hell, I can always drive a cab…”—well, that’s all going away. For a few years the cab industry will bitch and moan while it dies a prolonged and painful death, and then the Ubers and Lyfts of the world will fight each other for a while, and then before too long everyone will be out of jobs. And this won’t just happen in the cab industry—although I’ve always thought that society’s trends showed up first in the cab world, and then went on to the broader society—this is gonna happen all over the place. And when it does happen we’ll simply have to demand that the corporations that govern us will have to provide everyone with guaranteed incomes and universal health care and we’ll fund all this by ending war and recommissioning our armies as agencies for delivering food and education and health care and infrastructure. And after that we’ll all live happily ever after for ever and ever. There’re my predictions. Maybe we should start demanding those things now?
Question: I have to ask about the writing and organization and editing of Free Ride. It’s a self-published book with very few (relatively) copies being printed yet you poured so much care into the production. I didn’t spot one typo in all 419 pages. And you interspersed stories about your youth and post-college days so seamlessly with your taxi-driving journal. First, how did you organize the book? And can you describe your editing and proofing process? Folks who self-publish and care about such things want to know.
Brad Newsham: After the relative success of Take Me With You, I tried to find a publisher willing to offer me a contract to write a third book. I’d written my first two books on spec, and they’d both eventually wound up being published by Random House, and I thought—naively—that I might, maybe, please, be considered a slightly-proven commodity. Hey, I’d been on national TV and radio, even All Things Considered by god, seven or eight whole minutes—me!—and I was even kind of hot in the UK for a little while—but the publishing industry found all of that totally unremarkable. The ONLY thing they wanted to know was, “How many copies did your first two books sell?” My agent flogged a couple of book proposals to all the big and most of the nearly-big publishers, and the answer was always the same: “Nope, sorry—we need blockbusters, and we don’t think your guy is blockbuster material.” I’m sixty-five now, but I was turning fifty right about then. I’d been writing since I was a teenager, and I had never made any money from writing. And when I say “no money,” you, another writer, you know exactly what I mean: “No Money!” It cost me more to create those two books than I received back from them. And at the age of fifty, I was unwilling to continue writing without a guarantee of publication. So I quit. Hopped off that merry-go-round.
But you also know that a writer doesn’t just stop writing. And starting in about 2002 or 2003 I wrote for myself, wrote for fun, stopped looking for the fame and fortune one believes in when one is younger. And eventually—in the year two thousand and frigging sixteen!—it turned into Free Ride. I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write, and it was also a book that I thought I myself would find irresistible if I heard about it or if I saw it laying on someone’s coffee table or in their bathroom or something. And there was no way I was going to turn my precious little baby over to the publishing industry for them to laugh at or scoff at or brush off. Sorry—I’d put too much care into it for that. No typos—thank you for noticing! Although I imagine there are probably one or two still lurking. If anyone finds one, I have a $5 bounty per typo.
My processes? I started Free Ride as an online journal—I hate that pathetic little word b-l-o-g—don’t get me started on b-l-o-g. Told myself I was just going to have as much fun as I could for one year, and I kept that journal, chronicling the daily free ride I always gave away in my cab. I kept that journal from the beginning of 2010 until the end. And at the end of the year I read it all the way through, wondering, of course, wondering if I’d written a book “by accident.” Nope. But in the summer/fall of 2011, I read it again—it had kept nagging at me. And I decided that if it was going to keep nagging at me, I should keep working it until I was as happy with it as I could get it. That required four full drafts over a period of a couple of years, and it still wasn’t a book—it was still very b-l-o-g-g-y—and I realized that what it needed, what would make it attractive to me, was to have a memoir of my life woven through it. It needed to be more personal. And finally, in 2016, after Draft Eleven, I was as happy as I could be with it. Still am. I love it. I’m having the greatest time with it. Having my first two books published by Random House was a great thing—really, a ton of fun for me—but just last week, a year after copies of Free Ride first landed on my doorstep, I realized that I was much more content and satisfied with the process of this book than I had been after a year with either of my first two books. A year after I’d published my first book, I was as discouraged and low as I’ve ever been in my life. I’d climbed the mountain and found that there was…nothing at the top! Now I’m just climbing. I appreciate every single reader. There have been 141 so far and another 100 or so are currently reading it. I feel like I’m having an experience that no author dead or alive has ever had. I’ve printed 250 copies so far—it’s the most I can afford to print—it costs me about $20 to put a copy into a reader’s hands—and I know where every single copy is and who has read or is currently reading it. Or rather, I know where they all disappeared to, the last place they were sighted. Any writer who wants to know more about my process, my email is my last name at mac-dot-com.
