Powder Burn Flash #380 - Tom Pitts

At Four A.M.
by Tom Pitts

At four a.m., I always seem to be trolling around the track. Not many people out there flagging cabs at that time. Nobody but degenerates—and whores.

Down in the Tenderloin dregs where the aging hookers like to work close to the Mexican crack vendors, so the walk isn’t so hard on their varicose veins, I see a young lady waving from the corner. I pull over. She’s another lost soul. Tall and lean, she looks as though she may have been a knock-out in high school. I try to sneak a peek as she climbs into the back seat.

“Thanks,” she says with a Mae West slur. “Two stops. Leavenworth, between Eddy and Ellis, then back here.” Round trip: dope run. I quickly translate: “To the man’s to cop and then back to the track.” She wrinkles her nose. No admission; no denial. Her status as a working girl is confirmed.

She immediately pops a ten spot onto the front seat. It’s supposed to make me feel more secure, and, of course, it does, so I pull out and make a right on O’Farrell and we’re on our way.

At the end of the block, she notices me glancing at perhaps the saddest whore in all of San Francisco. This creature is on the corner of Hyde and O’Farrell every morning before dawn, shuffling nervously back and forth with all the grace of a stoke victim. She’s been there for years. In a job with no longevity, she’s a dinosaur. Eyes sunken so far into her skull you can see no eye at all, only shadow. She’s a matinee movie zombie selling herself at rock bottom rates. To any commuter stopped at the light she’ll shuffle up and offer the best blow job of your life though a near toothless mouth, for whatever ya got.

I involuntarily shutter.

“Man, some of these girls out here look so fuckin’ rough,” says my fare, “I don’t know how they do it.”

“Hey, everybody’s got to make a living.” Which I think is a safe neutral response. A cabbie response. I keep it in my arsenal right next to Hey, what’re ya gonna do? and How about them Giants?

“She’s actually quite nice, you know,” my fare adds, “I’ve met her once or twice.”

I try to drive and not to judge. Taxi driver ethos.

We pull up at her stop and she says, “Wait right here. Don’t worry; I don’t even need to go inside. I just knock on this asshole’s window.”

I turn to watch her get out and I notice that she is twisting, opening the door with her left arm instead of her right. And as she gets out, I see that it’s her only arm. Her right sleeve flaps empty. She is missing her right arm entirely. I watch her stride to the window and begin knocking. The window opens and a young Hispanic face appears. They argue in both Spanish and English. It’s crack, not smack, so the deal is never simple.

As she haggles, I see her face for the first time, clearly, under the streetlight. It is horribly grotesque. She has been mangled and deformed. Scar tissue tightens the right side of her face into a permanent grimace. Large portions of her mouth and jaw are missing. Scrapped or eaten away, it’s hard to tell and I’m not sure if it matters. She is a monster.

She climbs back into the car. Now I’m trying not to peek. I’m going to have trouble forgetting that tragic face.

“Thanks for waiting,” she says with that same Mae West drawl. I drive her back to the corner where I picked her up. The fare came to $9.15. She tossed me another fiver over the seat and climbed out of the cab.

“Thanks,” I say.

Everybody’s got to make a living.

BIO: Tom Pitts received his education firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Junk, Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Punk Globe, and others. His novella, Piggyback, will be released by Snubnose Press later this year. See more of his work at:



Uh Tom . . .

Remind me that I never want to stop in that part of town. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder but man, that's some beholdin'. Guess every cabbie gets a philosophical education driving the midnight streets. Despite the horror there's a kind of gentle philosophy going on here that appealed to me. Cool.

the tenderloin...

is there a sadder place anywhere? Great job Tom, as someone who knows that 'hood, you caugt it well in that pre- dawn snapshot.


Bill Baber

At Four A.M.

A harsh dose of reality here, and a ton of street wisdom and compassion as well. Superb.