Question: Does driving a taxi help you contemplate “ego-created illusions?” And how is it going with Eckhart Tolle this days—are you still re-reading?
Brad Newsham: Ha! I have recently completed my 42nd reading of Eckhart’s The Power of Now and also my 24th reading of his other masterpiece A New Earth. I’ve read a few pages of one or the other of those two books almost every day since I came across Power of Now at a yard sale in September 2003 and bought it for a dollar. It—the awareness of this “ego-created illusion” that you and Tolle refer to—has altered my life. It has become a familiar, daily, sometimes moment-to-moment voice in my head: “Breathe. Notice this breath. This inhale. This exhale. Notice your entire body. Breathe. This inhale. This exhale.” Just last week I was thinking about all the voices I’ve listened to in my life. Growing up in Christian Science I listened intently to Mary Baker Eddy for twenty years; the Bible, too, of course, and I particularly loved Bible stories. My mother was another strong strong voice. My dad was more of just a presence, a quieter, almost brooding presence, and it took me decades to realize that he had a lot to brood over, especially the death of his first wife, in his arms, a tubal pregnancy gone all wrong, a situation that did not yield to Christian Science treatment. When I went out on my own, the voice of marijuana was a strong and for a long, long time a very good voice in my life; some psychedelics too for a while, although it’s been 33 years now. And starting some time in my late twenties and lasting on up until, well, this moment, I suppose, there was the incredible voice of Werner Erhard, preaching responsibility, and constantly insisting that we consider the possibility that each of us is in fact creating our own reality. Collectively, as humans, and also individually as humans, too. But for the past fourteen years Eckhart Tolle’s been my main man. My thinking last week was that each of those voices was a strong and valid voice and had a lasting influence on me, and it is only now, at age sixty-five, that I find myself thinking that I may have—I’m not positive about this, but I just may have—found my own voice. Including, maybe, my own writing voice. I’m still sorting all of this out
Question: Does driving a taxi scratch the same itch as backpacking around the world?
Brad Newsham: Oh, I’m loving your questions, Mark. It’s always fun to be interviewed, and it’s been a long time now. And in the thirty or so years since anyone first interviewed me, I don’t remember anyone else asking this question. But if you drive around San Francisco for ten hours, and do that for a couple of years, you’ll find it impossible to not notice the similarities between cab driving and backpacking. World-class scenery. Strings of short interactions with interesting strangers. Foreign languages being spoken all around you—at least once a day I found myself speaking Spanish to someone. Also, the freedom. There is no boss—you make all the decisions yourself. “Let’s see—here I am in Hong Kong. Should I try to find a great beach in the Philippines or should I go see what China’s like?” That was an actual choice I grappled with in 1984. In my cab, it’s the same, just different. At least a hundred times each shift you think, “Gee, should I turn right, turn left, keep going forward, pull a U-turn? Somewhere within 90 seconds of me is a nice fat airport fare who’s looking for me, but where? Should I hang out at a hotel or in front of an office building or should I play the radio?” When cab driving was going well I would come home positively giddy: “I can’t believe I get paid for driving around God’s Favorite City and chatting up strangers.”
Question: The whole “free ride” thing—what would the world be like if everyone donated one part of their day, or one part of their week (somehow), as a random gift? Can we start a campaign? Get people to take a pledge? A cab driver is in a great position to be able to make the ‘free’ gesture but, well, you must have given some thought to applying this concept more broadly so, what do you think? Restaurants could do this. Lawyers. Doctors. Plumbers. Have any other cab drivers taken up the habit?
Brad Newsham: When I was a kid my family used to go to a bowling alley with a “red pin special.” They had one red pin in the rotation on each lane, and if the red pin ever came up front and center you were supposed to go over and tell the manager, and if you rolled a strike while the manager was looking you won a free game. I absolutely loved that. Way back then even, I thought, “Why doesn’t everyone do something like this?” It was fun! And don’t we all want to have more fun? And yes, we can probably all look around and see ways we could make our specific lives more fun, but I’m not sure we want to make it a rule or anything. I think people can figure something out on their own, if they want. But I love nothing more than hearing from other drivers who’ve heard about my free rides and who then gave one away because they wanted to try it. They’re always thrilled by it. Just last night I ran into a guy that finished reading Free Ride a few weeks ago, and he said that ever since he read it he’s given money to every beggar that has asked for some, because he’d read about me doing that. How cool is that!
Question: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” That’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote you cited on page 237 at a point long before a certain orange-haired narcissist was given the keys to the White House. What’s the buzz in San Francisco? Were you encouraged by the turnout for “RESIST!!” in February?
Brad Newsham: Five thousand people! Yes, I was encouraged. Beyond encouraged. It was a lifetime event, without a doubt. The biggest crowd I’d ever attracted before was about 1,500, and to see 5,000 pouring onto the beach—oh, my! I’ve been doing these events for ten years, and I’ve always fantasized about a truly huge turnout, and it came off just like my fantasies. More like a hallucination. I suppose you’ve heard the followup? The threat of gun violence? That was actually more like a hallucination. After the RESIST event—that happened on February 11—I scheduled another event for April 15 and began planning for it, and then I received a threat of gun violence, through Facebook. I took it to the FBI, who said, “You absolutely did the right thing bringing this to us—we have to treat this as a credible threat.” It took them six weeks to get back to me and tell me that they had investigated it and found it to be not credible. It’s too long a story to tell here, and it’s too sad a story to tell here, but the bottom line is that that threat derailed the April 15 event, and I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. I’m over the shock portion, but still feeling uncertain about how to proceed, but I do think that somewhere down the road there’ll be another. They’re too much fun to simply let some idiot sabotage. But the truth is that it scared the shit out of me. I personally know hundreds of people who have attended those events. Many of them are 15-20 years old, and I have known either them or their parents for many, many years. The last thing I want to do is to have anyone who comes out to have a fun time at a cool event with, geez, a helicopter and postcards and everything, wind up dead or something. Oh god. What a world we’ve got. How did we get here?
Question: “I often wonder if I could have survived cards dealt from the bottom of Life’s deck.” That’s a Brad Newsham quote from page 321. Is cab driving a daily reminder about empathy? About the relative nature of your own problems? Should schools teach courses in empathy?
Brad Newsham: One of my favorite Gary Reilly quotes is from Asphalt Warrior, which I recently reread: “I still think school is a hoax.” I completely missed the point of school until, really, just about the time I was done with college. All the way along, I thought school should have and could have been a lot more fun. Especially if we’d spent more time dealing with real stuff—yes, empathy, for instance. Many of us were terrorized by our school experiences. But, hah. It sounds like I’m complaining. I’ve had this privileged life, and here I am complaining. I’m human. Cab driving was indeed a daily ten-hour lesson in humanity, and I was fortunate that I was paid to do that for so many years. There are billions of people on this planet right this minute who, if they heard my life described, might happily trade places with me. It’s hard for me to not forget that.
Question: If people want a copy of Free Ride – how can they get one?
Brad Newsham: My email address is my last name-at-mac-dot-com. Email me and we can talk about it. Right now all I’ve got is loaner copies, and right this minute I am totally out of them. But email me and we’ll see what happens.
Question: What’s next for you?
Brad Newsham: I don’t have a definite plan. But a year to the day after 9/11, on September 11, 2012, I inaugurated a project I absolutely loved. I called it Backpack Nation. It involved sending out individual ambassadors from our country to travel the world with a message of hope and peace from the people of the USA. It got a lot of people excited, including me, most of all. But projects are tricky to steer, and they are all too easy to derail, and in the end I managed to keep that one going for three years. I’m proud of what we accomplished. And I have this fantasy that after Free Ride has been read by 1,000 readers, I may go about reviving Backpack Nation. Everything starts with a fantasy.
Brad Newsham’s website.
I have a salve for what ails you and a possible new way of looking at the world.
It’s a book called Free Ride by Brad Newsham.
You can’t read it, however—yet. That’s because Brad Newsham only printed 250 copies of this beauty.
Yes, beauty. It’s a self-published treasure. Free Ride is 419 pages and it’s chock full of beautiful photographs and 150,000-plus words of elegantly crafted prose. Ideas, insights, colorful characters and Brad’s unique perspective bloom on every page.
No surprise—Brad has given away all 250 copies.
I got one.
You can’t read it (not yet; there’s hope) but I am at liberty to tell you all about it and to share its essence. (See Q & A above for information about how to nudge Brad into printing more copies.)
Free Ride, given the biting rancor of our national conversation (if you could call it that) and all the nasty crap on social media, will encourage you to go about your life a bit differently.
It will also let you spend time with a good guy doing good things every day and thinking deep and interesting thoughts about his life and his upbringing and everything else in-between.
Newsham is the author of heart-warming travel books All The Right Places and Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey To Invite A Stranger Home and Free Ride, in which our cab-driving narrator donates one ride for free to unsuspecting passengers each and every shift, is a perfect book-end to this trilogy. The difference in Free Ride is that the world comes to Newsham, in the back of his cab.
The daily donations to the world’s karma scale began in 1985 when Brad began driving a cab and quickly realized that the worst parts of his shifts were waiting for the next fare. It was during the alone time that he questioned his life choices and his worth as a person. So Brad started swooping into bus stop waiting zones and offering people a free ride. He soon realized how good it made him feel to be helping someone, rather than driving around empty.
“From that first seed, things evolved organically, and for approximately two decades now I have consciously given away at last one ride per shift. (I have come to regard each as a living entity, a unique member of a species of my own invention: Free Ride.) I don’t tally them, but I’m sure their number well exceeds one thousand. It probably exceeds two thousand. Three thousand? Maybe, maybe not.”
And each year he gives away a whole day’s worth of free rides—Newsham’s favorite day of the year.
Thus Free Ride is one year in the life of Brad Newsham. Free Ride is 94 entries that detail a wide variety of experiences and interactions with Brad’s fares, intermixed with tales of Brad’s youth, upbringing, parents, and post-college life.
The fares, as one might imagine, are colorful. The iron worker who is a would-be fashion designer. A woman on her way to painting class. A stripper. A recruiter for Blackwater. An Oracle employee from Kenya headed from SFO to the Hilton Towers. A software engineer from New Delhi on his first visit to the United States. A professional baseball player.
On and on.
There’s nothing routine or repetitive about reading Free Ride. Every trip brings a new wrinkle, a fresh perspective, or triggers an insight from Newsham, who never pretends to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. Newsham is a fan of Eckhardt Tolle (The Power of Now), Werner Erhard, and was raised as a Christian Scientist. (Brad and I knew each other, from a distance, at Principia College where he was a long-haired, easy-going star on the college basketball team. He was a couple of years ahead of me.) Anyway, Newsham’s approach isn’t to explain the quirky universe, only inhale it with each stroke of the pen.
Free Ride is a meaty, hefty, meaningful book that deserves to be widely read. It’s a manual for positive thinking, a primer on empathy, and a master class in how to be a citizen of the world. The colorful photographs are an added bonus and the care for the prose and editing sets an impeccable standard for any writer contemplating the self-publishing route. (I spotted nary a typo and Newsham is paying a $5 bounty for anyone who does; 419 pages!)
The writing is frequently spectacular but never over-wrought. Substance over flash. Detail over show-off. Newsham has one of those easy-going writing styles that goes down like a cool drink of water.
“In the five a.m. darkness a full moon hangs over the city like a shiny hubcap nailed halfway up the side of a garage wall. But by 8:30 the moon has already become a distant memory, replaced by a ragged sky full of high cauliflower clouds, warm wind gusts, and occasional sprinkles. I have just dropped a fare at St. Mary’s Hospital, on the edge of Golden Gate Park, when one block away, on the unlikely corner of Hayes and Shrader, I am flagged by a middle-age white guy with a ghostly countenance. Strands of brown hair spill from under his “US Marine Corps” baseball cap and hang like window curtains down the side of his face.”
“Finally I catch a thirty-nine-dollar airport off the radio and then, back in the City, another radio call on the edge of the Castro. Her name is Whitefeather, and I remember that when she rode in my cab several years ago, we discovered that we were both from the same tribe, the Olehippies.”
And both original and vulnerable:
“One-Word-Answers pays me, turns away without speaking, opens the door and steps out toward the gay man. As she raises herself up off my backseat, I notice that her bottom-side is trim and smooth and exquisitely curved, and is sheathed in a sleek skirt/shorts thing—fire-engine red. A meticulous sculptor has shaped her legs. The long leather thongs of a pair of Old Testament sandals are lashed tightly all the way up her perfectly tanned calves. The gay man is directly in her path. He looks her up and down and up and down again. When he trills ‘Well, hell-oh, dar-lin’ I have to fight the impulse to jump out and hug him, maybe even French kiss him. Little Miss Smoking Hot? I hear an irritated whoosh of air escape her: “Ooooff!” Or maybe it’s just the hydraulic brakes on a nearby bus.”
I wish I could insert the entire Kerouac-esque tribute / pastiche chapter alone; it’s masterful. One sentence from this one long (five-page) paragraph: “It’s clear like a San Quentin searchlight pointing right in my eyes every thought I’ve ever thought has already been thought by at least a billion people every place I’ve ever been has already been trampled over by at least a billion billion more and then written about by at least half a billion billion of them. Every hope and dream I’ve ever hoped and dreamed has been endlessly hoped and endlessly dreamed and every ache and pain I’ve ever ached and pained has already been ached and pained by a zillion others. How did I ever delude myself that it was possible I might ever do something original? Save the world? Make some difference?”
Newsham draws on all his experiences to pepper each tale with reflections and observations. Newsham’s free spirit fills every page. Within a few chapters, you know the ‘free ride’ concept is a perfect extension of his my-backseat-is-your-home approach to meeting people and being human.
The entries about the ‘free ride’ offerings would have made for a compelling book on their own, but Newsham adds depth and soul with stories from his upbringing and post-college youth. In particular are the sections about building a house in Idaho with his mates and the harrowing interactions with his mother, who suffered from mental health issues. There are stories about his love of baseball and The San Francisco Giants, a recurring theme about his celebrity status as the taxi driver who encouraged the carmaker Toyota to feature a cab in its television commercials for the Prius, and stories about all the bureaucracy and negotiations required to pull off a series of events with thousands of individuals spelling out messages on Ocean Beach (among them “IMPEACH” in January, 2007 to protest the invasion of Iraq.)
The 22 free fares itemized in the final chapter, “All-Rides-Free Day,” might be a place to head if you ever are feeling a bit down and out about your own personal mood.
In fact, you may be a bit befuddled about this whole concept, like the “shrunken, elderly woman” Newsham drives home from the Market Street Safeway with five bags of groceries in the taxi’s trunk. The woman is surprised but you won’t be. Not on Page 419. Of course Brad carries the bags to the top of her steps. Also like the woman, you may never have heard the concept of ‘free ride.’ But now you have.
“Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations … I want to be thoroughly used up when I die … If I should slip, if I should falter, tie the pen into my hand.”
Newsham drops that quote from George Bernard Shaw near the end of Free Ride. But it’s not just Newsham’s words that are making a difference, it’s about how he goes about his life—each and every day.
Brad’s earlier travel books: